Understanding scrolling shooters

R-Type

For a genre almost as old as videogaming, shooters are a source of much mystery and speculation. Where once they were accessibly designed, the modern shooter appears at first glance to be a writhing mass of occult symbology. Uninitiated onlookers may lapse into fits of revulsion as they notice the distended features of this once simple genre, and it can be hard to pick out intelligent design choices under all the noise.

Of course, modern scrolling shooters are merely a product of time and evolution. Every manner of game has gone through a similar process, beginning at a simple template that’s built upon as fans desire more nuance. The simple brawler has become a creature gorged on stylish combos and air juggles, while the noble role-playing game has embraced paradigm shifts and the ability to actively combat enemies.

The reason that shooters look strange to us is that we rarely encounter them. Their original habitat, the arcade, has been destroyed by the widespread playing of home consoles. Now a migratory species, it can be difficult to determine where scrolling shooters will turn up next.

We may well ask ourselves: Do we care? If this once-proud genre should die, will it be missed?

Scrolling shooters aren’t mere relics, but part of a rich heritage that runs deep into the heart of why we play games. Though they seem obtuse at first glance, those willing to give them a chance will find a purity of play that’s rivaled by few other genres. Arcade score-chasing seems to have died, but it becomes ever more relevant as we enter a gaming age dominated by friends lists and online leaderboards.

You’re Not Playing It Wrong

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Scrolling shooter fans love to remind you that you’re playing it wrong. Didn’t like the game? Playing it wrong. Too hard for you? Playing it wrong. Didn’t import the limited edition that comes with alternate artwork and a cd soundtrack? Playing it wrong.

You could very well be playing it right anyways. You don’t have to like every game, and you don’t have to be good at them. And despite what many longtime fans say, you don’t need an arcade stick to properly enjoy these games. They’re usually tailor-made for an arcade setup, but even some world record holders play on a keyboard. Whatever setup works for you is fine.

But often, new players experience these games in the wrong modality. They boot up the game, shoot some stuff, die a couple of times, and hammer continue when they run out of lives. When they reach the end credits, they feel unfulfilled.

This feeling is normal, because most shooting games are horrible when played this way. In their natural arcade habitat, shooters are a fight for survival, because death means a lack of quarters with which to feed your young. When you take away this survival aspect, you’re obscuring the designer’s original intention, and the structure of the game becomes confused.

Shooter fans play for the one credit clear, or 1CC, giving every life and bomb significance. It may seem strange to not use the unlimited resources available, but research has shown that quality of life increases tenfold when these rituals are observed.

Even so, many fans happily use continue after continue, credit-feeding their way to the end and loving every second. That’s fine. And it’s not the wrong way to play, as long as you’re getting as much enjoyment as you can out of the game.

Unfortunately, this sort of behaviour often leads to a feeling of time wasted. It’s not a matter of playing it right or playing it wrong, but a matter of playing for a sense of enjoyment and fulfillment. Genre fans aim for the 1CC because they know it increases the longevity and appeal of the game.

It may sound arbitrary, but I can say from personal experience that it works. Games that were a short bit of fun can become incredibly addictive, and the time spent can lead to an increased appreciation of the game’s mechanics. If fans of any other genre gave me such a sure-fire way to increase the appeal of their favorite games, I’d do so in a heartbeat.

When you go for the 1CC, start by giving yourself small goals. Maybe you just want to survive the first boss before running out of lives. There’s no hurry to beat the game. Just have fun. You’ll find yourself getting better at all shooters, faster than you thought possible. And you’ll have a blast doing it.

Following are a few games with a focus on core mechanics that makes them incredibly fun to play for a one-credit clear. Play them if you can, or look for another shooter that you’d like to 1CC. Just remember not to get too frustrated – sometimes 1CCing one level alone can be a cause for celebration.

Gate of Thunder (TG-CD, WiiVC)

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Gate of Thunder allows players to change the direction that their helper ships can fire. How might this affect the enemy patterns you see in-game? Does every shooting game feature the same sort of shooting and dodging, or are there certain qualities to the graphics, sound, and mechanics that elevate some games above others?

Zero Gunner 2 (DC)

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Zero Gunner 2 features helicopters that can rotate 360 degrees, and enemy assaults from all sides. Might these mechanics cause players to use more of the available screen space than they would in a more traditional shooter?

