The Shmup Review Issue

 

The main focus of this article is not to nitpick the scores of certain shmup reviews, or to discourage the general gaming media from reviewing shmups, or to be an elitist jerk. If I am an elitist jerk, I’m sorry, it’s not intentional …

Also, I think I should point out that there are shmup reviews and articles that I do like within the general gaming press, such as Eurogamer’s review of Ketsui Deathtiny or Pushsquare’s review of Battle Garegga Rev 2016, so I’m not saying these criticisms apply to every shmup review.

The purpose of this article is to discuss some of the problems I see with how shmups are currently being discussed and reviewed within the general gaming media, as well as point out the alarming fact that the general gaming media doesn’t seem to even bother covering shmups at all. Part of that is probably due to shmups being such a niche genre and all, but I also think another problem is that the general gaming media doesn’t even know how to review shmups in the first place. They don’t know what to look for, they don’t know what makes a shmup appealing, what separates one shmup from another, and just the basic structure of what a shmup review might even look like.

For the purpose of this article, I am going to need to highlight some shmup reviews that I have read and what I think could be improved about them. When I do this, I’m not trying to attack the writers of these articles or put people down and stuff like that. I definitely don’t want to discourage people in the press and smaller websites from writing about shmups. On the contrary, I want to see the general gaming media cover these awesome games. I don’t think you need to be some highly accomplished player to have a valid review of a shmup, but I do think you need to at least know what you should be looking for. So with this article, I’m going to outline ideas for how reviewers can approach the genre, as well as go over some of my pet peeves with a lot of the reviews I am reading.  Yeah … ok, I am being an elitist jerk, but at least one with good intentions.

To start off, I have to point out my biggest pet peeve and a distinction shmup reviewers need to start making, this being the difference between reviewing an original release of a shmup versus a port. This is an issue with many game genres, not just shmups, but it’s a big problem with shmup reviews because ports are actually important. Most gamers, especially those approaching the genre for the first time, are not going to have their experience with the original arcade version of these games. Instead, their initial experience will be with the ports that are available to them. However, if a reviewer does not give consideration to the porting aspects of the game, this is leaving out a huge chunk of information and really doesn’t make sense. Here is a strong example of what I am talking about, this is a review of Strikers 1945 II on the Nintendo Switch by Nintendo Life:

http://www.nintendolife.com/reviews/switch-eshop/strikers_1945_ii

Again, I’m not trying to slam Nintendo Life, I do think their reviews are well-written. The problem with the review is that it does not comment on any porting aspects of the game, other than it can be rotated (which is good) and that it’s a shame there are no online leaderboards (again, a good point). However, since the majority of the review is about the original gameplay of Strikers II (which is my favorite Psikyo game, by the way), the final score is a 9/10. Strikers II with high quality emulation or on a PCB certainly deserves that score, but the lazy work Zerodiv put into this port absolutely does not (I’d give the port a 1/10). Not only does Strikers II on Switch lack any sort of extra tools like stage select, replay, or save-states (all possible on CPU emulation), but the review also misses the game’s critical flaw — the insane amount of input lag.

Input  Lag Database  LINK

According to my input lag tests, Strikers II on Nintendo Switch is 7 frames of lag with the Pro controller in wireless mode and 8 frames with it plugged into the dock. I’ve never seen an input lag reading so high and this makes the game not even worth playing, even casually.  

So even if you are willing to just pay for a barebones experience, the port still is not worth your money, at least in my opinion. The lag is just too high to be a fun time. The thing is, I do understand that precisely testing for input lag is a very technical process, especially on the Switch, so I’m not saying this has to be done by every reviewer. However, what I am saying is that, when a reviewer wants to review a shmup port, input lag needs to be taken into consideration in one way or another, even if it’s just a feel test compared to other shmups on the platform. And now that I have created a lag database (with more entries on the way), reviewers will have something they can reference when they are at least trying to feel the lag between the various releases. This is critical information that is not reflected in the review by Nintendo Life (again, this isn’t just to single out this review, most reviews are like this).

