The Secret Posts - Bogling to Aswad

(Written 01/02/2008)

Time for some research into 2D shooters. What works, and what doesn’t? I loaded up a few emulators on the GP2x to find out.

Power Strike - Sega Master System

This is a vertically-scrolling shooter. It’s also a great game. When it was first released, it was hailed as being the fastest game on the Master System. The scrolling accelerates at a point in each level and there’s a real sense of speed as the landscape zips past.

What Works

The player has two weapons at his disposal, a standard cannon that can be powered up by collecting “P” icons dropped by an enemy, and an additional weapon that can take one of 8 forms depending on which powerups the player collects. ChromaX definitely needs two types of weapon; a cannon and some sort of changeable special weapon. I’ve also got an idea for a homing missile (of which the player can only carry 3 at once). Use the shoulder buttons to choose a target (click L to move to the next target on the left of the current target, and so on) and the X button to fire. When the homing missile hits, it wipes out the target and all enemies within a certain radius of the (particle-based) blast.

There’s a large number of enemies on-screen at any one time, and a large quantity of bullets flying around too. ChromaX needs to keep the enemy sprite count high.

What Doesn’t

Not much. It’s a simple, straight-forward blaster.

Xenon 2 - Sega Master System

Xenon 2 was astonishing when it was first released on the Amiga. A soundtrack that sounded like a chart single, amazing graphics, and it even let you scroll backwards. There was nothing else like it.

What Works

The graphics, even on the 8-bit Sega, are colourful and large. Tricky from my point of view, as the whole point of the contest is that I only have 4 colours.

What Doesn’t

The lavish graphics have a detrimental effect on frame rate. The game is sluggish to the point of rigor mortis. A smooth frame rate is essential in a shooter.

There are very few enemies on-screen simultaneously, and even fewer bullets. Quite a few enemies are stuck to the walls, which isn’t dynamic enough for a fast-paced shooter. Mobile enemies only for me. Also, the walls are solid, so bashing into them causes damage to the player’s ship. Not much fun.

There’s no autofire, so I quickly got sore fingers from having to mash the firebutton like I was playing Daly Thompson’s Decathalon. Autofire is a must.

Sagaia - Sega Master System

Or “Darius 2”, as it was more generally known.

What Works

Layers and layers of parallax scrolling make the game look like nothing else on the Master System. I don’t know how they managed to achieve it yet keep the game running so smoothly. There’s little to distinguish it graphically from the Mega Drive version. I can get two layers of clouds into ChromaX, but any more might look daft. The clouds should probably have solid grey outlines around the dithered centre to make the scrolling more obvious.

Powerups again - shield (already planned for), extra weapons (I’ll stick with something closer to the Power Strike model). Each level looks different and has a different palette. I have a plan for this - I can change the grey colour to something else for each level. The caption displayed below the “Mission x” text at the start of a level could name the level and reflect the colour used, eg. “Gunship Grey”, “Dune Yellow”, etc.

End of level enemies. Xenon 2 has them, but they work much better here. Very “Kill Bill”, with sirens that wail and text that announces the name of the approaching enemy. It’d be good to get something like that in if I have time. It’s a very stereotypically Japanese thing to put in a game, which (I’ve just realised) is precisely the impression I want the game to give.

What Doesn’t

This is one of my favourite shooters, and I won’t have a word said against it.

And the Rest

At this point, I’ve covered the most important elements of all successful shooters. There’s not much point in going into them all in great detail. It’s also very late and I have run out of steam. Here’s a very brief summary of a few more that I played for research purposes (ahem):

  • R-Type (Master System) - pod-based powerup system (too distinct an idea to “borrow”), but one of the best 2D blasters ever made;
  • Thunderforce IV (Mega Drive) - stupidly difficult, but technically superb;
  • Hellfire (Mega Drive) - press a button to switch firing direction. Clever but not suitable for ChromaX;
  • Darius 2 (Mega Drive) - basically the same as the Master System version but with more levels.

In summary:

  • Keep the frame rate high
  • Autofire
  • Include a basic weapon and a special weapon that changes depending on which powerup is picked up
  • Homing missiles with shoulder button targetting system
  • Level names that reflect the colour used in that level
  • End of level bosses (“Fetch me a pizza!”) that are announced Sagaia-style
  • Large number of constantly moving enemies and bullets on-screen at once to keep the game fast-paced
  • Parallax scrolling backgrounds