Metal Slug 3 (ARC, NG, PS2, Wii, Xbox, 360)

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Metal Slug 3’s focus on transformations and alternative vehicles makes it a great game to play and replay. It’s probably too difficult for most players to 1CC, but try taking it one level at a time and see which ones you can and can’t beat on a credit. Try exploring alternate paths to reduce the difficulty and keep things fresh.

Scoring With Yourself and Others

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Starting around the mid-nineties, developers began placing an emphasis on crafting complex scoring systems. Working toward a 1CC could provide players with months of challenge, but a flexible scoring system could keep them playing indefinitely as their mastery of the mechanics grew.

For shooting game acolytes, this is a crucial factor to proper enjoyment of the game. This score-centric stance is often cited as a main point of confusion for players outside the niche.

The reasons for this confusion are obvious. At one point, high-scores were an integral part of almost every game. You’d beat the high score, earn props, and get the chance to write ASS at the top of the scoreboard.

But as home consoles became the norm, the desire for high scores became confused. Games became more focused on completion, and high scores were phased out in favor of increasing story rewards. They became irrelevant for most games, and many console players abstracted this into irrelevancy for all games.

High score counters persist in other forms. First person shooters adapt them into kill death ratios and killstreaks. Fighting games tally players’ consecutive wins against opponents. Racing games record players’ quickest lap.

In a shooting game, however, the classic score counter plays a central role. It’s a constant reminder of a player’s mastery over his chosen game, his or her progression over days and weeks and years. It’s never arbitrary; it never fluctuates with time. Every game becomes a direct competition against the past self and everyone else who’s played that game. Every game is a sprint, a record to be broken.

Appreciating designer scoring systems is the hardest step toward appreciating shooters, but they’ll become natural to you as you play and replay games. Once understood, they provide a world of deep-level detail that a quick glance can’t reveal.

Scoring systems often inform the rest of the game’s design, and ignoring them can leave the game feeling disjointed, arbitrary, or unfair. Some games leverage the scoring system to slow or cancel bullets, tying together scoring and survival. Others crank up the difficulty as players earn points and lower it when they die or bomb, allowing for pitch-perfect difficulty with every play.

One point of derision when discussing scrolling shooters is that they all feel the same. They’re all just dodging and shooting on a 2D field, that’s true. But, as with any genre, the differences are in the detail. There are attack patterns, enemy placement, and powerup systems. There are bombs, shields, and warps. And there are the seemingly infinite possibilities for engaging scoring styles: combos and chains, medals and milking; proximity kills, cancels, and cash-ins.

Try playing and replaying the following games with the goal of beating your high score. If you want to learn more about a game’s scoring system, watch a replay on YouTube or look for strategy topics online.

Star Parodier (TG-CD, WiiVC)

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Star Parodier features both a 2 and a 5 minute battle mode, which focus on discovering secret bonuses to increase your score. Why might somebody prefer these over the progression-based normal mode?

Twinkle Star Sprites (ARC, DC, NG)

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Twinkle Star Sprites builds upon its shooter framework, allowing players to compete head-to-head in a hybrid shooter, fighter, and puzzle game. Does direct competition seem more intuitive than leaderboard competition? How might shooters incorporate simultaneous play into more traditional designs?

Battle Garegga (ARC, SAT)

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Battle Garegga’s scoring revolves around quickly collecting score items before they fall offscreen. As you earn points, powerups, and lives, the game gets progressively more difficult to counter your increased skills and armament. How might this be a good game to play and replay as you grow better at shooting games? How might these systems affect the way you play if you’re trying to earn a 1CC?

Understanding Bullet Hell

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Perhaps you’re a fan of scrolling shooters, and you’ve been playing them for years. You have a stable roster of favorites: Gradius III, Super R-Type, and Space Megaforce. Thunder Force III and IV, MUSHA, and Truxton. Gate of Thunder, Lords of Thunder, and Blazing Lazers.

Many shooting-game fans still don’t like those other games. Bullet hells.

Undulating waves and spirals of purple and pink bullets crowd the screen. Spacecraft are scarce, replaced by young anime characters. There’s so much going on that it seems like pure masochism.

Oftentimes, these are the games with the most worthwhile scoring systems. Since the genre’s birth, it continues to evolve with increasingly lateral-thinking systems. These are games that fans can play ad infinitum, climbing ever higher into the scoring ranks.

But are they worth it? From an initial glance, they don’t even seem to belong to the same genre. A long-time fan of scrolling shooters could be forgiven for thinking that these games are simply made for someone else.

I had the same initial reaction. But once you stop looking at pictures and play the games, they begin to make a lot more sense.

