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Tag Archives: Arcades

 

 

The PC And The Re-Rise Of The Shoot’em Up.

 

 

RPS.

 

 

 

 

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Supercar.

 

 

One day, they reorganized the last arcade I went to.

I went there every Friday. It was attached to a cinema.

The House of the Dead was my game: I had every high score on the list, even when the gun broke.

This arcade went through phases.

At first, it was driven by families and birthday parties. People thought of it as a ‘cooler’ Chuck E. Cheese’s.

When that business began to die off, they pivoted focus to bringing in bigger, stranger arcade cabinets.

Dance Dance Revolution. Guitar Freaks. MoCap Boxing. Flash Beats.

F355 Challenge.

Anytime one of the new cabinets came in, I dove into them.

I became most proficient in DDR and Flash Beats as secondary games.

I only played F355 Challenge once.

F355 was designed by Yu Suzuki and released in 1999.

It released in different cabinets, but the true nature of the game emerged purest in its largest iteration.

The game had three screens powered by four NAOMI units: one for each screen, one to link them.

The center screen was the windshield, the two outer screens were the side windows.

It had a realistic H-Shifter and three pedals.

It was considered by many to be the most accurate racing simulation possible at that time.

This arcade managed to pull in the large cabinet.

One day, I came in and everything was moved to make space for F355.

The owner made sure it was visible to everyone.

It was intimidating: Large. Complex. Dark.

It took $4.00 each play.

When I decided to jump in, I didn’t know if I would have fun with it or not.

Getting into the cab felt like you were attending some adult cocktail party full of glances and covered mouths.

The cab had curtains to keep other people away.

When it came time to drive, the formality didn’t dissipate.

This was a cold, raw simulation.

It was confusing and awkward.

In a place where you were primed for hot, fast action: F355 felt muted.

It felt empty. It was boring.

I only played F355 one time.

I moved on.

 

Litre.

 

Coming from Yu Suzuki, F355 was a disappointment.

Suzuki proved himself as an auteur of immersive action games throughout his career.

Super Hang-On. Out Run. After Burner. Space Harrier. Virtua Fighter. Shenmue.

F355 possessed none of the excitement his games typically exploded with.

F355 interpreted attention to detail as love.

This trend of equating detail and adoration began with Gran Turismo.

When the first game released in 1998 (one year before F355), the entire gaming community was floored.

It was a sign that we were now on the cusp of significant technologies, that the world had begun to blur.

Gran Turismo was a technological achievement.

Kazunori Yamauchi and Polyphony Digital had made an affordable, pure racing simulation for the home on a piece of standardized hardware.

Gran Turismo was a crowning achievement for the racing genre then.

Gran Turismo was also the end.

Before GT and F355, the genre was dominated by arcade racers.

They mainly used cars and driving as filters of action and momentum.

A few months before GT, EA released Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit.

I played NFSIII for a year.

Hot Pursuit wasn’t about accuracy or simulation, it was about capturing the thrill of slamming on the accelerator.

It was about laughing at the police as you ram them into a guard rail.

It was about the daydreams people have while stuck in traffic or pulled over on the side of the road, glaring at the officer in the rear-view.

NFSIII was about rediscovering that time you rode your bike down the longest hill you had ever seen and wondering whether you trust yourself to hit the brakes at the right time.

It was wild and honest and young: The original face of racing.

The following year saw Namco‘s best entry in the genre: R4: Ridge Racer Type 4.

Where Hot Pursuit was about aggression and fantasy, where GT was about simulation, R4 was about finesse and exploration.

Vehicles in R4 fell under two general classes: Drift or Grip.

It came down to what you, as the player, wanted.

Drift cars were ‘loose’ and allowed you to powerslide with a slight tap to the brake.

Grip cars were tighter and powersliding was done by balancing brake and gas.

R4 was about style.

Everything from the car selection, to the tracks, to the driving, to the UI: It was all about style.

R4 was about Japan and its love of motorsport.

R4 was bosozoku and Kunimitsu Takahashi.

R4 was Keiichi Tsuchiya drifting every turn of the Tsukuba Circuit.

It asked: ‘What would you like to do? Who do you want to be?’ and let the player run free.

 

Metal.

 

This balance between racing games didn’t last.

