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Column: Shmup Me Up

COLUMN: 'Shmup Me Up, Buttercup' - Bullet Barrage in your Pocket

July 28, 2006 11:49 PM |

vulkanon.jpg ['Shmup Me Up, Buttercup' is a sporadically updated column by Jeremiah 'Nullsleep' Johnson, dealing with shoot-em-ups, or shmups, from Japan and the West, and covering the frantically cultish game genre that refuses to die, despite many bullets aimed in its direction over the years.]

Training Is Over

We've mentioned Takayama Fumihiko's excellent BulletGBA here before -- an absolutely indispensible bullet hell simulator for anyone wanting to hone their projectile dodging skills on the go.

Now he's followed up with another take on "Bullet Hell Shmups" for the GBA called Vulkanon. While BulletGBA was mostly a training aid for familiarizing oneself with different bullet patterns, Vulkanon builds upon the "Shooting" side challenges found there and delves further into mini-game territory.

Short, But Suicidally Sweet

bulletgba.jpg While the first release consists of what is basically just a single boss battle, it should provide enough of a challenge for all but the most hardcore danmaku dodging maniacs. It adopts an interesting approach in that all of the bullets fired by the boss are destroyable. However, upon being destroyed they spawn "suicide bullets" of 2 kinds -- so you'll have to consider when to dodge and when to shoot.

Your ship (once again represented here by the @ character with a miniscule hitbox) is equipped with 2 modes of fire. In addition to a normal forward shot you can use a screen-wiping laser which will clear all bullets, offering a momentary escape mechanism. Sweeping away large amounts of suicide bullets in this way will yield higher scores, so the timing is crucial since this weapon requires a recharge period.

Keep On Shooting

Unlike BulletGBA, Vulkanon is played in a more traditional horizontal orientation which makes the playfield seem a bit cramped, but also serves to heighten the manic feel of the gameplay. Nice to see Takayama moving forward with new ideas and continuing to pick up the slack for commercial developers by giving us more portable shooting love!

[Jeremiah Johnson is co-founder of chipmusic and computer-art collective, 8bitpeoples.com based out of New York City. Working with Game Boys and NES consoles to create music, he has been featured in various publications ranging from Wired to Vogue.]

COLUMN: 'Shmup Me Up, Buttercup' - Don't Shoot Shoot Shoot That Gun At Me

April 12, 2006 9:43 PM |

anti-shmup.jpg ['Shmup Me Up, Buttercup' is a bi-weekly column by Jeremiah ''Nullsleep' Johnson, dealing with the latest shoot-em-ups, or shmups, from Japan and the West, and covering the frantically cultish game genre that refuses to die, despite many bullets aimed in its direction over the years.]

Lay Down Your Arms

There was an interesting discussion a little while back on the Shmups forums about certain shooters that seemed to emphasize a pacifist approach to gameplay through the mechanics of their scoring systems. To put it plainly, if you wanted to go for the high scores in these games, you would be better off just not shooting. After all, at their most basic level shmups require only two actions from the player — shooting and dodging. And with bullet dodging arguably being the more defining aspect of the genre, it was inevitable that some games would take the non-shooting concept to its ultimate end.

Photo Shoot in Touhou Boots

bullet.jpg One such game is ZUN's Shoot the Bullet, a doujin "photography game" originally released at Comiket69 for the PC. The game consists of a series of boss battles featuring characters from the Touhou universe. To say there isn't any shooting involved in this game would be a lie, but its an entirely different type of shooting here. Amidst the frantic dodging of your opponent's bullet patterns, you are not expected to return fire but instead to photograph them. There are only two action buttons used in the game, one to slow your character's movement for more precise manuevering and another to take pictures.

Holding the photo button down allows you to move the crosshairs closer to the target while time is slowed down, the tradeoff being that the size of the frame shrinks, the longer that you hold the button. Between shots there is a period of time you must wait for your camera to recharge. Once you have successfully taken a certain number of pictures of your opponent, they will be defeated. Its a very unique concept, with the title's gameplay requiring many of the same skills needed for more traditional shmups, but with a definite twist.

Every Preconception Blown Away

extend.jpg Another anti-shmup with a twist is the brilliantly conceived Every Extend. This freeware doujin game was first released back in 2004, and there is an updated PSP port planned for commercial release this year (apparently not in time to beat the homebrew DS port though). So what is so different about Every Extend? Well, it takes the concept that dying is bad, and totally obliterates it.

Here, blowing yourself up is the primary gameplay mechanic, and everything else revolves around timing this action perfectly. Indeed, the "quick manual" for this game contains the extremely brief explanation of "blow up self to involve enemies," and lists the only controls as "move" and "blow up self." This is truly elegant game design. Clarifying the previous explanation slightly, the goal of Every Extend is to blow yourself up at key moments in order to set off chain reactions of explosions that take out as many enemies as possible. The longer the chain, the more points you score towards getting a life extend to make up for that one you just threw away.

