[29 September 2011]
Imagine that you’re a person with preternaturally good reflexes and coordination and speed, and that you’re playing high-level tennis. Your experience, in play, will not be that you possess phenomenal reflexes and speed; rather, it will seem to you that the tennis ball is quite large and slow-moving, and that you always have plenty of time to hit it. That is, you won’t experience anything like the (empirically real) quickness and skill that the live audience, watching tennis balls move so fast they hiss and blur, will attribute to you.
—David Foster Wallace, “Federer as Religious Experience”
“Practice makes perfect” is one of those little platitudes that you hear before you can even parse the words, and then continue to hear, over and over, every time that you try something new, even when the person saying it is utterly convinced that you will never actually be “perfect” given the current state of your ability. It seems like the right thing to say, given that it’s usually said at the point where the listener’s ability is still in a malleable state, still prone to quick improvement over a short amount of time. Perfection isn’t actually the goal, proficiency is, though it is admittedly true that “practice makes proficient” isn’t nearly as catchy.
This is partially because the state of “proficiency” is such a fungible concept. Starting Radiant Silvergun on the “normal” difficulty level with three lives and three credits is something like starting Halo on Legendary difficulty with the added caveat that checkpoints only remain checkpoints for a limited time. There’s a tremendous learning curve here. You play and you play again and you play again, and maybe you get to the third boss, and there’s confusion because the game keeps telling you that you’re playing pieces of the third stage, first 3A, then 3B, then 3C. There’s no immediate indication of whether you’re making measurable progress or why you’re on stage 3 or if all the stages are stage 3 or of whether Radiant Silvergun is some sort of existential experiment that comments on the genre’s inability to move beyond a predefined and familiar structure or of whether the near-parabolic spike in difficulty after the first two stages is going to continue into the end of the game. Radiant Silvergun, as released on Xbox Live Arcade in 2011, gleefully toys with the expectations of the gamer who thinks that shmups are short and predictable. Proficiency could be getting all the way through stage 3 or beating the second mini-boss without getting hit or getting through the entire game on one credit. Proficiency is defined by the individual player; it is not simply a matter of one’s ability to get to the end.
Of course, those determined to define video game proficiency as the ability to finish will continue to, as Radiant Silvergun does, make concessions to those who see games as challenges of endurance to be conquered by attrition. You don’t really have to become familiar with the patterns of bullets and hostiles that are thrown at you in increasingly sadistic waves and patterns. If you play for one hour in Arcade Mode, you’ll up your credit count from three to four, with another credit showing up after every hour. Play for seven hours and Radiant Silvergun grants free play—unlimited continues—which should hopefully be enough to get through the thing. “Here, you’ve done your time,” it says. “You deserve to win.” Story Mode is a little less forgiving, what with its “three lives and done” approach, but it does allow the player to keep powered-up weapons from session to session and grants an extra life after every hour of humbling non-progress.
This is probably the best approach for a console shmup. The modern player tends to believe that shmups simply don’t have enough content to warrant a purchase, that the fact that one can be beaten in a matter of an hour or two—not mastered, mind you, but beaten—somehow reduces its value. By slowly meting out concessions to the player, Radiant Silvergun (like fellow Treasure release Ikaruga three years earlier) extends the number of minutes that player will put into it. You can’t just keep inserting virtual coins until you reach the end; for the first six hours at least, your pockets eventually empty and even trying to play Radiant Silvergun on Very Easy difficulty with 10 lives per credit is no guarantor of success.
The point, however, is that despite this difficulty, practiced proficiency is no requirement to “beating” Radiant Silvergun, at least in the most basic sense of the word. Play it long enough and you’ll get see the end, whether “playing it” means actual engagement or taping down a couple of buttons and leaving the room. So why bother?
