Masanobu Endō

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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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.