This is the first part of The Shooting Gallery trilogy.
Cinema and literature have shown they can weather the storm of time: The African Queen can make contemporary audiences laugh, Nosferatu is still disturbing and Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice remains a favourite. But videogames are cursed. The cutting edge corrodes with frightening speed and the once-pioneering designs of yesteryear give way to frustration when compared to leaner, smarter modern work.
But sometimes this zeal for the new bites off more than it chew. The text adventure reportedly died a long time ago – but there’s still a thriving interactive fiction community. The industry also tried calling time on the point-and-click adventure – but take one look at Wadjet Eye Games, for example, and we’ll see it’s still possible to build a viable business with the point-and-click. Just because a particular form has dropped out of the mainstream favour, it doesn’t mean it is dead, antiquated or has nothing more to offer.
The 2D shooter experienced a similar fall from grace and yet, like the point-and-click, continues to enjoy a commercial life. However, unlike adventures which are story-driven, the 2D shooter has earned less critical attention. A shooter is a shooter, it seems, end of story. This seems ridiculous when faced with successes such as Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved and Everyday Shooter, or even efforts to sketch out new territory like Leave Home. Vlambeer made a big splash with the intensive Super Crate Box and their aerial combat shooter Luftrausers is on the horizon.
Before I began writing about videogames, I had dismissed the 2D shooter as “passé”. Today, I am a passionate advocate for the shoot 'em up. But what is so fascinating about the 2D shooter? Let’s ask some shmup developers like Rob Fearon, Kenta Cho, Matt James, Charlie Knight, Jonathan Mak and Stephen Cakebread that question.
Rob Fearon: I like lasers
Rob Fearon has created shooters such as War Twat, Squid Yes! Not So Octopus! (SYNSO) and the recent Death Ray Manta (DRM) which was exhibited at the Indie Games Arcade at Eurogamer Expo last year. All of Rob’s games can be purchased from his site.
You know, it's tempting to answer with something along the lines of "well, it's the purity isn't it, the direct connection between muscle and machine" but it's pretty much rubbish. So is Bejewelled, so is Zookeeper, so is Quake. But still, it's a nice thing to try and tell ourselves, yeah?
Truth be told, I like the lasers. Which probably sounds facile, it is facile but it's entirely true. I like the unreality of them, I like the abstractions, I like that there's nothing you can't put on that screen, there's no reliance on having to be real, there's no reliance on having to be abstract, you can just throw anything on there and no one blinks. But most of all, I like the lasers because they sear across the screen in the prettiest of colours and there's never been a single, solitary point where I've sat there and thought "you know, I'm really bored of that now".
It's the one subset of videogames where making a game starring a fish with lasers wouldn't be considered a novelty. No one bats an eye, no-one's there for the main character, no-one's there for the story, they're there for the colours, the sights, the sounds, the near misses and the explosions. And yet, you can have a story either heavily tied to the mechanics a la Leave Home or played alongside your adventures like Sine Mora or you can have it vague, something to wrap around your adventures a la Treasure or just plain mental like a Minter.
It's such a wonderful, wonderful canvas for expression with such extremes of deviation. No one's constrained by manpower so you can take them off anywhere and I can sit comfortably playing Robotron, I can smile myself senseless with the latest Gridrunner and all the history it appropriates or I can stand up to a Cave game and let it all become about play.
But mainly, I just like the lasers. Lasers are great.
Kenta Cho: Immersion
Kenta Cho is a prolific Japanese developer who has created a vast, free library of 2D shooters. Cho's games are exciting, tough and always different. Some of his games can be downloaded from his website while others are available on Flash portals.
I like the special sense of immersion I can feel only while playing a 2D shooter. A sense of immersion can come not only from realistic 3D graphics, but also from the powerful experience of playing 2D shooters. When I'm playing a 2D shooter – especially a bullet-hell type shmup – I feel a sense of unity with my fighter on the 2D screen as I'm avoiding tons of incoming bullets.
I think it's a unique experience in a 2D shooter and I really like it.
Matt James: Close to the surface
Really my decision to make a shmup was because that was what I felt like playing at the time. Originally I suppose some of the first games I played were shmups, I have nostalgia for them. I remember discovering R-Type on my friends Atari ST, impressed that it was designed in such a way that we'd get a little bit further each play. I also remember playing Axelay on another friend's SNES until 3 in the morning. My friend’s older brother, earlier in the evening, castigated us both for playing other people’s games rather than writing our own.
In shmups the design is close to the surface, it's easy to see. I have nostalgia for designing shmups and thinking about their design. Nostalgia and some sentimentality about the past – my past – was a key theme in Leave Home, although that probably grew out of the fact it was a shooter as much as making it a shooter was an intentional decision in the first place.
