Thursday, November 19, 2009

Important Only To Game Geeks and Probably Not Many of Them

Zero Wing

My interest in other video game genres is cycling around again now that I’ve surmounted the Odin Sphere monolith. Some recent time has been spent on new racing games, which I’ll post about later, but I also just bought two games that are akin to a trip back to the early 90s, the tail end of the 2d shooter heyday.

At that time, I had been living on the East Coast a few years, and in between getting married, starting a career, and trying to carve out a comfortable space in which to raise kids, there wasn’t the kind of time to spend going to video arcades the way I used to. I might’ve found the available options depressing compared to previous years if I had as much free time because this was the time of the ‘great shrinkage’, where the small street corner arcade, and the game machines at every convenience store and pizza restaurant started to fade on down to the state things are in today. In the USA, arcades today, and for some years now, have basically been the occasional little mall space OR are the giant super-centers like Jillian’s, Dave & Busters or maybe Chuck E. Cheese. Admittedly, in these latter franchises it is pretty cool to be able to get a beer when you’re playing, but the video game machines are competing with other amusements that have big, attractive, imposing apparatus like pool tables, ball-toss games, or various simulators. Most of the video games themselves seem to be the big ride-on or specialist cabinet types. There’s nothing wrong with the custom cabs. Its great for an arcade machine to offer something not easily duplicated at home. So that’s where you go when you want to ride a virtual racing bike, man a firehose, or use an uzi in a light gun game. But all this spectacle kind of shrinks down the space and traffic for the traditional video game. I’m not saying you can’t find any great arcades, just that not every town is so blessed anymore.

At any rate, back in 1993 or thereabout, I could only eke out a little time for video gaming away from home. But what games they were! At this time sprite art ruled. The color and details in all game genres was overwhelming. Virtua Fighter had only just come out, so the drab dominance of polygons was still in the future. Most of my video gaming was done at home on a Sega Genesis. It couldn’t duplicate the speed and power of my favorite arcade machines but many of the conversions were good considering the limitations. I wasn’t sold on the 3DO. I had a NeoGeo, but carts for that beast were expensive. The Sega Saturn, really the machine that COULD absolutely duplicate those sprite-tastic arcade games was just around the corner.

I liked racing and fighting games a lot. Some great platformers and lightgun games too. But for me, arcade crack was the 2d shooting game, typically called an STG or shmup in the present generation. The 2d shooter is one of the oldest, most venerable video game genres, and at root one of the simplest. It has evolved through ever more complicated hazard patterns and more complex scoring systems, but in the main they are all just dodging and shooting. In a vertical shooter the shit’s coming down from above (Galaxian, Rayforce), in a horizontal shooter the shit’s coming in from the side, usually the right (UN Squadron, Zero Wing). Some games mix the two directions in various ways (Lifeforce for the NES, Thunder Force II). Some games are omnidirectional, usually eight directions actually (Sinistar, Subterranea). There is also the arena shooter, where your character/ship is confined to a single area, room, or space, moving to a new space when the current one is cleared (Robotron 2084, Geometry Wars).

It is the simplicity of the STG that makes it appealing and enduring. Going back to Space Invaders, the shooter has always epitomized the ‘easy to learn, difficult to master’ maxim in gaming. You can just jump in with almost no foreknowledge of how to play, and then play however you wish; for survival, just ‘seeing how far you can get’, or for score, really digging into what enemies to shoot when, the best places to trigger bombs. Or a combination of the two goals, playing in whatever way suits your play style or your current ability with the game. The beauty of the STG compared to a lot of other video games is similar to a simple classic toy or game (or even a stick or cardboard box!) compared to some complicated licensed modern action figure or remote-controlled robot. The simple plaything fires the imagination and doesn’t require a lot of references. It isn’t about knowing a certain cartoon or movie, but you can certainly put that into the toy if appropriate. A simple old plastic gun can be any firearm needed for a play situation. Today’s popular toys are tied to some specific character in some specific show. They don’t require as much imagination, creativity, or effort on the part of the owner. Flashy, but limited. These modern contraptions are not the toys that kids tend to come back to again and again… and they are not the ones fondly remembered or saved for posterity.

