Still Alive and Learning to Enjoy the SHMUP

I'm still here. For reals.

But I’ve been busy. And when I get busy, I stop doing things, even things that don’t require that I leave my home or put on pants. Hence, I stopped watching movies, and once I stopped watching them, I stopped writing about them. And now I have not yet begun to write about movies again, mostly because I haven’t actually watched one in, like, three weeks.

So, what have I actually been doing in the spare time I have? Mostly whittling it away. I developed something of a habit, recently, of sitting in a chair across from my only television that picks up a digital signal and playing video games on one of my analog TVs, situated nearby, which now serves no other purpose. This usually means that I blaze through a few rounds of Samurai Warriors Xtreme Legends while listening to the local news broadcast before turning in for the night.

But recently I decided to actually try playing something a bit different from my usual selection of JRPGs and Koei brawlers – specifically, I decided to try to reacquaint myself with the scrolling shooter. Once among the most popular genres in arcades, the seemingly simple scrolling shooter had fallen out of favor during much of the late nineties and oughts, with few developers (Treasure comes to mind) bothering to make them, while fans became so desperate that they would praise even mediocre games – see Dave Halverson’s gushing over Silpheed: The Lost Planet in Gamer’s Republic for an example. Recently, iOS ports of Japanese arcade shooters (the genre still enjoys a profitable audience in Japan) helped rejuvenate the interest in this very noble style of electronic game.

Unfortunately, I don’t have an iPhone. I do own a PSP, so rather than paying for old games on a new platform, I downloaded a Turbografx-16 emulator and a Sega Genesis emulator and a few roms so that I could enjoy old games on relatively old platform, without paying anything at all.

Of course, I had to choose which games I would try to play – I say “try,” as I had not actually played a scrolling shoot-em-up since the DOS days and Raptor: Call of the Shadows – which lead me over to Hardcore Gaming101. I eventually decided on trying out some Compile shooters, since I rather like Puyo Pop for the Game Boy Advance.

The first one I tried was MUSHA for the Genesis. It’s a vertically scrolling shooter where the player controls a giant mecha robot in a vaguely Sengoku era Japanese setting, which is exactly the sort of silliness that contemporary gaming eschews to its own misfortune. The technological/mythological/historical mash-up is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game. I mean, you’re a giant robot in ancient Japan shooting electrified arrows and shurikens at giant Japanese castles on tank treads which shoot flaming oni demon heads at you. That’s definitely something.

The other thing that I liked about MUSHA was the weapon system. The player can collect three types of weapons and get two satellite units, which is more or less conventional. What is unusual is that the player can actually order the satellites with the press of a button. The two smaller ships that fly next to the giant robot can home in on enemies, or aim themselves next to the ship to spread gunfire across the screen. The support units are vulnerable to enemy fire, though, so it is best for the player not to simply set them to homing and leave them to get slaughtered by incoming enemies.

It’s a hard game too. I’ve still not managed to get past the third level, but that’s two levels farther than the first time I played. One of the things I like about scrolling shooters is that they’re genuinely skill based, and time spent with them is time spent learning the skills it takes to play them. Granted, a person with exceptional hand-eye coordination is going to be better than somebody whose fingers get tangled up when they try to type a six word sentence, but for being simple games based on a simple concept (shoot the enemies; don’t get shot), the best games of this type actually have a lot of depth that the uninitiated will not see.
The other game I’ve been playing recently is a Turbografx-16 title called Blazing Lazers in the West, although in Japan it was released as Gunhed, a tie-in product for a live-action film based on a manga by Kia Asamiya. I haven’t seen the film and the manga doesn’t seem to be available in English, so what relation they have to a more-or-less stereotypical space-shooter, I couldn’t say. What I can say is that the Blazing Lazers is good simple fun.

It’s another vertically scrolling shooter, and it also has power ups that the player can collect. There are four types of weapons, spread shot, waves, a wide electrical current that mows down anything in its path, and a spinning balls that protect the ship. This is about as conventional as it gets, except that secondary power ups will change the range and spread of the weapons. My favorite is “field thunder,” which makes the third power up shoot out in waves that make patterns around the screen.
I didn’t think Blazing Lazers was as difficult as MUSHA, but it’s hardly as easy as your average platformer (for me, at least, being rather new to the genre). The sci-fi theme is not nearly so striking as MUSHA’s – no Noh theater mask gunships to be found here – but the weapon system is quite to my liking. Comparably simpler, but the sheer number of different combinations makes up for not being able to customize satellite support.

Compile is one of those interesting Japanese developers whose games I have read about more often than I’ve played them. They were extremely active on the Japanese MSX computer scene, releasing disc magazines and games in all sorts of genres. They’re still around, sort-of, in the form of Compile Heart, a team made of former Compile employees whose games are published by Nippon Ichi. Compile Hearts most notable games in the US market are Record of Agarest War and Hyperdimension Neptunia, which…

Okay, the less said about those games, the better. Still, if they ever decide to stop pandering to creepy otaku types, there is hope that the development team formerly known as Compile could still craft games like MUSHA and Blazing Lazers. I may use them to whittle away my free time because I’m too tired to do anything else, but the level of craft that went into these games is both apparent and highly respectable.

And hopefully, I'll get around to watching some movies some time soon.