Charlie Knight: Playground
I’m not really fascinated with shooters, at least not in the definitive sense of the word. I like playing skill based games, ones where I can test my reactions and hand-eye coordination and see cool stuff when I do well. Something I can zone out to, that takes all of my concentration and patience to succeed in. Split second decision making, pattern recognition, that sort of thing. I’m not into the more passive stuff. A skill game is something I like to involve myself in, not something I do to pass time. A good shooter is one of these all consuming skill things I like. It has to be the right one though, I'm quite picky.
As for why they're not covered adequately in critical circles, I guess the cynical answer would be that they don't get enough clicks. Maybe that's the reason coverage of the wider gamut of indie titles has reduced in recent years too? Or maybe there's not a great deal of need to write about or reference a genre of games whose mainstream appeal was all but dead when the bulk of your readership was still wearing nappies? You know you can be 23 now and not have been born until 1990. If only I'd known a decade ago.
Shooters used to be THE playground for devs to push amazing special effects and visual tricks as well as experiment and evolve twitch gameplay in fun new ways. Stuff like the screen filling bosses in R-Type or the pseudo 3D scrolling sections in Axelay and the power up system in the Gradius games. Stuff that was really fun and impressive and wouldn't be much good in a sidescroller. Then computers and consoles started to be able to do half-decent 3D.
The basic gameplay of a 2D shooter doesn't map to 3D in the same way as a platformer or adventure game. These other types of game are much better suited to being able to convey a sense of scale and immersion through visuals on account of the relatively slow pacing and the room to explore and absorb your surroundings. Outside of one or two games (Starfox 64 being the one that immediately springs to mind), most of the early 3D shooters were disorientating, simplistic and visually bland. Computers at the time didn't really have the grunt required to draw the waves of cool looking enemies on top of the typically detailed and intricate playfields of the popular 2D shooters like your R-Types and Gradiuses, so you'd end up with something that was either a shoddy compromise or something set in outer space, and black with white dots don't compare to a cool 3D tomb full of monsters and traps or whatever. Anyway, bad games means bad reviews means bad sales. People wanted 3D, 2D was old hat and that was pretty much the end of shoot-em-ups in the traditional sense in the mainstream.
Then there's the other side of the story where those developers that stuck with 2D shooters used new hardware to evolve the genre into something more niche than ever. They're way harder these days, and it's not just down to the massive number of bullets on the screen. Complex score mechanics, power-up methods and dynamic ranking systems make them a complicated thing to get a handle on. You need to sit and concentrate and learn how they work, and be prepared to fail a lot, so pretty much the opposite of current AAA titles.
Jonathan Mak: Make music within it
Over the years, what I've realized about the shooter genre is that it's the perfect (but perhaps not the only) canvas for the marriage of sight and sound. It's because the game rules are so simple: touch nothing and to a lesser extent, shoot everything. You can practically throw anything onto the screen and have fun dodging it. You can twist the rules in any way but so long as you stay true to the core rule (dodge everything), you've got yourself a pretty fun game.
So from here you can experiment with all sorts of things. Personally I loved playing around with visuals, patterns especially in motion, pathways, space, and then committing these things to the screen and dodging it. It's like looking at a painting but your focus, your eyes, they become physically manifested in the game as the player. And as you move your player across the screen it is like running your eyes across the canvas of a great painting.
As we are talking about video games, it makes sense to play with sound. Again, because the rules are so simple you can add any device you need to create sounds. The analogy is the same: close your eyes and think of the soundscape as the canvas. What sorts of things do you hear? Manifest them in the game and then run your player through it. Your ears and aural focus are manifested in the player. Everyday Shooter in particular uses the bullet as a way of triggering sounds. Think of the bullet as the drumstick that beats the drum, or the finger that strums the strings of a guitar. Because the shooter rules are so simple, I can put any enemy on the screen and transform them into musical instruments triggered by the bullets of the player. So, the rules of the shooter are so simple and expressive that one can even make music within it.
Stephen Cakebread: A different beast
Stephen Cakebread is the developer of Geometry Wars, originally a mini-game in the Xbox title Project Gotham Racing 2 but later released as a standalone product on both Xbox and PC. Geometry Wars is sometimes credited with revitalising the 2D shooter genre. Eurogamer recently posted a retrospective of Geometry Wars but it can still be purchased through Steam.
I think the fascination with 2D shooters starts from the much faster pace of action they can command over their FPS/3PS counterparts – movement and dodging in particular usually play a big role due to the increased spatial awareness the player has from the 2D viewpoint.
2D shooters frequently make use of slow moving bullets (in contrast to the standard instant hit weapons in FPS games) which adds an additional element of dead reckoning into the mix when aiming and positioning your player for a shot.
In fact, a 2D shooter can be fun in an empty arena devoid of any obstacles or cover. Dropping an FPS player into such an environment would generally be considered bad design, yet many 2D shooters work best in such a setting!
So I think the lasting appeal of the 2D shooter comes from how truly a different beast it is from the FPS/3PS and where the FPS space is starting to feel stale, I think the 2D shooter is still ripe with possibility.