perspective

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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Game Bias’ 15 Greatest Shooters List — Intro and Honorable Mentions

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: The following links will lead you to the main list: #15-11, #10-6, and #5-1.

The word “shooter” is frequently used as shorthand for a particular subgenre of pop games. I’m referring to the first-person shooter, which includes everything from 1990s sensation Goldeneye to the seemingly eternal Call of Duty series. And while first-person shooters are worthy of analysis (like any subgenre), it’s limiting to think of Doom, Overwatch, and the like when someone says “shooter.”

As such, this list will not focus on a single shooter subgenre. Any type of shooter is eligible: first-person, 3D third-person, vertical, horizontal, gallery, run n’ gun, topdown, platformer shooter, rail, and more. Although their perspectives and allowances for player expression differ, the games I list are all united by the button-tapping, or button-holding, delivery of projectiles. These games might let you talk, dodge, fly, run, jump, scan, thwack, explore, and more, but you’re going to be doing a lot of shooting along the way.

Another to keep in mind is that I do not choose games based on how difficult they are.

Finally, you might ask, “Why only 15 in the list if you almost have enough honorable mentions here for a top 20?” From my view, the honorable mentions are not quite in the same class as the 15. They are also not the only honorable mentions that I could list. I could cite TwinBee, Wild Guns, Lords of Thunder, Metal Slug 3, Downwell, and many others, but I picked the following honorable mentions to make specific points.

Note: For my thoughts on the unique appeal of vertical shooters, go here.

Combat (1977)

The pack-in game for the Atari 2600 for several years, Combat required more than one player, as many online shooters do now. But unlike its modern counterparts, Combat doesn’t pay lip service to fairness and competition. Compared to most, it actually is fair and competitive. When the game begins, there’s one player on the left and one on the right. Both players are tanks. Both players have to make due with the odd controls (to move forward, you press up on the joystick, and pressing left or right turns the tank). No reverse. No power-ups. Just shooting and slow movement. What makes Combat truly special is its ingenious array of tank modes. One allows you to guide bullets with the joystick. Another requires you to bounce your bullets off a wall first in order to register a hit. And yet another renders both tanks invisible, except when they fire, but only for a second. Sure, Combat stumbles with its plane modes, some of which kick fairness out the door, as when one player is stuck with a humongous specimen that is much easier to hit. But the tank modes of Combat are thrilling in how they bring together stripped-down opponents. The pretentious communities that complain about balance should adopt this game, art that sees us as equals and makes us laugh at our limitations.

Mega Man 3 (1990)

Mega Man 3 is the best Mega Man game, as I argue at length here. One incredible part in the Mega Man games is when they show you that your bullets are worthless. Shoot an enemy’s armor, and you hear a distinct but inoffensive ping as the bullet makes impact, right before it flies diagonally upward all the way off the screen. There have been times where I will repeatedly shoot impenetrable parts of enemies to watch this detail. Great kinetic art can make all action, even the impotent sort, interesting to observe.

Tempest (1980)

Some implied Resident Evil 7 was scary for leaving behind the traditional Resident Evil third-person perspective for a first-person perspective. But tension doesn’t take on a new form due to a perspective alone; it’s what you do with the perspective, as demonstrated by the third-person Tempest, designed by auteur Dave Theurer. A so-called tube shooter, Tempest has you look down at tiny enemies that get bigger as they climb up walls, at the top of which you flip around and rain down fire. Although Tempest isn’t unique in how it encourages you to prevent invaders from closing in on your space, it’s uniquely uncomfortable when the malevolent beings join your plane, as you no longer feel like a god looking upon the weak. Nothing in Resident Evil 7’s horror cliches is as unmistakable as the suspense of Tempest, yet the latter only sports wireframe graphics.

Shutshimi (2014)

Not merely a parody like Parodius or Star Parodier, Shutshimi is the quintessential postmodern scrolling shooter. My review of this game can tell you a lot about why it’s mentioned here, but I want to point out that Shutshimi is a distinct product of the (Mis)Information Age, much like the recent RPG hit Persona 5. Both Persona 5 and Shutshimi go overboard on tutorialization. The difference is that Shutshimi recognizes the flood of information as a hindrance to our understanding and progress. Shooter mechanics as social observation.