Gran Turismo’s dominance in the racing genre went unchallenged for its next four iterations.

It wasn’t until Forza Motorsport appeared in 2005 that GT had any real competition in racing simulation.

Need For Speed kept pushing more aggression, especially after Burnout‘s success with its emphasis on heavy, hard crashes.

This led to Criterion being tasked with developing the latest entries into the NFS franchise, making the last few entries the most aggressive in the history of the series.

Ridge Racer became a parody of itself.

What was once a series defined by a Japanese love of motorsport and style is now flailing in a sea of strange experiments and half-finished ideas.

Ridge Racer’s latest entry, Ridge Racer Unbounded, was never even released in Japan.

It is in this environment that Driveclub released.

It is in this toxic mess the racing genre has become that Driveclub tries to reclaim the identity of the middle and the vast expanse of the margins.

Driveclub has not been well-received.

Most gaming media outlets share similar sentiments that Driveclub has no soul or passion or heat.

Driveclub is compared to Gran Turismo, Forza, NFS and is found to come up short.

And I have never seen the media so inept.

Gran Turismo destroyed the diversity of the racing landscape.

Like some hegemonic amoeba, it devoured the imagination.

It devoured subtlety.

To compete, racing games now either had to be pure math or pure rage.

Either a game competes in the same arena (Forza) or it rejects everything and creates a new paradigm (NFS).

Ridge Racer tried and failed to find some sort of synthesis and has lost its identity in the process.

There is no longer any proper lens through which Driveclub is accurately interpreted.

There is no longer a language for it.

Driveclub is a classic arcade racer.

It has inherited the best traits of R4, NFSIII, and GT.

Driveclub is about finessing through powerslides, healthy aggression, and maintaining driving lines.

Driveclub is about rediscovering the fun and beauty of driving.

The tracks are stunning and inspiring.

The races are exhilarating and frustrating.

Though Driveclub’s greatest success is that it gives the player the space to approach the game how they would like.

It has shown itself to be more malleable than any other racing game ever made.

It can be a simple simulation or an intricate arcade game.

How the player chooses to drive influences its tone.

Drifting on turns and the sheer force of momentum on straightaways is incredible and fricative.

Drafting, precision cornering, and avoiding collisions are fulfilling in ways that Gran Turismo and Forza never were.

It incorporates objective and points-based elements from Project Gotham Racing so that it isn’t just about winning races.

Driveclub is more than a racing game, it is a driving game.

Its focus isn’t just on competition and winning, it’s about appreciating the art of driving.

Driveclub is like sitting at the Musee d’Orsay in the early morning, drinking coffee, and letting your vision blur the steam and the painting in front of you.

It is a warm experience coalescing and exploring the mastery of the past.

It is a confident game.

It has none of the insecurity with which Gran Turismo protects its cars.

It feels no need to subvert the racing genre by making it more extreme.

While Driveclub is currently suffering from technical issues, it has more than enough potential to become one of the best racing games out right now.

Driveclub is what the gaming community and the racing genre needed: A step back. A reexamination and rediscovery of a love that has slipped further and further into schizophrenia.

I missed the world Driveclub emerged from.

I missed its warmth.

And it feels strange going back now, realizing how much has been forgotten.

But while remembrance can be embarrassing, it is liberating, even if its language has been lost…

 

Even if its value is ignored.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Artillery.

 

 

When I started playing fighting games seriously, there were things people would tell me.

There were things I didn’t understand.

I didn’t understand the difference between a link system and a chain combo system.

I didn’t understand what DP meant.

I didn’t understand what spacing was.

Someone would always insist that spacing in a fighting game, especially Street Fighter, was important.

It was an ethereal concept to me: What does that mean? What do I do with it?

Because I was usually the most inexperienced person in whatever FGC (Fighting Game Community) I was a part of, I focused on more obvious points.

I practiced combos in training modes. I worked on my blocking technique. I tried to pry open different fighting games’ design philosophies.

I couldn’t understand spacing, so I avoided it. I convinced myself I would get to it later.

It wasn’t obvious.

Capcom keeps their systems hidden. This is part of what led to Capcom’s ascension in the United States over SNK.

Capcom leaves guidance and discovery up to the community. They depend on the FGC to figure things out.