There are also 3 types of items: green capsules that give points, yellow ones that extend your remaining time, and red "quicken" items that increase the amount of enemies and the speed at which they move. In the end, you're left with a game where you're working to get as many enemies on-screen at once as possible just so you can kill yourself in the midst of them. It doesn't get much further from conventional shmup gameplay than that. But somehow, Every Extend manages to be instantly addictive and a lot of fun as it indulges in its individuality.

Should I Shoot Or Should I Go Now?

So, is this the future of shmups? Shooting games without the shooting? Probably not. But these games serve as testaments to the fact that there is still plenty of room left for new ideas in this genre, new directions yet to be explored. So take it easy, give them a chance and give your trigger finger a rest for a while.

COLUMN: 'Shmup Me Up, Buttercup' - Under Defeat's Spell

March 29, 2006 3:43 PM |

ud_logo.jpg ['Shmup Me Up, Buttercup' is a bi-weekly column by Jeremiah ''Nullsleep' Johnson, dealing with the latest shoot-em-ups, or shmups, from Japan and the West, and covering the frantically cultish game genre that refuses to die, despite many bullets aimed in its direction over the years.]

G.Rev Does It Again

In the last "Shmup Me Up" I made a point of mentioning the impending release of G.Rev's new shooter for the Dreamcast, Under Defeat. Those of you who took note and picked it up probably already know what I'm about to say. This game is brilliant. So brilliant in fact that I contemplated cancelling the column this week just to get more playtime in on it. But my loss is your gain, as I've recognized the importance of making it clear that you need this game, you need it so bad.

Pretty Pretty Boom Boom

ud_ss01.jpg The first thing that strikes you about this game is how absolutely polished it is. While graphics and audio are not necessarily the most important aspects of a shooter, it certainly doesn't hurt when a game looks and sounds as good as it plays. Under Defeat is polygon-based and has enough eye candy to easily stand alongside other wonderfully designed 3D shmups such as Gradius V and Ikaruga. The environments are diverse and detailed, with little elements that really add to the experience such as trees swaying from the force of explosions and cows falling over in shock during the first stage alone. Shoot an enemy helicopter while its sliding onto the screen and it wipes out, spinning and plummeting to it's death with a satisfying boom. Larger enemies and elements of destructible scenery produce plumes of dark smoke. Your secondary weapon emits a beep when it's ready to charge up and a metallic thud when it's locked and loaded, audio cues that help you keep your eyes on the action. And you've also got the option to play through the game with the original soundtrack or the excellent arranged soundtrack. It all helps to really enhance the mood of the game and get your adrenalin pumping.

Twist and Shoot

under_defeat.jpg Fortunately, Under Defeat has some great gameplay that lives up to the promise of it's graphics. Your helicopter is outfitted with front guns and a few of the standard screen-wiping bombs for escaping those tough spots. To supplement your main shot there is a secondary gunpod that delivers additional bursts of firepower and recharges when you stop shooting. The gunpod can be equipped with one of 3 different weapons. They range from the low-powered but quick-to-recharge vulcan, to a medium-powered cannon, and finally an impressively destructive high-powered rocket with a significant blast radius. If an enemy or object is destroyed by your gunpod its point value is doubled, making its use integral to playing for score. Another nice touch is the rotation of your helicopter either slightly towards or away from the direction you're moving in. Aggressive players will likely go for the first option, while the second offers a more intuitive approach if you're more likely to be shooting at things that you're running away from.

You Can Defeat Me All Day Long

Overall Under Defeat is a dream to play, and a pleasure to look at. The gradual increase in difficulty between levels, easy to grasp scoring system and flexible gameplay make it a great choice for beginners just learning to love bullets, and plenty of fun for veterans of the genre as well. G.Rev definitely has another hit on their hands here and their continuing support for the Dreamcast has gained them quite a loyal following. So if you're looking for some hot helicopter-on-helicopter action, this is where it's at. Glad that's done with, now I need to get back to playing.

[Jeremiah Johnson is co-founder of chipmusic and computer-art collective, 8bitpeoples.com based out of New York City. Working with Game Boys and NES consoles to create music, he has been featured in various publications ranging from Wired to Vogue.]

COLUMN: 'Shmup Me Up, Buttercup' - Raiden Rages On

March 15, 2006 2:16 PM |

raiden_sign.jpg ['Shmup Me Up, Buttercup' is a bi-weekly column by Jeremiah ''Nullsleep' Johnson, dealing with the latest shoot-em-ups, or shmups, from Japan and the West, and covering the frantically cultish game genre that refuses to die, despite many bullets aimed in its direction over the years.]

