Raiden Fighters 2 Train Level

January 31, 2024

A Couple of Resources

Raiden Fighters 2 Emporium -- has screenshots! RF2 GameFAQ, archived on my website


I love shoot 'em ups. I'm not particularly good at them, even after ten or twenty hours in DoDonPachi I'm nowhere near a one credit clear. But they're such compact little game ideas; a great shoot 'em up has one or two movement quirks that set it apart, five levels that feel distinct from each other, and ideally a convoluted scoring system to reward dedicated players. They're so simple that you can really get a feel for how the genre has evolved over time, every great shoot 'em up is borrowing from its predecessors in obvious ways, and there's something very satisfying to me about that. Playing shoot 'em ups kind of feels like making a stamp or coin collection, these things are all of the same type but the small differences make them interesting.

{== SPEED MEASUREMENT: how long does it take to cross the entire screen left-right ==}


The main thing that differentiates shmups in my eyes is their movement options. In a well-made shmup, your movement speed usually tells you everything about the style of game and, often, its era too. Over time, ships have sped up quite a bit. Just looking at one studio, Toaplan's games started off quite slow, but consistently sped up over the studio's lifetime. This is a trend across the whole genre. Over time shooting games also entered an arms race to put as many bullets as possible on the screen, and this kind of rubs up against the speed thing. Smaller hitboxes help, but reactive dodging requires speed, while dancing through waves and walls of bullets naturally lends itself to slower movement. You can see that Batsugun, widely cited as the first danmaku or bullet hell game, is quite a bit slower than Grind Stormer, a more traditional shooting game from the same year.
DonPachi, {++ 1995 ++} CAVE's first shooting game, marked them as masters of the genre with a really simple innovation which they later perfected in the sequel. Generally, if you're shooting you want to mash the fire button at some kind of sustainable pace. While you're doing this your ship moves at full speed. But in DonPachi if you hold down the fire button the ship stops firing for a beat, you slow way down and the ship unleashes a laser.

This very simple idea brings a new level of decision making into the game, where you need to choose the appropriate speed and weigh this against the damage output and spread of your weapon. It also gives the player a tool that enables more difficult and dynamic level design. Sometimes you want to quickly dodge sniper enemies or cross the screen and sometimes you want to slowly weave through tight patterns. Bullet walls can force you to go fast, even at inopportune times.

This new feature ties into scoring as well, there are hornet-shaped medals on each level and you can only pick them up if you shoot them with the tip of your laser, which means you need to make the switch from shot to laser pretty often.

Many shmups have speed options, but your desired speed is usually a decision you make once. The only way to slow down in Gradius, for example, is to die. Grind Stormer actually lets you slow down if you upgrade your speed completely, but speed is still tied to an item drop so its very different from the moment-to-moment decision making that DonPachi offers.
DoDonPachi, the sequel, plays with this a lot; the level 5 {== ? ==} boss alternates complicated bullet patterns and huge explosions that you need to quickly navigate around. The final boss forces you to weave through a ridiculous laser pattern at speed, which for my money is the most difficult thing you can do in the game. One of DoDonPachi's achievements is that it consistently feels impossible, but still has a nice escalation in difficulty between levels. The final two in particular feature an absurd mass of enemies that test how well you can prioritize threats.

Later DoDonPachi games go above and beyond. DoDonPachi Resurrection has a whole bunch of great level concepts and offers four movement speeds which you'll need to navigate the insanity.

But right now I'm interested in one of those awkward games that lies somewhere between traditional shmup and bullet hell: Raiden Fighters 2. It is an extremely fast game that's just flirting with more complicated bullet patterns. If all the art was replaced with coloured rectangles, I'd say it's a mediocre game with some bullshit sections that are way too fast. But Raiden Fighters 2 is carried hard by its art direction; the ridiculous pace of play is matched by a nonstop explosion of enemies and a sense of forward motion that most shmups are missing.

Back to DoDonPachi for a second, everything is perfectly tuned to focus your attention on the gameplay. Enemies appear at a manageable rate, and the background generally gets out of your way so you can focus entirely on enemy positions and bullets. The background has little contrast and scrolls very slowly, so enemies are easy to see in the chaos of the game. DoDonPachi Dai-Ou-Jou {++ 2002 ++} goes even further. It's a full-on bullet hell game, which a much stronger focus on dodging, so enemies and backgrounds are de-saturated while bullets are bright pink or blue and the default player ship is red. Our eyes are very sensitive to green, and either purposely or by a happy accident our hitbox and danger zone feature green highlights.