Overall, I feel this issue is important for reviewers to keep in mind because these games were designed in a low-lag environment (at least most of them, anyway), adding a bunch of lag changes the way these games can be played.

Admittedly, I do have a bit of an obsession when it comes to identifying input delay in shmups, so maybe this is less of an issue for some players. Still though, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the amount of information that is generally absent from most shmup reviews.  

Another aspect of shmup ports that is often glossed over are the interface options and control options. To the average gamer who just plays yoko (horizontal) on a 16:9 monitor, maybe these features seem like fluff. However, for a certain group of shmup players, myself included, these features are important for quality of life. For example, Crimzon Clover on PC not only has rotation options, but it also has screen stretching and adjustment. For an STG player who uses special equipment like the Extron Emotia or even TATE VGA monitors at 720p 4:3 aspect ratio, not being able to adjust the screen on the fly means extra time tweaking settings between games, which becomes a huge hassle. Plus there are games that simply do not support various resolutions and are pretty much unplayable on CRT *cough* Shikhondo Soul Eater. These types of features may seem obvious to most shmup players, but I’ve noticed more and more releases that have been omitting them all-together. Not only does the PC port of Shikondo refuse to play in lower resolutions, but it also doesn’t even have rotation or button config options in the console ports.

A vital feature that is often not discussed in shmup reviews are practice options. Practice options, for lack of a better term, are features within a port that allow a player to learn the game faster and more efficiently. Stuff like stage select, boss select, practice mode, functioning checkpoints, save states, rewind — basically any feature that allows you to bypass redundant gameplay that you have already learned. To me this is a vital aspect of a port and another area where many games fall short and few reviewers comment on the issue. To be clear, I think all shmup releases, whether ports or not, should have comprehensive practice options, but it is especially problematic in ports because of emulation. Yes, emulation, the forbidden dark art of the gaming media. Apparently it’s taboo to talk about playing on emulators in the gaming press, even though companies like Nintendo, Capcom, Sony, and many more are completely willing to abuse it for $$$, but anyway (keep an eye out for a future article about this). Comprehensive emulation has excellent practice options available, so again, if I want to play and learn Strikers II, I would be able to use save states in an emulator to hone my skills.

The best way to practice and learn shmups is a huge topic and not one that I will get into in this article. However, it cannot be denied that many players, myself included, really appreciate having useful practice features available to maximise our time. Practice features are a huge selling point. This is something that CAVE and M2 recognize with their ports. Zerodiv, on the other hand, is asking players to not only wrestle with insane input lag, but also invest much more time than necessary repeating redundant gameplay. And yes, I do recognize that expecting every developer to match M2’s high standard is unrealistic, but that doesn’t mean players should just smile and accept bare minimum effort as well. Some sort of care needs to be given to these ports, with at least a stage and boss select feature at minimum. In my opinion, ports like Strikers 1945 II on Switch are harmful because they are laggy, barren, and reinforce the notion that the genre is impossibly hard. From the perspective of a newcomer who doesn’t know he’s battling all this lag, it comes off like people who are able to clear shmups are inhuman sevants with machine reflexes. How else are they dodging what’s on screen? Ports should strive to demystify the process of learning the game by giving players the tools they need to learn, rather than adding extra barriers like bad interface and high input lag.

Along that same line, I think more attention needs to be given towards modes and arrangements with shmup releases. It is time we talk about shmup releases and ports realistically, rather than idealistically. Realistically, when a shmup port is released, it is often just a rom dump on an inefficient emulator with no extra features. Zerodiv Psikyo ports are a good example of this. For many reviewers in the gaming press, who do not discuss the dark arts, they feel that reviewing this dumped rom is the same thing as reviewing the original arcade release, when it is not. Obviously, I’m not discouraging players from buying official shmup releases, even if they are subpar. I really want to see this vicious cycle of bad porting creating less sales → which then creates even worse ports → which creates horrible sales → to the point where shmups aren’t even being developed ↺ come to an end. This cycle needs to be stopped somehow.

