Friday, September 23, 2016

On Shmups - Scrolling

Summer is hot. If you're anywhere within a few hundred miles from the hills, it is only too easy to pack your underwear and drive off to the nearest village for a cool breather. I like my peace and quiet, which is something I don't get here in the city. Cars honking in the distance never made for a serene work environment. I've been to the beach but that's always more of a party. I'm not fun at parties, which is why I think I prefer the mountains. The settlement nearest to where I live has something special to offer. Something that aligns with my tastes that I had never expected to find on a hill-station, seven thousand feet from sea level.

The kids require something with a little bit more punch to keep their attention while the adults sip their lattes and swoon at the sunset. That is why they have the arcades. Yes, we have arcades here, not in the city no, but all way up in the hills. They mostly keep games from the late eighties to the early nineties but only very rarely would I run into an older machine. One of those games, which dates back to the early eighties I think, is called Speed Race CL-5.

I feel shmups are slow. Nowhere does it say they need to be fast and if Sonic isn't the most obvious example, scrolling too fast in 2D isn't the best idea. Flying a spaceship should feel more exhilarating. I'm strapped to a machine that's delivering a few hundred thousand pounds of thrust but it almost never feels that way. There's the kind of shmup that doesn't scroll at all. Enemy spaceships enter the scene making interesting patterns which the player must follow with projectiles. Other shmups scroll through a few static enemies and structures that funnel players into tight spots. The few recent Gradius games also have environmental hazards like geysers and rocks. Players navigate some turns and dodge timed hazards by moving freely in all four directions. The scrolling only stands to deliver those few mechanics exclusively. If those things were removed from the game, the scrolling wouldn't have very many reasons to exists, like in Space Invaders and Galaga which do away with it altogether.

Speed Race CL-5 scrolls its background so fast it's almost a complete blur. You don't realize how fast you're going before the game freezes you in place after an accident. The play area will spawn cars that move down to the bottom of the screen quite slowly. Increasing the tempo of the gameplay further would make for an awful experience. There's only so much screen that works as a warning for the player to react to obstacles that are otherwise not visible. Some games that scroll faster spawn warnings on the edge of the screen from where the object would finally appear. Going any faster than Sonic requires a slight change of perspective (pun intended). These machines showed up a good decade after Speed Race CL-5. Pseudo-3D racing games from the 90's had players racing the coastline at hundreds of miles per hour. Road Rash let players kick and whack other racers to slow them down. These games aren't shmups; I wonder if there's room for guns and alien spaceships in the 90's arcade racer genre.

Image result for outrun

I think it would be quite hilarious to have an Outrun style game and a vertical shooter rolled into one. Pickups and obstacles can be delivered at any rate we like. The shmup can exist in screen-space selectively isolated from the road. I think there is interesting gameplay to be had if players are made to haphazardly juggle between navigating those two different spaces.

A prototype is in progress. Right now, I'm calling it Rainbow Driver.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

On Shmups - Shootdodge!

Avoiding obstacles can be challenging, especially when you're only allowed limited control. Jumping in a 2D platformer for example is a careful exchange of control. Players read the map and formulate a strategy which informs their decision to relinquish substantial control in exchange for a height advantage. All this happens within fractions of a second. Players move between a state of having control and being vulnerable in an extremely discrete fashion. It's almost like they're switching between two modes. I find that kind of play extremely exhilarating - when the pace of your thoughts has to maintain an alignment, speed up and slow down, to match frequencies with the action on the screen.

Some shmups don't like to bother with this. There's no ebb and flow to it, there's no exchange of control. Shmups never snatch any control away from you. You have to be more strategic with your position. You can evade enemies in multiple directions which allows for more than a single way out of a difficult situation. But with all that freedom, you can also easily set yourself up for failure by navigating into a corner of the screen which later happens to turn into a tight spot. Every other system in a shmup then complements this freedom. A dense swarm of slow moving bullets cover the entire screen which move in unique patterns, conveniently leaving a small square millimeter for your tiny hitbox

Still from "Mushihimesama". The purple stuff is bullets. Yes
Image Credit -
Evasion and avoidance here is given too much importance. It leaves no room for taking aim and lining up your shot. I enjoy lining up my shots. I actually like it so much, I made a game about it, it's called Lovely Planet. I want more of that in my shmup. Shmups solve this particular problem by giving players an endless pool of bullets which rapid fire to form a beam of infinite destruction that covers half the screen. The game doesn't offer the second to second build-up and payoff you get from firing a single projectile to later see it make contact with the target. I'm sure that kind of shmup exists, one where ammunition is a precious and limited resource. If you know about one, I'd love to give it a try. Running out of bullets in a shmup is not fun, but I trust that the mechanic could prove its worth if it's able to encourage precision and demand more strategic play.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

On Shmups

I don't like playing shmups. They don't feel right. On paper they might have neat rules and game mechanics that shake hands to make interesting gameplay, but personally I don't enjoy actually playing them. The controls are too simple - linearly mapping the arrow keys to the ship's position in 2D just makes it uninteresting. I know these games have a lot going for them on top of those simple controls, but I'm put-off by the lack of "game feel" in the moment to moment play. That familiar feeling when you press the jump button in a side-scroller, is missing. Shmups don't have that. Again, I'm not saying they need to deliver on this, I just think it'd be great to see a shmup that tries that.

I could say "they're not for me" and let it be. It was a lot easier to make one and see if there's a fun game to be had here. So I've had my fingers crawling on my keyboard for the last couple days and I feel like it's something worth pursuing. Few details are left untouched when you move from Gradius or R-Type to Ikaruga or any CAVE shooter. I'm looking to fiddle with those constants, at which point it might not fall into the "shmup" category of videogame anymore. That's not a problem, we can come up with another name for it.

Let's not forget that there's also a whole lot of tricks that shmup games have polished and perfected over the years. It's a genre of game that's been around for a long time now. It'd be foolish to dismiss all of its merits before trying a variation on the age-old formula. I think if we chisel away at it carefully, it should make enough room for something new.