The first thing you notice is that they’re not as hard as they look. Hundreds of shots pulse onscreen, but many of them seem to pass through your ship. Difficult as they may be, bullet hell games feel too lenient, too fair. You weave through clusters of bullets, impossibly unscathed.

In reality, the character sprite is merely a placeholder for players to follow. Players can only be hit in their hitbox, a miniscule area in the center of their sprite. This allows developers to crank up the onscreen flak without unbalancing the game.

Increasing the bullet count allows developers to really experiment with bullet patterns. With one bullet or a few bullet clusters, players need to completely evade enemy shots with large-scale dodges. Having hundreds of bullets onscreen allows for quick aimed shots, slow arcing waves, and roiling clouds of flak. While complex, these patterns allow players a way out if they’re skilled enough to micro-dodge through the pattern.

At first, these filled the same role as traditional bullets, just en masse. They shot in clusters at a set speed in a set direction. But as bullet hells codified their structure, bullet patterns sprang to life. They now whip about, bloom, and fan out. Traits uncharacteristic of bullets, surely, but they possess more variety, more vitality.

They present new situations, locking you in or driving you forward. Each massive surge of bullets is a puzzle to be solved, an idiosyncratic element of level design. Many fans of classic sidescrollers lament the lack of obstacles and terrain in bullet hell games. But these obstacles have always been there. They’re the bullets: living, breathing obstacles.

Oftentimes, the patterns are also visual marvels. Their complexity may be initially off-putting, but weaving through the complex patterns is like moving around a fireworks display. They become artistry in motion, an optical obstacle. There’s nothing like them in any other genre, and their intricacy is such that it forces players into a zen-state of peaceful mindfulness.

Bullet hell games may or may not look worthwhile to you, but don’t let yourself be deceived by pictures. Though initially complex, bullet hells provide an incredibly rewarding sense of progress. Mastering complex bullet patterns and scoring systems requires puzzle-solving abilities as well as reflexes. Give the games a fair shot before you write them off. You might discover a new favorite genre.

As you play the following games, think about playing for a 1CC and score. Some games might be more suited for one or the other, so experiment and see which you like best. If you find the games too challenging, credit-feed through them a few times to learn the levels, and then try again.

Dodonpachi (ARC, PSX, SAT)

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Dodonpachi is often called the first bullet hell game, and it’s a great entry point into the genre because of its more basic patterns and simple chaining system. As you play or watch a video of Dodonpachi, try to locate where the ship’s hitbox lies. Does the game seem unfair, or is it actually a lot easier than it appears?

Eschatos (360)

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Eschatos has dense bullet hell patterns, but it also hearkens back to older shooter design. By focusing play around the ship’s shield and experimenting with traditional enemy placement, Eschatos feels like an old classic even as it breaks new ground. What are the core tenets of bullet hell? Are bullet hell games really at odds with traditional shooters, or do they share many central design elements?

Mars Matrix (ARC, DC)

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The Dreamcast port of Mars Matrix may be the ultimate primer for score-chasing. Featuring a shop that uses points as currency, unlockable scoring stages, and impressive replay videos, Mars Matrix really pushes players to chase high scores. What are some other good ways shooters can entice players to pursue 1CCs and high scores? Can they be tied directly into the game instead of revolving around it?

Shooting Forward

We’re just now scratching the surface of this bold genre. If you’re interested in learning more about scrolling shooters, check out the following links courtesy of Shmups forum, and consider donating to your favorite shooter developer. And above all else, have fun! Scrolling shooters can be extremely challenging, but that’s no reason to get frustrated. Take a break, and you’ll be back better than ever before.

For a list of some of the greatest shooters of all time, check out Shmups’ Top 25 Shmups of All Time:

http://shmups.system11.org/viewtopic.php?t=38073

If you’re looking for scoring and survival strategies in various shooters, check out the strategy section:

http://shmups.system11.org/viewtopic.php?f=5&t=1896

For a writeup on how to become better at scrolling shooters (and competitive games in general), check out Prometheus’s Full Extent of the Jam:

http://shmups.system11.org/viewtopic.php?t=34497

Always be on the lookout for great new games. You never know what you’ll find.

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11 Responses to “Understanding scrolling shooters”

  1. Edward Says:

    That was a very good and well-written essay, mate.
    I liked the game examples!

