Saturday, April 30, 2011

[Not Your] Everyday Shooter

A few obvious releases aside, most indie shmups - especially western releases - tend to fall a bit short from being noteworthy entries in the grand timeline of shooting games. Many are too slow, or too lackluster, or too much of an intensity plateau, or something else that prevents them from standing out. They aren't something you'll remember, a game that allows you to take experiences with you when you're not playing anymore. Nostalgic games aside, a long-lasting shmup needs to know exactly where it's coming from and exactly where it's going. One such title is Everyday Shooter by Jonathan Mak, a delightful breath of fresh air to come to PS3 and PC.

Seriously, Abstract?
Described by its creator as an "album of musical abstract shmups", it's... well it's basically that. But there are hundreds of "abstract" shmups out there, many being created in such a style because their creators aren't quite sure what to do with visuals, or feel they can't create something more tangible, or perhaps they legitimately want to push the medium and visual style to complement the gameplay.

Kenta Cho's games immediately come to mind, a marriage of abstract colors, shapes, and sounds combined with an overwhelming array of lights, movement, and good ole fashioned bullet dodgin'. In Everyday Shooter, Mak takes things in a different direction, instead using his visuals and audio to create a narrative that is told in the space between the bullets.

To start things off, the player controls a square. It kind of warbles around as you move, but it's more or less a square. The real treats come from how enemies present themselves, how they attack, and how you can make them all blow up. There's a hidden trick in each of the 8 levels to chain together an explosion or combo to both destroy many enemies and to get a score boost (in later levels you'll end up saving your life as well). These instructions are not provided, their solutions all the more rewarding when discovered without the aid of the all-too-tempting Internet.

On top of each level having different enemies and chaining patterns, they also are played almost completely differently, as if the player is jumping from one game to another. And yet they're all tied together because of the soundtrack, consistent controls, and the on-going unspoken relationship between the player and the environment.

He Had One Guitar
The music and sound effects themselves need special mention, as they all come from a guitar. Distortions and other tubular effects are applied to create some variety, but from start to finish, the only sound you'll ever hear is a 6-stringed plank of wood with some holes here and there. The dynamic range of tracks and sound effects clearly demonstrate the versatility of a guitar as the end-all device for which to craft our audible experience.

Simplicity for Simplicity's Sake
The controls are your standard twin-stick duo, two pairs of four keys on the keyboard if need be. There are no powerups, no bombs, and no continues. The only things to collect are energy bits, left behind by destroyed enemies. Collect enough and you earn an extra life. It's simplicity like this that only echoes the charm and transparency of the game and its message. Your focus is clear and your goals obvious, thus allowing you to make your mark and perform without unnecessary distractions.

Story Through Experience
The ways in which enemies and bullets are used to tell a story are just ingenious, in each level. I would think that personal interpretations will vary from player to player, but here are a few elements that I personally enjoyed:

Level 2 is a network of hubs. They connect to each other, working together to put an end to your dominance. Each time you destroy the main HQ, they rebuild their community, only this time more powerful, with new weapons and a more tightly packed neighborhood. Not to say that you're the villain destroying their creation, but this simple visual representation of connectedness demonstrates motivation, willpower, determination, and (my favorite) hustle.

Level 3 is a level without bullets. In their place are robots, all controlled by an all-seeing eye. The reversal of the robots' directions halfway through the level is mirrored by the guitar's chord scheme being played in reverse. It's this subtle touch that helps guide the narrative along. By the level's end, the eye's vision is blurred, its reign diminished as it makes its final blink.

Level 7 is such a stray away from the rest of the levels that it feels like a calm before the storm (more on that below). It's a serene world of worms and raindrops, bringing the scale of your world and the tensions involved to insignificant sizes. Despite quite a few hectic moments to be found here, the experience captures the soothing repetition of a light drizzle.

Level 8... what do I say about this? You fight the wind. Spoilers, folks, but the final boss is wind. I don't think I've ever seen that before. In any game. The way to know where it is is to pay attention to how it affects the objects around it. The fact that you can fight the wind and win is more than enough incentive for me to want to play through the game again just to exact my justice on that invisible foe who so often prevented my deserved victory.

Review Score:
I really didn't want this to come off as a review, but rather an incomplete list of reasons why this game excels at what it set out to do. Calling it "Everyday Shooter" was just another tongue-in-cheek decision to help set this game apart from the constant flow of mediocrity we too commonly put up with.

If you haven't played, and if you like shmups, then you owe it to yourself to buy this gem and just enjoy yourself. Everyone else should either buy it too, or load it up again and re-experience what you already knew was enjoyable. It's by far the most fun I ever thought I could have with a square.

...Okay, maybe second most fun.

Here's a low-res clip of Level 3. It's kind of sad to only see low resolution captures of this game from 3+ years ago. Alas.

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]

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