Monday, June 18, 2007

Building a Better SHMUP!

A number of you probably remember a bit of a rant about console RPGs I had a while back, which featured some good rants in the comments. Well, I don't think I'll have quite the same level of success as that post, but I'm going to do a little rant about shoot 'em ups. Just to be clear, I'm talking about all the various games where you're the lone spaceship pilot against the vast hordes of alien invaders. That sort of thing. Substitute as necessary for non-space genres. I've also got a bit of a shooter concept I'll probably go nowhere with, but I think I'll discuss a little in there.

1. I don't like Bullet Hell (yet): I'm just not all that fond of spending the game weaving my way through tiny globules of light. I wish I could be one of those uber-133t players who can play any shooter on the silly difficulty levels, but practice on rRootage has only gotten me so far. For lower difficulty levels, I prefer that the challenge comes from learning how to anticipate your enemies, making tactically sound decisions, and so forth, rather than knowing how to tip the control stick just enough.

2. Narrative: I know that the genre isn't known for deep, driving plots most of the time, but I feel the need to have some continuity. I've seen a few too many shooters where after beating a level boss, you just fly off screen and bam, you're in a new level. One of the shooters I enjoyed gave me a feeling of continuity I needed: Einhänder. When you beat a boss, you'd continue flying in an enemy-free area as you received orders for your next mission. One level would smoothly transition to another. I was disappointed in Gradius V when I'd beat a boss, fade to black, jump directly to next level.

3. Levels, levels, levels: I'd like to see more replay value in the form of several game levels and paths. I enjoyed R-Type Final for all its ship variety, but playing the same handful of levels over and over to unlock more got wearing. I'm also very keen on the idea of several branching paths. Idea: You can play on either side of the conflict. Update: Extension on the idea: At the end, it's revealed that your supposedly decisive strike at the heart of the enemy doesn't quite end the war: Your counterpart on the other side has fought through swarms of less skilled pilots and destroyed a vital part of your headquarters. Or something like that. Suppose that could unlock the 'play the evil alien versus swarms of good guys' game.

I enjoyed the final level B of R-Type Final: You and your ship are transformed into Bydo organisms and sent back to the first level, traveled in reverse, where you fight waves of R-fighters until going up against a fully-powered (and surprisingly durable) original as the final boss.

4. If you die, it's YOUR FAULT!: Kind of hard to describe how to accomplish some of it, but I'd prefer to minimize things like "There's no way that hit me!" In short, I think the player should feel responsible for his shortcomings: Enemies should telegraph their attacks ("I should have seen that coming), create situations for the player to avoid (Example: "Oh crap, I should have braved it between the big lasers. Now I'll have to dodge those sprays without leaving this little corner"), and figuring out which weapon is best for the situation.

5. Customization: It'd take a lot of playtesting to balance, but I'd like to have a hell of a lot of choices for weaponry at the start of the game. I'm thinking things like how much I want my machine guns to spread, whether or not I'm willing for my lasers to take a hit in power for the ability to punch through barriers, etcetera, as well as variety. Think it'd also be nifty to choose things like your ship's speed, level of armor/shields, hit detection size, and so forth.

6. Multiplayer: I like 2-Player simultaneous. Unfortunately, I usually don't have a second player with me in meatspace. Think in the age of online, it'd be possible to have a team of players going through different parts of of a massive level. Strategic thought might be possible. I'd also like to see some ideas of how to adapt the medium for teams of players to go up against each other.

7. Atmosphere (or lack thereof): I tend to favor horizontal scrolling games because they tend to emphasize terrain. The level itself can be your biggest enemy in some cases. Leave a few drama-building breathers here and there. (Example: Oh, no. Don't tell me I'm going to be diving into that evil toothy hole of otherworldly abominations!) It should be needless to say I'm a big fan of '2.5D' shooters. They should be required to avoid sticking in one plane, by the way. I should be worried about what's around the bend in the corridor.

8. Tell me I'm not alone: It'd like to see some support from NPC pilots and the like, even if they're only in the distant background. Again, I liked seeing all the R-fighters in R-Type Final, and the flavor of there being a massive military operation and R&D, but you don't see much of it in game itself.

