Stay skilled and chain kills in Xbox 360’s most essential shooters

Shooters are awesome, and the Xbox 360 has become a shooting game powerhouse. I won’t go into long-winded genre history or preface with the unique appeal of shooting games, but I will highlight some of the best games on the system. If your favorite is missing, don’t worry – I culled a lot of titles, and some of my favorites got cut, too.

No worries then, right? Here are my picks for the 360’s most essential shooters.

Raiden Fighters Aces

Raiden Fighters Aces is no-nonsense. Compiling all three Raiden Fighters games onto one disc, Aces provides some of the most manic shooting on the 360, with blazing bullet speeds that serve as a master class in panic bombing.

There are no slow, intricate waves of bullets here. The Raiden Fighters games were released in the mid to late ‘90s, when designer scoring systems had hit their stride but bullet hell hadn’t yet gained ascendancy. These games are some of the high points of that era, with an absolute fleet of playable ships, the roster building on itself with each title. There are sixteen ships in total, with unique weaponry and ship statistics. That’s a lot of ordnance.

The scoring systems are fantastic. In each game, players work their medals up to higher and higher values, being careful not to let any fall offscreen. Things become extremely frantic as players swoop between bullets to catch every last medal. A sliding difficulty scale ensures that reaching them will always be a scramble, since the game increases bullet speeds to meet rising scores.

I have a shameful secret: I hate most boss battles. However, Raiden Fighters Aces’ boss battles are perfect bursts of intense action, with quick and dirty patterns meant to put you on edge. Bosses have multiple turrets to attack, and oftentimes act as level-spanning setpieces. Even so, they can typically be bombed through fairly quickly, a feature I greatly appreciate.

The shooting is fun and accessible on a basic level, and the scoring systems add a layer of depth without sacrificing purity. For a lot of people, this may represent the perfect era of shooting action, and Raiden Fighters Aces delivers three classics on one disc.

Further shooting: For more snaking purple lasers and a truly diabolical twin-stick mode, try Raiden 4.

Eschatos*

Eschatos really surprised me. Looking at its simplistic enemy design, I thought Eschatos would be pure homage, content to retread NES classics. But it’s so much more. More than any other game I’ve played, Eschatos manages to bridge the genre’s entire history, appealing to anyone who’s ever loved a shooting game.

Eschatos reaches as far back as Space Invaders, but it does so with style, lapsing between genre borders as it sees fit. Primarily, the game blends manic shooters with modern bullet hell, enemy shots alternating between small bursts of flak and enormous, sweeping waves of bullets. The ship’s rechargeable shield provides a safety net, tempering frustration during intense moments.

Simple as it looks, the graphical design is inspired as well. The camera frequently pulls back or pans to the side, giving the game the sense of depth found in rail-shooters like Starfox and Sin and Punishment. The camerawork rarely leads to cheap deaths, instead lending the game an impressive cinematic flair.

And the music is gorgeous. There are some great, high energy tunes here. Halfway through the game, the player’s ship leaves the Earth’s atmosphere to reveal the nebulas and galaxies beyond, and the music dies down to a serene melody. It’s visually and aurally beautiful, and one of my all-time favorite shooter moments.

It could never work if the game wasn’t so skillfully crafted. Eschatos is the real deal, and it’s absolutely stuffed with content. There are multiple scoring modes, from simple shoot-em-all multipliers to shot-cancelling shield scoring. The difficulty modes range from actually easy to blisteringly hard. There are progressive unlocks as players level up via point gains, from extra continues to ship colors and graphical settings.

To top it off, Eschatos includes two other games on-disc. Cardinal Sins is a fun shooter minigame compilation, while Judgement Silversword is an unbelievable proof of concept that rivals Eschatos itself. If you love shooters, find a copy of Eschatos. It goes miles beyond what’s expected.

Further shooting: For more perspective-altering action, watch for Qute’s region-free follow-up, Ginga Force, due February 2013.

Geometry Wars 2

Geometry Wars 2 is unadulterated videogame addiction. Following in Robotron 2084’s immortal footsteps, Geometry Wars draws players in with pulsing neon graphics and intuitive twin-stick controls before dominating their weekends and weeknights. The difficulty ramps up perfectly, spewing waves of single-minded drones before putting on the hurt with legions of armored snakes that wind directly into players’ paths.

The scoring is lean enough to understand at a glance. Each exploded enemy drops collectible geoms, which act as multipliers for every future kill. The steadily increasing multiplier lends the constant feeling that any game could be a massive scoring breakthrough. It’s an incredibly basic system, but works wonderfully at keeping players engaged for hours.

The game also excels at making retries incredibly painless, letting players restart with two quick button presses. And then there’s the leaderboard implementation, which shows players at a glance where they stand amongst their friends. Geometry Wars never puts itself in the way of score-chasing.

This is true of the first game as well, but Geometry Wars 2 features the absolutely fantastic Pacifism mode. Single-minded drones are the only enemies, easily herded into large clusters. But players can’t fire, and instead have to pass through drifting gates to explode nearby enemies. The gates have glowing ends, dangerous in themselves, and there’s a constant tension and release as players squeeze through knotted, overlapping gates to destroy enemy hordes.

There are six modes in total, but pacifism alone is more than enough to justify the game’s meager cost. With gameplay this addictive, it’s little wonder that the first Geometry Wars legitimized Xbox Live Arcade as a platform.

Further shooting: For more glowing neon craziness, check out Score Rush on Xbox Live Indie, a twin-stick take on bullet hell shooters.

Mushihimesama Futari*

Mushihimesama Futari is glorious. Bullet patterns unfurl in waves, pulsing and undulating with organic life. Enemies shriek as they die, erupting into small fortunes worth of gleaming gems. Since its release, Futari has spent more time in my 360 than any other game, and I hold it in the same esteem as the Super Nintendo classics that defined my gaming tastes.

Futari’s visuals are immediately striking. Enemies bear a Miyazaki influence, the game’s thematic trappings seemingly lifted straight out of Nausicaa, with insect riders waging war on lumbering dinosaurs and giant crustaceans. The sprites are vibrant, and the pink and purple bullets stand out clearly against contrasting backdrops.

That’s good, because there’s so much going on that it’s impossible to take in at once, forcing players into a zen-like state of focus. The rhythmic scoring systems encourage this, allowing players to fall into scoring routines when the action gets too intense. Futari has multiple difficulty modes, each with their own scoring variations and possibilities for stylish, daring play.

The main game is fantastic, but the downloadable Mushihimesama Futari Black Label improves it from every angle. Black Label thankfully strips away difficulty by giving both characters enhanced firepower, but manages to further increase the game’s scoring potential. Gems are everywhere, bleeding from enemies with every hit and bursting onscreen as players cancel massive swarms of bullets. And it’s more lenient, letting new players accomplish scoring goals when and where they like before working out optimal paths.

To Cave’s credit, none of their 360 games would be out of place on a list of essential shooters. From Dodonpachi Daioujou to Akai Katana, they’ve been steadily releasing genre classics, rounding out the 360 catalog with a slew of arcade hits. For me, Mushihimesama Futari’s combination of classic mechanics, organic bullet patterns, and rewarding scoring makes it the 360’s most essential shooter.

Further shooting: For scoring overload in Cave’s most iconic series, look for Dodonpachi Saidaioujou, slated for release in 2013.

* Import only, but playable on any region Xbox 360

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