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.
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.
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.
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.