Because of it’s difficulty, Street Fighter mastery is considered one of the pinnacles of success in the FG genre.

SNK, though, enforces the subtle. SNK transforms the subtle into a lesson.

I believe this is why SNK has found success everywhere else in the world.

SNK fighters are lessons.

Every SNK fighting game has a shakiness to it.

From Fatal Fury to The Last Blade to King of Fighters, SNK games tend to either be mechanically broken or make viable only a handful of characters.

But SNK does something that Capcom does not: Force the player to pay attention.

Starting with Fatal Fury 2, SNK implemented an at-will two-plane system, the first of its kind in the genre. This allowed players to jump between the foreground/background of a stage.

With a two-plane system, the player had to be aware of which plane their opponent was on, the best way to move to that plane, and to avoid level hazards.

The Last Blade series had a deflect button. If the player pressed the deflect button just as an opponent attacked, the attack would be parried, leaving them open for a counterattack.

This forces the player to watch their opponent carefully, to read frames carefully. The Last Blade drills players’ focus faster than any other fighter I’ve seen.

Capcom tried to do something similar in Street Fighter III with the introduction of the parry mechanic: The player taps forward when an opponent’s attack connects and the attack is neutralized with no damage taken.

The parry mechanic along with a flood of other innovations led to SFIII becoming one of the most highly regarded fighting games ever made.

But because SFIII was tailored with immense precision, it garnered vast critical approval, but nowhere near the financial success of its predecessor.

When SFIII: Third Strike came around, the game was dead in the United States.

Even the ‘Daigo Parry‘ couldn’t save it.

Capcom tried to out-SNK SNK.

By building a solid, tactical, mechanically coherent fighting game with polish and little brokenness, Capcom suffered.

People didn’t expect that from them. They just wanted another SFII.

It would take Capcom 10 years before they would release another game in the Street Fighter franchise and Street Fighter IV was an exercise in back-tracking.

(Here is the best review of SFIII: Third Strike you will read).

 

Clack.

 

At the same time Capcom released their most complex and technical iteration of Street Fighter, SNK put out its last iteration of the Fatal Fury series: Garou: Mark of the Wolves.

Garou and 3S are often considered companion games.

Both are beautiful. Both innovate on their established franchises. Both are technical.

Garou pushed the limits of what was capable on SNK’s Neo Geo system.

Even though Neo Geo was incapable of semi-transparency and 3D effects, SNK was able to simulate them using complex 2D techniques.

Like SFIII, Garou was a reset.

SNK even altered the signature look of Terry Bogard, the series mascot.

They also eliminated the two-plane system Fatal Fury had introduced and become known for.

With Garou, SNK pruned away all the excess a decade of half-finished ideas left them with.

Fighting games are usually loud. They scream. They affirm their place in the arcades.

In the mid-90’s, you couldn’t walk into an arcade anywhere in the world without being pummeled with SFII audio.

Garou is a quiet game.

Garou is serene.

The introduction shows nothing but Geese Howard‘s death and a small montage of Terry Bogard raising Geese’s son, Rock Howard.

Garou’s music is comprised of low-key, modern jazz and dance tracks. The music keeps the atmosphere light and reinforces the game’s growth.

No loud guitar music. No pop music with nonsense lyrics.

Keeping with this minimal style, SNK also paired back the roster of playable characters from the previous iteration by almost half.

Garou only has 14 characters.

There is a sense of intimacy in Garou’s world. There is a sense that the characters and places are all familiar to each other.

Because of the limited roster, each character has personality. Each character feels important.

The game does a profound job relating both characters and players to places in the world.

Garou’s greatest innovation is the stage introductions.

Before each fight, the stages are presented in short, animated clips.

There is no music. There is only ambient sound from the stage itself.

They are so well-done, so elegant, so subtle: They could be meditation objects.

Garou is a cohesive game.

All the aesthetic innovations are matched by the mechanical.

It introduces the ‘Tactical Offensive Position’ (T.O.P.). TOP is a customizable comeback mechanic.

After selecting a character, the game asks the player to choose a portion of the character’s lifebar (roughly one-third).

The player can choose the beginning, middle, or end.

During the fight, if that portion of the character’s lifebar is reached, they will begin flashing, indicating that TOP has engaged.

