The Space of Outer Space

-Greg Livingston

Space ship shooting games (shmups) are an odd bunch.

They’re strategic like Starcraft or Shining Force; you need precise positioning and an appropriate attack strategy in order to wipe out your enemies.

Much like real time strategy (RTS) games and strategy RPGs (SRPGs), shmups lack a sense of tactility. In RTSes and SRPGs, you never directly interact with something. Instead, you command a troop to attack for you.

On the other hand, shmups lack a sense of feeling because your movement is always precise and never hampered by things like friction or gravity. Your ship doesn’t have any sense of weight or heft to it; instead, it floats around the screen freely. In fact, if you touch anything in a shmup, you’re dead—how’s that for tactility?

And yet, there’s a sense of action to shmups that you won’t find in RTSes or SRPGs. You don’t have time to contemplate when you should be where. Like action games, you’ll need your reflexes to get you through a shmup.

Unlike an action game, though, there’s not much finesse to it. You won’t string together moves into combos, for instance. Shmups are very simple to control.

Shmups, then, largely boil down to this: occupy the right space at the right time.

R-Type exemplifies the core of shmup gameplay. Once you know the right place and time, it’s a cinch.

The best example is R-Type’s famous battleship stage. 

In R-Type, your hitbox is your ship alone, the R9. In other words, if anything harmful touches your ship, you’re dead. The orange ball, called a Force, isn’t part of your ship. It does fire your special weapons, but I’ll get to that later.

The battleship’s turrets try to lock onto your ship, but they can only rotate 45 degrees at a time. In the picture above, the blue line marks the turret’s current line of fire, while the green line shows where the turret might shoot if the ship moved to the left a little. The turret is incapable of shooting anywhere between.

Evading turret fire is a three step process.

First, you’ve got to figure out how the turrets operate. In this case, they lock onto your ship, but only in increments of 45 degrees. The only way to learn this is through observation.

Second, you’ll need to establish where the turrets can potentially shoot. This is dictated by how they operate. In the picture above, the green and blue lines show where that particular turret can shoot.

Third, you occupy a space that is not within the line of fire of a turret. Dodging turret fire by reflex alone is infeasible, since you’re forced into tight quarters with the turret; there won’t be time to dodge when it fires. This means you’ll need to picture the blue line, picture the green line, and then stay between them.

The secret to playing shmups is that reflexes alone aren’t enough. This is more the case for some shooters than others; R-Type, for its part, does its best to make reflexes unimportant. Staying between the lines of fire isn’t hard to do in and of itself; it’s seeing the lines of fire in the first place that is.

However, at this point, you’ve only evaded turret fire. If you want it to stop, you’ll need to find some way to shoot the turret back.

Your normal shot fires forward alone, so it’ll never hit the turret.

What makes the battleship stage so great is that it’s the first stage in R-Type to make you appreciate the space that your special weapons occupy. These weapons are balanced in a simple way:

The red weapon shoots straight forward. It occupies the very heart of the room. This weapon can shoot backwards if your Force is on the back of your ship.

The yellow weapon fires straight up and down and travels along walls. It occupies the extremities of the room.

And the blue weapon fires diagonally outward, reflecting off of walls. It occupies most of the space in the room.

The red and yellow weapons occupy totally opposite spaces; one shoots straight forward, while the other shoots up and down. The blue weapon is a compromise, trying to cover as much ground as possible.

This stage forces you to fly around all sides of the battleship. At first, you approach it from the front, where conventional means of attack work fine. Soon, however, you travel under the battleship, and many of your targets aren’t straight in front of you. In order to hit the battleship’s turrets, you’ll need to think about the space your weapons are occupying.

In order to use the red weapon, your ship needs to be on the same vertical level as your target. In order to use the blue weapon, you need to be placed diagonally from your target. Both of those options put you in the line of a turret’s fire.

The yellow weapon, however, is perfect. As indicated by the blue line in the picture above, it can shoot directly up at the turret while your ship itself is out of the turret’s range.

Between all three special weapons, you’re able to cover the entire screen in fire; the question is which of the three weapons you’ll want to choose for a certain situation, or in other words, what part of the screen you’ll need to cover. In this case, it happens to be the yellow weapon.

The battleship stage, then, not only asks you to observe where enemies fire, but to come up with an appropriate retort. Once you figure out how to dodge enemy fire, you’ll have to figure out how to fire upon that enemy yourself. This means observing the space that your ship takes, the space that the enemy’s fire takes, the space that the enemy takes, and the space that your own fire takes.

In order to see the stage in action, I’ve recorded a run:

(EWG) R-Type - Stage 3

Shmups certainly aren’t as lively as they were in the 80s and 90s, but games like Deathsmiles, Sine Mora, and PixelJunk SideScroller keep the scene alive. Do you consider yourself a shmup fan today?