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(Breaking) The Shmup Dogma

"Shoot'em ups should be one of the most exciting genres to experiment with, precisly because they are one of the most formative of the language of games."

[This text is a remake of a similar one written on the In Extremis devlog almost a year ago; I thought it would be amusing to update it to reflect the change in the sensibilities of the game design in this period of time]


The shoot'em up genre has yet to see a revival in the mainstream attention, as other previously niche game genres, such as roguelikes and adventures had. Despite that, it remains a point of contemporary curiosity in terms of its design possibilities (such as these recent articles right in Gamasutra), due to its apparent simplicity that can hide a goldmine of mechanical depth.


In Extremis is a project that I have been developing solo for the past 3 years, and it's an experiment in many things (such as expressing ideas through gameplay, and the interplay between conflicting audiovisual aesthetics), but mainly, it is about updating the overall experience of playing a shoot'em up to a contemporary audience (it is also currently on Greenlight, so I would be immeasurably happy if you could take a minute to cast a vote).


Part of the niche nature of the genre resides in its hardcore-ness, but is not due to the difficulty of the gameplay, but how it is overall structured to mimic the arcade experience, and not how is the current player experience and expectations. What I am attempting to do is to preserve the conquests and challenge that are integral to shumpping in a way that is not only coherent to modern sensibilities, but also original in a design sense.

So, let's look at some of those rules and how to subvert them:

Precise movement:

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See? Zoomed in, Touhou is simpler than it looks

Shmups require precision, as being one millimeter in the wrong side can usually mean the difference between life or death. Because of that, movement is usually an uncomplicated, x+1, y+1 affair, as using physical simulation elements such as acceleration and friction can change its dynamics entirely. A mistake some designer do is to include elements of inertia (such as wind and gravity) as an added challenge in some sections; which ends up being more annoying than tricky.


Despite that, different situations require different approaches; in bullet hells, fine dodging is more important than the the quick movement required in a more old-school shooter. Movement is a complex beast, one that has to do more with its perception than its technical execution. A larger field of movement means that your base speed has to be higher, in order to cover all screen, but can’t be too high or else risk precision; which is why INX has a narrower screen width, instead of using all of the horizontal screen space, something most vertical shooters usually do.


Another solution that I stuck with a controllable speed setting; holding Shift or the right trigger slow the ship to 3/4 of the base speed. A lot of shmups use this, normally  when employing two different firing mode for the player, but since INX has series of different weapons that can be mixed and match, doing that wasn't really working out.This simple allowed for a greater variety of challenges, and a simplified experience overall, especially for beginners.


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Crimzon Clover, while being excellent overall, can be a bit overwhelming for starting players

Shmups should, at best, be unconvoluted as possible; that means, the player mindset should be focused on the situation, not on extraneous information. So, systems that make things needlessly complex, such as resource-managing and excess of functions and modes, should be thinned as much as possible (and God forbid you use something such as a life bar - one hit kills, while apparently cruel for the uninitiated, provide a much better game flow).


There must be a clear visual communication of obstacles to the player; to an outsider’s eye, a specially devious bullet pattern may look unbreachable, because he is looking at the entire screen but to a player, he only has to deal with an small area around his hitbox. That said, such communication relies strongly on the designer; visible projectiles with strong colors and shapes, good contrast with the backgrounds, and a clear point of origin, as being hit by a “ninja” bullet coming out of nowhere is quite frustrating.


Since In Extremis uses a variety of visual styles, one thing I did was to simplify as much as possible the player’s tactile interaction with the gameworld. So, there are no collectable items or powerups in the game, most destruction effects are simplified and brief, and most non-harmful, touchable objects are inviting, either through color or transparency.

Rhythm and Dead Air:

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Sine Mora is an excellent game, but overall, a poor shoot’em up, thanks to morose level design that makes replays a chore

This is probably where a lot of shmups fail, and, to be honest, I don’t even know yet if INX passes. As I mentioned in a old article , there is something inherently musical in shmup stage structure, its verses and stanzas being enemy formations and bullet patterns; good shmups often present their challenges in coherent crescendos, putting variations of those previously established gameplay moments, and surprising the player with “rhymes” – unexpected combinations of those moments (For a game that executes this “poetry-as-game-design” rather excellently, check out Ikaruga, if you haven’t yet)

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