A masterpiece doesn't have to be complex, and a shoot 'em up with great fundamentals can produce hundreds of hours of fun and excitement. I enjoy games from the DoDonPachi era because they have a roughly equal number of slow and fast sections; full speed dodging really feels fast and dangerous because of the contrast with the more precise parts. As danmaku shooters came into their own, bosses often felt less like fights and more like complicated paintings you had to dance around.
Raiden Fighters 2 does not have the super-refined gameplay of CAVE's masterpieces, it isn't trying to be anything more than a fun game. It came out in 1997, and improves on Raiden Fighters 1 in pretty much every way, although the two are conceptually identical. Bullet speeds are ludicrous and your ship is huge. There are no single-pixel hitboxes to be found here; instead you're very maneuverable and the quantity of bullets is toned down a bit from DoDonPachi.

I should say that you're usually very maneuverable. One thing that sets the Raiden Fighters games apart is their vast number of ship options. Finding a ship you're comfortable with is good for survival, while things get a bit more strict if you're playing for score.

In older shmups, every bullet was a challenge, and Raiden Fighters 2 belongs to that lineage. Bullets were often faster than you, while big hitboxes and a lack of maneuverability made even the simplest patterns hard to deal with. Sprite limits meant you couldn't just mash the fire button either. You had to learn these games by rote and then play them clinically. There's a reason for this ludicrous difficulty, though: it was a way to make the games exciting. If you go back to some of the earliest scrolling shmups, like Xevious, {++ 1982 ++} they feature really boring, easy sections probably followed by some enemy bullets trapping and killing you. Regardless of whether Xevious is easy or hard, it's dull.

It's an important game, but one that's hard to appreciate forty years later. It features one of the first boss fights ever and established many features of scrolling shoot 'em ups, but it has long been eclipsed by other games. In that sense Xevious is a lot like the other incredibly important game Masanobu Endō designed, Tower of Druaga. {== duh dununuh nuh ==}
1942, {++ 1984 ++} released a couple years later, gives you an unnaturally fast biplane, strips Xevious' air-to-ground combat, and offers 32 stages packed with enemies. The screen takes a significant chunk of time to traverse in Xevious, 1942 almost cuts that time in half so you can actually reach the exciting content on the other side of the playfield.

Through the 80s the shmup formula slowly evolved, bringing in the screen-clearing bomb, {== 1942 has a screen-clearing bomb but it drops as a power-up. ==} upgrade systems, and lots of variations on playfield size, themes, movement, and enemy patterns.


Then in 1990 Raiden came out, and while it's definitely a product of its time it's also a culmination of that style of game [1, Raiden DX is the "apex of an entire generation"]. There are lots of features, the speed of play is very high although the titular jet is the slowest I measured, and enemies will snipe you with no mercy. Like every other game, Raiden is heavily influenced by Toaplan shooters, especially 1989's Fire Shark. Unlike every other game the title screen has this awesome graphic.

{== show the games side by side ==}
There are obvious visual similarities to Fire Shark, and a lot of mechanical ones too. Weapon upgrades bounce around the screen, and there are several weapons that you can switch between or upgrade with these little chips. Score can be increased with medals that are hidden all over the place. The first boss ends up being a double boss.

But most importantly both games focus on having you dodge a few precise, fast bullets at a time. This is pretty difficult when Raiden plays fair, but the game is constantly trying to kill you by spawning in tanks from hidden bunkers or the sides and bottom of the screen. Sniper helicopters rip down from the top to kamikaze you or get a few shots off, and turrets will fire when they're just barely visible. Enemies are not 100% accurate either, there's some randomness to their shot angles so you have to both dodge shots coming at you and avoid anything nearby. In the few cases where Raiden uses bullet patterns, you'll want to simply line yourself up to let the bullets fly past you; the game never gives you that danmaku "dancing" feeling where you're weaving around patterns.
Raiden's weapons offer many upgrade tiers, and they vastly increase your spread, which is important when your fighter jet moves like a boat. If you can get a fully upgraded main weapon and homing missiles a lot of the gameplay is trivialized. Every once in a while a mob enemy will get a shot off, but the huge weapon spread will take care of most ships before you even have to think about them. You'll still want to learn when and where stronger enemies spawn and how to deal with their patterns, but that's much easier than dodging 10 snipers who have you surrounded.

If you ever make the mistake of dying Raiden becomes borderline impossible. In general, the game has a big problem where the best place to be is usually the bottom left corner. Sitting at the bottom maximizes your time to react to enemies and it maximizes the spread of your bullets. Playing the game well doesn't give you a sense of flying around in this super-powered fighter jet whose name means thunder and lightning {== or divine thunder[2] or lightning bolt==}. It's more like the little turret in Space Invaders.
Raiden 2 and its expanded version Raiden DX look nicer but suffer from the same issue; DX features new weapon and bomb types but is otherwise very similar to Raiden 1. They tried to push players into the action by making those extra-point medals tarnish over time, but that's only going to entice the upper echelon of players. Even at a high level, every one-credit clear I've watched has stayed at the bottom of the screen unless they need to shoot an enemy point-blank.