What I am getting at is that reviewers need to raise their standards. Shmup reviewers need to start asking for more and taking note when features are missing. After all, if Zerodiv only get praise for their barebone ports, why would they bother to improve them? In their eyes maybe they thought they were doing a good job. However, if reviews start commenting on the missing features (the lack of practice mode, the lack of additional content, the bad input lag, lack of replay mode) then it is more likely the standard of these releases will improve.

This same criticism holds true for original shmup releases. While I’m less harsh on new shmups overall, I still think these are features that should be at least considered. Again, I’m not saying that all new shmups need to release with all these robust features or they aren’t worth the money — definitely not. What I am getting at is that these features should be something they strive for and are at least aware of. A full blown practice mode is a lot of extra work for the developer, but I do think that having at least a stage select and maybe some sort of checkpoint system should be a standard expectation. Here is a great example of what I am talking about. This is a review of an indie shmup called Space Moth DX, the review is by Game Spew (sorry Game Spew, I’m going to get after you a little bit).

 

https://www.gamespew.com/2016/04/space-moth-dx-review/

 

My thoughts on this article is that, even though it is harsh, it is harsh for all the wrong reasons. I think this review fails to see many of the merits of Space Moth DX (see, I can be nice), and tosses around some odd criticisms (at least in the eyes of a shmup player). So what I will do is critique the critiques of this article (shmupception), then offer up my own take on the game. At the end I’ll put up a bullet point list of the stuff I think should be noted in a review.  

To start off, the review mentions the two difficulty modes, but does not comment on the differences between the two. Having played a good deal of Space Moth DX, I can’t help but feel that the reviewer actually did not play in DX mode very much. The reason why I say this is because, in his summary of the game’s score, he comments, “Due to confusing design decisions and a lack of pulse-pounding action[,] it [the game] loses control fast.” This criticism may hold up in arcade mode, but if you are playing DX mode for score, the game has plenty of action on screen, especially in the later stages. What makes this even more odd is that he also complains about there being too many bullets on screen, “It[,] however[,] makes it all the more frustrating as you fly through these gorgeously drawn levels only to be fixated on the massive amount of purple colored orbs on screen like some sort of kaleidoscope of horror.” Space Moth doesn’t seem to be able to win either way.  

Another criticism that confuses me is his description of the weapon system. The reviewer writes: “without any power-ups in the entire game there isn’t any sense of progression. There are only three weapons available to you from the onset of the game: a laser, a rapid shot, and a bomb attack, leaving little variation.” What was this reviewer expecting exactly? A 6-button Radiant Silvergun weapon system? Probably so, as he does reference Treasure in the review. So for those of you who are not aware, the removal of power up items has been a recent trend in shmup releases, this is not a new thing. There are pros and cons to this design decision, but I think it works well with the level design of Space Moth DX. I can’t see chasing a bunch of power up items in the later stages of the game being an exciting experience. Of course, a review is able to comment on this design decision, but I think it is pretty unfair to use it as an overall criticism of the game, especially since it is probably the correct choice in terms of how the level design works.

I have saved my biggest criticism of the review for last. I think the most concerning part of this review has to do with its take on the continue system that Space Moth uses. The review reads:

[I]t uses save states at the beginning of each level as a concession, reloading everything you had at the beginning of the level if you are caught in a fail state. In the early moments of the game it feels fair, giving rise to tension the further in a level you get. However[,] later in the game when enemy attacks begin to get far more complicated[,] it feels more like a way to arbitrarily extend the playtime.

I have to remind myself not to be rude, but I think the review is not fairly assessing the continuation system of Space Moth. The description of the system is accurate, but I disagree completely about it “arbitrarily extend[ing] the playtime.” The game itself, in its How to Play section, actually explains that this continue system is designed to encourage players to help learn the game, but not be able to credit spam their way through. Space Moth is designed to encourage players to get a 1cc clear. Not only that, but it also provides the tools that a player needs to get there. So here is my alternate review of Space Moth DX, I hope that it might be a useful template for the types of things reviewers might be able to watch for.

