Fixing shmups

So a while ago I lamented how NiGHTS into Dreams was a score attack game, the only tiny problem being that Sonic Team forgot to tell anyone and then wondered why most of the reviews said the game was too easy and too short with no replayability. This time around I’m going to look at shmups, which sort of have exactly the same problem but in a completely different way.

“Proper” professional shmups from developers like Cave, G:Rev and Triangle Service are score attack games at their heart too, and they also suffer from the same problem NiGHTS does – that by and large they don’t bother telling anyone that the “point” of the game is to try and use every trick in the book to rack up a really high score. Shmups however go one step further than NiGHTS by:

a) Consistently failing over a number of years/releases to explain what these points are

b) Not even appearing to care that they almost never explain the goal of the game, the tricks needed to achieve the goal or even the terminology that shows up on the end-of-level score tally (no-miss, chains, etc.)

Us fans aren’t much better either – “credit feeding” (a term which you’d reasonably have to explain to the uninitiated) is something that must only be done as practise for “the real thing”; “the real thing” being a 1CC TLB no-bomb run played for score. Oh, you don’t know what those acronyms mean already? Noob.

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But the problem is that shmup fans do buy shmups, so for many years now the genre hasn’t really attempted to cater for anyone that doesn’t already play them and they’ve paid for it dearly – just check out Cave’s official Twitter, which is now mostly about Hello Kitty’s Puzzle Chain (F2P phone game), Shin Megami Tensei Imagine (F2P MMO), and DonPacchin (another F2P phone game) or the, to be polite, “disappointing”  Radirgy spinoff on 3DS or Eschatos – a 360 shmup who’s main selling point is that it includes a digital version of the otherwise expensive and relatively rare WonderSwan shmup Judgement Silversword.

Shmups have essentially niched themselves to death.

Now the reason this annoys me is because I really like shmups - just look at the URL/background for this blog! I like the ones that require you to learn four different ways of killing enemies just to get a decent score. I even love Hellsinker, which is probably the ultimate logical extreme of all this gauge/meter/esoteric mechanic stuff. But none of the games I like help the interested but inexperienced join in the fun; even Ikaruga, perhaps the most readily available “real” shmup which does explain its mechanics balances this out by beating players over the head every time they mess up a chain and then awarding them a miserly D rank at the end of the stage.

The silver lining to this dark cloud is that with the typical heavy-hitters bowing out or drastically trimming down their releases there’s been room for some smaller developers to slip in and get shmups back to the one thing we all started playing them for in the first place – fun.

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Steel Empire (3DS), Astebreed (PC) and Crimzon Clover: World Ignition (PC) are three very different games that all tackle the shmup problem in their own way. Steel Empire is an exciting cinematic experience that will have you in complete control of your craft and the game simply by trying out all the buttons and working out which does what. Astebreed is a visually remarkable game by any standard with a neat (although clich├ęd) little plot and it has the common decency to label the gauges that pop up on screen. Crimzon Clover is the most “traditional” of the three, but it gets away with this by giving clear visual feedback for everything from the differences between ships to questions like “Is Double Break mode a good thing?” as well as not going out of its way to make new players feel like lesser beings.

I’ve wrestled with exactly how to sum this all up and the best way I can think of is this: shmup developers have forgotten that the people playing (and paying!) are meant to be having fun, and in turn us shmuppers have forgotten that it’s OK to credit feed, use bombs, and pick your favourite ship based entirely on its colour so long as you’re having a good time.

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So shmups are dead – long live shmups!