The Transcendental World of the Japanese Shooter
The primary urge of video gaming is to shoot.
In the beginning (1962 to be precise) was Spacewar, a monumental gaming achievement. For the first time in the history of the world, players could shoot at each other on a computer screen. There was thrust, there was rotate, there was hyperspace, and it was good.
In 1971, Spacewar came to the arcade as Atari founder Nolan Bushnell's too-confusing-for-the-’70s Computer Space. While it was Bushnell's pedestrian Pong that would win the hearts of barflies everywhere, Spacewar lived on as a persistent dream of video game perfection, too holy yet for the masses.
Fast-forward to 1978. Home-version Pong knockoffs are now in every fake-wood-paneled rumpus room in America. Suddenly, a sinister pulsing sound emerges from the darkened corner of the pizza parlor: The spirit of Spacewar is back (if in dumbed-down form) as Space Invaders. The sound of 10 zillion quarters being inserted simultaneously is deafening.
Immediately, more shooters explode into the world: Asteroids, Scramble, Defender and scads of imitators. The shooter begins to develop a cultural history. Hardware improves and games get weirder, headier, more difficult. The 1987 arcade hit R-Type embodies a sea change in shooter evolution: Grotesque, H.R. Giger-influenced aliens must be crushed with an arsenal of mutating weaponry. Mastering the tricky game mechanics is crucial. By now almost all of these games are designed in Japan. Where U.S. tastes have begun to drift to lame CD-ROM titles and 3D blast-fests, in Japan the 2D shooter develops into a specialized artform in the kinky tradition of bonsai cultivation or Shibari bondage.
Fast-forward to the 21st century: here, now, today. Whither the shooter? If you ask your little Halo-crazed brother, he doesn't even know what you're talking about. If you ask me, I'll tell you about the two excellent, brainy 2D shooters that just came out for the Sega Dreamcast in April.
Yes, the Dreamcast, Sega's little engine that couldn't, has developed a second life as the platform of choice for Japanese shooters. Here's how it happened: In Japan, arcades remain popular. Sega's NAOMI system is ubiquitous, reprogrammable arcade hardware. The NAOMI board has the same system architecture as the Dreamcast, so with minimal effort a NAOMI arcade game can be ported to the console, resulting in a steady trickle of small-batch software released for the international market. (U.S. Dreamcasts need to be modded or, more conveniently, booted with a disc to negate the device's region-coding, but that's cake.)
Radirgy (meaning "Radio Allergy," an allusion to the game's silly anime-style backstory) is the world's first cel-shaded shooter, a goofy joyride of cheerful music, I-think-the-acid's-kicking-in flower-power graphics and hyper-charged gameplay. Like developer Milestone's earlier release Chaos Field (now available domestically for the GameCube), the formula of dodge-and-shoot is subverted with such tremendous waves of patterned attacks that the best strategy is not to avoid enemy fire, but to hurl directly into the waves of onrushing mecha, relying on your force field for protection. With the correct timing, the player is invulnerable, earning power-ups only to immediately discharge them, cutting a swath of giddy destruction through otherwise overwhelming force by finding the pulse of the game. Highly postmodern and very trippy.
In a more traditional vein is G.rev's Under Defeat, set in an alternate future where a nightmare of hyped-up WWII-style war machines are pitted against super-helicopters piloted by pink-haired hotties. Here the emphasis is on leveraging one of three deployable weapons: a highly-destructive one-shot rocket, a lock-on vulcan beam and a self-targeting cannon. Tension mounts when it's time for the supplemental weaponry to recharge: You must stop shooting and dodge attacks, waiting for the weapon to replenish, so timing is essential. Fully 3D eye candy backdrops fill the screen with activity, pushing the Dreamcast to its graphical limit, but if you linger too long on the scenery you are as good as doomed.
In Japan, the shooter has transcended the mere act of shooting. The crazy vitality of its niche market (Under Defeat sold out its 10,000-copy pressing in a matter of weeks) is a testament to the artistic heights the genre can reach. In a 3D world full of guns perpetually pointing into the center of the screen, the ballet-like maneuvering and think-ahead strategizing required to master 2D boards is more like the graceful wizardry needed to keep a pinball in play. In fact, the holy grail of real shooter players is the 1CC ("1-credit complete"), the perfect, never-get-killed mastering of an entire game. It's not enough to win, it must be done perfectly. While cowards credit-feed many times before their deaths, the valiant never taste of death but once.
Web resources for the beautiful artform we call the 2D shooter
Radirgy and Under Defeat
Shooter (a.k.a. Shmups) History and Culture
The Dreamcast Scene
Import Video Game Sources