Dim lights, loud techno music, bleeps and bloops, intricate wire-frame models of exotic spaceships, and obscenely high scores; this scene could be any one of dozens of pizza parlors or game rooms of the ’70s and ’80s, featuring staples of the times from Battlezone to Galaxian with everything in between.
Except it’s not. It’s my bedroom. The dim lights are my own fault, and the rest is coming from a game called Gunroar, released an ancient seven-odd months ago. And it’s not part of any Midway Classics collection or some such nonsense either. Gunroar comes courtesy of ABA Games, a one-man operation run out of Japan by one Kenta Cho.
Gunroar is the latest entry in a veritable pantheon of classic arcade-inspired titles. The vast majority of ABA Games’ releases fall into the shoot-’em-up genre (“shmup” to the initiated) which usually includes both horizontal-scrolling (R-Type, Gradius) and vertical-scrolling (Strikers 1945, Raiden) ship-based shooters, as well as one-man-army shooters like Contra, Metal Slug, and Gunstar Heroes.
It’s no secret that the shmup genre has fallen well out of the scope of the mainstream in a steady downward spiral that probably began around the release of the PlayStation, and the fact that arcade shoot-’em-ups are being made by independent developers is hardly newsworthy to any follower of the industry. Indeed, aside from a few relatively high-profile releases like Ikaruga and Gradius V, the shmup scene is largely a niche that caters to the hardest of the hardcore (as in, the people willing to shell out a few hundred U.S. dollars for Radiant Silvergun) and not many others, and so the vast majority of new titles have been coming out of independent developer associations, mostly in Japan, who give their dedicated fans what they’re looking for – generally in the form of ever-increasing waves upon waves of bullets.
Mr. Cho’s games are different, somehow.
To be sure, every ABA Games title boasts an impeccable audiovisual experience; each title offers its own modern re-imagining of the arcade games from which it draws inspiration. The graphics range from game to game, but inevitably consist of a series of abstract wireframe and polygonal models that, at first, remind you of Asteroids, until you take a look at a gargantuan boss ship in rRootage and realize how painstakingly animated each vector is. In other cases, the art is childishly simple, like the player’s own ships, for example. Your beloved gunboat in Gunroar is a mere five-line drawing that approximates the Platonic form of a boat, and the spaceship (if it can really be called a ship) in rRootage is an odd little abstract thing that consists of a small box surrounded by a set of transparent, parallel rectangles. The repetitive electronica soundtrack’s thumping bass lines keep your adrenaline flowing, so you can focus at the task at hand, which usually entails dodging lots of bullets and laser beams of various sorts.
All of this is neat. Very neat, in fact.
But the true artistry running through Kenta Cho’s games isn’t located in a well-written storyline (there aren’t any), or the graphics, or the music, or any of that. His games don’t fascinate us with explorations of videogames as a vehicle for post-modern narrative or a study of human behavior in an immersive online environment. All they do is dissect some of the assumptions that arcade games make, and as it turns out, playing with the standard rules of the arcade game can yield some pretty interesting gameplay mechanics.
Let’s think about some of the conventions we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in a standard ship-based (or airplane, or penguin, or whatever you want) shoot-’em-up game for a second. Usually, you’ll control a plane or something that has to negotiate (read: blow up) swarms of lesser enemies before making it to a climactic boss battle. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Now, try rRootage, which throws you into elaborate, multi-stage boss battles – the kind that tend to be the most challenging and most interesting part of the shmup genre – and nothing else. If you’re bored with your smart bombs, rRootage gives you alternative gameplay modes that can have you absorbing same-color shots for additional firepower a la Ikaruga, or charging up your shield meter by flying dangerously close to enemy bullets. Or, give Gunroar a shot; as it turns out, being in a boat instead of a spaceship makes all the difference. This, you see, is because Gunroar leaves the rate at which the game scrolls vertically through the level almost exclusively to the player.
Be as cautious as you want, but you’re not going to get the high score without a decent score multiplier, which only increases if you light a fire under your ass and book it through the level. Suddenly, the ability to control the direction of your weapon independently of the direction you’re moving in is critical – all your enemies are behind you. Well, maybe that’s not such a big deal. Try Gunroar‘s Dual Stick mode, then, where you have to control two boats, one with each hand, and the direction that they collectively fire at is determined by the right angle that runs perpendicular to a line segment drawn from one boat to the other. Yeah, that’s what I thought.
Things only get more interesting from here. Tumiki Fighter has you piloting a toy airplane through a cartoony looking toy land where everything is made of blocks. Don’t expect enemies to merely explode and vanish when you’re done with them, though, because you’re supposed to catch them with your own plane. That’s right – once disabled, you can graft enemy planes (even bosses!) on to your own ship to turn into a gigantic, awkward, flying katamari-esque ship, complete with significant score and firepower bonuses. Or try Torus Trooper, which borrows a little bit from shooter-on- rails shmups and a little bit from Tempest to get you hurdling through vector-tunnels as fast as possible without colliding into enemy craft.
It is Kenta Cho’s intimate knowledge of the internal risk/reward mechanisms employed in the shmup genre that, somewhat perversely, reawaken the hardcore arcade gamer in anyone who plays his games. Maybe it’s something about surviving a seemingly impossible barrage of bullets, or hovering oh-so-close to a lethal laser beam to charge up your super meter, or breaking that high score barrier by staying planted right at point-blank against an rRootage boss because you know that’s the quickest way to beat it, or encountering any one of hundreds of other equally death-defying experiences that manage to instill an appreciation for the shmup, in all its masochistic glory, in the breast of even the most grizzled gaming veteran. It’s one thing to make a game that is merely difficult, I think, but it is another thing entirely to be able to make games that make me want to be a better gamer.
Pat Miller has been doing this for way too long.