TOP grants the player access to a move that isn’t normally available, some health regeneration, and increased damage output.

TOP is a proto-X-Factor over a decade before Marvel vs. Capcom 3.

SNK also introduced a ‘Just Defend’ mechanic similar to the SFIII parry. If the player blocks just before an attack connects, they recover more quickly from block.

All of Garou’s mechanical developments lead to an encouragement of offense.

Many of SNK’s fighting franchises are defensive and tactical.

Garou is a massive divergence from SNK’s traditional formula.

Lifebars disintegrate as fast as they did in SFII and the game’s offense functions on how well a player can use their normal attacks.

With its speed and small levels, Garou reinforces the importance of spacing.

It is a perfect exercise in learning what spacing is.

There is nowhere to run and attacking without thinking is easily punished here.

Garou wants the player to be offensive, but not stupid.

It wants the player to not only think about what attack to use, but about the potential space of that attack.

With Street Fighter III, Capcom sought to slow the game down. They wanted players to take their time and think. They wanted each hit to count.

Defensive players flourished in SFIII’s space.

Garou taught players how to attack. It was the antibody to a generation of SFII button-mashing.

It is by no means a perfect game, but an important one.

It is a game I would encourage anybody to play.

Garou is important as a whole work.

It reinforces FG basics in a soft, clear, beautiful way.

Brandon Sheffield once referred to Garou as being ‘holistic’.

And it is.

This is a game designed with clarity.

This is a game that balances light and seriousness with grace and perspective.

The gaming world has never been as toxic or as melodramatic as it is today.

 

And Garou’s softness, humor, and expectation are both reaffirming and cleansing, 15 years on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Click.

 

 

Every summer, my options were limited.

Vacationing in the developing world, there are things you get used to: water stoppages, prolonged blackouts, looming violence, heat, etc.

Without reliable electricity, television was out, video games too for the most part.

Every summer until I was old enough to drive, my options were: read, write, draw, hunt, or play.

Most of the weight in my luggage was books. I brought so many books. I still do everywhere I go.

I had been writing poetry since I was 11. It was never enough to eat up significant amounts of time.

Poetry was all I was good at though.

I was a terrible artist and a terrible hunter. I had bad aim.

Bird hunting is the leisure sport of Lebanon. They are passionate about it. The Lebanese nearly drove every species of bird to extinction in the 90’s.

The government stepped in and banned hunting for a few years.

I was often mocked for being terrible at it. I wanted to be good, but I had no heart to watch the limited comprehension of grace fade out of this world second by second.

With birds, it is never a clean kill. They drop into the dirt, panting heavily, bleeding, fighting. I hated it.

We played war games. War is the other past-time.

One summer, my cousins, my brother, and I fashioned fake machine guns out of discarded wood. We pretended we were training for missions against the occupying force.

A few years before that, the four of us found some gasoline at the bottom of a rusted barrel outside my aunt’s old house. We decided to use that to make Molotov cocktail.

We found a glass bottle, filled it, stuffed some napkins in the top and left.

On the road a Lebanese army jeep was coming towards us. We hid in an alcove just off the street until they passed. When we made it back to my cousins’ house, we didn’t know what to do with it.

We tossed it, unlit, into a field. The next year I heard it started a small fire.

 

Prog.

 

In our village, there was a small arcade.

When the electricity was out, they ran on a diesel generator.

It had Foosball, Street Fighter II, and other no-name action games.

It was inside of an abandoned garage. All concrete, small windows, poor air circulation.

It always smelled of dust and oil.

Street Fighter II got the most play. We had no idea what we were doing. We understood the premise.

Zangief was a favorite. He was big and mean. He was Russian. The Middle East had respect for Russia, even during the USSR.

The USSR supported Gamal Abdel Nasser, a symbol of Arab dignity and pride to this day.

These small things mattered.

The last time I set foot in that arcade, I slammed the owner’s son into an arcade machine.

My brother and I had gone there one evening to pass the time before a big volleyball tournament. We played some games and left, following the traffic of people heading to the schoolyard as the sun was going down.

My brother kept spitting and making noises. I asked him what was wrong. He said the owner’s son had put some chalk dust in his mouth.

I stopped.

