Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Renaissance: Bullet Heaven


What is with all the shooter (STG or shmup) releases now? This was (and by many still is) considered a dying video game genre. But man, is it ever coming back into vogue!

I'm one of the original video game dinosaurs. I dabble in all sorts of genres but my gamer's heart belongs to those styles I dumped so many quarters into back in the day. That means driving games, platformers, fighting games, and forced-scrolling shooters. All of these genres have evolved from the old days... not just graphically, but also the goals have gotten multi-layered, the simulated physics more important, the scoring more complex, and the narrative behind the action more detailed. But the core game mechanics are still the same as ever. In driving games you race your car to beat opponent racers. In platformers you still run and jump and grab items while killing (or knocking out) enemies. In fighting games, you still just work to defeat an opponent or the opposing team, no matter how complex the movesets or over-the-top the supers. And in shooters you still just pilot your ship killing almost every enemy that comes onscreen while managing the state of your powerups.

I love STGs. Ancient like Galaga, old school like R-type, golden age like Battle Garegga, or modern bullet hell like Mushihimesama Futari... it doesn't matter. Not all shooters are good, mind you... there are shitty or boring ones... but I willing to give anything in the genre a try at least. Enh, maybe not the ones on handheld game machines. I can't really hang with little d-pad/cross-pad.

In any case, since the golden age of the shooter in the mid-90s when the great old houses Psikyo, Raizing, and Toaplan folded (or just quit making them), there has been a significant drought. Occasionally a franchise sequel (Raiden IV) or a remake (Raystorm HD) would appear. Only Cave, rising from the ashes of Toaplan and Raizing, and a few other stalwarts, like Milestone and G.Rev, have kept the STG flag flying, year by year being relegated to more specialised, cult corner of the video game universe but still cranking out new games.

In recent months though, something has clicked with Xbox 360. From fairly early in the lifespan of the console, there've been shooters old and new. Not a ton, but every so often one dropped for eager players, sometimes even from one of the big companies, like Konami releasing Otomedius G. Cave decided at some point to see if conversions of their arcade games would bring in additional income considering even in Japan arcade sales were in decline. They licensed brutal old shooter Dondonpachi Daioujou to another company, and brought Deathsmiles out themselves. I don't know the specific profitability figures or margins belonging to any Cave release, but they indicated to Cave that ports of their arcade games was the way to go. Inspiring a slew of non-Japanese customers to buy JPN consoles, Cave have also prompted some of the most active online discussions, fired up collectors, and almost single-handedly revived the STG genre for home audiences. I'm not going to say there have been no other impactful shooter releases since the 90s. Of particular note are all the Triangle Service and G.Rev releases on the Dreamcast after that system was pulled from the market. But the huge upswing we are experiencing at present has to be laid firmly at their door.

On the heels of the success across multiple titles that Cave has had... they typically release or license for release about two or three games a year... we now have loads pouring in from other companies. Konami, G.Rev, Qute, and German nutters NG:Dev Team all have released or are imminently releasing new games. And Treasure, developer-gods almost as crazy as Cave, have their own shooter titles in progress, something they haven't done in ages.

Dodonpachi Daifukkatsu 1.5- Cave
Dodonpachi Daifukkatsu Black Label- Cave
Muchi Muchi Pork & Pink Sweets- Cave
Akai Katana Shin- Cave
Otomedius Perfect- Konami
Bullet Soul- 5pb
Eschatos- Qute
Strania- G.Rev
Radiant Silvergun HD- Treasure
Fast Striker- NG: Dev Team
Sturmwind- RedSpotGames
Bangaioh HD: Missile Fury (yeah, this one isn't literally an STG, but it has a ton of similar elements and appeals to the STG audience)

I know I'm missing some still and didn't even try to list the various indie shooters that have come up like Revolver360 or Lethal Judgement 2.

One point to be made is that an Xbox 360 is pretty much mandatory to exploit this list. The NG: Dev Team titles are for the Dreamcast, and some of the XBLA titles like Strania or Radiant Silvergun could show up on the PlayStation Network, but if you want modern shooter titles getting the Microsoft console keeps it simple. It is the platform developers of niche gaming genres have decided to go with even though sales of the machine in Japan are decidedly low.

You'll have even better luck if you just plunk down a bit more cash and get a JPN-based Xbox 360. I can't tell you how many online posts or blog entries I've read from some gamer who is lamenting the region protection on some goshdamn shooter he wants. Get a friggin' Japanese box and be done with it. It is more expensive, yes. Most, not all USA games are playable on the thing. So in some cases you would have to buy a Japanese or Asian version of a game and these may also cost more. Here's a list of games that I want, bought, or for some reason checked, that the USA version does not work on my Japanese console:

Kengo Zero
Gundam Musou (any chapter)
Fist of the North Star
Quantum Theory
Import Tuner Challenge

These titles all come from Genki, Square Enix, and Koei Tecmo. So it is reasonable to assume one would have problems with ANY title from these companies. Shit from Capcom, Sega, or any Western-based outfit like EA, Bioware, or Codemasters all work fine, assuming you are talking about an NTSC title and not PAL. None of the original Xbox (not 360) titles I've tried; Halo, Return to Wolfenstein, or Panzer Dragoon Orta worked. I had to buy Japanese versions of all of those.

But if shooters are your thing and you don't want to sit around waiting and hoping the lastest shooter is going to appear in the USA, the positives outweigh the occasional inconvenience. All other shit, like XBLA, Netflix, all of that, work exactly the same regardless of the platform's country of origin. I have two XBLA accounts on one machine, one for the Japanese marketplace and one for the American. I've read many people who are dreading having to do this to get some of the DLC for shooters, but jiminy christmas it isn't that hard and you only have to do it once.

Recent days are looking so good for shmup fans that I don't know where the time and money will be found to take advantage of it all! Wait, that's not a complaint!

(pic kyped from jeuxvideo)

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