I CAVED

My last entry discussed some resistance I had been feeling towards gaming due to new, personal insight into what video games really meant to me, deep beneath the surface of fun time-wasting.  I worried that my interest in gaming (and technology in general) was truly approaching levels of obsession and escapism that were indicative of a serious problem, and questioned whether or not my sustained interest in gaming was appropriate for a young father with plenty of other, more important responsibilities to attend to.  After meditating on this dilemma and making many adjustments in my life, I found myself prepared to reenter gaming from a renewed, fresh perspective (you can read about this here).  I wanted to get back to basics and experience something refined and challenging… something that wouldn't feel like a deepening labyrinth of illusory achievements and cleverly-veiled skinner boxes.

After reaffirming that gaming is indeed fun, valuable, and something that can be enjoyed in a healthy mindset, I finally admitted that the kind of game I truly wanted to play had been thriving quite well on a console I had absolutely zero interest in purchasing since its launch, and I finally - said - fuck it.

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Anyone who knows me well understands that I am not a so-called fanboy of any one brand of console - my fortunate upbringing as the sole child of two attorneys allowed me the privilege of being both a Nintendo and a Sega kid.  All gaming hardware was mind-blowing to me.  Well, except the Atari Jaguar, perhaps.

But something about Microsoft had always rubbed me the wrong way.  Maybe it was the way they seemingly appeared in the gaming business out of nowhere… it just felt like they were looking to make a buck without any real intentions of contributing to the subculture.  Sure, Sony and Nintendo are corporations too, but I felt like they were really striving to create imaginative worlds that sold on the merit of being worthwhile experiences, versus simply testing the waters  to see what people would buy and then pursuing a sales goal.  Of course, this is a gigantic generalization, but that was more or less my feeling at the time.  Microsoft seemed like invaders to me, and with the announcement of the original Xbox, they were going to take what I felt connected to the most and make it mainstream.  Maybe that sounds elitist, but I couldn't help but imagine some old white guy in a suit asking "What do kids these days like?" at a corporate think tank session while considering new sales channels.

 Seriously, the logo takes up MOST of the controller.  via Wikipedia

Seriously, the logo takes up MOST of the controller.
via Wikipedia

Xbox's main draw was Halo: Combat Evolved, which to many kids who had not navigated the blood-soaked corridors of Doom, would be a milestone of an introduction to the first person shooter genre.  To me?  It didn't help that both of my families were lucky enough to have pretty powerful PCs for the time, and the first person shooters I was enjoying felt lightyears ahead of Halo (Yes, I was a PC snob too… I'm sorry!).  Games like Half-Life, System Shock 2, and hell, even Monolith titles like Blood 2 and Shogo: Mobile Armor Division were on such heavy rotation that Halo, despite its addition of vehicular combat, just seemed so bland and boring to me.  That, and I much preferred the pinpoint accuracy of a keyboard and mouse to the sluggish and cumbersome anolog sticks of the Duke.

 



Even the overall design of the Xbox as an object rubbed me the wrong way.  It was enormous and seemed so inelegant compared to the sleek, off-white compactness of the Dreamcast and the obelisk-like nature of the towering PS2.  I also couldn't seem to handle the particular shade of electric green they picked as an accent color, which has been overused to death as the go-to color of choice when brands want to promote something EXTREME such as energy-drink-chemical-cocktails and the like.

 

 Ah, yes... an X-shaped box.  I get it.  via Wikipedia

Ah, yes... an X-shaped box.  I get it.
via Wikipedia

So, with years of (possibly misdirected) contempt for the Xbox built up within my ever-fragmenting gamer mind, I sure as hell wasn't going to spend any money on a Microsoft console. There just wasn't anything for me in the way of the 360 that I was DYING to play.  Until I saw this announcement:
 


I searched and searched for ANY proof I could find that this wasn't going to be exclusive to the 360.  Much to my dismay, it was.

 
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Ever since I was a young kid playing video games, I have absolutely adored Treasure.  Their commitment to the quality of art, music, gameplay, and overall originality in their titles was unrivaled then, and still is in many ways today.  Dynamite Headdy was a staple of my childhood - it was so colorful and energetic, especially for a non-Sonic title on the Genesis, with unusual weapons and increasingly odd surprises from level to level.  And Gunstar Heroes… that game continued and elevated the insanity seen in many classic 16-bit Konami titles like Contra III, which some Treasure employees contributed to before pursuing their own destiny in the form of a small, tightly-knit, independent studio.  Gunstar Heroes truly pushed the limits of the Genesis at the time to new heights, demonstrating special effects and animations that were surprisingly rich and detailed in comparison to other action offerings.

I continued to follow Treasure and picked up just about every domestically-released game of theirs I could.  But, when I first read about Radiant Silvergun in the pages of Diehard Gamefan magazine, and how it was never going to be localized due to its difficulty and super-niche status, I was crushed.  I wanted that game so desperately, from the moment I laid eyes on the ship's design, to the revelation that the game had a fully animated introduction sequence and in-game dialogue that told a story.  It just seemed so special, and it was so out of reach.

