Month: June 2017

Game Bias’ 15 Greatest Shooters List — #10-6

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: You can read the introduction to this list here and the entries for #15-11 here.

10. Contra 4 (2007)

From the first level that revises the introductory jungle stage of the 1987 arcade original, Contra 4 supercharges the kineticism and suspense of its predecessors, with trickier enemies, more souped-up firearms, a grappling hook, and action across and between both screens of the Nintendo DS. The spread gun, one of the most iconic weapons in video game history, is no longer the key to domination as it was in previous entries, as developer WayForward’s level design rewards players who pick the right weapon for the right sequence — if dying and restarting the game multiple times doesn’t stop them first. Yes, Contra 4 is macho, but it’s the quintessential stone-cold expression of machoism in modern video games; its manual amusingly insults the very concept of save points, and you lose a continue if you take a break mid-game. Yet after you complete the main game along with all 40 of the “Challenge Mode” missions, which handicap you in a variety of ways (sometimes you can’t even shoot!), the value of Contra 4 as history becomes evident. The unlockable extras document the legacy of Contra, from extra playable characters — not all are male or even human, but they all kick the same amount of ass — to the uncut Nintendo Entertainment System classics Contra and Super C. Not even the lack of a multiplayer mode prevents Contra 4 from cementing itself as the best run-and-gun game.

9. Gain Ground (1988)

The greatest cooperative shooter of all time, Sega’s Gain Ground is very different from a game like Gradius, and I’m not talking about their mechanical differences. Whereas Gradius gave birth to a ton of imitators, Gain Ground’s combination of shooting and strategy is so complex and intense that no other game, to my knowledge, has dared to copy it. Partly because of this distinction, many overlook, dismiss, and mischaracterize Gain Ground, as I point out in this in-depth piece. The intricacies of Gain Ground — which include everything from the hand a character uses to hold a gun to the plan of who gets to rescue whom and when — demand serious active communication between two players and rejects the type of casual design, epitomized by so many online shooters of our time, that inflates fragile egos. When you beat Gain Ground with someone, you can say you’ve experienced something unusual and great.

8. Assault Android Cactus (2015)

One can scoff at the fact that I’m naming a 2015 game as one of the top 10 shooters ever, but Assault Android Cactus is an immaculate mixture of innovation and entertainment. Developer Witch Beam reinvents bullet dodging, the arena, the Game Over screen, and the type of characters that can be featured in a shooter (that is, characters that don’t even shoot). Yet none of these risks feel forced or register as inconveniences. Rather, every element adds to the sublimity, the raw emotion, of racing within a closed area and carving paths through scores of villains. Forget top-down twin-stick shooters like Smash TV and Geometry Wars: this is kinetic art!

7. Xevious (1982)

As you scroll upward through the lone but ever-changing level, prepare for the set enemy entrances and react to the variations in enemy type and attack style during those entrances, position yourself so that you can nail swooping airborne foes while eradicating pesky ground foes via a reticle just a few inches above your ship, account for the mediocre speed of your aircraft and the fact that you can’t fly on 40 percent of the screen, and try to ignore your anxiety caused by the piercing and looping siren that is the soundtrack, you realize Masanobu Endō is a singular auteur and that Xevious was avant-garde then and now.

6. Doom (1993)

Focus on the gore, the demons, Hell, the bloodied face of the protagonist (known stupidly as Doomguy), or the chainsaw if you wish. What really separates Doom from all the wannabes, including the latest installment of its franchise, is how developer id Software’s level design elicits pleasure, fear, anticipation, and curiosity from the player with unpredictable rhythm. Sometimes these emotions are intertwined, as when we see a space we want to explore, a wall behind us falls down to unleash a slew of undesirables unloading their grunting hatred at us, and we have just enough shotgun shells to tear them all down without much of a scratch. Arriving at obvious set pieces, such as the telegraphed arenas in the 2016 Doom, doesn’t match the excitement of combing labyrinth after labyrinth of who knows what in this landmark title.

