xevious

Game Bias’ 15 Greatest Shooters List — #10-6

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: You can read the introduction to this list here and the entries for #15-11 here.

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.

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1942 Review — The Laziness of Shooter ‘History’

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This review is based on an emulation of the 1984 Capcom arcade game at game-oldies.com. The emulation was played using the analog stick of an Xbox 360 controller.

Recent accounts about 1942 have zero insight. Whether dull or facetious, these writings fail to consider the gravity of packaging great spectacle in unimaginative propaganda. Designer Yoshiki Okamoto is a video-game genius for his work in not only 1942 but also Street Fighter II, the rightful benchmark for fighting games. But genius should not be divorced from responsibility. 1942 is a significant entry in a trend of naive history that continues to this day (see 2014’s mediocre Wolfenstein: The New Order and its lazy moral superiority to imaginary Nazis).

In 1942, you control a World War II American fighter plane on a virtual solo mission to destroy every Japanese plane you can. This theme deviates from that of vertical shooters like Space Invaders, Galaga, and Xevious, but it doesn’t deserve exaggerated praise like the following: “1942 sets itself apart with extremely balanced gameplay and a real, historical situation as opposed to the then-cliche space shooter scenario.” This nonsense misses that 1942’s lone-wolf grind is far from “real” and “historical” despite its pandering WWII heroism. (At least Street Fighter II’s ethnic stereotypes speak to the fighting pride of multiple nations.)

Okamoto does place 1942’s masturbatory premise in a technically outstanding frame. As in Xevious, the enemies in 1942 fly in at specific cues, but their flight and fire patterns during these cues can vary from game to game. 1942 also excels at enemy entrances. While enemies fly in from the top and sides of the screen as they did in previous vertical shooters, 1942 sends slow but sizable enemies at the rear of your plane from the bottom of the screen, which explains why your plane can’t fly to the very bottom — a logical reprieve from cheap, instant death. Before you play 1942 enough to memorize its enemy cues, the entrance of large planes introduces a considerable element of surprise and requires you to coolly fly out of the way and develop a new strategy for avoiding fire and taking down enemy craft, all the while dealing with the fact that you can’t fly on most of the top half of the screen. The large planes from the bottom of the screen eventually start shooting bullets at regular intervals, so you have to wait in safe parts of the screen and anticipate these bullets for evasion before flying below the ships to take them out as they deliberately rise to the top of the screen. The smaller, more common enemies in 1942 are comparable to the pests in Galaga that circle you when you don’t destroy them on first sight. When 1942 sends waves of these familiar planes from the top and sides of the screen along with bigger planes from the bottom of the screen, your patience and nerves are tested the most, which also means the potential for kinetic art is at its highest.

Weaved into 1942’s straightforward shooting — there are no enemies on the ground as in Xevious, Dragon Spirit, and TwinBee — is Okamoto’s articulate emphasis on maneuvering. The primary button in 1942 shoots; the second gives you temporary invincibility, sending your plane in a looping pattern. This evasive tactic can only be performed three times for each life (more opportunities can be gained through power-ups), but the beauty is that you can still control where the plane flies during the maneuver, which creates one of the most exciting illusions of flight and handling in vertical shooters. This brilliant stroke from Okamoto demands care, though: you must become aware of how long this evasive tactic lasts, as your plane can drop directly into enemy fire once the maneuver ends, meaning that you can die immediately if you don’t carefully place your reentry to the normal field of play.

This intoxicating design is ultimately a distraction from 1942’s incoherence. The soundtrack trades the alarm of Xevious for a sense of duty. The percussion and whistling in 1942 evoke a soldier rightfully taking orders. This righteous tone raises the question: is the WWII theme only a commercial ploy, or does the lone American hero against the Japanese horde reflect any of Okamoto’s feelings on his country’s part in the war? Considering 1942’s bland history references, it would be foolish to assume how Okamoto feels. At the same time, the game provides no convincing reason as to why it takes place during World War II. That war was not black and white, yet 1942 registers as mindless propaganda where destruction of a past political enemy is exaggerated. At best, the use of history is superfluous, as the game could have worked the same with simple allusions to military technology. For those who want to talk about marketing, let’s do it: 1942 and its ilk offer a knucklehead’s history.