Despite this, both games were quite successful and they showed that the studio Seibu Kaihatsu had a unique style and voice, especially after Toaplan's demise. Although they are frustrating I find myself drawn to the early Raiden games; the art style and music are really good and the slowness of the player ship versus the ridiculous enemy speed offers something unique. A reviewer on shmups-dot-com called Raiden DX "a pinnacle of perfection" [1] so you should probably check it out and decide for yourself. The PS1 version has a fun 3D model viewer but MAME will give you the best gameplay experience.

Raiden Fighters

{== Gun Dogs poster fade into Raiden Fighters poster. ==}

Although Raiden Fighters is not actually a Raiden sequel, it shares a lot of DNA with those games. Raiden Fighters started its life as Gun Dogs, but got a name change shortly before release, probably to cash in on that sweet name recognition.

Whatever you call the game, it is a banger. Definitely an instance where graphics and sound make all the difference. A beautifully rendered semi-realistic setting makes your sci-fi fighter jets feel incredibly powerful, and every moment of the game is blaring relentless hardcore techno at you.

...realism has been our stance since the first Raiden, and it hasn't changed one iota.

Yoritaka Kasai, quoted in [3].

The game gets its sense of speed by making everything fast. Your bullets are so much flashier than the enemy's that the screen is hard to read, but it doesn't matter because arcade games are free now and you can just try to pull off insane maneuvers while falling into the ridiculous pace of play.
Raiden Fighters is not a balanced game, it's full of Raiden BS like snipers firing before they appear on screen or attacks you can't dodge unless you know about them in advance. Everything is just too fast, and abusing bombs tends to be the best way to deal with bosses. If I had to pay 25 cents per death, I'd probably hate it for being simultaneously exhilarating and stupid. But Raiden Fighters understands something about the core appeal of shoot 'em ups: it makes you feel like you're a fighter pilot on an impossible mission. Most of the ship roster is actually maneuverable enough to reinforce that sense, unless you want to play as the characteristically sluggish Raiden Mk II.

There was nowhere to go but up. The only thing that wasn't ridiculously fast in Raiden Fighters 1 was its backgrounds, so obviously it demanded a sequel.

{== active secrets in RF2 versus the "know the right spot" secrets of DDP ==}

Raiden Fighters 2

In 1997 we got Raiden Fighters 2, a shooting game that features seven levels split into three missions, 17 ships to choose from {== by my count ==}, and the first game's fantastic scoring system which I'll talk about shortly. Something you may have noticed in footage from good players is that they play the Raiden games as player 2. According to folklore this makes the game easier, though I'm not quite sure how, and it's the first of many secrets. {== I could only find a definitive answer for Raiden DX: the blue ship has better horizontal speed. ==}

The second one is that you can choose the order of the stages by holding a direction when you press start. I'm following a game FAQ from 1998, written by Lynx [4], so I hold up as well as fire and bomb to choose my stages and unlock the secret ships. Then, I go to the random fighter option, hold the down-right direction, and press fire to start the game with the over-powered fairy. According to editors on a Japanese shmup wiki, RF2 is about ten times easier with the fairy [5]. The fairy has a small hitbox, perfect speed, and her bombs are replaced with a super-destructive laser.

The whole game is full of stuff like this. You can think of these secrets as either encouraging players to talk about the game, or a casino giving you free drinks for spending hundreds of dollars. Either way it's the future now so we can just enjoy the fruits of other people's arcade labour.

The fairy isn't the only secret ship by a long-shot; holding fire and bomb while you press start unlocks an entire parallel roster. You can play as these little guys, which are unfortunately called slaves, and each main fighter has its own tiny equivalent. If you're watching a high score attempt I'll probably be one of the secret ships, because they have smaller hitboxes, but I played through the game with lots of the normal ships too.

Our first goal is to progress the score medals to their maximum value. Medals have been totally revamped in the Raiden Fighters series; they are now an essential part of getting a high score and they have a bunch of other tweaks to force you into the middle of the screen instead of camping the bottom. They drop from certain enemies and are often a reward for finding secrets.

Collecting your first grey medal gives ten points. The next one will give twenty, the next thirty, and so on all the way up to ninety points. The catch is that every medal on screen at a given time will always be worth the same amount, so you have to drop and collect medals one at a time to rank them up. Since these medals appear at a pace that's fixed by the level design, you often have to move aggressively into the center of the screen to pick them up.