 
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Years later, I entertained the idea of tracking down a Japanese Saturn and a copy of the game, but no matter how hard I scoured eBay, it was obscenely expensive.  The popularity of the game, along with its perceived status as LEGENDARY STG to End All Shooting Games, made acquiring it seem impossible, or at least, financially irresponsible for a single game experience.  So, when I found out that an HD remastered version was being released on XBLA, I considered getting my nemesis-console just for it.  I felt like it would be somehow rebellious to get what seemed to be the "brogamer's" system of choice for such a niche title, and entertained the thought.  Still, it seemed too excessive for a single game.

And then I learned that Treasure had other titles available on XBLA, like Guardian Heroes, Bangai-O HD Missile Fury, and an HD version of Ikaruga.

I realized that my lack of interest in Microsoft's console had really kept me in the dark about what was available on the system, and I was astounded that a console that wasn't particularly popular in Japan as far as I knew, was the sole device to host tons of niche titles that were sure to be vastly overlooked in the western markets by most mainstream gamers (at least, the people I knew who played games on Xbox had no interest in navigating curtain fire or memorizing the best weapon types for boss patterns).  So, I decided to look further into what I was missing on 360… I peeked curiously into a Pandora's box of digital delights like a frightened child would inch around a hallway corner, expecting a big scare from some unspeakable horror.  What did I see?

SHMUPS.  Lots of them.  Many I'd never heard of, and many I'd always wanted to play.

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The shmup (or shooter, as I always called them as a kid until FPS's exploded in popularity and hijacked the term) is one of the purest examples of what drew me into video gaming in the first place.  Many hours of my childhood were spent raging against the Bydo and Bacterian empires, along with countless other armies of insurmountable numbers across a breadth of vertical and horizontally scrolling games.  I still remember the first time I saw the massive and colorful weapons of Blazing Lazers on TurboGrafx 16 at my best friend's house, lightning bolts crashing across the screen as he speedily navigated through a fleet of Zentredi-inspired battle cruisers.  So much power in such a tiny ship!  And yet, even as a kid, I wasn't frustrated or intimidated by the difficulty that pretty much always accompanied any particular shooting game, mainly because EVERY game available at the time was difficult and required patience, an even temper, and extreme focus.

Shmups always felt special to me, though, especially being a kid who was raised on science fiction and outer space-stuff.  Every entry in the genre that I played as a kid seemed to have been created by like-minded people who loved the thought of flying at high speeds and championing a conflict whose outcome appeared bleak from every angle except that of the player's perspective.  That feeling, combined with a distinct blend of highly detailed artwork (in both the fore and backgrounds), and music that seared through the CRT's built-in speakers - futuristic fusions of jazz, electronic music, and 80s heavy metal - really made me fall in love with pretty much any shooter I played.  Story was often kept to a minimum, relegated to a page of text in a manual, or a brief introduction prior to a game's first stage.  Regardless of setting, the tale was always the same - you are one against many, and you are going to give them all you've got until they are obliterated.

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This was exactly the kind of game I needed to reintroduce into my life - something simple enough to pick up and play in a short amount of time, but challenging enough that I could bounce back and forth across multiple games and continue to derive a sense of progression and enjoyment.  I budgeted out the cash for the system, found an overlooked wholesale listing of just about all the disc-based shmups that would play on a US 360 on eBay, and I pulled the trigger on the purchase.

 

 Holy shmup, Batman!

Holy shmup, Batman!

I couldn't believe that all of these games were in the same auction, and there wasn't a single bid.  Much to my delight, the majority of the titles were Cave releases, including Deathsmiles, Espgaluda II, Mushihimesame Futari, Dodonpachi Resurrection, and Akai Katana.  Being a big fan of Shinobu Yagawa's projects and Raizing's "Bat" series of games, I was particularly excited to play Akai Katana since the overall design of the enemies and the environments looked so cool.  I totaled up what it would cost to get each of the titles individually, even at used prices, and decided it was worth it to aggressively pursue the auction.  Somehow I scored it for the opening bid, and was in bullet heaven shortly thereafter.  Cave, now sadly defunct in terms of retail releases, hadn't played as strong a role in shaping my gaming tastes throughout my life as Treasure had, but I was familiar with them thanks to lurking the Shmups forum for years and playing many of their games in MAME, specifically endless hours of DoDonPachi.

 The "slow day at work" setup.

The "slow day at work" setup.

I still remember seeing a Mushimimesama PCB in person for the first time, running on a Blast City candy cab at a friend and fellow game collector's house and thinking, "Maaaaaaan, how is this even playable?"

My second thought was "Let's do this."

