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.

1942 Review — The Laziness of Shooter ‘History’

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This review is based on an emulation of the 1984 Capcom arcade game at The emulation was played using the analog stick of an Xbox 360 controller.

Recent accounts about 1942 have zero insight. Whether dull or facetious, these writings fail to consider the gravity of packaging great spectacle in unimaginative propaganda. Designer Yoshiki Okamoto is a video-game genius for his work in not only 1942 but also Street Fighter II, the rightful benchmark for fighting games. But genius should not be divorced from responsibility. 1942 is a significant entry in a trend of naive history that continues to this day (see 2014’s mediocre Wolfenstein: The New Order and its lazy moral superiority to imaginary Nazis).

In 1942, you control a World War II American fighter plane on a virtual solo mission to destroy every Japanese plane you can. This theme deviates from that of vertical shooters like Space Invaders, Galaga, and Xevious, but it doesn’t deserve exaggerated praise like the following: “1942 sets itself apart with extremely balanced gameplay and a real, historical situation as opposed to the then-cliche space shooter scenario.” This nonsense misses that 1942’s lone-wolf grind is far from “real” and “historical” despite its pandering WWII heroism. (At least Street Fighter II’s ethnic stereotypes speak to the fighting pride of multiple nations.)

Okamoto does place 1942’s masturbatory premise in a technically outstanding frame. As in Xevious, the enemies in 1942 fly in at specific cues, but their flight and fire patterns during these cues can vary from game to game. 1942 also excels at enemy entrances. While enemies fly in from the top and sides of the screen as they did in previous vertical shooters, 1942 sends slow but sizable enemies at the rear of your plane from the bottom of the screen, which explains why your plane can’t fly to the very bottom — a logical reprieve from cheap, instant death. Before you play 1942 enough to memorize its enemy cues, the entrance of large planes introduces a considerable element of surprise and requires you to coolly fly out of the way and develop a new strategy for avoiding fire and taking down enemy craft, all the while dealing with the fact that you can’t fly on most of the top half of the screen. The large planes from the bottom of the screen eventually start shooting bullets at regular intervals, so you have to wait in safe parts of the screen and anticipate these bullets for evasion before flying below the ships to take them out as they deliberately rise to the top of the screen. The smaller, more common enemies in 1942 are comparable to the pests in Galaga that circle you when you don’t destroy them on first sight. When 1942 sends waves of these familiar planes from the top and sides of the screen along with bigger planes from the bottom of the screen, your patience and nerves are tested the most, which also means the potential for kinetic art is at its highest.

Weaved into 1942’s straightforward shooting — there are no enemies on the ground as in Xevious, Dragon Spirit, and TwinBee — is Okamoto’s articulate emphasis on maneuvering. The primary button in 1942 shoots; the second gives you temporary invincibility, sending your plane in a looping pattern. This evasive tactic can only be performed three times for each life (more opportunities can be gained through power-ups), but the beauty is that you can still control where the plane flies during the maneuver, which creates one of the most exciting illusions of flight and handling in vertical shooters. This brilliant stroke from Okamoto demands care, though: you must become aware of how long this evasive tactic lasts, as your plane can drop directly into enemy fire once the maneuver ends, meaning that you can die immediately if you don’t carefully place your reentry to the normal field of play.

This intoxicating design is ultimately a distraction from 1942’s incoherence. The soundtrack trades the alarm of Xevious for a sense of duty. The percussion and whistling in 1942 evoke a soldier rightfully taking orders. This righteous tone raises the question: is the WWII theme only a commercial ploy, or does the lone American hero against the Japanese horde reflect any of Okamoto’s feelings on his country’s part in the war? Considering 1942’s bland history references, it would be foolish to assume how Okamoto feels. At the same time, the game provides no convincing reason as to why it takes place during World War II. That war was not black and white, yet 1942 registers as mindless propaganda where destruction of a past political enemy is exaggerated. At best, the use of history is superfluous, as the game could have worked the same with simple allusions to military technology. For those who want to talk about marketing, let’s do it: 1942 and its ilk offer a knucklehead’s history.

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.