I chose to start on the base level, because there's a blue creature called a Miclus hidden right at the beginning that will drop a medal each time I shoot him. If I hover over the Miclus they'll drop one at a time and we can go straight up to ninety points. {== do a run as Miclus ==}

That's not a lot, so the next task is to get a slave ship. With one slave, blue medals will start dropping, which are worth 100 points. Level those up as well, and get a second slave for the 1000 point medals. When you get those leveled up to 9000, then finally all your medals will be a pleasing gold colour and reward you with 10,000 points. This sounds like a simple enough process, if long-winded, but the game is asking you to precisely manage your power level and collect drops in a very specific way amid a constant stream of enemies.

In the old Raiden games I find it frustrating and unnecessary that I have to avoid power-ups because they'll switch my weapon type. Tying medal values to your number of slave ships actually makes it an interesting challenge; you're not just waiting around but instead there's a reason to manage your power level. The weapon power ups still alternate between missile and laser, so in theory the Raiden annoyance still exists but weapon upgrades drop frequently, and unlike Raiden picking up the wrong weapon does not triple the difficulty.

And the developers knew people were going to go through this medal upgrading ritual, so the game layers on a bunch of other scoring opportunities that you'll want to take advantage of. Knowing enemy spawns is important but the game forces you to play at a frantic pace to actually get your ship in the right place at the right time. It's a lot of fun to play Raiden Fighters 2 for survival, dodging is exciting and the game looks and sounds gorgeous, but what really puts it over the top for me is that playing for score gives you an even stronger impression of speed and chaos. The game will always meet you at your level and challenge you through its intricate stage design.

The new medal system strikes a really nice balance. When you're starting out, you're likely to reach the gold medals by accident a few times. It was just enough to pique my curiosity about the system; the game announces that there is depth to be found without ever telling you what to do. All of RF2's other secrets and bonuses are explained through text when you find them, so if you're going into the game blind you can kind of build up a catalogue of these things and come up with your own route through the game.

When things inevitably go wrong, you have to make a strategic decision to focus-fire a dangerous enemy or collect medals or a power-up. It's totally possible to get the 10,000 point medals on level 1, but I usually reach them by the end of level 2. The whole sequence feels good to execute, but it's a very rigid and demanding start. I think the game offers a more than adequate reward though.

The Train Level

Level 3 is the whole reason I wanted to make this video; this game is way more obscure than it should be and this level alone makes the game worth checking out.

Big, set piece bosses have been an element of shmups since the early 80s; 1943 has sections where you take down multi-screen ships piece by piece. Dangerous enemies tend to be larger in these games, so when you get one that can't even fit on the screen you know it's the real deal. These bosses make a triumphant return in Raiden Fighters 2, where the first two missions culminate in awesome level-length boss fights.

The level has a slow start, giving us a nice opportunity to fully upgrade our medals before things really kick off. Once you reach 10,000 point medals, there's a new secret to getting even bigger ones. If you can get nine of the gold medals on screen, they will explode and now you can level those up from 10,000 to 20,000, all the way up to 100,000 points. A Miclus appears if you hover over this building, so getting the nine medals is easy enough. The upgraded medals have a whole new mechanic; if you fail to collect any gold medals from now on, the bonus will reset back down to 10,000 and you'll have to build it up again. This is another demand you have to keep up with that forces you to constantly move and manage medal drops.

And there are about to be a lot of medals. {== From music change to the train outrunning the player character. ==} This is such a great opening, and again there's this unparalleled sense of forward motion created by the ridiculous speed of the background, the camera swinging all over the place, and of course the music.

Juxtaposing a large enemy with a bunch of little ones is a common pattern in shoot 'em ups. The sky level in DoDonPachi springs to my mind but the idea shows up everywhere. It gives you a choice of taking out the big guy or the mobs first, forcing you to deal with bullets from one enemy type or the other. Raiden Fighters 2 takes this idea to a new level. There's the central train, covered in turrets and tanks, and you'll encounter waves of enemies as the camera swings from side to side. Bigger planes will show up too, giving you another version of that big enemy/little enemy dynamic to deal with.

At the same time you want to stay mobile and collect medals; the tanks on the train all hide Micluses if you restrain yourself and kill them in a specific way, so there are dynamics in the way you're firing too. Occasionally smaller trains will speed by, flanking the large one, and they're carrying a bounty of medals so there's another thing to consider. As all of this is happening the music is blasting and you'll inevitably sort of mind meld with the kick drum and start tapping the fire button in rhythm.

When they were talking about arcade games hypnotizing kids or melting their brains, this is the kind of game they imagined, the level feels incredible to play every time.

