Why We Play STGs
July 12, 2023 at 12:53 PM
Of all the video game genres that have fallen out of favor with time, perhaps none have suffered so painfully as the one which pioneered the modern video game to begin with - none other than the shooting game, shoot-em-up, STG, shmup, or what have you.
These days, it seems most people will write any STG off as "yeugh, generic space shooter where you blow up and avoid stuff, what's new". This is a direct consequence of the genre missing multiple critical opportunities to shine, often due to paranoid witholding from broader markets or powerful console companies sabotaging these games due to arbitrary restrictions.
Despite the overwhelming odds stacked against the genre, random specks of us still remain loyal to it, striving to see the day it gains the widespread respect it deserves. The best STGs are far from generic; they lay the groundwork for what games should be, and people still play them because of how well designed and innovative they are.
A Series of Fumbles
The release of the immortal Space Invaders kicked off an explosion in the arcade industry. Even with major contenders like Pac-Man and Pole Position challenging the throne, STGs were the ruling genre of an era. In this time, American and Japanese developers were on equal footing, answering each other with plenty of innovative titles like Centipede, Galaga, Defender, and Bosconian. Things were going great for the almighty genre.
It wouldn't be long before it started to take a dark turn, though. The North American video game crash of 1983 damaged arcades significantly, and pushed most American game companies away from STG development outright. From that point onward, it was up to Japan to carry the genre forward, and did they fight valiantly.
The fresh new console market that took the place of the arcade had plenty of opportunities to give STGs a chance to attain a much deeper appreciation. Without the burden of driving over to a local arcade for a few hours every so often, anyone could get convenient access to such great challenges pretty much any day of the week. Many excellent arcade titles did enjoy success in a second life as NES conversions, with the vibrant Xevious being a prime example.
Other games, despite having everything going for them, hit a brick wall. The one that comes to mind most of all is Gradius II, with the Famicom version sporting a custom MMC that helped push the hardware's capabilities to the extreme. This was destined to be a smash hit over here; it even got a few pages in a magazine as what would've been a highly anticipated upcoming release. What killed it? One half of it could be the expenses involved in manufacturing a cartridge with such advanced hardware, but I blame the corporate bullshit from Nintendo of America, refusing to take any games which didn't use their own MMCs. This nonsense, I think, seriously hurt the momentum of STGs, given Gradius stood as the leader of the STGs at the time.
Despite this, more powerful consoles were right around the corner. Both the Mega Drive/Genesis from Sega and the PC Engine/TurboGrafx 16 from NEC and Hudson hosted a vast library of high quality STGs. Thanks to the smashing success of the Genesis over here, plenty of STGs developed for it were able to make their way overseas and enjoy a larger audience.
PC Engine games were not so lucky, as the TG16 received next to no support in North America. Many fantastic STGs were doomed to be confined in the Japanese market, including yours truly, a port of Darius (note that this was long before a new Mega Drive conversion was released in 2019). If you were an outsider, the best you could probably do was find some means of importing games and get ahold of a region converter. It's a serious letdown, because the PC Engine is undoubtedly the best looking console that ever released, and I really like the small form factor of its cartridges. Apparently, not even trying to reshape it to be more masculine for American gamers could salvage it.
The failure of the PC Engine to break into the American market didn't just affect STGs; there's probably at least a couple of games you might be able to name which initially didn't get any shot here. With such a large chunk of these games never reaching shores, that too struck a heavy blow towards the STG genre.
These two blunders would repeat themselves in the reign of the PlayStation. The explosion in 3D gaming prompted Sony's American computer entertainment division to reject the majority of purely 2D games submitted to the PlayStation. I guess they presumed we would want more 3D shit because it's the future, but it's a very insulting generalization to make of this market. There's plenty of people who would've loved to have 2D STGs over here. The advanced two-dimensional graphical capabilities of the PlayStation would've been more than enough to wow anyone and reel them in, but nope. Sony threw it all out!
The STGs which did get releases here did so because they made use of 3D polygons. One of them happens to be G-Darius, one of the best games of all time, and one I happened to review last year.
The denial of many PlayStation STGs for the American market was another kick in the balls for the genre. On the other end, the Sega Saturn had great STGs as well, but was failing to a point where Sega of America themselves had lost faith in the console. It was prematurely canned in North America before some of its very best games were even released, including the wildly inventive Radiant Silvergun.
