Vertical Shooter

TwinBee Review — Not That Cute

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This review is based on the emulation of the Famicom version of TwinBee on the 3DS. The emulation is titled 3D Classics: TwinBee, but the 3D effect was not used for the purposes of this review.

Playing TwinBee proves that “cute ’em up,” a description frequently attached to the game, is almost as inarticulate and useless as “shmup.” I’ve never thought about TwinBee’s cuteness (the visuals are fairly bland in the Famicom version), which testifies to both the non-communication of trendy game terms and, more significantly, the intensity of TwinBee as a vertical shooter.

Developed by Konami, TwinBee follows the lead of Namco’s Xevious with the dual concern of shooting flying enemies and bombing enemies on the ground, but the inspiration largely ends there. TwinBee introduces a bold conceptualization of the power-up. Clouds appear as the screen scrolls in TwinBee, and some clouds release bells when you shoot them. The bells are typically yellow and change color when you juggle them with enough shots. Non-yellow bells grant upgrades that include speed, twin-fire, two ghost copies of yourself that shoot their own fire, and a shield.

Unlike the unfocused Dragon Spirit, TwinBee establishes a clear strategic point for its elusive upgrades. The most obvious problem is that you have to battle flying and ground enemies while juggling the bells, which are lost once they fall past the bottom of the screen. You soon realize the challenge is far more complex. TwinBee only has five repeating levels, but the enemies grow deadlier each time the levels repeat. When you desperately need an upgrade in a tougher level (your default speed and weapon are disadvantaged to say the least), you run the risk of inadvertently juggling a non-yellow bell while killing enemies. If you juggle a non-yellow bell, it turns back to yellow, that is, a non-upgrade, meaning that you have to juggle more bells for another chance to upgrade.

But never forget, the main point of TwinBee is a high score, not survival, even though the high score requires survival. The game’s five levels contain zero of the visual allure or mystery of Xevious’ one continuous level, so the only convincing reason to continue beating the five levels is attaining the highest score imaginable. If you’re not getting a better score, survival is a nuisance given the madness of the bells.

The dialectical art of TwinBee follows: the yellow bells, which don’t help you survive, are the key to higher scores. This rule is more counter-intuitive than Xevious’ approach, where destroying enemies is often the best path to both survival and a high score. In TwinBee, you get a higher point bonus every time you collect a yellow bell, provided you never allow any bell to fall off the screen. Once you hit the maximum bonus of 100,000 points, every yellow bell you fly into will be worth that many points. Gaining more points also gives you extra lives.

Extra lives don’t prevent your inevitable destruction as effectively as a strategy that incorporates different upgrades. My preference is the triple shot, a candy-shaped upgrade left behind by certain ground enemies you destroy, combined with a shield and four or five speed upgrades. (Too much speed in TwinBee can kill your handling.) The triple shot has a wide range of fire that can destroy enemies and juggle bells straight ahead or in two diagonal paths. The triple shot can be particularly devastating with lateral movement. The issue with this style is that triple-shot bullets can juggle bells when you would rather let them fall for collection. Simply collecting bells is a tricky affair, as you have to make sure you’re not running into an enemy or fire as you anticipate the descent of the bells after some juggling. You also can’t collect bells at the very top of the screen — quite the nerve-wracking rule.

If any of this sounds cute, it certainly doesn’t play cute. The panic you experience in TwinBee is more comparable to the Edgar Allan Poe poem “The Bells.” The last part of Poe’s poem goes (for the proper format of the poem, visit here):

In a happy Runic rhyme,
To the rolling of the bells–
Of the bells, bells, bells–
To the tolling of the bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells–
Bells, bells, bells–
To the moaning and the groaning of the bells.

In TwinBee, a bell turns into an enemy if you shoot it too many times. You’ll have trouble thinking of a more diabolical vertical shooter.

Dragon Spirit Review — A Strange Absence of Conviction

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This review is based on the emulation of Dragon Spirit in Namco Museum: 50th Anniversary on Xbox. This emulation represents the newer version of the 1987 arcade game that allows you to bypass levels when you start a new game.

In theory, Dragon Spirit is a cool improvement on its predecessor, Xevious. But the more I play Dragon Spirit, the more I dislike how it stacks the deck against you, and the more I see a lack of expression, a lack of technical focus, compared to Xevious.