The train level feels like a fight, like everything can go south at any moment. You're constantly switching modes from blind firing to kill mobs, to focus firing larger ships, to focus firing trains, to hovering over turrets on the main train so they can't hit you, to stopping all of that to spawn Miclus. The pace is relentless, the gameplay is frantic and this level is the culmination of all that medal-farming homework in the previous ones. You play those two with great care so you can freely scream across level 3 and get 20 million points. Although it comes pretty early, the train level feels like the climax of RF2, the relatively slow build-up suddenly opening into shoot 'em up heaven {== hot chick heaven joke? The train is the size of an average human mother. ==}.

I'll say again that all of this action is underpinned by a fairly realistic art style and grounded colour palette that gives Raiden Fighters a unique aesthetic, to say the least. The closest game I can think of is RF2's contemporary 19XX: The War Against Destiny. 19XX has its own appeal, especially that gorgeous golden hour naval battle in level 2, but it imports the brightly coloured planes from previous entries and after a few levels it goes full sci-fi. Spiritually, Raiden Fighters is still devoted to those early Toaplan games. If you squint you can almost imagine that Tiger Heli is based on real events. The Raiden Fighters 2 train level feels like the most realistic vision of a giant fortress-on-rails they could come up with.

{++ RE-REC ++}
The developers and artists put a lot of thought into the background on the train level. The first two stages, which are much slower, feature lots of details; trees, bunkers, roads and runways, streams, grounded vehicles, and so on. If the background were scrolling quickly the game would be even harder to read than it is now. The train level just has some frozen ground and the highly repetitive train track, so the background imparts a sense of motion without actually changing very much. It's easy to ignore the track and focus on the action.
{++ RE-REC ++}

Finally, you reach the front of the train and fight one of the game's many unimaginative bosses. Of course, it's about the journey and not the destination. You aren't penalized for using bombs in Raiden Fighters, and every time I've seen normal people play the game they just abuse bombs to kill bosses. {++ re-rec ++} Deep into making this video, I realized that these are Raiden bosses through and through, and it's pretty obvious in retrospect. {++ re-rec ++} Most boss attacks depend on your position, so the less you move the more predictable they become. If you go back to the Raiden special of sitting at the bottom of the screen and moving like you're playing Operation the bosses suddenly go from impossible to pretty tough.

In theory I like this dynamic between how the medal system forces you to be aggressive and the bosses force you to be conservative--it makes the bosses feel a lot more dangerous--but I don't think the shift in style is communicated well. Being an arcade shooting game, the level of difficulty is quite high and there is already some BS to catch inexperienced players, so dying to bosses did not immediately trigger a change of strategy the way it might in a home console game. Maybe I'm just stubborn. {++ RE-REC ++} Either way, once you make the switch the boss fights are a lot more fun and climactic, and I think classic Raiden is best taken in small doses like this. Most of the bosses are interchangeable, but gameplay-wise there's a nice mixture of slow and fast bullets to keep you on your toes. {++ RE-REC ++}

You get points if your ship grazes a bullet, so high score runs of the game see braver players than I milking pre-set boss patterns for extra score then quickly dispatching them right before time runs out. That's what the fairy's overpowered laser is actually for, it's a tool to let you kill bosses at the last possible second, so once again RF2 meets players at their level.

I don't have a lot left to say about the game, but level 4 is no slouch. It's a sky level, and predictably it throws way too many ships at you way too fast. I love these huge ones; if you manage to take out all of their engines their medals get thrown up into the middle of the screen, which is much more convenient than trying to collect them one by one. I always go into level 4 expecting a few seconds to relax after the train level, and by coincidence I always die very quickly. {== Hold down instead of up when you start the game to play a slower level after the train. ==}

Levels 5 and 6 are good as well, but the train level is just unbeatable. 6 is another level-length boss fight, it plays largely the same as the train level but the sense of speed isn't really there. Since the Sand Lobster is quite wide I also find myself surrounded by turrets sometimes, whereas with the train the turrets and cannons are always on one of the flanks. In practice that means you get sniped a lot in level 6. The final level starts you at nauseating speed flying past a city, but before long it slows down again. They mainly used tanky, static enemies to make the level difficult, so the game stops feeling like a white-knuckle dogfight and feels a hell of a lot more like Raiden, albeit much easier.

Flaws and Why They Don't Matter

Overall I think Raiden Fighters 2 is flawed, but it manages to be super entertaining because of set pieces like the train level. The game's particular combination of movement speed, enemy bullet speeds, and spawn rates is a style of shmup that only existed for a few years. The enemies and stage designs hearken back to the heavy memorization of the past, infused with the player speed and bullet density of the 90s. Also, they just don't put art this good in games anymore.

It feels dishonest to criticize RF2 for forcing you to memorize things when that's such a big part of shooting games, but often you'll face enemies that you couldn't possibly dodge on a first attempt, and it feels like the game is cheating. A pattern that recurs all the time is an enemy that drops a medal defended by another enemy slightly further up. You kill the first guy, go in to collect the medal, and are sniped by the second enemy right as they scroll into view. It's a pretty maniacal piece of old-school design that I'm glad has stayed in the past.

