I’ve mentioned a few times that scrolling shooters (or “shmups”/”STGs”) have been one of my favorite game genres for several years, but I haven’t yet taken the time to really talk about them in these writeups. A lot of that comes down to how difficult it can be to explain what makes a game so special when it’s obviously so similar to many others. (The irritating corollary to this is that any time a game’s unique aspects are immediately apparent-particularly in the case of Ikaruga-people throw on all kinds of excessive praise and lamentation over why nothing else is as creative. Which I guess is more or less what’s about to happen here, so oops)
A lot of that difficulty comes down to the somewhat unfortunate refinement of the genre down to a pretty basic form. Most of the best-known shooters in the last decade or so use the same structure and focus on the same elements: dense, intricate bullet patterns, and complex scoring systems demanding a lot of practice and execution. Bosses are the primary delivery system for the former, since they’re not as reliant on the player’s actions. They’ll simply appear on the screen and do whatever they’re supposed to do. This leaves scoring as the the main purpose of stages, but with all of the action happening just on the surface it’s understandably difficult for less seasoned players and observers to really pick up on the nuances of each individual game. Plenty of experienced fans also find that Cave and Touhou games don’t suit their preferences, and find their overall “feel” to be fairly repetitive and not especially enjoyable, but with those titles essentially leading the market for so long it’s not hard to see why many people could feel the genre has stagnated in a lot of ways.
I sympathize, but don’t entirely share their views: I don’t care that much for the “main” Touhou series, but the photography-based installments have me convinced that ZUN is a pretty amazing game designer, if one who seems heavily constrained either by his fans, or his perception of them. And even the most standard Cave titles have wonderfully executed and novel moments, like Mushihimesama‘s third stage, which centers on a monstrously huge arthropod. As you blow away parts of its shell, worms and smaller bugs spill out to keep firing at you. Which is kind of amazingly disgusting when I put it that way, but it’s still one of the more fun and awe-inspiring levels I can think of in recent years. (Given that a good port of this game was finally released just last year and the overall pace of releases in the genre, I don’t feel that bad about calling it “recent” even though it first came out in 2004.)
And while arcades are gradually weakening even in Japan, the dropoff of the STG market has been much more dramatic. In terms of quantity, the late 90s paled by comparison to the early 90s-a fact often blamed on the incredible popularity of versus fighting in the wake of Street Fighter II and SNK’s entries-but strong companies like Raizing and Psikyo were still putting out frequent and usually solid releases. By 2002, only Cave had survived to keep putting out shooters, and perhaps surprisingly, in their strongest position ever. For the next several years, they managed to release two new games each year to arcades, and ultimately a personal collector’s market appeared, with many people (especially overseas) purchasing the game boards for home use. That prosperity eventually waned, and Cave gradually shifted focus toward consumer markets, porting much of their 2000s catalog to iOS and the XBOX 360. Although they’ve dabbled in more modern arcade hardware as well, like the Nesica system and Taito’s X2, they haven’t been as successful, and according to some of the statements made after their latest game, last year’s Dodonpachi Saidaioujou, there aren’t enough of their “SH3” boards, their primary hardware since Mushi, remaining to release another full game. Lead designer Tsuneki Ikeda says he’s determined to keep making shooters as long as he can, but that future has never been more in doubt. It’s hard not to think that “true” arcade shooting games are basically over. Virtually everything that’s happening now is in the home markets, either in the doujin sphere (which I have a hard time keeping track of) or straight-to-console releases like G.Rev’s Kokuga and Qute’s Ginga Force, both from the past year.
Ginga Force is what I really wanted to talk about all along, but while it’s so obviously against many of the modern conventions of the genre, that’s why it merits all the more background explanation. I certainly feel that a lot of the game’s coolness speaks for itself, but not enough to explain why I felt more excitement and fun playing through it than almost any game I can think of…ever. I’m a huge advocate of refined and subtle depth as well, but it’s hard for me to find enough praise for a game that eagerly wants to come out and show everyone a good time.
Like most shooters, Ginga Force’s mechanics and level design are primarily the product of one person, who goes by the name M-KAI. He got his start developing homebrew for the Wonderswan system, using an officially licensed development kit called “Wonder Witch.” Qute, who made the Witch software/hardware, had a game development competition for the system, and M-KAI’s submission, Judgment Silversword, was one of the winners, eventually seeing a full retail release. I’m not sure how Qute decided to enter the the 360 shooter market, but when they did, they brought M-KAI on board. Their first release, Eschatos, carries the same basic structure and mechanics of JSS, and also includes ports of it and M-KAI’s other Wonderswan game Cardinal Sins. But really the only reason to explain all of this is so I can bring up his obvious love of completely insane visual spectacle. Even on the extremely modest WSC, M-KAI brings out screen-filling bosses, ridiculous bullet patterns, “fake” screen-tearing graphics, and a gorgeous background that only appears for three seconds.
