Blimey! The complete guide to shoot-'em-ups, eh? A bit of a mammoth task you might be thinking (and you'd be blooming right! It's taken me absolutely ages!). It's so blinking gigantic in fact that we've had to split it in two.
So how's it all going to work? Well, this section we spotlight those hundreds of games where you control a little spaceship, aeroplane or what have you, while in the next part we will be wibbling on for ages about those blasters where you command a man, creature or robot. Yes, I know it's a bit of an arbitrary way to divide the whole subject up, but it's the best I could come up with.
Anyway, if you're all ready, let's arm the missiles, oil the cannons, buckle our seatbelts and go kick some alien ass! (Or something.)
Well, at the risk of stating the obvious, it's a game where simple reaction times count for (almost) everything, and the actual shooting of various baddies constitutes the major part of the gameplay. It's just about the oldest form of computer game going (Space Invaders was pure shoot-'em-up, for instance), short of mad Victorian chappies crouching down inside big wooden cabinets and pretending to be chess machines. It's one of the most enduring forms too - hardly a week goes by when we don't see at least a couple of newies, and it's the rare arcade-style game (sports sims and puzzlers excepted) that doesn't include at least a small shoot-'em-up element in there somewhere as part of the gameplay.
But back to the case in hand. What we're talking about here are the pure shoot-'em-ups - games where the wiping out of waves of aliens or other baddies is everything (though let's be fair, the violence in most of these is very abstract and minimal). They easily divide into four major types, depending on how you view the action.
Goodness knows - Space Invaders is the obvious answer, but most of the other early arcade games were shoot-'em-ups too - Defender, Asteroids, Galaxian and the rest. To find out what made it onto the Speccy first, well, we'll have to look back in the vaults and see what we come up with, shan't we?
Right, here we are with the very first issue of Your Spectrum (later to evolve into Your Sinclair), cover date January 1984. Flick to the review section and we have two Space Invaders-type games, both from long-forgotten Anirog Software - Galactic Abductor and Missile Defense. The second issue (Feb 84, believe it or not) brings us such delights as Xark (Contrast Software), a Defender-type game and Alien Swoop (a Galaxians rip-off), while issue three had Bug Byte's Cavern Fighter (a tunnel. based jobbie, like an early version of R-Type).
Hmm. Let's go back a bit further, shall we? All the early computer games mags were listings based (i.e. had lots of crap Basic games printed out line by line over oodles of pages) so we might find something in there. Believe it or not, I have the very first issue of the very first computer games mag in the country sitting right here on my desk, cover-dated November 1981. There's only one Sinclair game in here (for a ZX80 or 81 - a Speccy forerunner - and taking up a whole 2K!). It's called City Bomb, and it's a sort of shoot-'em-up (down?). Apparently you're in a plane at the top of the screen and have to bomb the city beneath you, flattening out a landing strip so you can put down safely. Thrilling stuff, eh?
As for commercially available stuff, it's all lost a bit too far back in the mists of time to be sure. Still, shoot-'em-ups started emerging for the Speccy pretty soon after the machine came out, certainly by the end of '82. Throughout '83 people like Quicksilva and Bug Byte were churning out Space Invaders, Asteroids and Scramble clones advertised as 'being in 100% machine code and in colour' too, so perhaps it was one of those. Exciting stuff, eh?
One Obvious option for a Shoot-'em-up, and one that's used all over the place, is the vertical scroller. This is where the action is viewed from a God-like perspective above it all, looking down on everything from a distance. The action scrolls up (or on the very odd occasion down) the screen. This has some advantages - it's easy to lay out complicated attack formations and the little spaceships can be the simplest blobby shapes and still function quite well - but it can suffer from some rather major flows too.
The first is that the shape of your average TV or monitor is all wrong. Think about it - you're trying to present portrait-shaped action (taller than it is long) on a landscape-shaped screen (wider than it is tall). In a coin-op, which is where 85% of vertical scrollers originate, there's no real problem with this because you can easily build a cabinet with a tall thin screen to contain the action, but in Speccyvision the programmers have to waste large portions of the side of the potential play area to reproduce it. Subsequently, all the sprites have to be fairly small to fit in, and on most TVs become next to invisible. You've effectively castrated the game before you've even started.
There's one other major problem too - the background. Since most scrolling Speccy games have to be largely monochrome, any sort of backdrop (say a forest which you're flying over) can cause real problems. You'll he safe (but probably rather bored) if the programmer opts for a simple black starfield over which all the sprites will show up well, but anything beyond that courts disaster. All too often over-zealous background artists, small sprites, even smaller bullets and the sort of slightly crappy TVs most of us use with our Speccies conspire to render your brand new vertical scroller virtually unplayable. Don't think I've got a total downer on them though - despite all the limitations some of the real classics use this design. Xenon, anybody.
Although occasionally attempted with reasonable success by budgeteers like CodeMasters, these often constitute a less than satisfying experience. All too often someone responsible for coin-op licence acquisition will pick out an arcade favourite with a giant hydraulic cabinet - say an Afterburner or Thunderblade - with little thought as to how it's going to translate to the home computer. (Not very well, usually.) Thus most 'into-the-screen' shoot-'em-ups are technically impressive and rather brave attempts to reproduce the thrills and spills of the original, but almost inevitably doomed to failure. Robbed of 3D, moving cabinets, and whizzo graphics, the limitations built into the game become abundantly clear - there's little real feeling of speed (difficult enough to create even with a rolling road as reference point, let alone without one), oodles of almost identical levels and very little to actually do. Boring.