I went back. The owner’s son was sitting behind the desk. He stood up. I yelled at him, grabbed him, and slammed him into the nearest arcade machine. He understood.

The next summer the arcade had closed for good. They were selling roasted chickens. I bought one for my family.

It had a fly in it.

The small things matter.

 

Mount.

 

Counter-Strike became a big deal.

Someone opened an internet and gaming cafe in the heart of the village.

I had no idea how they managed to do it.

The telecom infrastructure in rural Lebanon was broken beyond comprehension.

Most villagers were getting their television through illegal satellite hook ups.

The cafe flourished. Kids were in there all the time, yelling.

Counter-Strike was the virtual extension of our war games. The virtual extension of the frustration of our violence.

My cousin went by the handle Sniper and had made a name for himself. I was terrible at it.

He used to go there every other day with his brother and mine. I would stay home and read. I knew I had nothing to contribute.

I mainly used the internet cafe for checking emails. The nice thing about the developing world is it grants everyone the ability to not exist.

Things happen and you don’t know and don’t care.

One time I decided to make the trek with my cousin, just the two of us.

We were placed on the same team.

During one game, I managed to stay alive longer than everyone on my team. There was only one person left on the other. My cousin yells: ‘Don’t mess up!’, I find the enemy, he shoots me.

I was a terrible hunter.

The internet cafe is now a Western Union.

 

Query.

 

The first time I watched a jet dropping flares, I was in awe.

I thought the flares were bombs. My father explained to me what they actually did.

Every time I came back to the U.S. after a few months overseas, I felt uncomfortable.

America is a strange place completely cleaved out of reality.

America is the syrupy hyperdream of some half-naked body builder standing on an ancient beach, staring at the stars.

Coming back into this place was always a jarring experience. It was a process, one that my parents could never understand.

In elementary school we were tasked with drawing pictures of something interesting that happened to us the previous summer. I drew the jet dropping flares and the army firing at it.

My mother was embarrassed. All the other kids were drawing pools and family trips, but that was my narrative: Aggression and spectacle.

Seeing the gears of a broken world turn, I couldn’t understand how my parents could just immigrate and forget.

From hunting, to fighting games, to discovering FPSes, we always found ways to birth aggression.

It always took me awhile to develop a knack for it. The U.S. doesn’t function on aggression in interpersonal relationships.

But America and Americans have their own kind of violence, a kind of violence that is heavily disassociated. Violence in film, games, music, media in general with no consequences. Fantasies.

 

Conch.

 

I never enjoyed the killing of things, but I knew it was necessary to experience in person.

Watching birds falter in the face of the earth embedded me with the morbid and sad truths of living.

I learned that when we go out, it’s all ugliness. There is no honor in it, just thrashing and dirt.

As children, we didn’t do the things we did out of fantasy, we reacted to the freedom of violence around us. We expressed it, thrived in the wild of it.

Gears inside of gears.

Does that subtle difference of interpretation affect the digestion of our engagement?

It made us more self-aware.

The experiences we have with media, and games specifically, are colored by the environment we exist in.

In America, I was curious and excited about whatever I engaged with.

In Lebanon, I wanted to flourish, I wanted to progress. More presence. More drive.

I haven’t left North America in two years and I feel no urgency of interpretation.

‘Real’ game violence rings hollow now.

I am looking for visions of experience:

 

The edge of being forever reborn into the crumbling sunset of the American dream.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fist.

 

 

The first time I saw The House of the Dead was in the summer of 1997: Zahle, Lebanon.

One of the main attractions for children and families in Zahle is a large outdoor arcade set deep in the valley.

Beneath the cool trees and flowing water, you can play anything from bumper cars to fighting games.

In ’97, we were there on a family trip, it was a stopping point. I remember having the distinct feeling of bored animosity.

Walking through the arcade, I couldn’t find anything that drew my attention long enough to warrant dropping coins. Then, out of nowhere a giant THotD cab loomed up, bigger than all the lights around it.

In the U.S., arcades still existed then, but they were few and hard to find.

I had been lucky in that everywhere I lived, there was at least one active arcade nearby, usually attached to a movie theater.

I still hung out a lot in arcades in the late 90’s. Every weekend when my parents would drag us to the mall, my brother and I would hit up the local mall arcade (Pocket Change) and burn through an afternoon.