9. Silly powerups: I know it's a staple of the genre, but I'm not all that fond of getting upgrades by collecting some jewel.
Einhänder at least had a little plausibility with the gunpods. I'd prefer no powerups, with your decisions being made before the level. One thing I'd like to see is your fighter returning to an allied battleship each level, where you can make modifications. Maybe have some bigger scale battles where fighters wouldn't matter as much.

10. Defense!: I like it when your fighter has some nigh-indestructible feature like the R-Type forces, or at least some method of not-dying other than dodging. Maybe have just one life, and a long life bar that you have to keep up.

11. Bosses: Yeah, they need big guns, but they also need memorable gimmicks.

12. The Finale: Gradius is a big offender here: Sometimes the final boss is just too easy and too short-lived. If I've been pulling my hair out for the last few levels, I should at least get plenty of eye candy with the last boss. I've also seen too many shmups that just end with the pilot flying off as the alien's planet blows up. Give us a bit of story and maybe something with a side of doom despite our efforts. Think it'd be nice to have multiple endings depending on how you've played, including some creepy ones.

So, since you've read all that, any shmup suggestions you'd like to give me? I know there'll always be more great ones for me to play.


Mechalith said...

Sounds like you would have enjoyed Tyrian.

Bronze Dog said...

I would have enjoyed it a little more if I had sound. Suppose that was to be expected, given old game and new computer.

Wish they went even further with the customization.

Anonymous said...

If you want an excellent example of narrative in shooting games, I'd advise you to check out Taito's seminal 1994 arcade effort Rayforce, the Saturn port of which was released in the US as Galactic Attack. Metal Black, another Taito shooting game from a few years earlier, is another good example of narrative gameplay, and it's on the recently released Taito Legends 2 PS2 compilation, as well.

Anonymous said...

Played this one? It's not really a side scroller but it is still a 2D shooter, only with free range. Basically the idea is you get stuck in a digital ship in your own computer and everyone else on "the network" is actually an NPC running around. You congigure your own ship throughout the game and join one of several factions, each with different reactions. Every folder on your computer becomes a level, and your money is based on icon files you collect (or destroy if they are infected with a virus).

I was pretty much addicted to this game for the longest time. The game's "ending" comes from 4 battles against your inner darkness manifesting as a corrupt computer program that sucks you up every now and then. Each battle you can attain one of the four fundamental forces as a new weapon, and eventually defeat that demon and have all 4 at your disposal.

Anyway, it's still one of my favorite games, though since it only recognized icons from .exe files, the old satisfaction of having lots of icon files that actually appeared like they would on your desktop is a little lost. The fun thing was the banter with those NPCs running around. Aside from factions determining how other factions react, your personal interactions with those other ships would eventually change how they personally react to you. There were also lots of custom level "directories" like races and so on. Anyway, as much as I still enjoy the occasional Call of the Shadows or Ikaruga, that one is still my personal favorite, and it seems to hit on all those little suggestions of yours. I just wish they had come out with a modern sequel...

TheBrummell said...

gavD and Weebl made an inverse shoot-em-up and put it on Weebl's webpage almost exactly three years ago.

It's short, and it's flash, so there's not a whole lot to it, and I (a rather uncoordinated fellow) beat it in "INSANE!" difficulty level on about my 5th play through. But it's fun, and it's the obvious inversion of a SHMUP. And how can you say "no" to a wee bit of at-work procrastination for free?

Bronze Dog said...

Well, I'll be looking into some of those recommendations. I think I'll grow to like compilations: Don't have to have exotic (to me) systems and imports.

Oh, since Dreamcasts are el cheapo today, and I've heard about the size of their library, any classics on there that might encourage me to buy one?

Think I like the concept behind Inner Space, there. Suspect that all the cumulative years of copying over My Documents from computer to computer without ever really cleaning house will come back to haunt me.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you want to make a shmup that is an fps/rpg hybrid, not a shmup.

And most enemies do telegraph their attacks :-\