Around the late end of this console generation, STGs were past the point of no return. They became pretty much doomed to obscurity as other kinds of games would outnumber them. I know there's a number of other factors to this, including developers such as Konami not placing enough faith in American consumers to release more of their games in the US, but basically, the decline of arcades and the failure of more STGs to arrive in more regions on consoles are the bulk of what slowly killed the genre, to the best I can see it.
Why STGs Matter
Apart from being the pioneer of the modern video game, the STG is a vital part of gaming because many of the best STGs bring forward a plethora of new ideas, and have an underappreciated level of technical depth to them. Perhaps it is something that they are inherently unable to explicitly convey to the average player due to their fast pace, constant movement, and lack of words to relay. It's often left to the player to figure out these things on their own, or consult some strategy guide for advice. This may very well have been a problem even from the beginning; how many people know how to acquire dual ships in Galaga? I haven't seen anyone in person who has.
During the debut of Project Sunfish, I got a comment during the part showing off Gradius II, claiming it looked like R-Type. Putting aside the fact that Gradius technically came first, I want to reiterate again: not all STGs are the same as each other. Horizontally scrolling STGs are not inherently R-Type clones. Anyone who says they are have no understanding of what R-Type is.
R-Type's distinguishing characteristic is its force, an orange ball that can attach to the ship from either side and be tossed around to block projectiles and destroy enemies. When attached, this force can also fire one of three different projectiles suited to different situations as it grows. It's a brilliant mechanic that completely changes the game. R-Type in itself also requires a different approach from other STGs. You don't simply power up your ship and keep firing in the hopes of plowing through everything. It kind of helps, but you also need to know what weapons to use at different parts of the game, and where to position your force. Though many skilled players do seem to prefer to stick with the red DNA shot at all times. Imbalances exist, and that type of firepower is a lot more effective than the others.
From what I've been hearing, difficulty in games seems to have garnered more controversy than usual, with accessibility being one of the issues brought up. Historically, STGs have been some of the most difficult games to conquer, due to their deep roots in arcades where the actual primary objective is for a coin to be burned out as fast as possible for the operator. Is it too extreme now to make a game short and very difficult to overcome?
I think not. A great game will exercise the strengths of a player, even a slow-paced one. If anything, difficulty in games is hardly much different from going up against formidable opponents in e-sports, or even actual sports. You can pick up a controller and credit feed your way through G-Darius just as you can pick up a basketball and casually shoot hoops with your friends, but to become skilled, you have to dedicate plenty of hours, which may also necessitate improving your physical condition. The world's top athletes don't hold their positions simply by winning races or scoring home runs. It's the strength they're always building up every day to keep themselves up there.
If you strip the difficulty out of STGs, you take away that feeling of overcoming a mountain, thereby making the genre lose its identity. But STGs don't have to be brutal right out of the gate. Recent ports of games produced by CAVE, which garnered a reputation for creating some of the hardest games of all time, have "super easy" modes included. The problem with their approach, however, is that they remove pretty much everything that pushes the player to gradually improve their skill, instead making it more of a carnival ride. This ends up creating a total disconnect between players who can run through a super easy mode and those who can 1CC the actual game. Bleh!
There's other STGs out there which have much neater difficulty curves. My personal recommendation is XOP Ultra, which is very approachable for a novice player while being hard enough that one can ease themself into it and conquer it with some patience, gaining a nourishing background in the process. I'm going to be serious when I bring this up, but perhaps another game that's highly recommended by skilled STG players for offering both high difficulty and approachability is none other than the Touhou series. I haven't tried it myself, but if that's a name you know and hold in high regard, it must be the place to get started in familiarizing yourself with the genre. I'm going to bring it up again later.
The other reason why STGs are important is because they didn't stop pioneering after Space Invaders. In a number of ways that you might not expect, they also helped push the boundaries of the composition of video game music. These days, it's pretty much standard practice for notable games with quality music to get international soundtrack releases, but this hadn't really been the case for some time. With the exception of an album from Namco in 1984 which essentially remixed a bunch of otherwise very repetitive music, it seems game soundtrack releases didn't start popping up until 1986.
Taito took it a step further when their sound team grew tired of being treated as a joke within the company, and came up with the name Zuntata. What started off as nothing more than an internal name to get other teams to recognize their efforts became a full-blown brand in game music for the company. The second volume of the Taito Game Music series, which comprised entirely of the soundtrack for Darius, was the first album to be released with the Zuntata label, as the album cover would suggest.
