by Jed Pressgrove
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.