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Tekken 7 Review — Kissing Capcom’s Ring

by Jed Pressgrove

After playing various iterations of Namco’s Tekken series for more than two decades, I couldn’t have predicted that Capcom, responsible for the Street Fighter series, would keep coming to mind during Tekken 7. While Capcom has held the most influence on the fighting game genre since Street Fighter II became a pop sensation in the 1990s, and while there was a Street Fighter and Tekken crossover title (Street Fighter X Tekken) released in 2012, Namco’s franchise has always had its own legacy (though 1993’s Virtua Fighter certainly opened the door for the original Tekken in 1994). But in too many ways, Tekken 7 is a shameless continuation of Street Fighter IV, as evidenced by its multi-angle super moves and the inclusion of Akuma, the one-dimensional, fireball-throwing Street Fighter villain who just won’t go away.

On a fundamental level, Tekken 7 will be quite familiar to anyone who has spent a considerable amount of time with any Tekken game, especially if your favorite character is still in the mix. For example, I’ve been using Paul Phoenix throughout the series, and while his repertoire has a few new wrinkles, he retains the moves and strengths that have made him a standout contender. For many long-time players, Tekken 7 is welcoming in this respect. At the same time, the lack of risks with the game’s general design draws even greater attention to the changes Namco does make, and these additions show little imagination despite how cool they might look on the surface.

One of the major additions is what the game calls a “Rage” technique, which can be done when a character has lost almost all health. Each character has two different kinds of Rage moves, and one type, the Rage Art, is a bastardized version of the Ultra Combo from Street Fighter IV. Like the Ultra Combo, the Rage Art is designed to reward people who have taken too many hits (i.e., people who more than likely deserve to lose). When successfully landed, the move triggers a series of blows that can take off as much of a third of the opponent’s health. These combinations are automated (meaning they take virtually no skill to complete), have considerable priority (meaning they will usually go through an attack of the opponent), and can be initiated, in some cases, by only pressing two buttons together (at least Street Fighter IV consistently required more input for such a cheap tactic). The Rage Arts utilize various camera angles to accentuate over-the-top martial arts; while the combos may look neat, Namco is just stealing presentation tricks from Street Fighter IV.

Another “new” mechanic in Tekken 7 is the Power Crush, which involves a character absorbing blows (and taking damage), as opposed to being interrupted/countered, while landing a powerful attack. This addition shows, again, that Namco is too in love with Capcom, as the Power Crush recalls the Focus Attack from Street Fighter IV. The main difference between the two is that the Focus Attack offers more variety of play. You could perform Focus Attacks of various power levels (they can become unblockable), you could cancel Focus Attacks by dashing backward or forward, and you could cancel special moves with a Focus Attack, setting up a variety of strategic possibilities. In contrast, the Power Crush in Tekken 7 is all brawn. Just do the move and watch the idiotic fireworks.

The stupidest decision by Namco, though, is allowing Akuma to be a playable character in Tekken 7. For those unfamiliar with Akuma, he has always been an overpowered Ryu/Ken clone in the Street Fighter series, and Capcom keeps putting him in games as if he adds anything to the proceedings other than a superficial air of menace (Akuma’s defense has traditionally sucked). But Akuma’s presence is even worse in Tekken 7. Whenever he’s in a match, he’s clearly out of place, hurling fireballs and jumping with the fluidity of a 2D fighting-game character. Like the evil Akuma, Namco has lost its soul.

Game Bias’ 15 Greatest Shooters List — #15-11

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: You can read the introduction to this list here.

15. Earth Defense Force 2017 (2006)

With its over-the-top voice-overs, extremely crude weapon/health/armor icons, and ridiculous physics, Earth Defense Force 2017 could be written off as a joke. Yet there are few games that match this 3D third-person shooter’s emphasis on scale as you face hordes of gigantic ants, spiders, and walking robots. Developer Sandlot shows there can be a fine line between being in awe and not taking something seriously: as you eliminate flying drone after flying drone in one level, the screen shakes so violently that you can barely see what’s happening. Never has the urge to laugh been so married to spectacle in video games.