It seems hokey, but STGs require little and can give back a lot. Because they are rooted in the old arcade scene, modern players may think the games just don’t have much to them. Played properly, without credit-feeding, they require one to play the same areas over and over again. But the best ones have a ‘just one more go’ addictive quality to them. As you play, you improve. Those small gains are hard fought and mastering these games is almost always a testament to raw skill… not luck, not finding the hidden super-weapon, not a spammable, unblockable move. And no guide book or FAQ is going to help you. The best you can do is watch online videos or ask experts for advice, but in the end you are still going to have to do the shooting, dodging, and scoring yourself.

STGs are kind of a niche or cult genre in video games now. Still around, still made, but rarely having any kind of high-profile or mainstream success, particularly in the US. But back in the years under discussion, the STG was still pretty popular. The height of its popularity was probably just past in 1993, but they were at a creative high point, a golden era to many of the shmup players today. I wanted to get back to THAT.

As I said, the Genesis was my main outlet, and I did have a lot of STGs for it. The shooters made specifically for the machine get most of the good press. Everyone knows the Thunder Force series, Android Assault, MUSHA, and all those games. Greatness sure, but they don’t have the disadvantage of having an arcade original to compare them to. They got made with the console tools and specs in mind, pushing those limitations where possible. Suffering by comparison were the conversions. They always had a precedent to live up to, but a number of these were still pretty decent and went a long way towards making me okay with my lack of arcade time. One particular title was Zero Wing.

Zero Wing was a game that I originally played to death in an arcade in California. It came out in ’89 during what was probably the apex of STG popularity in terms of mass appeal. I loved that game. It wasn’t particularly fast or spectacular. It had a strange hook to the gameplay with your ship having an enemy-ensnaring tractor beam, but it didn’t seem to be that much of a standout feature. You could take it or leave it. There was just something about the combination of the kinda-strange music, and the very weird, dark graphics. The game was developed by Toaplan, who have a distinctive, odd style with their productions. But I liked it quite a bit, and still do. I kept at Zero Wing enough to eventually 1CC the game in the arcade. I was ecstatic when some time later I saw there was a Genesis port of the game. My copy was the Japanese one, so I missed out on the ‘all your base are belong to us’ subtitle that much later became an internet rage. The Genesis port had all the basics down. Music was the same, pace was the same, all the enemies were recognizable and I was really pleased that the odd (some almost disturbing) bosses were still huge and intact. Mostly it was background details that were missing. Again, I played that shit to death.


This brings us to the game Batsugun. Released about four years after Zero Wing, this was one of my go-to games for my infrequent arcade visits in the 90s. It still had the distinctive art and sound, but it was a little brighter and happier than previous Toaplan excursions like Zero Wing or Truxton. With financial dissolution looming however, Batsugun was the company’s last game. Ironically, it was also the start (arguably) of a revolution in STG play and philosophy. I didn’t know it was Toaplan’s final game at the time. I just recognized the name and the graphic style. The play was a different matter.

Batsugun is probably the progenitor of the manic style of shooter, also known as danmaku (literally curtain-fire) or bullet hell shooters. There may be a case for various staples of the subgenre to have derived from earlier games, but in Batsugun, you have the first game (that I’m aware of) that so many of the traits came together in a recognizable combination.

Manic shooters are typically short, even by the already short STG standards. They feature tons of enemy fire, a veritable curtain of it dropping down (hence the nickname) often in mesmerizing patterns. The enemy bullets tend to travel slower than previous forms of shmup, with the skill in dodging coming, not from memorization or sheer speed of reflexes, but from dexterity in threading your way through the bullet patterns or positioning yourself to ‘herd’ most of the fire into one spot on the screen so that you can maneuver yourself to a different spot. The ships or characters tend to have small hit boxes, the area on your sprite that can actually be struck for a kill by enemy fire. Other parts of the sprite will just pass the bullets on through. The games also equip the player with monumental amounts of firepower, with selectable ships trading off how wide your shot spread is versus striking power. Choose a ship with a wide, weak area of fire and you will have an easier time with the common ‘popcorn’ enemies. Choose a ship with a narrow, focused area of fire and you’ll have to move around a lot to kill all the popcorn enemies before they overwhelm you, but you’ll knock the life off the bosses or minibosses a lot quicker. The games also tend to feature complex or multilayered scoring systems. Keeping up sequential chains of hits, using certain weapons on certain enemies, or drawing out the boss battles, can all be features developed to reward skillful, knowledgeable players with higher scores than the scrubs can manage.