A lot of people I know who didn't grow up with traditional shooters in any variety seem to share that first thought, but rarely the second.  The overwhelming and striking insanity of the seemingly-impenetrable wall of bullets appears much too impossible to overcome, and I feel like a lot of people who would genuinely enjoy these games pass them up due to worries of difficulty and potential frustration.

Imagine that - being afraid to play a game, something that is meant to be fun and god forbid, challenging, because of fear of losing or not performing well!  Losing is so critical to the long-term enjoyment of the shmup that it can't be avoided, and yet so many people I've met refuse to even try most of these games because they don't seem to want to embrace the inevitable failure as a learning experience.  Isn't it strange how western culture seems to have bred such a strong fear of failure into so many of its participants that people can admit defeat before even making an initial attempt at something?  Not learning to play an instrument because you don't think you'll be any good?  Not trying out for a part in a play because you think you won't get it?  Not aspiring to some great height because someone else told you to "be realistic" and lower your expectations?  When just about everything around you in your life can be viewed as a game of sorts, there is nothing to do but "play."  Play!  The word itself is scoffed at by the self-appointed gatekeepers of the drudgery called "adulthood" in this culture, and it's losing its meaning more and more each day, as children are directed towards learning lessons at younger and younger ages in favor of exploring the limitlessness of imagination through extended play and thus, stimulating the creative powers of developing minds.

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Seriously!  Do you know how difficult it is to get a friend to play 2 Player Gradius V with?  Let alone almost ANY shmup?  For some reason, this wasn't a problem from grade school through most of college (8-bit through 128-bit).  Have we simply spoiled ourselves through so-called "games" that play out as guided movies with very little risk involved?  I think I only have one friend in town who will play any shooting game that I propose with me, and he isn't even a person who immerses himself in "game culture" like all of us nutbags and pixel-addicts.  He just likes a good challenge and feels that games which require a certain level of skill are fun… but at the same time, appreciates the quality of art and sound that goes into every game we play, especially shmups.  He's an engineer completing a Ph.D. in biomechanics, so he doesn't really have time to commit to the interactive movie-games of today.  I admire his fresh, detached perspective on gaming.

If I'm lucky enough to twist a friend's arm into trying a really hard-looking shmup, the results are usually glorious and it's fun to watch them realize how un-scary and enjoyable a shmup can be.  Cave games are particularly deceptive in terms of difficulty.  From the perspective of an individual who does not play shmups, I can see how they appear absolutely unplayable on the surface... but five minutes with just about any of their releases (except maybe Ketsui because it gets brutal fast), and that same person will come to learn that the hitbox on the player's ship or character is so small, that grazing bullets and navigating chaotic fields of particles is not as oppressive as it looks.  Ten minutes might even afford the player some deeper understanding of how bullet cancels work, or how to use a focus attack to navigate a REALLY difficult pattern, or how to leverage a bomb in a pinch to save one's ass from utter defeat.

But as much as playing a shmup alongside a friend is a total blast, there's something to be said for flying solo, which is how I expect most fans of the genre are used to playing, myself included.  There's an unspeakable high that comes from running along the fine line that barely divides success and defeat, and wielding the power to literally evaporate entire armies at the push of a button.  And the knowledge that any incredible run or massive chain can be wiped out with the smallest mistake only makes it more exciting!  Death is always at your heels, and you are barely evading while incinerating everything in your path.  In the end, just about every shmup seems to boil down to the quintessential suicide mission, where all odds are against you and yet you continue to push forward.  Getting over that fear of failure and dying in-game is an attitude that can and should be extrapolated into every day life.  You, and me, and everyone you know will die someday, and once you acknowledge this, what is there really to stop you from accomplishing a seemingly-unachievable goal except your unwillingness to believe you can do it?

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Of the games I've procured thus far for Xbox 360 (which I still slightly resent, but whatever), I've really taken to Akai Katana, Mushihimesama Futari, Raiden Fighters Aces, Ginga Force, and, of course, Radiant Silvergun.  I'm getting plenty of enjoyment out of Microsoft's machine, whose days are already numbered as it's fairly late in its lifecycle, especially with their new console on the horizon.  You don't need me to tell you they've got a struggle ahead of them in terms of regaining a positive image online, and I have the sneaking suspicion that the Xbox One will have considerably less shmups than the 360 did, since it seems so US-focused and restrictive in terms of independent developers this go around.  I don't think that shmups are going to go away anytime soon despite their niche status, especially since there still seems to be a great rebirth happening in both the east and west in terms of independently developed shooting games, but it will be interesting to see what the genre chooses as its future stronghold as other, more popular types of games continue to dominate the mainstream.

In an age when games are becoming less and less game-like, shmups are more important than ever.  If you haven't played a shmup in a while, or at all, or if you've avoided the genre like the plague because it seems too hard, please give them a chance!  They might just give you a renewed sense of patience, perseverance, and accomplishment.