Somehow, Pocket Change always managed to pull in new, expensive cabs at a time when other arcades were failing. I had no idea how they did it, but I was thankful.

They didn’t have what Zahle had though and the more I watched two kids burrow further into THotD, the more I hoped Pocket Change would catch up.

 

Spring.

 

I was never excited about light gun games in the arcades.

In spite of its popularity, I felt Time Crisis was a boring and hollow experience. I did not enjoy the novelty of its pedal/cover system and I did not enjoy having a timer ticking down through the whole game.

The game felt disconnected.

Time Crisis operated only as a sequence of separate shooting galleries, never as a whole game. It had no fluidity.

At first glance, TC seems interesting: 1) There is a timer counting down through the game in which time is only added by finishing ‘scenes.’ 2) In order to reload and/or avoid getting hit, the player must release the pedal to return to cover, thereby slowing the player down.

Combining these two mechanics (urgency of time and tactical judgment) the game is asking the player to make choices.

However, the mud thrown into this machine of micro-choice is the addition of time through the clearing of sections.

The game has no forward momentum: Time Crisis only jumps from section to section, making it a jarring, unnerving experience.

In 1996, Time Crisis had been out for a year and I was done trying to like it.

Walking away from the ‘House’ cab in Zahle, what stuck with me was how much forward momentum Sega built into the game. THotD’s urgency didn’t come from some cheap mechanic (time), it came from atmosphere, a constant drive forward, and quickness.

I wanted to play it more than any other arcade game of that time.

A month later I left Lebanon and came back to the U.S., I went back to Pocket Change.

They had The House of the Dead. I couldn’t believe it.

I don’t know how they did it, but there it was: the same massive cab I saw in Zahle, next to the doorway, and a line of people that ran through the food court.

A line of people that Time Crisis couldn’t bring in.

 

Span.

 

THotD was one of the most cohesive arcade products I had ever seen.

The story revolved around two AMS agents, Thomas Rogan and G., called to the mansion of a well-known and highly regarded scientist, Roy Curien, after an ominous call from Sophie, Rogan’s fiancée.

Upon arriving at the mansion, the agents are immediately thrown into a grisly, murderous scene where all of Curien’s horrific abominations have been let loose throughout the entire complex. It then becomes the agents’ job to rescue Sophie and find Curien.

THotD’s cohesive process begins with the title font and styling:

 

The House of The Dead Title Screen.

The House of The Dead Title Screen.

 

Not only is the font of the title chosen as a reflection of older pulp horror franchises (See anything made by Hammer Film Productions), there is also the addition of the decaying hand summoning/corrupting/reaching for the person who may either be Rogan, G., or a scientist.

The person represented in the title is covered with scratch marks, signifying both abandonment (cobwebs) and violence (the scratching-out).

The intro cutscene is about a minute and a half long. In that short time, it does an excellent job setting up the premise of hopelessness: Scientists running for their lives, monsters being unleashed everywhere, dead bodies.

All this is set to an ominous intro theme riddled with bells and synth organ:

 

 

After taking in all these passive elements, coins are dropped in. Each coin engages a loud howl, bellowing from the speakers, another homage to older horror films and a reinforcement of isolation.

From the second the game begins, it pushes forward into its world. The player is greeted with a cutscene showing Rogan and G. pulling up to the house at high-speed, running out of the car, and immediately engaging.

The game never loses that momentum.

The world of THotD is a dark one. All the grass and plant life in the mansion courtyard are dead, the sky is dark. The initial interaction in the world is shooting an undead creature trying to kill one of Curien’s assistants.

The mansion itself is in complete disarray as well.

The environment shows how far into his own mind Curien had fallen.

 

Stress.

 

THotD filtered urgency through its cohesiveness and the speed at which its camera moved.

Time Crisis was too disconnected and Virtua Cop was a glorified shooting gallery.

The first House of the Dead perfected the sensation of perpetual motion, a sensation that has since been a staple of the THotD series.

It was a fast, hot game then and it still is now. The way in which the camera twists and turns, the way it bends, is a thing of art. Movement in this game is the final cohesive link in Sega’s vision.

It is unfortunate that THotD is the best of the series. Its sequels consistently suffer from a lack of vision.