As in Xevious, you use two buttons to shoot enemies in the air and enemies on the ground, but this time you’re a dragon, and you can upgrade your dragon by collecting flying orbs, which appear when you destroy an egg on the ground or kill a flashing enemy. When fully upgraded, you are a three-headed dragon that can shoot long swaths of fire. This idea is interesting, but what separates Dragon Spirit from Xevious is a better illusion of flight (which, as I argue, is a hallmark of vertical shooters compared to horizontal shooters). Unlike the ship in Xevious, the dragon in Dragon Spirit isn’t a static avatar. The flapping wings complement the feeling that you’re flying.

More significantly, the greater movement in Dragon Spirit creates a high that Xevious never achieved. In Xevious, you can fly on about 60 percent of the screen. In Dragon Spirit, you can fly anywhere on the screen. Accentuating this freedom is limited horizontal screen movement. While the screen always scrolls vertically in Dragon Spirit, you can see different parts of the level by flying to the extreme right or left. In other words, the screen can move just outside of its horizontal boundaries before your dragon hits an invisible wall. An interesting dynamic occurs: don’t like dealing with a particular enemy on the extreme right? Then move as far as you can to the left, though the extreme left might present a greater threat depending on your timing.

Given its freer movement and reptilian charm, Dragon Spirit has joyful moments. Unfortunately, the game nullifies its potential with an unfocused structure. While Xevious is the more challenging, grueling game, Dragon Spirit begs more frustration. The biggest issue comes with the power-ups, that is, the different colored flying orbs you collect for upgrades. Different orbs have different effects (three purple orbs give you an extra life), but besides avoiding the rare orb that downgrades your firepower, the only relevant strategy is actually touching the orbs. Many of the orbs appear after you destroy a red or blue egg on the ground, but you can’t rush toward the destroyed egg with the expectation of nabbing the flying orb — if you rush it, the orb will fly away from you and off the screen, useless. You have to stay back and allow the orb to home in on you. This twist means you have to make sure that you can move to a lower spot of the screen without taking a hit from an enemy. Such effort doesn’t necessarily translate to success: sometimes the orb doesn’t home in on you that well. It’s not out of the question for the orb to fly right by your dragon’s wing.

The other major hindrance is the size of your dragon. You are bigger than most enemies, so you’re more likely to take a hit. One might want to chalk this up as a “design decision” (an overly apologetic phrase — most things in video games are the result of decisions), and Dragon Spirit does allow you to take two hits rather than one for each life. Even so, it can be hard to tell when you’re going to take a hit because of the dragon’s wings. Dragon Spirit gives you some leeway while finding a path through enemy fire, but some deaths seem like the fault of wishy-washy design. In contrast, I don’t have questions about whether I deserve a game over after playing Xevious.

The enemy cues and patterns in Dragon Spirit require basic memorization — the unpredictability of Xevious is gone. Once you learn how to allow the flying orbs to come to you without taking a hit from enemies, none of the nine stages stand much of a chance against your dragon. Granted, it can take dozens of attempts to master one level in Dragon Spirit, and once you lose your lives, it’s game over. But the “new” version of Dragon Spirit lets you start at the beginning of any level when you start a new game. I can understand why this version of the game was created: the majority of the challenge in Dragon Spirit is due to the bizarre flying orbs and the size of the dragon. The concession of a level select suggests a mistake in the original development of the game.

Dragon Spirit essentially trades drama for quirkiness. Xevious shows more articulate thought and urgency in its one level than any of Dragon Spirit’s nine levels. If the lack of a reticle for ground attacks doesn’t illustrate Dragon Spirit’s disregard for precision, the clash of its dorky music against prehistoric environments does. Besides irritation and goofiness, what are you supposed to feel while playing Dragon Spirit? There’s a strange absence of conviction that doesn’t deserve your tolerance.

Xevious Review — When Shooting Changed

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This review is based on the emulation of Xevious in Namco Museum: 50th Anniversary on Xbox.

More than 30 years after its release, Xevious is essential. Developer Masanobu Endō’s technical execution, his distinct style, ensures the timelessness.

The music, a perpetual alarm, sets the tone. Xevious demands alertness: you play one continuous level, you get one hit per life, and destroying enemies means more points for extra lives. The screen always scrolls, though you do have tiny breaks in action as you transition to more challenging sections of the level. Between these breaks, you alternate between shooting enemies in the air and bombing enemies on the ground (each action requires a different button). This dual concept was innovative in 1982, but Endō’s work doesn’t coast on originality. Instead, his design ratchets up the tension in various ways.