It would be the start of a revolution in game music, where it started to command the same level of respect as other forms of music. Information regarding the origins of the explosion of game soundtrack is kind of shaky, but this looks to be what prompted sound teams from other companies to come up with names for themselves - Capcom's Alph Lyla, Data East's Gamadelic, Konami Kukeiha Club, and plenty of others. You can really see how it plays out in the Game Music Festival events from 1990 and 1992. They were literal rockstars!
It's thanks to STGs like Darius that the art of putting background music into games was supercharged. No longer was it just there to keep the speakers busy. Game music became something that had to stick in much the same way as iconic movie themes would. That's why even now, I tend to find myself listening to the soundtrack from the Darius series when I'm working on something.
What Keeps STG Going
Due to the series of critical fumbles over the years, STGs had passed the point of no return, where the genre would be thrown under a bus to make way for more serious games. Is that how it ended? It could have been the case, but STG has a savior called the internet.
Around 2000, a bad localization effort of Zero Wing on the Mega Drive became the subject of a powerful new weapon, called All Your Base Are Belong To Us. A line of dialogue with serious omissions and grammatical errors was initially treated as such awful writing to laugh at, but would soon carry new meaning as a symbol of the internet's power to conquer. In a sort of grassroots effort, many Photoshop users would skillfully shoehorn the hot new catchphrase into a bunch of photographs. This would soon make its way into the news, effectively pushing it as a serious contender against the corporate-conceived "WASSUP!!" meme from the Budweiser commercials.
For some, this would become a gateway to Zero Wing, and many other Toaplan STGs like it. In turn, such amusingly bad grammar in other STGs would surface as well, such as "the full extent of the jam" in those "for use in Japan only" screens from early CAVE games, and the hilariously profane death screens from the PC Engine title Download. It's these small things that help to reel in a few more potential players, and reward them with some superb STG action.
Speaking of CAVE, that company served as the shining beacon in the post-STG apocalypse for a time. With the odds stacked heavily against the genre at this point, they pressed onward in advancing it yet further with many more classics like DoDonPachi, ESP, Ketsui, and Mushihimesama. These games were so difficult that they got the attention of a then young YouTube. The first time I ever witnessed a CAVE game was through the video "THE HARDEST VIDEO GAME BOSS EVER!" I thought to myself, "what is this, some kind of prank? And how does the guy not always die in a split second?" It was kind of hard to tell what all was going on due to the low quality; such was the reality of sharing videos in 2007.
The game on display is Mushihimesama Futari, specifically the fight with the final boss Queen Larsa in the player-selectable Ultra Mode. Normally, this game isn't that much of a clusterfuck with purple bullets, but this special mode is guarded by a dire warning in the mode selection screen. It's guaranteed to rip any newcomer open within the first 30 seconds. This is not an exaggeration. So why does it even exist? It's mesmerizing to look at, but how can anyone move through this?!
Some players have managed to make sense of the seemingly incoherent vomit. At its core, it is, in fact, still an STG that can be conquered. It has patterns that can be observed and outmaneuvered. A player that's poured countless hours into a game like this will know what to expect and shift around with confidence, all while their peers drop their jaws in awe at what the hell is going on.
A game as visually captivating as Mushihimesama Futari's ultra mode makes for a perfect candidate for melting the minds of anyone who watches livestreams of games. When these people hear the words "hard game", Dark Souls or Cuphead will probably be the first things to enter their minds. Maybe it's time to give them a taste of what else difficulty could look like...
After so many years of STGs being largely ignored, a miracle happened. This game managed to make its way into AGDQ 2020 in a really good time slot, right before a speedrun of Metal Gear Solid 3. At least a staggering 100,000 viewers tuned in to the stream, which is unprecedented for STGs. Most of these viewers may have never even seen an STG beyond the very simplistic ones, so this was a critical opportunity to show them a very different kind of game. They went absolutely bonkers, baffled at how one is supposed to survive 30 minutes of absolute bullet hell, yet ecstatic to watch Gusto do just that with his unbelievable precision.