Ginga Force doesn’t exactly have the highest production values either, but that doesn’t stop it from trying to impress constantly with exciting 3-D effects, tons of movement, and lots of big camera sweeps and angle changes. The effects are really cool, and it’s all too rare for games like this to feature truly awe-inspiring bosses (and even some enemies) that chase the player all around the screen, or move dynamically out of the game’s main “layer.” Outside of a few of Taito’s games, I’ve seen very few bosses with this level of expression. I’m sure that some of those things sound annoying to veterans of the genre, as do some of the game’s other mechanics, but ultimately the bulk of the game comes down to understanding how to play this game specifically. Even for players who are quite experienced in dodging bullets, it’s easy to get blindsided by the unusual setpiece design, and finding the best path to victory requires experimenting with both momentary tactics and overall stage strategy while learning how to dodge the basic patterns. Between missions you get the opportunity to purchase and customize upgrades for the ship, which appear on the model (often looking quite cool), and for each level, different kinds of weapons and defensive options will prove most effective depending on both the stage design and player preference.
As a result, the game calls for a lot of perseverance and careful consideration of what options will best address the challenges, and that’s further reinforced by making most of the stages nearly impossible to beat the first time you play them. Initially you begin a new stage with only a few lives, but as you die and work further through the stages you’ll begin with more and more, until you reach an appropriate match of your skill and understanding of the level with the amount of lives you have. Skilled players will reach that point more quickly, and are likely to enjoy playing for high ranks on each mission, but I’ve talked to a lot of more casual fans who I think would also really enjoy this method. I’ve heard people cite Ikaruga on the Gamecube as an example of a continue system they like, because it rewards you for continuing to play in tandem with the fun of seeing your own personal improvement, and I think that Ginga Force also does that with this system, in an even better fashion.The high amount of lives and strong defensive options appear in all of M-KAI’s games, and I’m sure it’s because he knows that the things he likes to put in them are too ridiculous for most people to handle “normally.” But I think it really works, and in this one best of all because the game is divided by stage-select play into long but manageable pieces. When something spectacularly cheap pops up to take your last life, it’ll only be a few minutes at most before you can come back, stronger and wiser, and get revenge. Also, a forgiving game with lots of “hard parts” is often easier to beat than a punishing one that’s mostly “easy”, because individual errors (which will always happen) weigh less against the overall result. It’s another good way to make the game approachable.
Another way, even if it’s not really that important overall, is to distance the game from the overly cutesy (if I’m being nice) character designs that have dominated so many of these games in the last decade. A couple of other titles (particularly Cave’s Akai Katana) have also been good about this, but Ginga Force‘s illustrations have a rough, angular quality that really complements the way the game feels kind of like a throwback to forgotten days. Some moments are reminiscent of older games: the third level’s graceful low angle over the ocean is a lot like the second area in Taito’s Raystorm, and the musical cue at the very beginning of the level sounds like it could’ve come right from its soundtrack. Stages 5 and 8 also feature Ray-esque moments with vertical drops into the background and enemies passing under the play plane. The penultimate mission is a colossal warship that would be right at home in G-Darius, with attacks from strange angles, tons of small pieces to blow up, and giant killer beams. Even aside from the main contributions to the soundtrack by Yosuke Yasui (whose retrotic synthy style fits these games perfectly), other Super Sweep artists like Shinji Hosoe and Yasuihisa Watanabe, who have a long history as STG composers, chipped in tracks as well. It’s an exciting soundtrack with its own personality, but it feels just a bit familiar at the same time. Even the story projects an earnest, “fun” vibe. This is a game that knows what it wants to be, and it follows through perfectly.
Unfortunately, not everyone will appreciate the more atypical elements of the game; there are a lot of purists out there, and while there’s a more traditional mode also available, featuring ships with preset loadouts and sequential stage play (but still separate, in that your performance on earlier stages doesn’t affect later ones, even in your life totals), it’s a long and intense affair. A running time of 80-90 minutes sounds short for a game in the modern era, but most entries in the genre come in under half an hour and even the longest tend to top out around 50 minutes without extreme amounts of “point milking.” Ginga Force isn’t padded and it doesn’t take long to build, it’s just full of action. The first stage is slightly easier than the others overall (although the first minute of the game can be one of the most difficult sections to play properly), but the frequently randomized enemy formations and fast pace means there are few spots throughout the game that feel rote, or like a “breather.” That’s what the stage clear screens are for, after all.
Again, not everyone will be satisfied, but that’s something that’s just not possible, anyway. As STGs move into a new era, further than ever from the arcades they came from, I think the opportunity for true innovation and experimentation is greater than it’s been in decades. Right now is an amazing chance to make things that can attract new fans and show them what’s so captivating and awesome about these games. I truly think that M-KAI sees one possible way to make a game that will appeal to “serious” players while also engaging those with less experience, but I’m sure there are others as well. People are quick to call the genre “dead” or “dying,” but I’ve always thought this was closed-minded at best. Maybe the current model of shooters is really running out of space to expand and bring new experiences (although I doubt that too), but there’s no reason they have to be shackled to it. Ginga Force is exciting on its own merits, but it’s also refreshing because it makes me believe in things I never knew were possible.