14. Stargate (1981)

Also known as Defender 2, Stargate doesn’t get as much attention as its predecessor Defender, but it’s the better game by Eugene Jarvis and Larry DeMar. Although you still fly left and right in Stargate to stop alien ships from abducting humans, the drama is higher with the very first stage, thanks to a greater variety of enemies and the inclusion of a volcano that spits bits of lava that you must avoid as you suicidally zip toward and away from pesky targets. This sequel also gives the player more help with the titular portal, which teleports you to the nearest threat to humanity, and a temporary cloaking ability. But the standout aspect to both Stargate and Defender is the devastating audiovisual punch of the protagonist’s weapon. It’s almost offensive how loud this game gets as you launch line after line of concentrated fire. The irony is the ease with which your foes can slip through the narrow passages between these shots, even though you could swear from all the noise and visual punctuation that you should be invincible.

13. Gradius (1985)

Director Hiroyasu Machiguchi led a reinvention of genre with the power-up system of Gradius, laying the foundation for many good horizontal and vertical shooters (including Life Force, another Machiguchi game under Konami). Yet there is one thing the children of Gradius usually don’t reproduce: the sense of exploration and space in sections where you can fly up or down to make the screen shift vertically as you continue to advance horizontally through narrow channels. And while Gradius can seem ridiculously unbalanced when you die and lose speed, a shield, lazers, and whatever else you collected, the music by Miki Higashino is hopeful (in stark contrast to the nerve-wracking theme in Xevious), suggesting that another try after failure can result in heroism.

12. The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth (2014)

As much of a horror game as it is a shooter, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is the definitive edition of designer Edmund McMillen’s Freudian nightmare of a maniacal mother, excrement-filled rooms, and an uncaring God. McMillen evokes The Legend of Zelda in his presentation of a seemingly neverending dungeon full of random power-ups that deform as much as empower the tearful boy protagonist. The various elements that could offend, particularly the levels that put you inside a womb, reflect an abusive history where fear and hatred, not comfort and love, are compellingly tied to every aspect of the woman — an unflinching view of hell from the eyes of a child.

11. Sin and Punishment: Star Successor (2009)

This effort from developer Treasure is the ultimate rail shooter experience. Unlike most rail shooters, which automatically scroll the player from one shooting gallery to the next, Sin and Punishment: Star Successor allows you to move an avatar on any part of the screen as you shoot, slash, and evade your way through an incredible assortment of enemies and threats. Whether you are flying through a city upside down or trying to survive a six-part boss, the sense of breathlessness in Sin and Punishment: Star Successor is unparalleled.

Game Bias’ 15 Greatest Shooters List — Intro and Honorable Mentions

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: The following links will lead you to the main list: #15-11, #10-6, and #5-1.

The word “shooter” is frequently used as shorthand for a particular subgenre of pop games. I’m referring to the first-person shooter, which includes everything from 1990s sensation Goldeneye to the seemingly eternal Call of Duty series. And while first-person shooters are worthy of analysis (like any subgenre), it’s limiting to think of Doom, Overwatch, and the like when someone says “shooter.”

As such, this list will not focus on a single shooter subgenre. Any type of shooter is eligible: first-person, 3D third-person, vertical, horizontal, gallery, run n’ gun, topdown, platformer shooter, rail, and more. Although their perspectives and allowances for player expression differ, the games I list are all united by the button-tapping, or button-holding, delivery of projectiles. These games might let you talk, dodge, fly, run, jump, scan, thwack, explore, and more, but you’re going to be doing a lot of shooting along the way.

Another to keep in mind is that I do not choose games based on how difficult they are.

Finally, you might ask, “Why only 15 in the list if you almost have enough honorable mentions here for a top 20?” From my view, the honorable mentions are not quite in the same class as the 15. They are also not the only honorable mentions that I could list. I could cite TwinBee, Wild Guns, Lords of Thunder, Metal Slug 3, Downwell, and many others, but I picked the following honorable mentions to make specific points.

Note: For my thoughts on the unique appeal of vertical shooters, go here.