It's one of the most intense live performances in a video game you will ever see. The way everything perfectly lined up for the moment makes it a significant turnabout point in the future of STGs. In the run, a clear path to learn more about these insane games was provided. With this game pushed to so many new people, there could be great potential to recruit more players into the genre. But there's still a lot of work to be done on our end.
There is one other thing worth mentioning that keeps STG alive - a series of games I've never paid that much attention to, but one that holds a firm grip in popular culture. Yes, it's Touhou. Even if you've never played any of the games, you may have seen at least one of the characters from these games somewhere, or maybe you've seen a YTPMV of Ronald McDonald falling off a bench. You're bound to run into something about Touhou if you travel far enough; hell, I provide hosting for one of my friend's websites dedicated to Cirno.
It seems clear that even without considering the gameplay, the characters alone inspire people, and get them talking about the series a lot more. This is one of those outside strengths that has made Touhou so popular over the years. It's not much different from the radical approach taken with Team Fortress 2 to cartoonify the characters and the environment, so even if you've never played that, you likely know about Heavy Weapons Guy from something else, like one of at least several thousands of Garry's Mod skits posted online.
How to Keep STGs Going
Even with the strange turnabouts brought forward by the internet, there still remains a grim reality that as of this time, STGs are no longer a profitable medium due to their narrow reach compared to other kinds of games. CAVE stopped making arcade games after 2012, and pretty much became a different company outright. Major STG releases are few and far in between now. It's up to random individuals to step in and show everyone the light.
This is how to do it: if there's an STG you know how to complete in one credit and you really care about it, you should write a guide teaching others how to do the same. Even if the game is so difficult to complete, the presence of online walkthroughs, whether written or recorded with commentary, will give uncertain players more confidence to push forward in it. This is exactly what I've done for G-Darius. I created a very detailed guide on how to complete the game, so they too can get the complete experience I've attained. I published it on Steam for more exposure, but it's also available on this site. It's become considerably popular in the community hub... for a game with only three guides. I think I need to catch up more on this and go over the arguably easier Lambda route.
The next thing to do is to give STGs more exposure wherever possible. Back when I was a YouTuber, I had a somewhat significant reach, and at times, I made use of it to give nods to the Darius series, including a quote of "is approaching fast" in a high resolution political news movie, some gameplay footage on a setup of six CRT monitors, and borrowing some music for a reboot of a shitty #1 classic. Its success in convincing a few people to try Linux and open their eyes to the true face of Windows is concrete proof of the power of OGR's compositions, even for someone who knows nothing about Darius or Linux.
Last but not least, if there's something that can be adapted from an STG into another format for more people to enjoy, extract it! Take the fun stuff and bring it over to an unsuspecting group of people! I think there is great potential for Darius to attain a much larger following if it hammers in more on its core assets. It's doing pretty well on the music front with new vinyl albums for sale, but Darius also has really big and cute obscure fish, and this just sounds like something that's begging to have a million more jokes cracked.
Every little bit of extra supplemental media helps, whether it be a drawing, some kind of movie, or even just some line of text. Much like how the commentators on the Mushihimesama Futari stream were able to quickly sell everyone on the game with the hot catchphrase "big juicy combos", you've just gotta come up with something anyone can understand and easily connect with the subject of interest. If a Darius game is to take the spotlight in a major livestream... beeg feeshy. It's cringy as balls, but it works. They see a big ass fish shooting big ass beams, and a couple of words should be enough to establish a strong connection with our very great planet-destroying aquatic friends.
Oh, and, of course, if you're savvy enough, you could even program your own STG to see just how much you really know about their design... though independently developed STGs are often going to have a pretty hard time taking off, which is why big names do matter in a case like this.
There is still so much untapped potential with the STG genre, and now is a greater opportunity than ever before to not only get everyone immersed in it, but also strive to experience them to their fullest. STG will rise again!
I've kinda been getting into STGs lately, mainly Gradius.
I have no experiences with STGs since I mostly play puzzle and rhythm (and recently, turn based) games but there is an arcade rhythm game called Ongeki from SEGA that incorporates bullet hell element to an otherwise standard vertical scrolling gameplay. I have been swaying between having my game be a hack and slash and an Ongeki clone but I might try having it be a The First Cell clone as well
It should be noted that the creator of Touhou, Jun'ya Ota (better known as ZUN), briefly worked at Taito, though IIRC he was not involved in any STG's from Taito.
5 comments on this page
Sort: Ascending | Descending
Leave a Comment