There's no objective measure of fairness obviously, but keep in mind that shoot 'em ups give you no mistake budget: you get hit once, you die. When I lose to a boss in DoDonPachi, or get overwhelmed by enemies, it feels like it's my fault. The game gives you all the tools to beat it your first time through, ambushes are rare and bullets practically never reach Raiden Fighters speeds; a good strategy can carry you through most encounters. You definitely won't beat it your first time through, but you won't be saying "wow that's bullshit" either.

In Raiden Fighters bullets are pretty hard to see, the background art is emphasized too much, there are frequent ambushes, and while I won't say that dodging bosses by reaction is impossible, it is impossible for me.

But all of that stuff is kind of cool. Raiden Fighters 2 is interesting because of its shortcomings, a perfect shmup wouldn't look like that, but that doesn't mean RF2 is a waste of time. It's a game between the old world and the new one, it goes back to its roots often but it's also a tentative step toward something new. These games probably shouldn't have highly detailed backgrounds that scroll so fast, but Raiden Fighters 2 does and it's my favourite thing about it. While the greats roll all of their scoring into the shooting--like Ikaruga with its combo chain and CAVE's many experiments--_Raiden Fighters_ has an intricate set of instructions to unlock gold medals that completely transforms the early game into a tightly routed minefield, making the sudden freedom and speed of the train level hit even harder. It's such a masterfully executed little sequence that it could only have been done on purpose; the first three levels constitute one "mission" and there's a distinct story arc that you feel as you play through it.

First levels are traditionally very easy in these games, and in RF2 new players can get a taste for the game while experienced ones get to jump right into the difficult medal route.

As cliche as this may sound, genre conventions come from unconventional games. Raiden Fighters 2 is nothing special at first glance, but it has ideas, many of them great. The train level is a revelation, an explosion of raw fun that uses art direction to transform serviceable mechanics into the best single level of any game in the genre.

The Future of Shooting Games

History is an embarrassment. Seven-point-five-out-of-tens are constantly slipping out of our collective memory; we treat genres like these solid spheres of game design ideas when they're a lot more flowery than that. DoDonPachi isn't just a bullet point in a list of divinely inspired games that "defined" shoot 'em ups, it's a response to other games of its time, it's a response to the arcade market's slow transformation into a hardcore niche, it's a game directed by Toaplan people, who played Salamander and saw the future.

Back when I was playing Salamander, I always used to ask myself...why is it more fun to dodge bullets in some stages instead of others? It was then that I started thinking, 'what if I made a game that consciously tried to create the fun and thrill of dodging bullets?'

Tsuneki Ikeda, quoted in [6].

To come back to the appeal of shmups, I guess there's something satisfying in seeing ideas germinate and grow over the course of many games. The devil is in the details, and so many games over the years have tried out different speeds and playfield sizes and encounters. Today shoot 'em up is one of the many genres that's always being mixed and matched with many others. The incredibly famous and influential Binding of Isaac has leaned harder and harder into being a twin-stick bullet hell game with each expansion, while the Void Rains Upon her Heart is an excellent roguelite take on a horizontal shooting game boss rush. Undertale famously integrated bullet dodging to great effect.

But I have to be honest: my allegiance is still with the pure shmups. I could easily be convinced Crimzon Clover is the best shooting game ever made, it combines the technical perfection of CAVE's games with the incredible fun of that train level. This footage looks like parody of a video game but it totally hooks you when you're playing it. It's not my favourite shmup but its quality is undeniable.

I've been dismissing CAVE a lot to make a point, but they and Treasure are the only studios I've seen that can produce strong emotions from bullet patterns alone. The true last boss of Mushihimesama Futari Black Label, which you may know as the hardest video game boss ever {== that youtube video ==}, is a moment of transcendence in a game where you play as a bug princess who fights dinosaurs.

Treasure hasn't done anything new for a decade, and CAVE has fallen deep into a chasm of ugly art and gacha games. The last Raiden game, the fifth, came out in 2017. It seems like the era of ornate, expensive shoot 'em ups may be coming to a close.

{++ RE-REC ++}
But another great thing about shmups is that, especially with the tools we have today, anybody can make one. That's not to undersell ZeroRanger, because I sure as hell couldn't make a game that good. It has a distinctive two-tone pixel art style with a perfect amount of detail, and a speed-balance that competes with the best. It also embraces the obvious themes of the genre: impossible challenges and resurrection. The game's story is told cryptically, not through the genre staple of poorly translated Japanese but by giving meaning and context to all the mechanics. The presentation is masterful.

