I was really in a quandary as to what examples I might bring up as classic examples of the SHMUP. I had considered discussing the Gradius series, but there's precious little anyone can add to that conversation. Do I talk about Contra and the sometimes controversial stance its genre-straddling gameplay provides? No - Big D has been given that task.
For this second installment, I decided to delve into the gaming vaults (ok, my MAME directory) and pull two titles that both demonstrate some of the history and linage of more modern shooters as well as offering a SHMUP that may have been lost in the great shuffle of the early 90's.
The Overhead Assault Revisited...
Terra Cresta - 1985
A few years before Terra Cresta appeared in the arcades, its prequel Moon Cresta added innovate touches to the Invaders theme, with varied enemies and attacks, and a docking sequence, which expanded your ship. Moon Cresta proved a massive hit, (and is still remembered fondly today) - signifying that variety and more complex powerups and controls were required to make the next step up from Galaxians.
The same philosophy was applied to Terra Cresta. Taking its cue from countless Xevious clones (such as Espial, Exed Exes, and Vulgus - which added nothing new to the genre) it expanded on the whole concept of the vertically scrolling SHMUP. At first sight it seems yet another clone in gameplay and looks. Dig deeper and you'll discover a powerup system ingenious in its simplicity, bolted on to an addictively difficult and furiously frustrating game.
The weapon system is in many ways unique, and hasn't been copied an awful lot since. Your ship starts as a naked lonely soul. Ground bases (numbered from 1 to 5) appear every so often, and shooting these will release a bolt-on-able section of ship. Collecting these will boost the firepower, adding backshots and a wider spread. A quick bash of the second fire button will expand the ship temporarily into formation mode; dependent on the amount of extras you've collected.
The ultimate ship is the Terra Cresta itself, only available if you have successfully collected all the powerups without dying. Bashing the second button will morph the ship into a phoenix-like bird, completely invincible for a few seconds. This system is one of the reasons I pumped rolls of quarters into the machine in the arcades. Trying to stay alive to collect that elusive fifth powerup is a completely engrossing experience. The sheer feeling of exhilaration when you finally manage it is unbeatable. Losing your add-ons, on the other hand, is a screen-punchingly bitter affair!
Without this powerup system, the game would be significantly less fun, but the gameplay itself is compulsive. The enemy ships have a horribly accurate way of swarming around in pattern which match your own pathetic attempts to escape their path - it's preprogrammed, sure, but it's still uncanny how one seems to die so often. Lots of ground activity too, and I was glad to see that you don't need a separate weapon for ground installations for once - just shoot 'em and be done with 'em! The X shaped barriers are indeed a pain in the ass, as you'll need to sneak in close to get the guns hiding behind them. Large dinosaurs and iguana-like-beasties roam the plains, spitting fire and taking many hits before they suddenly become calcified bone.
Bosses are typical of an early shooter. Unlike many modern games, they are not the be all and end all of the game. Far from it in fact, I've only seen three types so far, and although quite nasty, they aren't huge affairs. The game doesn't stop for them either, just continues into the boss and past it.
For an early title, the music is actually rather groovy. Apparently there's two variations on Terra Cresta, each with a different sound chip, and with slightly different tunes. I personally prefer the more muted one, as it's the one I grew up with!
One of the Original Nerve-Frayers...
Robotron 2084 - 1982
Robotron 2084. Speak its name to a grizzled arcade troll and you likely to bring tears to his eyes. I'm not quite old enough to be pushed into this category, but I sure can appreciate the hectic, adrenaline-pumping action of Robotron.
The premise of the game here is that mankind's robots in the year 2084 has developed sentience and have decided to exterminate the inferior humans. It would have been a virtual slaughter but for you, a genetically altered human with the powers to (hopefully) stop the advance of the mechanical monsters. A simple yet perfect premise giving enough reason to lay waste to robots and rescue the humans, no?
The unique thing about this game is it's very original control scheme that uses two joysticks and no buttons at all. One joystick moves the hero and the other one fires the rapid fire lasers.