TwinBee Review — Not That Cute

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This review is based on the emulation of the Famicom version of TwinBee on the 3DS. The emulation is titled 3D Classics: TwinBee, but the 3D effect was not used for the purposes of this review.

Playing TwinBee proves that “cute ’em up,” a description frequently attached to the game, is almost as inarticulate and useless as “shmup.” I’ve never thought about TwinBee’s cuteness (the visuals are fairly bland in the Famicom version), which testifies to both the non-communication of trendy game terms and, more significantly, the intensity of TwinBee as a vertical shooter.

Developed by Konami, TwinBee follows the lead of Namco’s Xevious with the dual concern of shooting flying enemies and bombing enemies on the ground, but the inspiration largely ends there. TwinBee introduces a bold conceptualization of the power-up. Clouds appear as the screen scrolls in TwinBee, and some clouds release bells when you shoot them. The bells are typically yellow and change color when you juggle them with enough shots. Non-yellow bells grant upgrades that include speed, twin-fire, two ghost copies of yourself that shoot their own fire, and a shield.

Unlike the unfocused Dragon Spirit, TwinBee establishes a clear strategic point for its elusive upgrades. The most obvious problem is that you have to battle flying and ground enemies while juggling the bells, which are lost once they fall past the bottom of the screen. You soon realize the challenge is far more complex. TwinBee only has five repeating levels, but the enemies grow deadlier each time the levels repeat. When you desperately need an upgrade in a tougher level (your default speed and weapon are disadvantaged to say the least), you run the risk of inadvertently juggling a non-yellow bell while killing enemies. If you juggle a non-yellow bell, it turns back to yellow, that is, a non-upgrade, meaning that you have to juggle more bells for another chance to upgrade.

But never forget, the main point of TwinBee is a high score, not survival, even though the high score requires survival. The game’s five levels contain zero of the visual allure or mystery of Xevious’ one continuous level, so the only convincing reason to continue beating the five levels is attaining the highest score imaginable. If you’re not getting a better score, survival is a nuisance given the madness of the bells.

The dialectical art of TwinBee follows: the yellow bells, which don’t help you survive, are the key to higher scores. This rule is more counter-intuitive than Xevious’ approach, where destroying enemies is often the best path to both survival and a high score. In TwinBee, you get a higher point bonus every time you collect a yellow bell, provided you never allow any bell to fall off the screen. Once you hit the maximum bonus of 100,000 points, every yellow bell you fly into will be worth that many points. Gaining more points also gives you extra lives.

Extra lives don’t prevent your inevitable destruction as effectively as a strategy that incorporates different upgrades. My preference is the triple shot, a candy-shaped upgrade left behind by certain ground enemies you destroy, combined with a shield and four or five speed upgrades. (Too much speed in TwinBee can kill your handling.) The triple shot has a wide range of fire that can destroy enemies and juggle bells straight ahead or in two diagonal paths. The triple shot can be particularly devastating with lateral movement. The issue with this style is that triple-shot bullets can juggle bells when you would rather let them fall for collection. Simply collecting bells is a tricky affair, as you have to make sure you’re not running into an enemy or fire as you anticipate the descent of the bells after some juggling. You also can’t collect bells at the very top of the screen — quite the nerve-wracking rule.

If any of this sounds cute, it certainly doesn’t play cute. The panic you experience in TwinBee is more comparable to the Edgar Allan Poe poem “The Bells.” The last part of Poe’s poem goes (for the proper format of the poem, visit here):

In a happy Runic rhyme,
To the rolling of the bells–
Of the bells, bells, bells–
To the tolling of the bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells–
Bells, bells, bells–
To the moaning and the groaning of the bells.

In TwinBee, a bell turns into an enemy if you shoot it too many times. You’ll have trouble thinking of a more diabolical vertical shooter.

Dragon Spirit Review — A Strange Absence of Conviction

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This review is based on the emulation of Dragon Spirit in Namco Museum: 50th Anniversary on Xbox. This emulation represents the newer version of the 1987 arcade game that allows you to bypass levels when you start a new game.