I was obsessed with The House of the Dead ever since I first saw it. I played that game any chance I could from 1997 on. Initially, it took me five dollars in quarters and 45 minutes to complete.

In 2012, I had all 20 of the top High Scores at another local arcade. I could beat the game on 25 cents and a little over 25 minutes.

The first time I saw and played THotD 2 was in Las Vegas, at the Luxor in 1999.

It was another of the massive cabs.

My parents dropped my brother and I off early at the arcade before heading to the Casino, around 10 AM.

After having played so much of the original, we couldn’t believe we now had access to the sequel.

It took us a little over an hour and around seven dollars in quarters to complete. The sequel was never as compelling as the original. Something about it was all wrong.

The difficulty was turned up, The action was slower, the camera did less.

There was no propulsion through that world, no urgency. It was lifeless.

The last major game Pocket Change bought before finally closing was THotD 3, which utilized giant plastic shotguns instead of the smaller, standard light gun pistols.

I played it once and walked away.

The shotguns were uncomfortable to hold, awkward to maneuver, and the series’ difficulty was turned up yet again.

With each iteration becoming slower, less dynamic, more difficult (cheap), and less cohesive: The series continually failed to achieve the promise of the original.

The most recent installment in the THotD series, The House of the Dead: Overkill, reworked the series’ aesthetic into comical pulp horror, the seriousness and dramatic effect of the previous games are completely erased.

The House of The Dead revolutionized light gun games. It was incomprehensibly cohesive and faster than any other game of its kind. It was one of the last true arcade games that challenged and engaged the player with seriousness and immersion.

Given the death of the arcade outside of Japan, we will most likely never see another game like it.

We will never have the kind of cohesive immersion THotD presented. An immersion rivaled only by Virtual-On: Oratorio Tangram.

The House of the Dead had charisma, it touched on something, attracted people to it.

Exactly what  its successors could never do. It was an excellent game with a strong identity, a strong sense of how it wanted to be.

Action games today can learn so much from studying what The House of the Dead presented: meticulous cohesion, immersion, and perspective.

Afterall, its only fitting that it be remembered in better games than the series it spawned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bullets.

 


Raiden
was my introduction to STGs.

What hooked me into the game was its clean presentation and great controls. It was the first scrolling shooter that I played with any level of seriousness.

My goal in those years was always to see how far I could get on only one credit. While I never beat Raiden without continuing, I really enjoyed the time I spent with the game.

The Raiden series has grown up since the first game came out in 1990, but it has retained much of what defined that first entry developed by Seibu Kaihatsu.

However, the series has not aged well. Even later entries such as Raiden IV (developed by MOSS, a team of ex-Seibu devs formed after the company went bankrupt) retain much of the early mechanics (direct fire, sparse enemies).

I understand that what makes one series in a genre stand out from another is precisely what the devs define as the series’ core values. In the case of Raiden, those values center around precision. The game wants you to be in the right places firing at the right speed as enemies shoot directly at your ship.

With its insistence on precision, Raiden cannot keep up with the innovations of the genre.

When I first played Strikers 1945 (developed and released by Psikyo in 1995) it felt like something had totally changed.

It was a faster game, it was the kind of game that forced you to focus.

It was the fighting game of shooters.

The enemies would swoop in and fire rapid bullet streams that spread through the screen, forcing the player to weave and counter. Each boss was comprised of nested mini-bosses. The music drove everything.

Strikers was the better game, why? With all its elegance, why couldn’t the Raiden series stand up to this?

Because Strikers had intensity, it was all digital grit where Raiden was the stuff of cold patience.

After Strikers, STGs became mind-melting exercises in intensity.

A movement that was especially driven by Japanese developer Cave.

Cave released DoDonPachi in 1997 after the success of the more mild DonPachi in 1995. DoDonPachi featured swarms of enemies that fired massive bullet curtains, a very intense aesthetic, excellent music, and great animation.

DoDonPachi took everything that made Strikers great and pushed things even further. DDP is as close to an ideal arcade game as any company could get at the time. It never felt ‘cheap’, it was very much a game of skill, and it was visually captivating.

After DoDonPachi, shooters have only become more intense. Games like Mushihimesama Futari 1.5 (also developed by Cave) have bullet patterns that look like ocean waves.