I can't beat ZeroRanger to tell you if it's a great game, but the first few levels are fantastic and I know the game is full of twists. {== get the Xevious reference in there? Impact font: IS THAT A / IS THAT A MF XEVIOUS REFERENCE? ==}
{++ RE-REC ++}

Late into writing this review, I found a game called Xeno Fighters R, a love letter to the genre delivered through the medium of Raiden Fighters. It's a great shooting game many years in the making, and it features a ton of crossovers and references to famous shoot 'em ups. It actually builds on the fun part of Raiden Fighters, integrating Miclus with your progression and rewarding extra lives not for your score, but the number of medals collected. Being a mishmash of shmup tropes, it does depart from RF's realist setting. The game contextualizes the different areas, though: you're hopping through different dimensions and periods of time to stop some shady organization, and getting all the Miclus' on a regular stage will send you to a much zanier extra level.

{++ RE-REC, here to the end ++}
And of course there's Touhou, the mammoth one-man project that everyone immediately asks your opinion about if you start talking about shoot 'em ups. Most games in the series have some fun gimmick or twist that changes the way you play, just as or more imaginative than CAVE's many permutations. In general, Touhou's aesthetic grates on me, I really enjoy the physicality of ships blowing things up and girls floating around the spirit realm don't really offer that. With that said the games are perfectly tuned danmaku shooters and I've really come to enjoy them over the course of recording footage. And when Shanghai Alice has a good idea, it's really good.
Shoot the Bullet abandons a standard level structure and replaces it with a series of minute-long boss fights where you have to photograph the boss a set number of times. It's a two-button game, so the camera controls interact strongly with your movement and offer some interesting trade-offs. For example, the camera has to charge up and you can charge it more quickly in exchange for super slow movement. You get extra score for playing dangerously, with bonuses for getting in the photo with your enemy or taking a shot while grazing a bullet, incentivizing you to learn patterns and play aggressively.

The rhythm of Shoot the Bullet is what sets it apart, though. Levels are short and it has fast restarts so its flow is closer to Hotline Miami than a traditional shmup, although it predates Hotline by seven years. It's fun, noncommittal, and feels appropriately touristy: you're seeing lots of different things and taking pictures.

Speaking of grazing, I also played Graze Counter GM recently, which is about 1/12th anime going by screen area, and it's a ton of fun; the pixel art style is a lot more cohesive than Touhou's and the game elevates bullet grazing from a high score mechanic into the main focus of the game, with the rhythm of play regulated by the graze counter meter. Charging it up lets you unleash a bullet cancelling laser, and collecting the stars that drop in this state charges a separate break gauge. Breaking does not cancel bullets but ups your damage and score for a time. Graze Counter understands that score is just an excuse to engage with fun game mechanics; grazing for score is not something 99% of players will be super interested in so they made grazing fun. It's a notably good use of controller rumble in the year 2024, an indispensable bit of feedback that makes grazing super satisfying.

I have to appreciate games like Touhou, the series is literally one man's quest to continue refining and improving a genre that many people would argue is dead. There are 33 of these games and they're constantly trying something new or at the very least just being solid shooting games. It's awesome that people can just go out and do something like that.

{== show a "shmups never die" ==}


{-- It's still sort of the new year so I'll leave you with some personal talk and a corny message. There's too much hate on the internet. We have enough things to hate in real life, if you're watching this your federal government is probably bankrolling a genocide right now. --}

{-- You fight and advocate for those people so they can love without fearing that the things and people they care for will be annihilated. Dissipating all of the passive cruelty we absorb on a daily basis into something constructive is good. Getting worked up about whether XBox or PlayStation is better is just making everybody's life worse. --}

This script got away from me, but something I wanted to touch on with this video was criticism motivated by love versus criticism motivated by hate. For a long time I've followed a bunch of those YouTube channels that are pretty much only dedicated to talking about how the new superhero movie is a {== mauler accent ==} total unmitigated failure or whatever, and they're such downers. There's a very draining quality to the videos, especially the ones that are just reading off the races and genders of Marvel characters. They're repetitive, nitpicky, and never give me any sense that the person making them enjoys art, or even making videos. You might not realize it at first, and the people who make them will always deny this, but they don't want the Marvel movies to become better, or even to RETVRN {== put it on screen all-caps in some chiselled font ==} to whichever ones they liked when they were younger, they just want to knock things over. It's their business.

It's more than they deserve but I really feel bad for people like that. There's always something bubbling under the surface with them, an ambient terror that takes a lot of forms but, let's be honest, is often some kind of psychosexual hangup that stops them from engaging with whatever they're reviewing. They are chronically unable to love works of art; the sniveling, childish criticism of anything and everything in Cinema Sins videos is a defense mechanism, an excuse not to surrender yourself to whatever you're watching.

