arcade

Game Bias’ 15 Greatest Shooters List — #5-1

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: Here’s the introduction, #15-11, and #10-6 of the list.

5. Blazing Lazers (1989)

Building on the groundwork laid by Gradius, this vertical shooter, released on the elusive TurboGrafx16 console, suggests power-up management is an art form of choices and consequences. Four primary weapons can be leveled up by collecting orbs, and each weapon enables different play styles, whether it’s shooting smaller bullets in front of, behind, and to both sides of you simultaneously for extra defense or unleashing blue lightning that cuts through machinery like butter. Provocatively, a level-three weapon can be more effective than a higher-level weapon depending on the situation, so having to avoid orbs to maintain your bullet expression can put you into some dicey situations with enemies. Your style can be further augmented by secondary power-ups like floating drones that shoot with your ship, a shield, and homing missiles, but unlike the case in Gradius, you can’t activate all of these options at the same time. You must make a decision and live and die with it until another power-up, going back and forth like a pendulum, tempts you to change plans.

4. Resident Evil 4 (2005)

No one could have guessed the fourth installment of a franchise known for survival horror, a subgenre notorious for inexact controls and awkward action, would be one of the most exhilarating shooters ever made. Given Resident Evil 4’s incalculable influence on all sorts of 3-D third-person titles, it might be difficult for some to remember how this Shinji Mikami-directed game energized the very idea of aiming: one button press pulls the weapon up and zooms the camera closer to the shoulder of Leon (the pretty boy with enough cheesy lines for two games). This visual trick, copied shamelessly since, focuses one’s eyes even more on the target (a kinetic proxy of the lining-up process in real life), and every firearm having a red laser ensures something close to fetishization of the aim. How much fun it was, then, to find a favorite pistol and slowly improve its bullet capacity, sturdiness, power, and so on until zombie shooting became a sport that it had never been before. This unique pleasure was only surpassed by the unlockable The Mercenaries mode, which, if the world were just, would have its own arcade machine. If you must, complain about the fact that you can’t shoot while moving; almost anyone who has gone to a shooting range will tell you that freestanding target practice, which Resident Evil 4 beautifully simulates and demands, has a distinct intimacy and discipline to it.

3. Metroid Prime (2002)

Like Doom, Metroid Prime is full of shooting and areas to explore. But this Nintendo game, directed by Mark Pacini, tops its gorier first-person predecessor by calling attention to the beauty and importance of perspective itself. The way Metroid Prime reintroduces the morph ball from Metroid is the most obvious illustration of this point: the shift from first- to third-person when you ball up is a treat every time due to the natural-feeling transition. More importantly, the game’s different visors transcend the cliched detective modes of modern gaming, offering not one but three new ways of seeing the world and unearthing its mysteries. Metroid Prime’s radical design shines in its final action-packed stretch, which has you shaking off life-draining metroids via the perspective-changing morph ball and trying not to fall while scaling small platforms; surgically dispatching a giant spider with every major blaster (each with its own quirks and eye candy); and swapping to the right visor during the final boss battle so that you can actually see where to shoot.

2. Missile Command (1980)

In most shooters, skill leads to relatively instant gratification. Line up, fire, and know soon whether your target is wounded or destroyed. With Missile Command, Dave Theurer rejects this pattern as too comfortable, requiring the player to anticipate the trajectories of enemy missiles and deftly catch them in explosions that gradually widen and shrink back down. As great as Missile Command is on any platform (I first played it on a collection of Atari-produced games for PC), the arcade experience is essential, as the roller ball and stylized three buttons make players feel like they are part of a station that stands between obliteration and everyday homes. With this full package, Missile Command stands as a testament to the anxiety of the Cold War era.

1. Galaga (1981)

Shigeru Yokoyama’s Galaga is the most straightforward shooter on this list, and it’s that simplicity that magnifies the appeal of every detail of the game, whether it’s the sounds different enemies make when you land hits; the “Challenging Stage,” which grants you both respite from the “real” game and stress due to its special emphasis on accuracy and timing; the excitement of annihilating almost every enemy before they can line up and begin their malevolent swoops toward your ship that can only move left or right; the unforgettable little tune that plays when one of your ships gets sucked into a tractor beam and the reprise when you save it; the almost hollow-sounding explosion — a fitting complement for the disappointment in your gut — when you lose an extra ship. This Namco classic renders its ancestors, including Space Invaders, almost irrelevant in my mind. That’s what a true masterpiece does; it is the high bar, making otherwise good games seem like stuff made by shortsighted amateurs. I play the arcade machine every chance I get to remind myself of what game design is capable of, how razor sharp it can be with every aspect.

Growl Review — Immature Ideology

by Matt Paprocki

In Growl, a pithy number of mammals are saved by sanctioned murders, a style of overboard slaughter that separates legs, arms, and heads, a spectacle of hypocrisy. Oddly connected to Taito, a Japanese studio known for chipper military games, run-and-gun espionage thrillers, and harmless alien fantasies, Growl is an outcast beat ’em up full of unapologetic political litter.