Combat (1977)

The pack-in game for the Atari 2600 for several years, Combat required more than one player, as many online shooters do now. But unlike its modern counterparts, Combat doesn’t pay lip service to fairness and competition. Compared to most, it actually is fair and competitive. When the game begins, there’s one player on the left and one on the right. Both players are tanks. Both players have to make due with the odd controls (to move forward, you press up on the joystick, and pressing left or right turns the tank). No reverse. No power-ups. Just shooting and slow movement. What makes Combat truly special is its ingenious array of tank modes. One allows you to guide bullets with the joystick. Another requires you to bounce your bullets off a wall first in order to register a hit. And yet another renders both tanks invisible, except when they fire, but only for a second. Sure, Combat stumbles with its plane modes, some of which kick fairness out the door, as when one player is stuck with a humongous specimen that is much easier to hit. But the tank modes of Combat are thrilling in how they bring together stripped-down opponents. The pretentious communities that complain about balance should adopt this game, art that sees us as equals and makes us laugh at our limitations.

Mega Man 3 (1990)

Mega Man 3 is the best Mega Man game, as I argue at length here. One incredible part in the Mega Man games is when they show you that your bullets are worthless. Shoot an enemy’s armor, and you hear a distinct but inoffensive ping as the bullet makes impact, right before it flies diagonally upward all the way off the screen. There have been times where I will repeatedly shoot impenetrable parts of enemies to watch this detail. Great kinetic art can make all action, even the impotent sort, interesting to observe.

Tempest (1980)

Some implied Resident Evil 7 was scary for leaving behind the traditional Resident Evil third-person perspective for a first-person perspective. But tension doesn’t take on a new form due to a perspective alone; it’s what you do with the perspective, as demonstrated by the third-person Tempest, designed by auteur Dave Theurer. A so-called tube shooter, Tempest has you look down at tiny enemies that get bigger as they climb up walls, at the top of which you flip around and rain down fire. Although Tempest isn’t unique in how it encourages you to prevent invaders from closing in on your space, it’s uniquely uncomfortable when the malevolent beings join your plane, as you no longer feel like a god looking upon the weak. Nothing in Resident Evil 7’s horror cliches is as unmistakable as the suspense of Tempest, yet the latter only sports wireframe graphics.

Shutshimi (2014)

Not merely a parody like Parodius or Star Parodier, Shutshimi is the quintessential postmodern scrolling shooter. My review of this game can tell you a lot about why it’s mentioned here, but I want to point out that Shutshimi is a distinct product of the (Mis)Information Age, much like the recent RPG hit Persona 5. Both Persona 5 and Shutshimi go overboard on tutorialization. The difference is that Shutshimi recognizes the flood of information as a hindrance to our understanding and progress. Shooter mechanics as social observation.

A Small Point about Game History

by Jed Pressgrove

Do video games naturally get better over time? There is a prevalent feeling among game critics and fans that gaming has changed for the better over the last few decades, especially when one plays certain old games that don’t hold up well. Terms like “evolution” accompany this feeling and confirm a deterministic stance. Unsurprisingly, this line of thinking mirrors what game companies want you to think.

But even if we place aside the interests of companies, my answer to the question above is still “No.” This is not to suggest the modern era doesn’t have its fair share of great games. Releases like Off-Peak and Titanfall 2 may more than deserve to be put in the same category as Planescape: Torment and Contra.

I simply think that too often people assume that game design overwhelmingly improves as years go by. This assumption is thought to explain why certain old games are hard to appreciate. But I maintain that people frequently pay too much attention to old games that never deserved much praise in the first place.

Consider how many people were quick to say that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild overtook The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time as the “greatest game of all time” (imagine being able to pinpoint the biggest accomplishment in an art form in mere weeks after a new release!). My feeling is that of course Breath of the Wild is better than Ocarina of Time. Ocarina of Time had more tedious exposition than any Zelda game before it and was surpassed, especially in terms of art direction and emotional complexity, by its sequel Majora’s Mask.

So perhaps certain old games have been dethroned because they were never that good, and perhaps new games would not automatically seem like beacons of superior design if one explored and thought about more game history.