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Monday, June 22, 2015

Why ‘Shmups’ are a BLAST – Pun intended

Why is there something satisfying about blasting wave after wave of enemy fighters in to oblivion? What is it about dodging swarms of enemy fire that really gets me going? I don’t know that I have the ultimate answers to these questions, but I do know that the genre of video games known as ‘shmups’ has long been one of my favorites. 

Lifeforce (NES)
  To start off with we should probably define the word ‘shmup’. Simply put, ‘shmup’ is a nothing more than a portmanteau of the phrase “Shoot ‘em up” witch is a subgenre of the shooter style of video games. In a shoot ‘em up the main player engages in a lone assault against a growing number of enemy forces. There are additional styles of shoot ‘em ups that include things like rail shooters, scrolling shooters, and run and guns, but that’s a topic for another conversation.
As a child I played games like Asteroids, Vanguard, and Space Invaders, and while they are technically categorized as ‘space shooters’ or  ‘arcade shooters’ they still have a lot of the same elements found in  ‘shmup’ games. I was too young to really understand the larger picture when I played those early Atari classics, and it wasn’t until I grew older that things started to fall in to place.
                It all started back in the late 80’s, when Nintendo was the king of home video game consoles, or at least it was in my neighborhood. One fateful day a friend of mine invited me over to play a game called Life Force. I had never heard of it, but was immediately drawn to its fast action

AeroFighters (SNES)

packed style of game play. Using the infamous “Contra Code” we each got 30 lives, and co-opted that sucker to completion in what felt like a matter of minutes. After seeing that giant space olive explode on screen and then hearing that final melody of victory start up, I knew I was in love. I was ready to play it all again. And thus my love of ‘shmups’ was born.
                The appeal for me comes from the satisfaction I feel when I complete a level and advance to the next stage with all of my upgrades intact. In fact I would say that on top of the previously discussed definition, a good shoot ‘em up game also includes the following key elements:
·         Upgrades that are easy to use and that feel cohesive.

-          Even though it can be satisfying to blast away at swarms of baddies using the basic primary weapon, there is something to upgrading your gun to one with just a little more oomph. Whether it’s a laser shot of some kind, or a spread shot, the upgrade usually allows you to do more damage at a quicker pace, and makes those boss battles just a little easier to bear. And when you add on secondary weapons like missiles, the level of destruction really takes off.

·         Unique enemies and stage designs that prevent things from feeling repetitive.

-          The clinical definition of insane involves doing the exact same thing over and over again and expecting different results each time. The same can be said for enemy and level designs in video games. Recycling enemies and level design elements generally will cause players to slowly go insane from boredom. And for the record, simply giving an enemy or background a new coat of paint for each stage or level does not constitute as something new.

·         Unique and challenging boss battles.

-          Boss battles are the backbone of any good shoot ‘em up. And if the game designers have done their job up to this point, then you will have just fought your guts out, taking on a diverse swarm of unique enemies in order to reach the stage boss. How disappointing would it then be if that stage boss consisted of nothing more than something simple and weak? I love it when game designers think outside the box in terms of boss design. There is nothing quite like seeing a well-designed boss come on the screen for the first time. Some of the greatest boss designs have actually made me pause the game so that I can pick my jaw up off the floor. That’s how bosses should be.

o   And while we’re at it, I would like to add that while hard boss battles are great, there is a limit to the level of difficulty a gamer should experience while playing a game. I hate it when frustration gets ahead of fun. Challenge is good, breaking controllers in frustration is bad.

·         A masterful soundtrack that matches the fast paced action on the screen.

-          Like in film, video games must use a solid musical score in order to evoke emotional feelings that are otherwise not available to the player through the mechanics of regular game play. A good musical score can help emphasize so much more in terms of story and emotion, it can usually draw the player deeper in to the game, and keep them fighting on with a new sense of emotional investment. Some of the greatest games I have played have usually had masterful musical scores that stayed with me long after the power was been turned off. If I find myself humming the tune to a video game hours or even days later, then I know it is a game worthy of picking up and playing again.

·         Re-spawn vs Restart.

-          This is probably an aspect that’s up for debate, and depending on your own preferences, it may not make or break a quality shmup game. What I mean by re-spawn vs restart in this case is how the game progresses upon your death. Games like Life Force will simply re-spawn your ship in the same area where you just met your demise. Other games, like R-Type will make you start over, either from the beginning of the level, or from a checkpoint. Personally, I prefer to just re-spawn, since I feel like restarting can interrupt game play, and hinder progression. But that’s just me…

Asteroids (Atari 800)
As you can see there are numerous requirements that must be met in order for a casual shoot ‘em up game to be heralded as one of the all-time greats. But when it comes to providing a young impressionable mind with a life altering game play experience, a ‘shmup’ must follow this exact formula. And when it’s done correctly, that game will inevitably become part of that persons hall of fame collection, and it will be played over and over, and over again.

I know that everyone’s tastes differ, so these may not be the same reasons why you enjoy a good shoot ‘em up game. Please feel free to leave comment on what makes these kinds of games fun for you. I would love to hear your feedback. Thanks again for joining me on this journey in to the world of shmups.