You can just imagine one of these people trying to play Graze Counter, fixating on the identities of the main characters and going full moral panic without ever even describing the gameplay. And you can get a following doing this! Just say the gameplay is bad so it seems like analysis and you're golden. Many of these channels also seem to think this is a political act and not just an embarrassing waste of every one's time.

That sort of perspective just isn't conducive to good videos, popular as they may be. I'm not saying this to trump myself up, I think more experienced players would have much deeper insights about the shmup genre or even Raiden Fighters 2 in particular, and talking about art is always going to be way easier than producing it.

Somebody who is afraid to love a work is only ever going to look at it from the corner of their eye. The uncomfortable truth of criticism is that you have to reveal yourself to do it. I'm just trying to glean insights that you might find interesting from my own experience, but at the end of the day my experience is particular. I am constantly telling on myself. I bet there are a bunch of super important shmups I don't know about, and someone out there is annoyed that I didn't talk about them. And I appreciate that, most of the recent shmups I talked about were recommended to me in the comments.
ZeroRanger itself offers a better critique of modern shmups than a video ever could, because, being a game, it actively negates the modern shmup. It uses modern and retro elements in a self-conscious way--in other words, it knows what it's doing. Your ship is weak and shots aren't too flashy so the game can focus on encounters with a few interesting enemies at a time. The upgrades actually change your playstyle, hearkening back to good old Toaplan.

Then, when ZeroRanger does it's best impression of The Beast That Shouted Love and briefly turns into a generic CAVE wannabe, you don't just read the contrast, but feel it. There's an incredible amount of historical knowledge in ZeroRanger, and it's all tied into the game's themes. This even extends to the mundane concept of shoot 'em ups looping after you beat them, but I don't want to reveal too much.

Greg Kasavin put this idea really well in his review of Treasure's Ikaruga, from the days when you had to be a good writer because you couldn't just make a three hour video.

{== "push the envelope for the genre even as they fall squarely into it" ==}

To restate that in more general, pretentious terms, understanding is a synonym for intimacy, and you can only subvert a genre the way Ikaruga and ZeroRanger do by knowing what questions to ask of the shmup canon.

Every time I've ever said "I hate this game," it's because there's something I'm not quite getting. If you systematically stop there, and never break through to understanding the game on its own terms, then eventually your taste will stagnate and you'll hate games more and more because they are continuing to evolve without you. Reviews like this are literally reactionary, they're just a knee jerking in response to something unfamiliar.

Whatever the cause, these reviewer people are unable to get past the most surface level commentary about plot holes or the identities of actors because they absolutely refuse to just vibe with whatever they're criticizing. There's a teenaged nervousness behind so many of these videos, a desire to look cool, mixed with an obstinate refusal to ever change your mind about anything. That combo crystallizes into a distinct sort of nihilistic worldview.

Negativity is at least active, it negates. Nihilism is absolute closure from new experiences. Nihilists see the world and say no. {-- I'm sure any metaphysicians out there can poke holes in that definition, but it's fit for purpose. --}

A YouTube channel is a little virtual world that you get to curate, and you look at these people's channels and the thumbnails are intentionally ugly, the titles are mean, the videos are all long, angry, and pointless. Reviews are just the tip of the iceberg explained, drama farming and screaming at the news are two other genres very prone to this disease.

{== I called this sort of content reactionary but I'm not using the conventional meaning, every well-meaning person who shared their take on Palworld being bad because it copies Pokemon or the developers like AI is feeding into the larger phenomenon. The most annoying people on earth just learned the word 'plagiarism' and now they're out here defending sacred copyright for free. Literal reaction breeds politically reactionary beliefs--reaction is characterized (for me) by embracing your immediate discomfort with something new rather than looking for a deeper understanding. ==}

{== Whether Palworld is Good or Evil, controversy is good for sales. If you want to do actual damage the best move is simply to talk about something else. Otherwise an unremarkable gimmicky survival-crafting game, copy-pasted from the developer's previous one, will become a new culture war rally point and sell a billion copies. The game was going to sell well either way--it was the 2nd most wishlisted game on Steam apparently--but if you look at the negative Steam reviews/online conversations about the game you'll see that the fans have been galvanized and now this is some new "political" thing to buy into to reinforce gamer nationalism or whatever. ==}

So please do me a favour for 2024: find something new that you love and share it with people. Or learn a new skill and turn your life into something beautiful. I know this is a cheesy thing to say, but this stuff works on me, I started learning Blender because of a video like this one. Everything you make will be bad at first, the nature of a craft is that you have to fail before you can succeed. The awkward beginning might be like Xevious, but everyone has their own train level waiting to come out. Happy new year.

I will not die until I achieve something.

Even though the ideal is high, I never give in.

Therefore, I never die with regrets.