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

by Jed Pressgrove

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.

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.

Tutorialization As an Aesthetic Flaw in Games

Note: This is an open letter to Chris Bateman at international hobo. All replies are welcome.

Dear Chris,

Your post, “The Aesthetic Flaws of Games,” covers a flaw called “perplexity.” I think your first paragraph on the flaw sums it up well:

The final kind of aesthetic flaw I want to draw attention to here is of a slightly different nature, and relates to the Third Rule: no-one plays alone. The essence of this rule is that an artefactual reading of games, treating them as isolated objects, is an incomplete reading of a game, because every game that has ever been made, or ever will be made, is situated in a network of player practices that prepare the player for that experience. The clearest example is with the first person shooter, the control scheme for which is so ingrained among the majority of contemporary players that games using a modified form of this scheme can generate aesthetic displeasure. This is what I am calling perplexity, the experience of re-learning what has already been learned differently, or learning under conditions of insufficient information e.g. a bad tutorial.

This flaw gets at something the Angry Video Game Nerd often says. The Angry Video Game Nerd reviews a lot of games on the Nintendo Entertainment System, and he frequently criticizes games that don’t follow the common two-button NES scheme ingrained into players via Super Mario Bros. and other pop games: “B” for attack and “A” for jump (and don’t get AVGN started when the “Select” button performs an attack or jump). Thinking about the NES also draws me to the last word in your paragraph above — tutorial.

The tutorial didn’t exist, to my knowledge, in any NES game. Instead, every game had a manual. The game manual was its own artform. You couldn’t advance in some NES games without using key information from a manual. Some manuals were more pleasurable to read than others. Some of them stood out more than others.

Just like the manual, the tutorial can be an attempt to sidestep the potential aesthetic flaw of perplexity. Unlike the manual, the tutorial often doesn’t stand by itself. Sometimes the tutorial is optional and even accessed from a menu rather than offered through an in-game prompt. But a lot of developers attempt to integrate tutorials into the actual game.

In my experience, the inclusion of an in-game tutorial can result in a significant aesthetic flaw. I’m not talking about a bad tutorial; a bad, uninformative tutorial ties into the flaw of perplexity. The aesthetic flaw I refer to exists because of the attempt to avoid perplexity.

I’d like to call the flaw tutorialization, but perhaps others would call it overtutorialization or something else. I can see this flaw in a couple of different forms. One form is in a game that lays the tutorializing or “help” messages on too thick or to a condescending degree. I immediately think of Life Is Strange Episode 1. For example, Life Is Strange has puzzles, but the protagonist, through a voice-over, tells you exactly how to solve them, defeating the point of the puzzle. Another offender is A Bird Story, which clutters the screens with arrows (as I point out in the penultimate paragraph of my review) even though it is obvious where you can travel.

Another form of this flaw is when the tutorial is pretty much the game for an extended period of time. It can be particularly unappealing, not to mention annoying, when a game tries to pass off tutorializing as part of the story. Shin Megami Tensei IV comes to mind. To start, Shin Megami Tensei IV puts you in a dungeon to train as part of the story. But it’s obvious you’re playing a tutorial, not the game, and the game takes too long saying what it needs to say. I quit playing Shin Megami Tensei before its tutorial ended.

There are a few in-game tutorials that I would call aesthetically pleasing. The best one is in Final Fantasy III on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. You reach the tutorial well after the game has established the story and the familiar turn-based combat system. The tutorial comes in the form of a school in the game’s first city, Narshe. (You could miss this tutorial if you don’t enter every building in Narshe.) When you enter the school, you see a bunch of nonplayable characters who all look the same. These characters look more scholarly than other characters. When you talk to these scholars, they share a unique brief lecture on features or tactics of the game. This in-game tutorial is fun, clever, informative, unobtrusive, and unpretentious. It adds to the aesthetic appeal of Final Fantasy III and to a sense of place in Narshe.

Having said that, I would like to see the game manual artform make a comeback (to please Digital Totalitarianists: if not in paper form, then as an out-of-game document). The tutorial has mainly been an eyesore and an earsore, a distraction from the non-tutorial (i.e., the important) aesthetics of games.


Jed Pressgrove