space invaders

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.

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.

Traitor Gives Meaning to Shootin’ ‘Em Up

by Jed Pressgrove

The second mission brief in Traitor says “You [the protagonist] don’t really care about the absurd complexities of politics.” With this phrase, developer Jonas Kyratzes sums up the appeal behind most, if not all, great shoot ’em ups — the cathartic simplicity of shooting away without responsibility or consequence, particularly when ammo is limitless (an ammo problem, typical in more “realistic” shooters, stalls catharsis). Kyratzes’ phrase can also apply to how game criticism operates: the innovation of Traitor, released two years ago, has largely been met with critical silence.

Traitor challenges the shoot ’em up tradition without completely overturning it. Through well-written text that I wish was the standard in video game scripts, the game weaves a conflict of interests between the protagonist and the standard shoot ’em up decree. The moral conflict either compels you to stop pressing the fire button or comments on the precious life that you choose to extinguish. This moment of the game is stunning in its originality. The hesitation it can inspire is unlike anything one normally experiences in the excitement of shoot ’em ups.

After this conflict, Traitor returns to the “shoot everything” roots of the shoot ’em up, though modernity is present in the upgrade and reputation systems. Traitor feels like a scrolling Space Invaders with RPG elements. The use of “HP” alone suggests the RPG connection; the exploration confirms it. Even the outstanding soundtrack by Chris Davis seems to have more in common with the majesty of 1990s Final Fantasy themes as opposed to the blood-pumping tracks from vertical shooter classics like Soldier Blade.

The shooting is about as simple as it gets, which doesn’t necessarily mesh well with the upgrading as far as challenge is concerned. After saving up credits, it’s possible to upgrade enough so that the missions are a breeze. Some later missions may catch you off-guard, but the most frustrating parts of the game are sections where enemies or obstacles block your way and your weapon isn’t upgraded enough to destroy them before the scrolling screen essentially kills you. I also wish the bosses were more challenging — even the final boss was a pushover, as it cannot travel the horizontal length of the screen.

Kyratzes’ storytelling overcomes these gameplay limitations for the most part. Each mission is preceded by concise dialogue (some of which is quite witty) from faceless characters who represent downtrodden and alienated peoples. This dialogue builds political purpose (at the risk of oversimplification: Marxists in space). Even buying upgrades can become more about helping others, in clear contrast to the upgrade screens in Fantasy Zone and Lords of Thunder. The story also goes beyond text. While Traitor’s visuals represent an old-school style, they create a distinct and mysterious galaxy. I often wondered about how a particular enemy design came into existence.

If it were a “AAA” release or heavily marketed indie title, Traitor would give big game critics (who fainted over Luftrausers) something to talk about. Traitor is another rebel unrecognized by the gaming empire, but a historical perspective suggests that it is an important shoot ’em up that can be improved. In its flaws and strengths, Traitor points toward the hope of greater games.

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!