Thursday, February 01, 2007

Wrapped Up In Shmups

Call me a nerd, but I've recently been thinking a lot about spaceships and futuristic laser weaponry. Specifically, I've been getting deep into shmups (short for shoot-em-ups, for my non-gaming readers). Within the past few weeks, five great doses of retro shmupping arrived on the Wii Virtual Console in the form of Gradius, Super Star Soldier, Soldier Blade, R-Type, and R-Type III.

I've downloaded four of them--I'm holding-off on Gradius because I played that game to death on the NES in 1986--and my love for this dying genre has been reinvigorated. Help me explore why after the jump.

Probably at its most simple level, the subject matter satisfies the science fiction fan in me. If your game, movie, story, whatever, has spaceships and flying robots in it, I'm going be at least a little interested.

Shmups also showcase a relatively simple play mechanic: shoot the enemy while avoiding their bullets and other obstacles. Plenty of today's complex games offer challenges and opportunities for mastery, but I think many shmups were more demanding specifically because they were constrained by a simple dynamic. If you can't engage a player with worlds to explore, they must be engaged with a challenge. As a result, shmups provide an intensely satisfying experience when a player feels they've mastered a game. Haters may complain about twitch gameplay and memorizing bullet patterns, but I find I can get into something like a trance state when I feel in the groove during a difficult shooter.

I think the simple play mechanic also allows shmups to achieve incredible style. Ikaruga is one of the most beautiful games ever. Personally, I like the tension and invention that arises when artists explore the constraints imposed by a particular genre or style. I can see this when I examine the evolution of shmups from single-screen versions (Space Invaders), through side-scrolling and top-down scrolling-screen games (R-Type, Star Soldier), finally to bullet-hell (Ikaruga), a scrolling-screen subgenre that I feel is the pinnacle of shmuppitude. (Ironically, I find I must watch someone else play a bullet-hell shmup to fully appreciate the beauty; when I play one it takes a special kind of focus--that trance-like state I mentioned--in which I lose a sense of the overall aesthetics.)

But the appeal of shmups goes a bit deeper for me. I open myself up to charges of pretentiousness here, but I detect a satisfying existentialist vibe at work in most shmups. One lone spaceship, journeying into dangerous, unfamiliar areas, beset by enemies, with no one else to rely on--I know life is not really so brutal, but the atmosphere of such games is appealing.

I wonder if younger gamers are able to appreciate a good shmup. If you grow up with 3D games and the more complete sense of freedom they can achieve, maybe a 2D scrolling game feels restrictive, or simply old-fashioned. Despite the discussion above, I know that nostalgia definitely plays into it for me. No other genre brings back sweet memories of weekend days spent in dingy arcades and snow-day afternoons in front of the home console like shmups. Sigh.

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