Batsugun's scoring was not particularly complex. The hitbox on your ship was not tiny. And a lot of the enemy bullets come at you pretty fast. But overall, playing the game you can see the shift toward a new style. The levels are brief but intense. Firepower from bosses and midbosses requires threading through waves of bullets or bullet herding. From about the third stage on, the smaller enemies become numerous enough for their firepower to become an aerial labyrinth. And in a display that may have yet to be equaled in video gaming, the ships in Batsugun spew out the most awesome swaths of pixellated death ever. Seriously. In a genre known for over-the-top firepower, this game from 1993 (sixteen years ago!) is still the top of the heap for equipping players with regular shots that surpass the badassedness of final boss weapons in most games. And once you are leveled up you get these weapons ALL THE TIME. Pretty much to the point you often can’t even tell what’s going on with enemy ships and bullets. That visual confusion aspect is probably why most shooters after Batsugun haven’t tried to match it. I won’t say Batsugun becomes unplayable, it doesn’t. But it might just be more than its worth for anyone else to try to find just the right balance of enemy elements and visual design to keep that shit workable. I’ve seen incredible player fire in modern STGs, but the unbelievable day-glo apocalypse of Batsugun seems unique. Nonetheless, whatever its excesses (or in the case of length, shortcomings) the game struck a chord with me (though this would take years to manifest) and shmup fans in Japan.

Maybe two years along from this I picked up the Sega Saturn. One of the reasons I love this machine so much… it might be my favorite console… is that it replicated the arcade games I loved so much. As stated earlier, I didn’t cotton to the 3DO, which was ahead of its time and did have some arcade-perfect conversions. If I recall right it came down to the expense really. A friend was generous enough to give me a NeoGeo that they didn’t want or need, and that really WAS an arcade machine. Being limited to SNK’s own games and a very limited circle of developers, the NeoGeo would only ever have the tiniest fraction of cool arcade games on it. Samurai Shodown is my favorite 2d fighting franchise, and that was no small thing, but it wasn’t enough of course. So when the Saturn came along it provided, for the first time really, AFFORDABLE arcade-perfect conversions. No real compromises apart from disk loading. It was awesome. Playing Capcom fighters like Street Fighter or Darkstalkers just like the ones down at the mall. The copy of Strikers 1945 at your local Chuck E. Cheese was just like the one on your bookshelf. I nearly shat myself with glee. Every game purchased for consoles prior to the Saturn was exciting (until a game turned out to be crap), but games purchased for Sega’s black box were fucking EVENTS, man! And I became the total import snob/whore too. Modding my Saturn happened in the third month of ownership. I was not missing out on any game possibilities just because of the fuckwit region coding. If you were a true arcade fetishist you probably could take each Saturn conversion and actually find details here and there where they differ from their arcade parent, but compared to previous console generations’ struggle to even get close, the differences amounted to nothing.

So it was and is really weird that I really don’t have all that many STGs on my Saturn. I have a lot of games for it, in all sorts of genres—2d fighters particularly. But not that many shmups. Not considering how popular they are with me, how popular they were when the Saturn came out, and how many actually got made for the console. Oh, I have some great ones. But considering how critical the genre is to my video game geekdom the small number is a symptom of a tremendous oversight.

A few years after the Saturn’s release and Toaplan’s demise, former staffers at Gazelle converted Batsugun to the Sega box for publisher Banpresto. I bought the Radiant Silverguns and the Soukyougurentais so well-known on the platform, but overlooked this one. I’m sure it was probably not so high-profile as other games, being Japan-only and in a genre that was by that time (1996) starting to drop off in popularity. It was also ‘old’. A version of a game long past its arcade debut.

But back in 1993, with Toaplan’s breakup, the artists and programmers went off to join other companies or form their own. Takumi, Raizing, and Gazelle all rose from the ashes of Toaplan. But the critical descendant in this post is Cave. If a gamer is at all a shmup fan it is likely they are aware of Cave. The company is world-reknowned today as the talented (but extremely focused) developer of complex (for the genre), meticulously-crafted, 2d shooting games. You really cannot have a shmup discussion of any length before this develper crops up. Love them or hate them (and their manic style DOES have it share of detractors), there is no doubt that Cave are the most influential shooter developer at present.


