September 18, 2014 | Written By: Alex Schwartz
For as long as video games have existed, there have been various forms of weaponry that shoots flaming projectiles at enemies wanting to steal your homeland! One of the more popular genres in the realm of arcades are “Shoot em Ups”, the cousin of the “Beat em Ups” genre we did last. These hit the arcades mostly due to their setup, hard combat with temporary powerups that lend itself well to cranking out quarters for more playtime. While similar to the pervious series, they have lent themselves to a different direction and have even evolved in a vibrantly difference sense and is our focus of this month’s Defining Games Series.
What’s in a Genre?
Shoot Em Ups (SU) are similar to the Hack and Slash/Beat em Up genre with the distinct difference of utilizing projectile weapons as the main source of combat as opposed to melee techniques. While melee can still be a part of it, the main focus in on ranged combat. The original games utilized 2D side-scrolling adventures with unlimited ammunition and temporary powerups that would introduce variance to the weapons (i.e. switching from a standard machine gun to a shotgun) and could range from stronger damage, longer range, or wider spread. One of the most notable elements of the SU genre is it is considered one of the least restrictive genres in terms of what defines the shooter, ranging from on-foot person shooting a standard projectile weapon such as a gun to spacecraft or vehicle-based weaponry. However, progression is simple and similar in both senses: progress from point A to point B without dying too many times.
With the wide range of definitions, finding the starting game is rather difficult. The true defining game is considered to be Space Invaders, released in 1978 to arcades across the US and was one of the most popular arcade games through the 1980s and even into the early 1990s; interesting to note, the popularity wasn’t dulled by the release of in-home consoles due to the higher value of a joystick style control seen in arcades as opposed to the standard D-Pad used on the NES and SNES. However, the origins of the genre stretch back further, stretching back to game known as Spacewar which released in 1970 to arcades with some early versions released in 1962 to what are the very early computers (PDP-1 system at MIT). While a game at heart, the original purpose was to showcase graphical sprite generation, vector images, and processing power of a user-input based system and contained extremely simple controls and basic gameplay. Part of why it isn’t recognized as a defining game is due to its lack of popularity at the time and over simplified gameplay, although it was a stepping stone for future games.
As the name would imply, the basic concepts are shooting large numbers of enemies while simultaneously dodging their own fire. Skill was often portrayed through reaction times and memorization of levels, as the difficult would rise with more numerous enemies with more strategic placement on the map, making memorization a major component. Obviously, this was a huge advantage to arcade owners as it would motivate players to spend more and more money to progress further and show off their high scores. In truth, the SU is responsible for pushing the formation of dedicated arcade locations. As the games transitioned to home consoles, “tells” were added that would allow more skilled players to anticipate the changes in difficulty and react accordingly.
Variants of this genre often focus on the player perspective and how progression is measured and tracked. “On Rails” shooters would point the user towards the screen and provide linear combat, aiming across the screen through forced forward motion, meaning missed shots would take away from a players score and potentially cause them to take damage or lose a life. The most common to its cousin the Hack and Slash genre were side-scrollers and these are the most common variant recognized as the true “Shoot em Up” genre. Future variations would exist as well but all would center around a “one vs many” mentality, with a single player or duo fighting against massive amounts of enemies; famous and well recognized titles such as the Mega Man series took this premise to heart, adding in specialized bosses at the end of levels and granting a permanent powerup. Aspects of this would eventually stretch to the FPS genre as well, influencing modern adaptations of games.
Gameplay is fast-paced and high energy, forcing players to put their reaction timing and quick fingers to the test. A health system is often employed and varied depending on generations of games; during the Golden Age of games, health was often expressed in blocks due to graphic limitations as it would easily signify how much damage would cause death, with some attacks knocking off a single block while others taking away multiple blocks. Modern adaptations would transition to a sliding health system, allowing more variance in damage profiles. Notably, the SU genre introduced the concept of temporary invulnerability, otherwise known as “damage flashing”. When a player would take damage, their character sprite would flash, making them invulnerable to damage during this time while still being able to attack themselves. This actually came about due to limitations in the games, as programming would create a “clipping” situation to allow damage to pass through to prevent locking up during high combat situations. Furthermore, since the speed of the processing was often slower than the graphical generation, it would be possible to take damage before one could react during a difficult spot.
While Space Invaders is typically registered as the start, other notable games for this genre were part of the “Golden Age” of gaming, stretching from the early 1980s to about 1994 when the market crash almost destroyed the video game industry. One of the early versions of SU games was Galaxian, produced by Namco and released in 1979; Galaxian was a top-down shooter that produced multicolor graphics and varied enemies, creating a natural evolution from Space Invaders, as gameplay was similar in nature but with more advanced mechanics. While there are a lot of these games, the following are worth mentions:
- SNK’s Ozma Wars, released in 1979, introduced the first life bar
- Defender (1981) established the principle of scrolling levels, producing the typically seen “side-scrolling” definition we covered earlier. Coincidentally, Defender was also famous for allowing players to travel in either direction, a feature that was not held by its successors to allow larger gameplay variance through level design.