    • catstronaut Says:

      Thanks! I was worried that some games would look strange next to each other, and I’m glad you enjoyed it. I never imagined myself lumping Star Parodier, Twinkle Star Sprites, and Battle Garegga together, but there’s a time and place for everything 🙂

  2. n0rtygames Says:

    Great article. Getting people to understand the joy and importance of a 1CC is half the battle! Shared 🙂

  3. karlosmorale Says:

    Nice piece – very interesting. I now have a strong inclination to play Gynoug and I have no time! 🙂

  4. PaulStapelberg Says:

    Very interesting read. Glad I found in on twitter. On a side note, do you think the 1CC system would work on newer platforms like iOS or android systems as in app purchases? Using a similar system to the classic arcade period.

    I remember feeding arcade machines all my lunch money when I was a kid, I still do sometimes. It was like you said though, I would set myself a target (pass level X) and keep playing until I either ran out of coins are achieved my goal. I don’t get to play as many arcade games anymore, but they still get me excited like no other games.

    • catstronaut Says:

      My initial reaction was “please don’t give them any ideas,” but now that I’ve thought on it, in-app purchases could work really well for scrolling shooters as long as developers took a very light touch to it. It seems to me that the only way in-app purchases work are in games that are free to begin with, so you’d have to give players the first credit for free and have every credit after that cost 25 or 50 cents. This would make a lot of people really happy, and one could even argue that it’s *too* generous. But I think a lot of people out there would gladly spend a few dollars to credit-feed through the game, and even some expert players like to play through the game in full before working on the 1CC or scoring, in order to see what obstacles they’ll have to overcome.

      One key would be creating a game that’s hard but fair. You can’t cheese players with patterns they have to know before seeing them, but you also can’t make a game that’s so easy that even new players can 1CC it right away. I think the best course of action would be to make a game that features easier modes with less stages, and harder modes with more stages. New players could work their way through the lower difficulties on a few credits, and once they worked their way up they could try and go on to experience the full game. You’d want to have a solid scoring system in there too, to entice playing and replaying.

      I think you’d have to be very careful with what you offer as in-app purchases, though, and I don’t think it would be good to extend it past extra lives and continues. Having bonus score payments or powerups would unbalance the design and make it unfair. But as long as there’s an implicit or explicit penalty for dying/continuing, I don’t really see any problem with those being part of the in-app purchases. Developers are still feeling these systems out, and I hope they’re somewhat cautious about it.

      Thanks for reading and responding, Paul! I miss the arcade experience as well, but I’m glad it’s found a home on consoles. Hopefully it also takes off on iOS and android, with smart free-to-play games joining the traditional one-time purchase model that Cave and Taito have tried out.

  5. Squire Grooktook Says:

    I think the thing about scoring, is that it comes down to a competitive spirit. Whether you actually feel a desire to master the game past completion, ultimately comes down to whether you want to enhance your enjoyment of it through competition.

    Also, I’m glad you addressed the “all shooters feel the same” complaint. I personally would have added that even if the same logic were true, it would have to apply to all other genres as well.

    Platformers: It’s all just running and jumping, they all feel the same.

    Hack and slash (3d or 2d): It’s all just hacking and slashing (with maybe a dodge move here and there), they all feel the same.

    Rpg’s: It’s all just grinding and talking, they all feel the same.

    Fps: It’s all just aiming and shooting, they all feel the same.

    etc. I think this is the problem when people deride or try to shoehorn certain genres into certain gameplay styles, it ignores subtly and nuance.

    Great article though. The reason I came back to this after so many months is that I wanted to show it to a friend.

    • catstronaut Says:

      Yeah, I agree. For most scrolling shooters, playing towards mastery feels like an entirely different game than playing to reach the end. But scrolling shooters have the additional hurdle of people credit-feeding and then losing interest. I think developers are stupid to not adopt Mars Matrix or Ikaruga’s method of unlocking more credits as you play. People playing casually aren’t going to feel they need to continue playing, because 30 minutes isn’t even enough to realize there’s more depth to the game.

      What really sucks is how people treat score-chasing as a completely crazy gameplay mechanic, like high scores are just this outdated thing that was never good in the first place. But then they/I boot up Halo and get all stressed out about each game’s KDR. That’s a scoring mechanic!

      And yeah, even extremely similar games can be massively different when you play them enough. What’s the different between Battlefield and Call of Duty? Really a lot, but only when you really look at them and appreciate their design. And the difference between Ginga Force and Raiden Fighters Jet is really quite massive.

      Thanks for commenting, Grooktook, as always. Glad you liked the article enough to share it around!

  6. Michiel Kroder Says:

    Fantastic write-up. I was planning to write something similar, but this takes all the wind out of my sails in a lovely way.

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