Around 40 animals are rescued throughout Growl’s 20 or so minutes of anti-poacher carnage: eagles, elephants, lions, deer, gorillas. Comparatively, hundreds of human lives are lost. Men in turbans are brutally kneed in the face. Others are stomped into the ground. Some drown. Women explode into chunks after grenades time out. Growl is among the earliest video games to feature women of color prolifically and blows them up at the hands of four “heroic” white men who make up the Ranger Corps. Growl is apathetic to all, because animals.

The graphic violence is not necessarily repulsive in and of itself (though Growl’s ferociousness was unorthodox in 1991). Rather, Growl chooses to be crude and reactionary, content that an audience willing to pour in quarters would accept such a heinous depiction of human execution. The imagery is outright vile. PETA could hand out Growl as a digital business card. Sympathy for poaching is inexcusable, but believing this to be a solution is equally grotesque. Growl is as effective in its messaging as a campaign yard sign.

Weirder still is Growl’s playfulness. Cartoon words across the screen — “Shboom!” — degrade the fiction to camp television standards, a display of artless cruelty. Colorful, comic words are no shield to Growl’s abhorrent bigotry. Fern Gully this is not.

Growl is among the more critically confusing mass-produced arcade games of its era. A rallying cry of “Defeat the evil hunters!” is swept away by the nonsense of its closing act in which a rogue clown sprouts a rocket launcher for a neck, tosses around a tank, and rips open upon defeat to reveal an alien worm who was controlling members of the villainous poaching squad. Preceding actions take on the connotation of an exploitative zombie movie, matching the B-level tonality of the trailer-esque intro screens.

Growl’s sci-fi horror only makes things worse. Body parts and blood remain — now of innocent people controlled against their will, not poachers. Aliens are comforting foes. Slithering, slimy. Green. They’re often vapid as villains, too. But what would an alien want with these animals? Growl has no idea. Neither will an audience. Growl becomes expressly salacious without reason.

As a surface allegory, Growl is partly caught in the limited narrative bandwidth of the arcade form. Instant gratification is of prime importance, not storytelling patience, so the game calls the poacher group RAPO. Underneath this lack of subtlety is a competent brawler. Punches are fired (and sound) like machine guns while mayhem is celebratory, a fireworks show of scattering intestines. Dull moments do not exist.

Certainly, the game stands in contrast to an industry feeding on low-grade Cabela-licensed hunting simulations that flagrantly use birds, cheetahs, and alligators as mere antagonistic filler. Taito’s Growl loves those animals, just too much so and it’s damned mean about it.

Matt Paprocki has critiqued home media and video games for 15 years. His current passion project is the technically minded DoBlu.com. You can follow Matt’s body of work via his personal WordPress blog and follow him on Twitter @Matt_Paprocki.

Luftrausers Sells Glitter, Not Substance

by Jed Pressgrove

One might wonder if some critics went easy on Luftrausers based on sympathy for developer Vlambeer and its cloned game, Radical Fishing. Luftrausers is a slick product that combines arcade/Atari shooting and scoring with mindless achievements disguised as missions. Simple yet not simple enough.

Everything about Luftrausers subdues player concerns about launching, saving, and dieing — old-school shooting without grit and urgency. The purpose of Luftrausers is to die trying and get rewarded for it. Is it fun killing five enemies in a continuous boost when the game tells you to? Should anyone feel proud to have destroyed a battleship during a “MAX” combo by intentionally dying to set off a nuke? No matter. You’re making steady progress, and here’s another upgrade for playing. The game is tedious not because of its difficulty but because of its modern, commanding banality.

The question isn’t whether Luftrausers is playable but whether it’s worth playing compared to its peers and ancestors. Luftrausers bastardizes rather than revives old-school shooting in contrast to less-marketed games like Titan Attacks, which combines arcade gameplay with modern upgrading in a more logical and skill-based fashion. Luftrausers’ control scheme apes Combat on the Atari 2600, a game that lacks glitter and single-player but whose neanderthal emphasis on face-to-face gaming blows away an online leaderboard for mediocrity. Hydorah, Asteroids, Vorpal, Tempest — good shooting has many names, and Luftrausers ain’t one of them.

Then there’s the imagery of Luftrausers that Game Informer called an “edgy, stylized faux-Nazi aesthetic.” Most critics don’t discuss this aesthetic, as pointed out by Nick Capozzoli. Indeed, it’s hard to care when the game itself doesn’t care. Vlambeer merely uses Nazi suggestions for style points. This approach should come as no surprise, as the developer once described Radical Fishing as “our simulation of the noble pastime that is traditional redneck fishing.” I sincerely question whether Vlambeer would know a real Nazi or redneck if it slapped them in the face.

There are far worse shooters than Luftrausers, and Vlambeer should be commended for its technical attention to detail. But all the hype over this game raises a question: has shooting fallen so far that the soulless missions of Luftrausers provide a new standard? As long we can remember why we have Space Invaders and Space Invaders Extreme, the answer is simple: No!