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Round-up: Shoot 'Em Up games
by Ben Freund
11.11.11

I'm told, by Wikipedia no less, that shoot 'em ups are a dying genre.

Despite that grim reality, a number of dedicated mad scientists working at independent studios are conducting a variety of brilliant and deranged experiments to revive the hulking corpse that once dominated arcades and Ataris alike. Allow me to play the role of Igor, as I try to inject a little new blood into into the beast's desiccated fanbase, by enticing you to sample some of the good doctors' latest creations.

Hallowe'en was last month? Let's drop the Frankenstein references, then, and get a little more literal. Shoot 'em up games, or shmups, are examples of a genre that boasts an endless list of classics, from Space Invaders and Centipede to Ikaruga and Geometry Wars. The definition of the genre is flexible and full of exceptions to the rule, but most shmups feature a 2D plane, on which the player's character fires bullets at enemies and dodges and weaves to avoid the bullets being hurled back at him.

Simple. Classic. Pure. And not too profitable, as it turns out. You'll notice that nobody is lining up to pay $60 at a midnight release for 'Centipede XXVII: Mystery of the Millipede', and so there aren't many developers lining up to make it. But whilst the fat cats of the industry are away (making Call of Final Duty: Modern Fantasy Wars, I assume), the indie developers will play, carefully crafting games that are more likely to find a home in a gamer's heart than on a GameStop shelf.

Here are four recent indie shoot 'em ups that are bound to get your thumbs twitching like it's 1987 all over again.

Editor's note: this article contains information and prices relevant to North America. Availability and price may vary in other regions.


1: PixelJunk Sidescroller (PSN)


PixelJunk Sidescroller is the latest major release in the shmup genre, and of all my selections it comes from the most established studio. So it's somewhat strange that it attracted very little buzz and coverage, even compared to other PixelJunk titles.

But I promise you that it's there waiting to be discovered on the PlayStation Network for a mere ten bucks, and it's the purest example of a classic shmup on this modest list. The visuals ape the age of vector graphics, creating landscapes of bare, clean lines instead of clusters of colourful pixels. The entire screen curves in at the edge in an homage to ancient arcade cabinets. Vicious enemy ambushes seem designed to cheat desperate kids out of quarters.

But, of course, you won't be feeding change into your PS3. You'll just use another continue and train the muscle memory of your fingers to perform the right sequence of twitches to push forward. And you won't need any fancy upgrade systems, contrived plots, or flashy cutscenes to motivate you; you will do it because it gives you the feeling of being a hardcore badass, like the mute kid from The Wizard.


2: Jamestown (Steam)


The three-man team at Final Form Games have said that they realised that a major selling point for their tiny game was going to be its setting; setting would be the hook to draw fans into experiencing the gameplay. During a brainstorming session, programmer Tim Ambrogi said, no doubt in his best movie announcer voice, "It’s the new world... Mars... Jamestown."

And, indeed, you will travel through otherworldly variations of colonial settlements and territories, but the monstrous natives have no maize to share like their Earthly counterparts. Instead, they are extremely generous with their supply of deadly glowing laser bullets. Fortunately, you can share the bounty with three other players, coordinating your attacks and reviving one another to prevent a game over.

Bringing a buddy into the mix makes Jamestown feel like a shmup incarnation of beat 'em ups like Turtles in Time or the X-Men arcade game. But if you'd rather play alone, the solid, bullet-hellish gameplay and beautiful pixel-crafted visuals won't disappoint.


3: Space Pirates and Zombies (Steam)


The space exploration style is even deader than the shmup genre, but thankfully not as dead as your chief opponents in Space Pirates and Zombies. You will hyperjump lazily from galaxy to galaxy in a randomly generated universe, fighting to gain resources and blueprints to upgrade your weapons and expand your fleet, as you push back the zombie menace.

S.P.A.Z. is the product of two determined independent developers short on resources, so it can be a bit rough around the edges. There isn't much story to speak of and the randomly generated fights can be repetitive. On the other hand, it's a product of two determined developers absolutely committed to making a great game, and the core gameplay is addictive and satisfying. There are dozens of ship designs and weapons to research and combine, and there isn't any need to pick and choose the perfect loadout — your entire fleet will swarm around you in battle like a deadly and disciplined shoal of fish. If your hulking flagship's missiles are bouncing off an enemy's shields, you can switch to controlling a speedy little cruiser loaded with beam weapons as your flagship continues to slug it out under AI control.

All that depth and action is packed into the form of a top-down shooter, with ships gliding along like thruster-equipped air hockey pucks as they manoeuvre around enemies to assault exposed flanks. If it's your flank which is being assaulted, you may find yourself running low on scrap to rebuild your fleet, exiled to the edge of the universe and forced to use your fancy lasers to strip mine asteroids and buy yourself back into the real game. A bit of a drag, but a pirate's life is never easy.


4: Voxatron (humblebundle.com)


If you're lucky, by the time you've read this, you'll still have some time left to pick up the pay-what-you-want Humble Voxatron Debut. Even if you have missed the deadline to set your own price whilst supporting charities like Child's Play and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and getting a pair of other great games thrown in too (Blocks That Matter and the shmupish The Binding of Isaac), there's no doubt that Voxatron will once again be available for purchase when it's ready for a final release.

Yes, Voxatron is only an alpha for now, but the soul of Robotron's gameplay and the nostalgia of Zelda's dungeons has imbued it with incredible strength, despite its modest presentation. It has voxel-based graphics, much like 3D Dot Game Heroes and the eternally-under-devlopment Fez. However, that grants the game an extra dimension that the others lack: the third. When swarms of blocky enemies surround you, you can jump up and over, swivel around, and bring your peashooter to bear on the disoriented mob. If a platform is too high to reach, try destroying its base with concentrated fire and it will collapse to a more manageable altitude.

Just at the moment, the game is quite short, but at least as sweet, and you can't beat the price. Grab it now and look forward to the all the game's future content updates.

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- Ben Freund

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