Not all that common, but these can work very well indeed - check out Raf Cecco's Cybernoid duo, for instance. The thing seems to be that if you dispense with trying to write decent scrolling routines (since the background doesn't move at all - you simply progress across the screen until you get to the far end, when a new one flashes up with your little ship in its new starting position) you can spend a lot more time making everything else very pretty and colourful and inventive. Thus flip-screen games have some of the best, clearest, most colourful graphics ever seen on the Speccy.
On the minus side however there's the disconcerting, disorientating bit where your ship flickers off the right hand side of the screen, only to reappear on the far left of the next one.
But they can he incredibly addictive (it's always a temptation to try for 'just one more' screen to see what it looks like) and, in the case of the Cecco games at least, can strike a fine balance between mindless blasting and working out the best route past each new obstacle. They're still pure shoot-'em- ups, but slightly more cerebral ones.
This is the other main option, and usually a much more sensible way to go about things. Not only is the screen the right shape, but you can have a very complicated and pretty bottom and/or top bit to it (the ground, or the edges of a tunnel, say), while leaving the bulk of the play area relatively free from obstructions. Most of the great shoot-'em-ups (but by no means all) are built like this, including the all-time fave raves like Uridium and R-Type.
For these guides we've adapted our normal rating system to accommodate the shoot-'em-up theme. Here's how they work...
Are there oodles of inventive, nasty and extremely difficult-to-kill baddies all over the place (including the biggest, meanest muthas ever at the end of each level) or do you end up fighting a fleet of Trebor Mints?
Are there oodles and oodles of well-thought-out and spectacular weapons available to pick up and use, or do you have to make do with the same crap little pea-shooter throughout the game?
Unusually, the lower the score the better here. Basically, is this exactly the same as every other shoot-'em-up ever (in which case it'll get a high score for being chronically unoriginal) or does it have something innovative and special about it to set it apart from the crowd?
Does everything make a degree of sense in Speccyvision, or is it all a jumbled mass of pixels, with bullets, missiles and even little spaceships winking in and out of view willy-nilly?
Originally brought out for Christmas '88, R-Type is still probably the all-time shoot-'em-up champion. It's got everything really - bright, colourful and rather chunky graphics, pretty backdrops (but with the main play area left black for ease of vision) and playability coming out of its ears.
|Cybernoid I & II|
This flip-screen shoot-'em-up and its very similar (but slightly souped-up) sequel are notable in a number of ways. For a start there's the colour - absolutely loads of it littered about, especially when programmer Raf Cecco's famous explodey bits come into play. Then there's the gameplay - the first few screens aren't too tricky, but you soon find yourself coming across some of the most ludicrously packed and complicated problems ever - it's often a real triumph to get half way across a screen, let alone onto the next one! Neat touches like the use of gravity (some bullets drop in a little arc as opposed to zooming on in a straight line, and your ship squats firmly on the ground if you don't tell it otherwise) add to the infuriating fun.
This is a Uridium-style vertical scroller available in 128K only (from the merry old days when that seemed like a fairly smart thing to do). It's fast, clean and simple in look (which is the only way to handle a vertical scroller), and the 128K allows colour to be used in fair smatterings - no danger of the incredible 'disappearing ship syndrome' here, folks. Set over a series of 15 space stations and 12 moonscapes (with four special bonus sections thrown in there too) it's pretty blooming massive to say the least. One nice touch is that you don't just have to dodge alien waves, but watch out for sticky-up deck structures on the surface which constitute extra hazards too. Teleports (multiloads to you and me) shoot you to the next level, but while they're doing their stuff an excellent mini-pinball game kicks in to amuse you (neatly, points earned here add to your score). Not as spectacular as some of the other stuff in this guide, it's nevertheless fast and playable - the way a good shoot-'em-up should always be.
A prime example of the sort of arcade conversion everyone said 'can't be done on the Speccy' and guess what? Yes, everyone was right! Still, that doesn't mean Activision didn't make a very brave try. Indeed, the speed with which they've got the various pretty large sprites (massive in the case of the F14 Tomcat you control) whanging around all over the screen is pretty impressive, to say the least. The only problem is - there isn't really much of a game hiding underneath the flash (and I know plenty of people will disagree with me, but I found pretty much the same thing to be the case with Space Harrier, Galaxy Force and all those other into the screen jobbies), a fault of Sega (the coin-op people) rather than the people who worked on the Speccy version.
This is the most recent Asteroids clone (that I can think of at least) and retains exactly the same gameplay as the original (more or less), just spiffed up a little with a couple of clever bits and pieces. To be honest there's precious little difference between this and the original, but since you can probably get hold of this one a lot easier it's this we'll talk about.
|GIANT ALIEN MUTHAS FROM HELL|
Impressive pink mouth affair firmly in the R-Type mould, and nicely animated too - the eyes blink and teeth move. Unfortunately the rest of the game didn't live up to it.
A giant eye thing with lobster claws - not bad, but the grey and yellow graphics don't help it to stand out as much as they might, do they?
This is the other way to do it - not a giant fixed mass (like the other two) but a moving baddy in the vein of stuff you've already met on that level, but bigger. This super chopper is delightfully guppy-like.
|EVERY SHOOT-'EM-UP EVER|
|Ha! You've got to be joking - I started working on it and got up to 150 names - and I had only just scratched the surface! Forget it!|