missile command

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.

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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.

Gain Ground: An Underrated Sega Masterpiece

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This review is based on the Genesis version of Gain Ground. This version of the game can be found on Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection for the Xbox 360 or PS3 or in the Wii’s Virtual Console library.

Not Another Gauntlet

Gain Ground is often underestimated. Consider the beginning of Nintendo Life’s review:

Gain Ground started life as a largely unpopular 3 player arcade game. Surprisingly when taking into account the relative lack of commercial success it was ported to the Sega Megadrive/Genesis and Master System pretty swiftly. The gameplay is similar to Gauntlet but with a fantasy/sci-fi setting.

Nevermind that the Genesis port wasn’t that swift (Gain Ground was released in arcades in 1988 and on the Sega Genesis in the early 1990s). Comparing Gain Ground to Gauntlet serves no purpose other than acknowledging a superficial similarity. As Kurt Kalata explains, Gain Ground “is a completely different animal [than Gauntlet], adding a bit of brain to a genre mostly known for pure brawn.” (Interestingly, despite bringing up genre, Kalata doesn’t clearly indicate what Gain Ground means to any genre.)

Unlike Gauntlet, Gain Ground doesn’t scroll; it’s a one-screen affair for every level. Every level/screen has strategically positioned enemies. To clear a level, you must either dispatch every enemy or advance all of your characters to a marked exit. Going too slow can be devastating: if you’re not able to kill all of the enemies or get all of your characters (who have different walking speeds) to the exit before a timer runs out, you lose the characters who haven’t reached the exit. Once your last character is gone, the game is over.

Strategy

Lucas M. Thomas has difficulty describing Gain Ground while calling the game “inarguably unique.” Thomas opens his review with “You wouldn’t think to find a strategy game in an arcade [in 1988].” Why not? Missile Command, for example, hit arcades in 1980. Like Missile Command, Gain Ground isn’t purely a strategy game, but it requires strategic thought in addition to good reflexes.

Enemy placement in Gain Ground determines much of the strategy in Gain Ground. For some levels, not all enemies are on the screen initially, so paying attention to the enemy counter on the left side of the screen is essential. Since off-screen enemies can rush onto the screen during already tense moments, awareness is key to advancing. Without a combination of awareness and reflexes, Gain Ground becomes a trial-and-error game, which puts you at a significant disadvantage given the lack of continues. At the same time, each new game of Gain Ground means you have that much more knowledge about when and where enemies will ambush. You can’t develop the best strategy until you know how the game attacks.

Strategy in Gain Ground changes based on whether you play alone or with another player. In a two-player game of Gain Ground, one player can draw fire from a stationed enemy so that the other player can sneak to the exit or attack the distracted enemy from a better angle. Such tactics are not available in a one-player game, as you have to commit to the strengths and weaknesses of every character you select. Specifically, before you select a character in Gain Ground, you can see the level and on-screen enemies, so it’s important to scope the level and choose the most appropriate character to begin your attack. There is a catch: the timer for the level runs as you select your first character. As a single player rushing to save time, you might overlook an enemy on top of a building that can’t be killed by your chosen character. Depending on your goal for the level (killing every enemy or reaching the exit with every character), this mistake might translate to significant lost time. But if you’re playing Gain Ground with another person, that person’s character might be able to kill the enemy on the building with a special shot or, at the very least, draw the enemy’s fire away from your character.

Frank Provo doesn’t suggest such strategy was historically significant in arcades, instead calling Gain Ground a “haphazardly conceived” real-time strategy game, which ignores the button-pressing action of the game. Provo’s assertion that “it’s nearly impossible to get the hang of the details” raises the question of whether he’s aware of the extreme challenges of other games during the 1980s (Gain Ground is not “impossible” compared to Sega’s 1987 masterpiece, Shinobi). But as inaccurate as Provo’s “real-time strategy” label is (Gain Ground isn’t even a distant cousin of Starcraft), he is right to acknowledge the game’s attention to detail that makes its action unique.

Shooting

Ironically, the first sentence of a banal overview at Giant Bomb does a better job than most describing Gain Ground’s significance in genre terms: “Gain Ground is a top down shooter that focuses on tactics.” Shooting and tactics should sound familiar to the modern gaming world, but old shooters of all kinds, from Asteroids to Space Invaders, required players to learn strategies to be successful. What separates Gain Ground’s shooting from that of other 1980s games is the sheer amount of factors the player must account for in order to be successful.

Gain ground

You shoot a lot in Gain Ground, and you shoot in numerous ways. Some characters shoot right-handed while others shoot left-handed, which makes accuracy a concern, especially when you are flanked by enemies not lined up with your dominant firing hand. Additionally, every character has his or her own regular and special shots. For instance, one of the three starting characters (second row, fourth from left in above image) has a regular short-range pistol shot that can be fired in any direction. This character’s special shot is a long-range pistol that can eat away at enemy lines from a distance, but the shot can only be fired in one direction (north).