Before Cave rose to prominence though, they had to have started somewhere. Their first game was Donpachi, released to arcades in 1995. Donpachi continues a pretty tidy transition. Though the art style is markedly different, many of the concepts the ex-Toaplan gang still had in mind carried right on over to this new game. The ‘manic’ aspects had been even further developed in the two years between, so that Donpachi contained almost all the hallmarks of the manic shooter as we know it today. Donpachi’s graphics were not as distinctive (or as elaborate) as Batsugun’s. The promo materials were almost crude, with very simple images and design. Having just started, I doubt Cave had any kind of budget for the niceties and plugged everything they had time and money-wise into making the game itself as awesome as it could be. Interestingly, a hornet was the logo for some of the characters in Batsugun, and a bee became the symbol for Donpachi, establishing a winking continuity. A Saturn port was almost immediate, again with no money going to fancy packaging. Since it came out in 1996 and the Batsugun port was rather late, this had the interesting effect of putting a game and its sort-of sequel on sale at the same time. Apart from some puzzlingly lengthy disc spinning the Saturn version of Donpachi is really faithful to the arcade version just as expected.

In my halcyon days as a Saturn customer I didn’t know about Donpachi either. I was not on the cutting edge of shmup development and how I DID catch back up might be a tale for another post.

At any rate, to bring all this up the original desire fronting this post; when I saw the end of Odin Sphere was just a week or two off I knew I’d want to get back into short, sharp games for a bit. Between looking around my collection of unfinished games and shopping online for something new, I realized there was a seriously underrepresented ‘era’ in my shooters; late 80s and early 90s arcade ports or conversions. I played the hell out of the actual arcade games, why don’t I have that nostalgia trip covered on my shelves? Maybe I GOT enough of a fix of it then that I mostly bought different games. But I was missing it now. I decided to specifically target that moment of transition/revolution that ushered in the bullet hell shooter. I had a number of manic shooters in my collection, but I missed the beginnings. I rectified that by buying a copy each of the Saturn versions of Batsugun and Donpachi at the same time. It took a long damn time for these things to reach me from the seller in Japan. Donpachi was cheap, Batusugun not so much, though not up in the brutal ass-pirate price range that a lot of Saturn (or Dreamcast) shooters are. I got out some Saturn arcade sticks…no basic controllers for STGs boys and girls…and fired the games up.

These games really are fantastic. They are addicting but exhausting too once you’ve broken into playing the later levels. The graphics are strictly old school in the sense of being hand-drawn sprites and no scaling or fancy effects. There isn’t even much in the way of parallax (multi-plane) scrolling. Instead, all the processing is going into having many enemies onscreen at once and about a bazillion bullets. That’s less than the kajillion bullets modern manic shooters throw at you perhaps, but still impressive. I’ve already noted the completely insane firepower in Batsugun, but Donpachi’s no slouch either. You can either tap the fire button to get your usual shots or hold the button down for an absolute geyser of destructive power. The tradeoff is that your ship slows down while ‘geysering’. Add in three selectable ships and two bomb types and you have all the makings of a shooter orgasm. I actually find Donpachi to be more spectacular than its 2002 sequel Dodonpachi Daioujou. Daioujou has more detailed rendered graphics, and is more polished and modern. But it is also somehow 'scaled down' and more muted. Daioujou is a great game, and I’m not saying it is less of a game than the first one. But the graphics, particularly the weapons, just don’t have the same eye-searing impact as Donpachi’s. Having played a fair amount of Daioujou, I kind of expected something of the same play and scoring system in its ancestor, but I was actually surprised by how much was already in place in this first game… or maybe it would be better to say how little has changed through all the Donpachi chapters through the years.

Its really been interesting and fun. On the one hand Batsugun looks like a Toaplan game superficially but plays like something much more recent. As if someone had a time machine that saw the shooters of the future and implemented what they saw as best they could on their hardware when they got back to their own time. Not understanding the balance between super-blasting weapons and visibility that characterises the modern bullet hell shmup, they just went for as big a weapons as they could.

Donpachi on the other hand plays like someone took a modern manic shooter’s code and built all the visuals and sounds out of old assets. Like it is a current Cave game clone that someone had to put old sprites on. In no way is that meant to be derogatory. I think rather it is a testament to how forward thinking Cave’s basic play idea was even in that first early game.

A great nostalgia trip. I'll be hacking away at improving my game on both of these shooters and probably continuing to play them together. I also need to keep filling in my Saturn shooter catalog, notably with the sequel Dodonpachi.
(pics mostly from Satakore)

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