The game starts off rather slowly but picks up the pace in no time. There are a whole lot of robots to exterminate, traps to avoid or disarm, and humans to rescue. Killing all the robots moves the player to the next wave, and rescuing the humans yield lots of points. Score 25,000 points and get a free man. Life is difficult though - the robots move fast, and those that can shoot do so at a very rapid pace. At some waves, the number of bullets on screen will overwhelm! This is what gives that sweaty palms experience.
I must mention the 'brain waves'. At these levels, there is a lot more humans than the average levels, enough to send a player drooling as he dreams of multiple 5000 points bonuses. Ah, but beware the brain enemies too - these evil creatures shoot many triangulating cruise missiles that are hard as heck to shoot and avoid; and if the Brains manage to catch a human, they can reprogram the victim to do their evil bidding - killing you!
A good player must know his priorities. Should he kill that last Brain/Enforcer or risk getting shot in the pants while rescuing the last human? Is that 5,000 points worth the risk? Or should you just move on to the next wave where pastures might be greener (Fat chance. Expect more robots and hostile projectiles than anything else)?
And that's how it is. Kill robots, rescue humans. Kill robots, rescue humans. Repeat ad infinitum. It's like a mantra. And it IS a mantra. The player will be sucked in, dying again and again but will continue to put in coins and trying ever one more time to beat his last score.
XEXEX - 1991
Every once in a while you get a little gaming gem so amazing and advanced for it's time, it is instantly hailed as a classic, a God, a fantastical piece of gaming goodness. In the SHMUP genre you have your R-Type, Gradius, Radiant Silvergun and so on, and these games are classics in their own right. However, many games that become instant classics struggle to hold on to their title, and often lose their status either by over-sequelling or just becoming untouched, lost in the mists of time. XEXEX is one of those lost gems.
To many gamers out there who can remember the name XEXEX it conjures up something so hyped and overbloated that many players bypass the game on principle, preferring to get on with their Einhanders and G.Dariuses on their fancy new console. However that isn't always the case...
XEXEX was hyped as the most advanced game of the time, with fantastic rendered graphics and amazing graphical effects such as warping, twisting and scaling, and as such it became incredibly hard to emulate (only recently has it become somewhat playable). Because of the advanced nature of the board, it became a collectors item, with boards oftem being traded for three hundred, four hundred, often FIVE HUNDRED dollars at a time. That's a lot for a board nearly a decade old...
The game itself is a joy to behold. Graphically, as already stated, it was a mass to twisty, warpy, scaly graphical feats, and the sight of enemies warping into view, attacking you with huge laser beams seen only in the best Japanese animes leaves you amazed that a board from '91 could do stuff like this. Your weapons too, were amazing, with spiral lasers changing colors every nanosecond, shadow lasers sweeping around (and a possible inspiration for the R-13's "Shade-Alpha" laser in R-Type Delta), and massive tentacles released only after charging the Flint Pod up...
Bosses too, appeared in huge, warping masses, and the sheer graphical detail puts other games of the time to complete shame. The pseudo-rendered look is abundant throughout the game, and looks fantastic.
Sonically, the game had music not uncommon to that time, but with the addition of an advanced sound chip into the board, the game pumped out explosions, laser effects and even voice effects with every event. The music was practically like having an electronic orchestra in a box, with heavy guitar, drums and electronica pumping you up every step of the way.
The gameplay is... well…good! Although the weapons have been criticized for being weak (and I'll admit that they can be at times), they are well balanced and there is a hint of "R-Typeism" in the gameplay, where you often require specific weapons to get through sections of the game. Although specific weapons aren't required at times, it can be helpful picking carefully...
More "R-Typeism" is abundant in the level design. Tight corridors, controlled masses of enemies and enemy firepower graded to make you life hell but not to kill you unfairly are all part of the fantastic playability this game has to offer.
Although XEXEX may not be your cup of tea (and why not?!) it certainly remains one of the indomitable classics, destined to be up the top of the mountain of goodness along with stablemates Gradius, R-Type and Thunderforce. A killer of a game, and well worth checking out in any form...