With flying enemies, Endō establishes a process that hovers between predictability and unpredictability. Enemies fly in at specific cues in the level. The cues never change, but the type of enemy during a cue can vary from game to game. This variance can throw off your rhythm, as enemy patterns determine whether you should be lower on the screen, to give yourself more time for evasion, or higher on the screen, to take the enemies down before they crowd you. Learning the enemies’ flight and fire patterns precedes a bigger concern. That is, some enemies don’t always fire at you, meaning that recognizing an enemy’s appearance by itself doesn’t erase tension. Initially, enemies fly in groups of one enemy type, but as you advance, different enemy types can fly at you together. One half of this mixture might not fire, or, in the worst scenario, both groups of enemies come out firing, while some individual enemies may only fly toward you. As a result, you constantly question what’s coming next, and your only defense is quick observation followed by precise movement and firing.

Despite the unpredictable elements, shooting enemies in the air is straightforward. Just line up the enemy and fire. Bombing enemies on the ground is not as simple. You have to use a reticle to shoot bombs, and the reticle is always in the same place, a few inches above your ship. So you have to be a few inches below any ground enemy to take it out. The problem is that such a position may put you in a collision course with a flying enemy or a bullet. At first, ground enemies are stationary, but soon you approach ones that move. Using the reticle on mobile ground enemies requires judgment similar to that of the 1980 classic Missile Command. And like flying enemies, sometimes ground enemies withhold fire, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes they fire more than usual.

As the stakes rise, you remain the same. No power-ups. You can only fly on roughly 60 percent of the screen, which becomes backbreaking when you’ve mistimed shots and when bullets crowd spaces of the screen. Your ship moves at a speed that would be an insult if it were any slower. Your movement, whether lateral or vertical, must be carefully considered for either survival or a high score.

Endō’s genius lies in his articulation and improvement of previous concepts. The scrolling and movement in Xevious complicates the foundation of single-screen vertical shooters like Space Invaders and Galaga, and Endō’s inclusion of Missile Command’s anticipatory, strategic aiming creates even more potential for transcendent play. You can shoot enemies in the air while using lateral movement to avoid fire and to position the reticle for a bomb that will take out multiple ground enemies at the same time. Doing this consistently gives Xevious a unique kineticism.

Or you can choose to evade everything without firing a bullet. The level keeps going and juxtaposes mysterious beauty with the action at hand. The cues and positioning of the enemies can be appreciated as a devious art. Get far enough and you’ll see an etching of a giant bird in the dirt. Seeing the bird and wondering about its origin is a relief, a pleasure, a release of tension that transcends whether you have a new high score.

Why Vertical Shooters?

by Jed Pressgrove

I will be writing a series of reviews of vertical shooters. Initially, I was going to let the reviews stand by themselves, but I want to share my thinking behind this series.

Let’s start with a definition of “vertical shooter”: a game where your primary ability is shooting vertically, that is, toward the top of the screen (naturally, the tradition doesn’t involve three-dimensional spaces). There are two major forms of the vertical shooter. In one form, you are at the bottom of a fixed screen and have limited movement (in many cases, you can only move left or right). Popular games in this form include Space Invaders, Galaga, and Centipede. In the other form, the screen scrolls vertically, and you have greater movement (in many cases, you can fly anywhere on the screen in any direction).

My reviews will focus on the second form. Space Invaders is fun, but it doesn’t have the thrill of flying and shooting.

But still, why vertical shooters?

It’s a workmanlike genre. As mentioned, I will be reviewing games that allow you to fly anywhere (or almost anywhere) on the screen as the screen scrolls vertically. While some may consider this idea limited in its modesty, the vertical shooter is a great traditional form of expression. On a surface level, the genre captures the feeling that you barely got out alive, as you’re often a lone ship shooting and avoiding hordes of enemies raining from above. And because everything is moving — you, the enemies, numerous types of bullets, and the screen itself — there is an art to the maneuvering that is something to pull off (as a player) and something to see (as a viewer). The stylistic differences in vertical shooters offer a lot to appreciate, whether we are talking about the style in how the player plays — the movement or lack thereof, the use of this power-up over another, the different ways of winning and failing — or the style in how the developer elates us with a form that could easily be stagnant. Of course, not all vertical shooters are worthwhile; my reviews will also cover these games.

Why not horizontal shooters? After all, the only difference between the vertical and horizontal shooter is simple. In one, the shooting, flying, and scrolling are vertical; in the other, they’re horizontal. On the surface, that is the difference. But in a non-3D game, moving up captures the idea of flying better than moving across. Some horizontal shooters are thrilling, but they miss that tiny illusion of flight. Vertical shooters have that illusion because they share less in common with horizontally scrolling platformers like Super Mario Bros.

One final point: you will never see me calling a vertical shooter, or any shooter, a “shmup.” “Shmup” is an abbreviation of shoot-’em-up. One day a toddler tried to say “shoot-’em-up” and “shmup” came out and it stuck.