 

My Example Review of Space Moth DX

 

Space Moth DX is an excellent example of an indie shmup made with the player in mind. While the game is not flawless with its presentation and execution, it is a demonstration of a shmup with its priorities in the right place and shows a development team with a lot of potential. Visually, the graphics and aesthetic are an obvious homage to Mushihimesama, but with a fun take that focuses exclusively on the bug concept. The quality of the sprites is simplistic and most of the animation in the enemies seems limited. The game could greatly benefit by improving the sprite and animation quality of the visuals, but the game is still fun to look at and has charm. The Space Moth player sprite, in particular, is a great piece of design and is my favorite aspect of the presentation. I also think it is clever how the wings are used as the grazing area and the hitbox in the center of the sprite looks very natural. The graze animation is clear and the fire aura for close damage is a nice touch. Since this is an indie shmup with a small team, I can forgive the weaker visuals, but they do hold the game back from broader appeal. If I was a tester for this game, I would say the most immediate and obvious fix is the death animations of the enemies. The blood splat animation is too quick and simplistic, it needs to be a bit more dynamic and last longer to be satisfying.

The sound design of Space Moth DX is similar to the visuals. It works, its serviceable, but maybe a little too simplistic. Really, I don’t need to go on and on about the presentation and sound of this game, because this seems more like a passion project than a game aiming for a big commercial release (which isn’t a bad thing). However, as I said earlier, if the game’s presentation were ramped up more, it would really help improve player engagement and encourage players to spend more time with Space Moth DX.

With that out of the way, this is where the rest of the review takes a positive turn. Space Moth DX was obviously created by people passionate about the genre, and the design choices the team made reflect this. First off, I have to praise the How to Play section of the game. I’ve actually written an entire article about the issue of indie shmups communicating their scoring and game design to the player directly, and this section of the game checks all the boxes. The How to Play section explains the weapon system, it explains the scoring system, it even explains the continue system (as I mentioned earlier). It also hints at the existence of a TLB (True Last Boss) and explains how to unlock it (thank you!). More indie shmups need to do something like this in one form or another.

Then there are the usual but important interface options, music volume, sound volume, control config, screen rotation, etc. Sadly there is no on-the-fly screen adjust like Crimzon Clover, but the game was able to recognize my monitor’s odd resolution without trouble and I did get to play full screen TATE without any sort of equipment adjusting. The music adjustment is also a nice feature because you are able to mute the game’s music and listen to your own if you feel like it. Sadly there is no replay feature present, but at least the game is very low on system requirements so running an OBS capture shouldn’t be much of a problem.

Input lag wise, the controls feel extremely responsive. I did not do a formal test, but from feel the game is among the most responsive shmups I have played on PC, probably on par with ZeroRanger. The game is definitely more responsive than the steam port of Mushihimesama. Input lag is not a concern at all. The ability to turn v-sync on or off only helps to improve the game in this regard.

Another impressive feature of Space Moth DX is its inclusion of a practice mode. This is not a feature that is common among indie shmups, so that is a big plus in terms of improving the games playability, especially for those going for a TLB clear on DX mode. Speaking of DX mode, Space Moth has two difficulty options, Normal and DX. Normal is a little too easy for my taste, but I can see it being a great introductory difficulty for new players, so I think it is definitely a worthwhile inclusion. DX mode is the more challenging and fun mode. I wouldn’t say DX mode is as challenging as something like Mushihimesama normal mode, but it’s pretty close to that ballpark.

It would be great if the game included an additional mode beyond just these two, maybe a score attack or something similar. Still though, I did notice that there is an unlockable second character, though I’m not sure what that may be or how it functions. It could add a good deal of variety to the gameplay. At the time of this review, I have not unlocked this second character, but will update this review with my findings if I do.