Many of the special shots in the game can only be fired north; that’s why characters with special shots that can be fired in all eight directions are coveted. For example, two archers (first row, third and fourth characters from left in above image) share a special arrow shot that can (1) hit enemies from a longer distance; (2) fly over walls to hit enemies on the opposite side; or (3) hit enemies on higher ground, where most shots cannot reach. The viking archer with blonde hair can fire this special arrow in every direction, meaning he can dispatch enemies that other characters, including his archer counterpart, could never kill. However, while the archer with gray hair can only fire the special arrow north, his north-traveling arrow can travel an even greater distance. The catch for both archers is that their special shot flies at an arc, so if you try to shoot an enemy too close to you with the special arrow, the arrow will fly right over the enemy. You must be aware of the distance the arrow must travel before it can actually kill (similar to the attention one must give to the L-shape attack of a knight in chess). The key to great shooting in Gain Ground is recognizing the limitations of your characters’ and enemies’ various shots.

Rescue and Death

Despite the attention to shooting tactics, the most important element in Gain Ground is rescuing characters. Since you start the game with only three characters, growing a stable of soldiers is essential to survival and flexibility to tactical problems. “Captured” characters wait for you on most levels like lost chess pieces. To rescue, you walk over the piece (so that the new character follows you) and take it to the exit. The piece can’t be damaged during rescue, but if you are shot, your character becomes another chess piece on the field. Only one piece can be rescued at a time, so if you run out of potential rescuers, the level is over and the pieces stay. (And if you kill the last enemy on a level during a rescue, you don’t get the extra character unless you hit the exit immediately.) Rescued characters become available on the next level.

A failed rescue can mean death. As mentioned, if you get shot while trying to rescue a piece, this results in two pieces in need of individual rescue. If a third character gets shot while in the process of rescuing either piece, the piece you’re trying to rescue will disappear permanently. Similarly, if you enter a level and get shot, your character becomes a chess piece that can be rescued, but if the next character gets shot (during a rescue or not), the piece is gone for good.

Rescuing has another dimension during a two-player game of Gain Ground. In a one-player game, the goal is obviously to collect all the extra characters that you can. But with two players, preferences and balance enter the equation. In terms of preferences, two players must agree on which characters they will individually rescue, as rescued characters only become available for the specific player who rescues them. In terms of balance, the two players must avoid one player rescuing all slow characters, for example. This oversight can result in a situation where a player has no character appropriate for tactics requiring higher walking speed.

Diversity

Given the positive relationship between character balance/quantity and tactical options, a successful game of Gain Ground recalls the sociological idea that a diverse set of workers can create the most efficient and effective division of labor. Unlike many shooters, Gain Ground doesn’t value the idea of weapons/items impacting the proceedings. Instead, the game calls attention to the individual qualities of characters. There is no “powering up” — you are forced to utilize unique talents and quirks to win. This demand can perhaps explain some of the lack of appreciation for Gain Ground.

As shown in the image above, Gain Ground also seems to value racial and ethnic diversity. In fact, the skin color of the characters varies more significantly in the Genesis version than in the arcade version. That some characters have dark- or light-skinned counterparts can evoke brotherhood or sisterhood where a character creation option (as in Fallout 3) would not.

Interestingly, one of Gain Ground’s starting three characters is, on the surface, a stereotype: a black man who throws spears (first row, first from left in above image). This type of character was over the top, if not offensive, in Resident Evil 5. But in Gain Ground this character is part of a historical battle involving many peoples. The game’s inclusion of a white man who throws spears (first row, second from left in above image) suggests a common ethnicity or background, not a dehumanizing portrait.

The fact remains that the appearance of diversity in a game doesn’t mean the diversity is particularly meaningful. While critics should recognize the diversity in Gain Ground (for the sake of historical game knowledge, if nothing else), one should note its extremely limited relevance to human experience and perspective. I sometimes get the sense that if, for instance, Assassin’s Creed had the skin color diversity of Gain Ground, many would praise Ubisoft without acknowledging that diversity is more about different experiences/perspectives than representation in a power fantasy (though Gain Ground is a strategic struggle rather than a power fantasy). If a modern game can’t surpass Gain Ground in terms of diversity, what has it really accomplished?

Conclusion

References to Gauntlet and to a lack of popularity in arcades don’t address Gain Ground’s unique combination of strategy and shooting. The diverse cast of characters, rescuing, and lack of power-ups make Gain Ground more like real-time chess than most shooters, yet the enemy ambushes and multiple forms/quirks of shooting emphasize the importance of reflexes and awareness. The diverse cast also raises questions about the meaning of diversity and can inform us on the accomplishments of modern games. Given the relative lack of discussion on the game’s significance, Gain Ground is the most underrated masterpiece Sega has made.