- Scramble (1981) by Konami introduced multiple, distinct levels with varied design and powerups.
- Tempest (1981) by Atari is recognized as the first “tube shooter” by incorporating 3D perspective into the shooting realm. It is also considered the father of “on rails” shooters.
- Gradius (1985) by Konami gave player variability in weapon choice, producing a new level of strategy that helped to propel the genre forward. It also allowed designers to create more intelligent AI and enemies that could counter the variable weapons. This actually brought the memorization element back to the game and is one of the most profitable arcade games of the genre.
- R-Type (1987) by Irem, an uncommon game that was the first to introduce tactical solutions and strategies into the games, slowing down combat and placing obstacles and challenges in the way, helping to spawn the many side-variant characteristics that would be employed in adventure games of the modern era.
During the Golden Age every company was trying to get an edge over the others through bringing in new features, expanding on typical characteristics, and adding more level design and graphical progress. This development spawned numerous sub-genres, many of which didn’t necessarily take off in the modern realm but were cannibalized for features in modern FPS games. Some of the most notable sub-genres include:
- Bullet Hell – Typically characterized by overwhelming numbers, lots of projectiles and required quick reactions, smart timing, and rigorous play. These were the typical variants seen in arcades as they were easy to get interested in and addicting. One of the most famous games from Konami, Contra, is one of the hardest and most played games in this variant.
- Multidirectional Shooters – Characterized by centering the player and allowing fire in all 360 degrees to fend off enemies. Initial games had a stationary player while future variants allowed basic movement. The most famous game in this sub-genre is Asteroids.
- Run and Gun – Combining the best aspects of Bullet Hell and movement, this sub-genre required the same fast reaction times and rigorous play coupled with dodging and skill, creating a more competitive and driving game type that was perfect for home console use.
Unlike many of the other defining genres, the Shoot Em Up genre never really experienced the full modern remake seen of the Hack and Slash genre; instead, many aspects of the SU genre were utilized in modern adaptations of FPS games, adventure and puzzle styles, and even strategic RTS games like XCOM. Many of the power up concepts, tactical solutions, and weapon loadout variance were applied to more laid-back shooters such as Bulletstorm that created the same fast-paced gameplay coupled with more skill-based modifiers. Some attempts were made at porting the SU genre into 3D perspective but it never really took off as controls were sloppy and hard to manage in the early editions; truthfully, the best console to try and explore this was the Sega Dreamcast, but it seems the modern adaptation of the genre died with the system. Many of the adaptations of the SU genre has expanded into simplified 3rd-person shooters that really don’t stick to the original concepts of the SU genre; in truth, they were designed for arcade play and never really had their necessary transition.
While not a modern adaptation of the genre, it has seen a recent revitalization from the Indie developer realm, working to bring about new games that are examples of more retro gameplay styles, with recent titles like Broforce selling extremely well due to modern takes on the concept and nostalgia. What made the SU genre fun was the high-paced gameplay that punished new players in an addictive fashion, making them want to train and get better to progress further. In truth, most modern games don’t utilize this premise as much, with more “hand-holding” being present to cater to the everyday gamer. Luckily, the Indie realm seems content with bringing these titles back to the mainstream and show no signs of stopping, so a resurgence of the genre may be just around the corner.
Shoot em Ups have the distinct pleasure of being a part of the Golden Age of gaming, when every company was producing games as fast as they could and some of the most legendary retro titles were created. Games like Contra immortalized what is now known as the “Konami” code despite not being the first game to utilize it; the gameplay was so difficult that many could not beat it without use of the code! These games defined a generation of difficult gameplay that was designed to be competitive in its own right and hopefully get players to shell out more quarters in arcades; once they transitioned to home consoles, the addictive qualities kept players interested but also didn’t leave much room for game-changing variance, a necessary aspect for modernization of a genre. While the genre has had its impact in the past on numerous games, their variants, and directions take today, it isn’t a genre I expect to remerge to any large degree. Indie development will continue to work with these genres and producing fun games from it, but that will probably be as far as it stretches as it is hard to compete against hard-hitting FPS games like Call of Duty, Battlefield, and the upcoming Destiny.
While they may not be returning in a big way, they will always be a part of the history of video games, with their impact during the Golden Age being as important as the their Hack and Slash cousins. Furthermore, a genre like this stands a remembrance of where video games came from and their roots in arcades, designed to get the most money with addictive gameplay and grueling mechanics. Either way, they stand as a nice tribute and nostalgia for those who have played them and are a method for newer gamers to see how much harder games were in the past.
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