The scoring system in Space Moth DX is interesting, it has a good amount of depth without being overly complicated. There are four different systems in place, that I am aware of: a graze system, a medal system, the draining system, and the boss “Skill Shot” (or something like that). The graze system functions how expected, you gain extra points by touching enemy bullets with your sprite outside the hitbox, except there is no hyper meter attached or anything. From what I’ve gathered grazing just nets more points, but doesn’t have any further systems beyond that. I would say that grazing bullets is a nice way to pick up extra points, but not a core focus like in Danmaku Unlimited 3. The medal system is extremely similar to the bee medals in Dodonpachi, where they increase in value as you pick them up, but lose value if you miss one. You also uncover the items (they are not actually medals) by hitting them with the top of the laser like in DDP. The draining system is the primary scoring mechanic, I would say. How it works is that you shoot larger enemies with your rapid shot until they turn black. Once they turn black, their attack pattern changes and you gain bonus points for killing them with laser. The effect is that you have this pseudo chaining system that feels somewhat similar to Ketsui, but not exactly. It’s a clever system and I think it’s a solid mechanic.

The biggest issue I have with the draining system is that it often forces the player to use rapid shot, which isn’t a bad thing except that the ship default speed is too fast to be suited to navigating the dense bullet patterns of the later stages. I think a simple solution to this problem would have been the addition of a slow button, like what is used in Touhou and Danmaku Unlimited 3.

The final scoring mechanic, the boss skill shot, is one where if you kill the stage end boss with only two seconds left on the boss timer, you get a score bonus. This is a fun risk reward because you will lose your boss bonus if you are too late with the kill This is also an interesting mechanic because it prevents you from speed killing and will have to wait through more cycles than you would play through otherwise. Again, the only flaw with this idea is that slow movement is attached to the laser, which means you will end up having to dodge some really tricky patterns using only default speed. Yes, I think it’s fair to say that a slow button is needed for this game. I’m surprised this was overlooked, as the rest of the gameplay design seems cohesive and well planned.

Before wrapping this review up, I would like to comment on the level design. For the humble shmup that it is, I think the level design is really solid, especially for DX mode. The enemy variety is more limited than a CAVE release, but definitely varied enough to give each stage its own feel.The enemy layouts are not as nuanced as the best danmaku, but I think they are still well done and steer clear from the dangerous euroshmup territory.

In the end, I think Space Moth DX is a game that shows a lot of promise, but not quite reaching the levels of a premium indie shmup like Blue Revolver or ZeroRanger (yes, that is a term I made up, but I’m going to keep using it). However, Space Moth DX is still a quality STG and it’s one that I enjoy picking up and playing from time to time, which is not something I do with most indie shmups. Something about this game speaks to me and you definitely have to admire its spirit and attention to details that many other releases miss out on. Plus the game is not very expensive ($5 when I bought it), so it’s definitely worth its weight in that regard.  

I rate this game a 7/10. The three points I took off are two for presentation and sound design, and one for the lack of a slow button or some other way to control your ship and drain enemies during thick bullet patterns. This control problem seems like an oversight to me, but if I’m missing something about the controls I’m willing to return and revise my score.

 

 

So there you have it, hopefully this article and the example review make sense and convey what I am getting at and how shmup reviews could be improved for the future. Yes I realize I come off as an elitist know-it-all in this article, but I think it’ll be worth it. I do believe that this shmup review issue is harmful to the community. If we had more reviews, more reviews that comment on what needs to be commented on, and more people who feel comfortable making reviews now that they know what to look for, then I think that will go a long way. I am aware that I have probably missed an important aspect of reviewing a shmup somewhere along the line, so if something like that comes to my attention I’ll come back and include it in this article.

Thanks for reading and below will be some bullet points if you want to check them out.

Cheers!

Mark MSX

 

Basic STG Review Quick Guide

  • Is it a Port?
  • Graphics
  • Audio/Music
  • Aesthetic/Presentation
  • Control Config
  • Video/Audio Options (V-Sync, Rotation, etc.)
  • Control Quality
  • Input Lag
  • Practice Options?
  • Modes?
  • Replay?
  • Difficulty Overview
  • Scoring System Overview
  • Thoughts on Sub-scoring Systems
  • Level Design
  • Enemy Variety
  • Any Other Notable Aspects (Boss Fights, Loop Systems, etc.)
  • Online Leader boards (I really only expect these for “premium” releases)
  • Cost $$$
  • Overview/Score

*Of course you can cover a lot more, but I think this a solid foundation to look at if you don’t know where to start.

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