10 November 2020

Why shmup?

The stressors of this modern life have pushed me back into video gaming in a pretty significant way. I feel rather burnt out on tabletop gaming in general; it's not relaxing for me these days. I expect the mental bandwidth required for even simpler board games or tabletop RPGs is just a tad much. Even digital board and card games give me headaches.

On top of that I'm feeling quite shot creatively. I've had some cool ideas for games and songs and so forth, but my confidence has taken some dings for some reason and I'm unable to follow through. Yay 2020.

Dear, sweet Ikaruga

One of the avenues for gaming I've revisited is the shmup. Shoot 'em ups are standard fare in the video game world, so I've played them for ages, but it was only via the Dreamcast that I had a true, bonified love affair with the genre. It fizzled, as most affairs do, and didn't come back until I noticed quite of few of these games available for iOS. It was a grand realization; here was a whole corner of fun I'd completely forgotten about! So dabbling with games like Phoenix 2 stoked the flames and I've since been watching replays and YouTube thought pieces, easing myself into the scene, preparing for a full launch when time allows and I've got myself a proper fightstick.

However, a question arose on a shmups subreddit that I've been mulling over. "Why do you play shmups?" it asked. After a bit of time to think about I've got a few ideas.

Phoenix 2 goes pew pew!

First is the aesthetic coolness of the genre. Oftentimes these games are focused on the player "piloting" a space ship and often those ships are very interestingly designed. This is possible because ships in these games need follow no pattern or design principle; they needn't appear aerodynamic or terrestrial. While many ships and sprites in these games are rather traditional, there are some truly interesting exceptions. I reference Phoenix 2 again for some very fun ship designs.

Bearing aesthetics in mind, shmups are often given a "retro" vibe because (1) it's tradition and (2) shmups is such a niche genre that these games are often developed by small indie teams that just can't really do big budget AAA graphics. While I do appreciate good, interesting visuals, I appreciate the independent spirit a bit more. I also like being a part of something that is both small and globally appealing.

Because it's one of the original video game genres, and because it's worldwide, and because there are so many odd little wrinkles to peek at it, taking part in shmups is just as much about learning the scene as it is about playing the games.

Steredenn offers some nice, chonky pixels

I also like that shmups are, essentially, pure design. In most games the design principles, challenges, or ideas, are masked by cinematic presentations or thoroughly implemented stories or by the inherent chaos of online play. "Arcade" style games like shmups, fighting games, or platformers are, by way of their history, more obvious in wearing their design makeup on their sleeves.  Shmups are the most direct of all. 

What I mean is this: if you're making an RPG, the challenges put forth to the player (the "gaminess", if you will) are hidden behind the player-character, the story they're participating in, and the game world itself. You have to dig and think and analyze to find out what the designer was intending to do. Less so with shmups because the challenges put forth by the designer are literally right there on the screen. The design intent is not an abstraction, it's the little dots that are flying direct at you.

This breaking down of the design wall is like putting an x-ray machine right up to a game. With less effort we can dig into and analyze what makes the game good or bad and think about what it is trying to make us do. In that sense, shmups are kind of pure design unmitigated by frivolity or excessive window dressing, and that makes them especially interesting.

Look at the bullet pattern on that one. That’s that good danmaku.

Another reason to shmup, if we can make that a verb, is tied to the transparency I just mentioned. The repetition, and thusly the satisfaction of mastery, is part of the design. Said repetition, or grind, is a matter of some debate in the modern gaming world, with mobile gaming especially pushing grind to levels that seem abusive. But repetition has always been inherent to gaming and, well, human life in general. In Mario you are repeatedly jumping; in Doom you are repeatedly shooting demons; etc etc. The trouble these days is that it seems designers are attempting to conceal repetition and failing, leaving players with a feeling of deception.

Arcade style games, and again most effectively shmups, make repetition a feature. Memorizing patterns and waves, beating your own scores (or those scores of other players) and working towards a 1cc are inherent to the genre. Being able to improve and perfect ones game is simply fun for those who enjoy those kinds of things. 

Which brings me to a final reason: skills. Sorry, I meant skillz. Pretty much all video games have skill thresholds, how "good" or "bad" you can be at a game. Again, by their nature and history, arcade games have a wide spread. The high end of the threshold is very high. Shmups are right up there with fighting games; it takes a lot of practice to be really good at these games and the spread is even higher when you look at it from an international or competitive point of view. 

I like being able improve in games, but I find any kind of PVP to be infinitely frustrating. There will always be someone better than me and I don't like to be beaten by other humans. I’m petty like that. Shmups, however, are what we call in the MMO world PVE. Competing, ultimately, against myself is highly enjoyable, and even if I got crazy and looked to shmup competitions, the community itself seems very encouraging of individual improvement. I also know that I am barely off the floor and nowhere near the skill ceiling, so bearing in mind that I can and will get better is exhilerating.

So there's a bit of design analysis for you, an attempt to answer the question, "Why shmup?"

If your interest is piqued at all, there are lots of great resources in the shmup community to learn more. Have a look:

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