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Shoot-em-up roundup

Posted on Feb-11 2007 by ron

Wow, that title sure is a linguistic disaster. At least it's short enough to fit the side panel.

There are now several noteworthy shoot-em-ups available on the Wii Virtual Console, and while we wish to encourage even neophytes to video gaming to try if that works for them, it would be prudent to select a good shoot-em-up to start with. Shmups, as papa bear fondly calls 'em, were once a widely successful mainstream genre, as opposed to their current niche existance, at least in the west. While they are all the same on the surface, namely you fly some sort of space ship and fire endless streams of bullets at waves of enemies, the genre developed much finer points which we intend to explore.

Actually this is going to be somewhat of a newbie's abstract shoot-em-up primer which allows us to fall back on our usual habit of babbling at length about the seemingly obvious. If the more well-traveled gamers and the two-handed Ikaruga players among you find it almost tolerable, that would already be more than we can ask for, probably.

Our contestants for today are of course those available on the Virtual Console in Europe as of today: Gradius, R-Type, Super Star Soldier, Soldier Blade and Xevious. We have already told you to avoid Xevious, but we'll let it run along for a while. That way we'll probably find out why we were so disappointed.


Shmups let the player move his or her ship around the whole screen, but actual progress through the level can't be controlled. They just perpetually scroll forward, and while doing so they not only throw waves of airborne enemies at you, but also move a steady stream of more-or-less stationary ground targets into reach. The first point of distinction for a shmup is thus its direction of scrolling. Vertical scrolling allows levels with a width, and that lends itself well to expansive networks of ground targets, while horizontal scrollers trade that for height, from which follows an ability to clearly distinguish walking targets on the ceiling (or floor, pfft) from flying targets. Also consider that the look from the side that is offered by the horizontal scroller, allows more antropmorphic or generally organic enemy designs. R-Type and Gradius are the horizontal scrollers in this round, with Xevious, Super Star Soldier and Soldier Blade representing the inevitably remaining vertical approach.

Gradius and R-Type

Horizontal scrollers: Gradius on the left, R-Type on the right. Note the use of level structure as obstacles.

Xevious gameplay

Xevious. Must speak for itself.

Super Star Soldier and Soldier Blade

Super Star Soldier (left) and its sequel Soldier Blade (right).
The three vertical scrollers in this round-up offer open spaces for unrestricted flight.

The amount and speed of bullets coming your way in the process is another important measure for further classification inside the broader genre. There is the "bullet hell" sub-genre where you'll encounter swarms of bullets, though often rather slow-moving ones, coming in from different directions. Dodging individual bullets ceases to work here and your task becomes finding the gaps in the ever-moving patterns to maneuver your ship. Super Star Soldier doesn't go to the extremes of Ikaruga et al, but it mildly applies the concept in some levels. Not so much the other games in this round-up.

The next major separator is ad-hoc playability. Some shmups are arguably too hard, for regular human beings, to play alone on reflexes and good judgement. They rather favor memorization of the levels, of the points where enemies appear, when they shoot, where to maneuver to avoid being crushed by moving walls etc. The game only becomes easier when you design a "perfect way" to play a level and execute that. While we personally prefer to have the quality of our reactions evaluated, some people find memorization-based gaming very entertaining. R-Type is arguably in this category, while the other games we have today are more or less playable without knowledge of the levels. Xevious doesn't even have designed levels as both the terrain and the enemy waves are picked at random.

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