The DonPachi series itself has remained fairly close to its roots throughout the years. DoDonPachi DaiOuJou (the fourth game in the series, released in 2002) is arguably the best STG ever made (more on that later).

 

Watercolor.

 

There are two schools of thought in the world of scrolling shooters:

1) The genre won’t continue to exist unless new gameplay mechanics are added.

2) The genre will always thrive if it stays true to its roots.

In the first school, we see games like Sine Mora (developed by Digital Reality and Grasshopper, released in 2012) which features a strong plot and a unique time-manipulation mechanic. Time is important in Sine More because it is the measure by which you succeed or fail.

However, the best game to come out of this school is Ikaruga (developed by G.Rev and Treasure, released in 2002).

Ikaruga has reached legendary status not only among STG enthusiasts, but among the gaming community as a whole. It has been ported to system after system through each console generation and was recently released in February 2014 on Steam.

It is an icon.

Ikaruga’s attraction lies in the innovations it makes in the three core game elements present in any STG: Aesthetics, shooting mechanics, and music.

The game has fantastic art. The environments are well-defined and deep, your ship is asymmetrical and beautiful, the enemies (especially the bosses) are extremely detailed and fluid. The whole game is amazingly cohesive. The hook in Ikaruga is that you don’t simply dodge bullets, you transform your ship to absorb one of two kinds of bullets.

The game has two enemy types: light and dark. Each enemy type fires either light or dark bullets. The player’s ship can switch between light and dark, whatever color the ship is, is whatever color you can absorb. This has made Ikaruga a favorite for players looking for High Score challenges.

What makes Ikaruga’s soundtrack so unique in the genre, is that it is voluminous. Most arcade STGs rely on electronic thumping and grinding to push their games forward. Ikaruga’s music is very orchestral and does an excellent job at conveying a sense of loss.

If Ikaruga is the best game of the innovative shooter school, which game is the best of  the second, more traditional school?

DoDonPachi DaiOuJou.

 

Dollhouse.

 

In spite of all the innovations and the high-level coherence Ikaruga displays, it feels like a puzzle game.

Ikaruga is less Raiden and more Tetris: Maneuver the ship to fit into the bullet patterns.

I admire the game for what it does. I admire the devs behind Ikaruga for making a shooter that takes itself seriously, that is somber and heroic.

But there are times when the gloss tears, that you cannot help but feel that the game is a series of novelties, the game plays with itself and its own mechanics. After playing Ikaruga long enough, it gets a little boring.

The strange part is that the game starts out so strong, it throws you right into the action, but with its constant referencing to a single mechanic (switching colors), both by enemies and by the environments, it wears on you.

This is where DaiOuJou wins.

DOJ lacks all of the finesse that defines Ikaruga. Its music is brash and loud. The environments are dark, synthetic, and alive.

DaiOuJou is all about force: Gunning through the swarm.

The title of the game is roughly translated as “Blissful Death.” It has no illusions about itself. It asks a lot of the player.

I recently described DaiOuJou as a ‘cyberpunk samurai death poem.’

It is an ode to the extreme focus and insight demanded of the player in occupying a beautiful and uncomfortable place. It is a process of celebrating your mistakes and being reborn.

The action in DOJ is intense. Enemies explode, multi-colored bullet spreads cover the screen, you scrape by in pixels.

This is a vast departure from what Ikaruga offers.

For a non-traditional game, Ikaruga can almost be seen as an extension of Raiden’s elegance. Ikaruga and Raiden are both quiet, cool, thoroughly-designed games.

On the other hand: DaiOuJou is the diary of a medieval battle-axe.

For all the credit that Ikaruga has received over the years, DOJ never quite got the attention it deserved.

I understand that a lot of this has to do with taste, but as an avid fan of shooters, it is very difficult for me not to see the amount of thought that went into crafting and honing DaiOuJou from a team of arcade purists that almost single-handedly drive the genre today.

It is Ikaruga’s mechanical novelty that fundamentally propels it as a phenomenon. DoDonPachi DaiOuJou, though, is driven by the purity of its action.

It is a rapid-fire exploration of the significance of moments.

DaiOuJou is a celebration of beauty and decay.

It deserves a second look.

 

It is the better game.