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Returning to Old School with Defining Games: Shoot em Ups Genre

Jinx 728x90


September 18, 2014 | Written By: Alex Schwartz

Tags: shoot em up, galaxian, space invaders, defender, tempest, atari, konami, old school, old school gaming, nostalgia gaming, ozma wars, scramble, gradius, bullet-hell, fps,

Defining Games Series: Shoot em Ups

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.

Gaming Concepts

The Original Concept Seen in the Typical Space Invaders and Galaxian

The Original Concept Seen in the Typical Space Invaders and Galaxian

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.


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As an avid gamer for a long time, Alex began his journey with the SNES consoles and has never looked back. Alex is the Founder for UGE and handles content, administrative, and web development components.



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