In theory, Dragon Spirit is a cool improvement on its predecessor, Xevious. But the more I play Dragon Spirit, the more I dislike how it stacks the deck against you, and the more I see a lack of expression, a lack of technical focus, compared to Xevious.

As in Xevious, you use two buttons to shoot enemies in the air and enemies on the ground, but this time you’re a dragon, and you can upgrade your dragon by collecting flying orbs, which appear when you destroy an egg on the ground or kill a flashing enemy. When fully upgraded, you are a three-headed dragon that can shoot long swaths of fire. This idea is interesting, but what separates Dragon Spirit from Xevious is a better illusion of flight (which, as I argue, is a hallmark of vertical shooters compared to horizontal shooters). Unlike the ship in Xevious, the dragon in Dragon Spirit isn’t a static avatar. The flapping wings complement the feeling that you’re flying.

More significantly, the greater movement in Dragon Spirit creates a high that Xevious never achieved. In Xevious, you can fly on about 60 percent of the screen. In Dragon Spirit, you can fly anywhere on the screen. Accentuating this freedom is limited horizontal screen movement. While the screen always scrolls vertically in Dragon Spirit, you can see different parts of the level by flying to the extreme right or left. In other words, the screen can move just outside of its horizontal boundaries before your dragon hits an invisible wall. An interesting dynamic occurs: don’t like dealing with a particular enemy on the extreme right? Then move as far as you can to the left, though the extreme left might present a greater threat depending on your timing.

Given its freer movement and reptilian charm, Dragon Spirit has joyful moments. Unfortunately, the game nullifies its potential with an unfocused structure. While Xevious is the more challenging, grueling game, Dragon Spirit begs more frustration. The biggest issue comes with the power-ups, that is, the different colored flying orbs you collect for upgrades. Different orbs have different effects (three purple orbs give you an extra life), but besides avoiding the rare orb that downgrades your firepower, the only relevant strategy is actually touching the orbs. Many of the orbs appear after you destroy a red or blue egg on the ground, but you can’t rush toward the destroyed egg with the expectation of nabbing the flying orb — if you rush it, the orb will fly away from you and off the screen, useless. You have to stay back and allow the orb to home in on you. This twist means you have to make sure that you can move to a lower spot of the screen without taking a hit from an enemy. Such effort doesn’t necessarily translate to success: sometimes the orb doesn’t home in on you that well. It’s not out of the question for the orb to fly right by your dragon’s wing.

The other major hindrance is the size of your dragon. You are bigger than most enemies, so you’re more likely to take a hit. One might want to chalk this up as a “design decision” (an overly apologetic phrase — most things in video games are the result of decisions), and Dragon Spirit does allow you to take two hits rather than one for each life. Even so, it can be hard to tell when you’re going to take a hit because of the dragon’s wings. Dragon Spirit gives you some leeway while finding a path through enemy fire, but some deaths seem like the fault of wishy-washy design. In contrast, I don’t have questions about whether I deserve a game over after playing Xevious.

The enemy cues and patterns in Dragon Spirit require basic memorization — the unpredictability of Xevious is gone. Once you learn how to allow the flying orbs to come to you without taking a hit from enemies, none of the nine stages stand much of a chance against your dragon. Granted, it can take dozens of attempts to master one level in Dragon Spirit, and once you lose your lives, it’s game over. But the “new” version of Dragon Spirit lets you start at the beginning of any level when you start a new game. I can understand why this version of the game was created: the majority of the challenge in Dragon Spirit is due to the bizarre flying orbs and the size of the dragon. The concession of a level select suggests a mistake in the original development of the game.

Dragon Spirit essentially trades drama for quirkiness. Xevious shows more articulate thought and urgency in its one level than any of Dragon Spirit’s nine levels. If the lack of a reticle for ground attacks doesn’t illustrate Dragon Spirit’s disregard for precision, the clash of its dorky music against prehistoric environments does. Besides irritation and goofiness, what are you supposed to feel while playing Dragon Spirit? There’s a strange absence of conviction that doesn’t deserve your tolerance.

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.