Still Raiden After All These Years

In the world of shmups, Raiden is a name that carries with it a legacy that few others do. It is to verts what Gradius and R-Type are to horis (minus the cool models and garage kits that these other two have inspired), a long-running and consistently high-quality series. And in the 15+ years since the original arcade release of Raiden, it has seen numerous sequels, spin-offs, and console ports of all varieties - not to mention the requisite fan-made flash game, which provides a pretty decent excuse to slack off at work.

Roaring Engines, Magnificent Melodies

raiden_ost.jpg Raiden fans were given a treat earlier this year when the ever-excellent INH released the a Raiden I & II OST set. Spanning three CDs and featuring music from composers Akira Sato and Go Sato for the arcade, Playstation, and FM Towns versions of the games, there is plenty of shooting love for your ears here. RTW from over at the shmups.com forums even went through the effort of meticulously compiling composer and arranger information for each track in English, just so the unhealthily-obsessed among you don't have to. Apparently his karmic investment paid off, as he's now compiling questions from fans for an interview with Go Sato that will be tied into a future promotion through CocoeBiz. Mmm, more Raiden music love on the horizon? We sure hope so, it would complement the upcoming Raiden addition to INH's Insanity DVD series, The Aces High, quite nicely.

Thunder and Lightning Strike Thrice

raiden3ss.jpg This month Raiden III will get a Windows port in Japan, following its release for the PS2 last September. While arcade games being brought to the PC usually strikes me as odd (consoles just feel like a more appropriate home for them), it appears to make perfect sense in this case. The reason being that the Taito Type-X arcade hardware Raiden III was originally released on is really not much more than a dedicated PC with a Radeon graphics card. We may even see a bump in the graphical quality of this Windows port when compared to the PS2 version, specifically in higher resolution textures. So if you haven't imported it yet, get those USB joysticks ready.

And while Raiden III might be seen by some as a step backwards from the more complex scoring system of Raiden DX, it's a solid shooter and proof enough that the series still has plenty of fun to offer up. Believe me ... the two player mode makes for great drinking games. *hic*

Shooting From The Hip

Two quick shmup sidenotes that I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I didn't mention. The new G.rev Dreamcast shmup, Under Defeat is coming March 23rd. And if the prices that their previous shmupsterpiece are now commanding are any indication, this is one that you'll want to grab sooner rather than later. And finally I'll leave you with a little gem called BulletGBA (via IC), "Please enjoy bullet hell anytime and anywhere with GBA." Happy shooting!

[Jeremiah Johnson is co-founder of chipmusic and computer-art collective, 8bitpeoples.com based out of New York City. Working with Game Boys and NES consoles to create music, he has been featured in various publications ranging from Wired to Vogue.]

COLUMN: 'Shmup Me Up, Buttercup' - Ibara Is Hell For Bullets

March 1, 2006 3:24 PM |

ibara.jpg ['Shmup Me Up, Buttercup' is a bi-weekly column by Jeremiah ''Nullsleep' Johnson, dealing with the latest shoot-em-ups, or shmups, from Japan and the West, and covering the frantically cultish game genre that refuses to die, despite many bullets aimed in its direction over the years.]

Ibara Attacks The PlayStation 2!

Thus far, February saw the release of a variety of exciting new shooters, reaffirming the vitality of a genre based largely on navigating through ungodly swarms of bullets.

Combining the sex appeal angle of Mushihimesama with a rank and scoring system reminiscent of Battle Garegga, Ibara is the latest bullet-fest to hit the PS2. Although it carries the Cave name, with Shinobu Yagawa's influence as lead programmer some are calling it the first new Raizing shooter since 2000. Cave fans will have to deal with the larger hitbox, heavy debris and needle bullets, but hey, the cute Rose sisters dolls should make up for it.

Radilgy Gets Dreamcast Love?

radi.jpgOn the other end of the spectrum is Radilgy, brought to everyone's favorite undead console, the Dreamcast, by developer Milestone - it's also now due for PS2 and GameCube. Where their previous effort, Chaos Field (which recently saw a US Gamecube release) came across as unpolished and somewhat derivative, Radilgy shines with vibrant, cel-shaded graphics and more engaging and original gameplay.

And while they may not have the luxury of releasing an entire line of figures to coincide with the release of the game like a certain other company, they do have papercraft!

gradpsp.jpgGradius, Gunner's, Bullet...

Add to this the Gradius Portable collection for PSP (well worth importing, but is it worth firmware upgrading?) and access to the previously-Comiket 69-exclusive releases of excellent doujin shooters Gunner's Heart and Shoot The Bullet, and it all adds up to shooting heaven!

Stay tuned til the next instalment of 'Shmup Me Up, Buttercup', where we'll be discussing more of the latest shooters for console, PC, handheld, mobile, and whatever other formats we can get our hands on. Feel free to contact us with feedback or tips for the column.

[Jeremiah Johnson is co-founder of chipmusic and computer-art collective, 8bitpeoples.com based out of New York City. Working with Game Boys and NES consoles to create music, he has been featured in various publications ranging from Wired to Vogue.]