We bother because engagement is a choice. True, when Leigh Alexander wrote those words she was talking about a best-of list from 2008 that didn’t have a single shmup on it, but it’s a statement that holds in this genre perhaps more than any other. Shmups are “easy” and “short” and “repetitive” and “boring” because gaming in 2011 is a goal-oriented pursuit, and the goal of a shmup is ostensibly to get to the end. When developers make “getting to the end” an easy-to-accomplish goal, we as players are left to fend for ourselves, to address the game in a manner that offers goals beyond seeing the end. We must make the choice to engage it beyond the terms that are explicitly laid out for us; we must make the choice to master it rather than simply beat it because it is in mastering the game—or, at least, achieving whatever our own individual definition of “proficiency” happens to be—that it becomes a fulfilling experience. Credit-feeding offers only a hollow victory and 15 Gamerscore points.
It is only in establishing mastery as important that we can begin to see the brilliance of a game like Radiant Silvergun. A practice session of a prototypical shmup consists almost entirely of pattern memorization and constant fire. Perhaps there are two types of gun, but they both shoot in the same direction; perhaps there is a room-clearing bomb, but those are ignored in practice sessions because they are get-out-of-jail-free cards that don’t help at all toward the greater good. Keep firing, keep dodging, figure out the best way to not get killed. What Radiant Silvergun offers is an immediately stocked arsenal of weapons and only the most basic of clues regarding when best to use them. There is the vulcan, as noted previously, which is easy to lean on because it’s the most obvious of the weapons: it shoots straight ahead, very quickly. A spread gun shoots two beams at about a 60-degree angle, exploding on command or on impact, offering an extended burst of damage at the point of explosion. A homing gun offers limited power but also the bonus of a bullet guaranteed to find its target.
The weapons can then be combined to create new weapons. The vulcan and the homing missile combine to offer a sort of sticky laser, which offers a constant stream of damage that will stick to a target that doesn’t travel too far from the player’s ship. The vulcan and the spread gun combine to form a sort of “rear vulcan”, a spreading rapid-fire shot that does most of its damage to the rear but saves a few bullets for the front of the ship. The spread and homing guns form a rather useless lock-on mechanism, mostly useful as it’s the only gun that can find the hidden treasures scattered throughout the game.
Fire them all together, you get a sword that not only functions as the strongest weapon in the game but can clear out bullets when things get particularly hairy. Clear enough bullets, and you get one swing with a super-powered screen-clearing thing called a hyper-sword. Best of all, every one of these combinations can be mapped to any button you like. Seven buttons, seven distinct weapons. Every single one of them is available immediately.
This is overwhelming. It is too much all at once, and yet the player is forced to manage this arsenal from the outset.
Here’s what happens when you play a game of Radiant Silvergun. You are constantly plagued by self-doubt. You use the vulcan almost exclusively to start because it feels the most like a gun you’ve used or seen in another shmup. The questioning begins immediately. Should you have used the spread gun to take out the guns on the side or perhaps the homing missiles to clear out enough of the screen to allow a maneuver to the other side where that huge turret-bearing ship appeared?
Or should you have just used the sword for the whole thing? That’s always an option.
It’s that in-game thought process that sets Radiant Silvergun apart. The modus operandi of the shmup is that the player learns in death—that by dying, the player has been taught one more lesson that will allow for a better chance at preventing that death down the road. There is only a binary sense of progress. There is success until there is failure, and if there is failure, the best course of action is to start over again while the failure is fresh rather than to keep progressing on the assumption that the failure is the exception rather than the norm. The prototypical shmup sees no success state apart from perfection. Radiant Silvergun is about survival too, sure, but it’s really about achieving the optimal sense of survival. Assuming the player is not merely trying to run through the game using only the sword, the player will see better ways to progress through the game even while avoiding death. Using the vulcan on that first run works up to about the middle of stage 3C (the game’s third proper section), but it’s clear that when non-threatening enemies appear on either side of the player in 3A, the spread shot would be more efficient in dispatching them. When a wave of enemies curls behind the player, they’re usually easy enough to avoid as you would in a different shmup, but you could get rid of them altogether with the rear-vulcan. And when the pink bullets start cluttering the screen, they may be easy enough to dodge, but a lot more good can come from clearing them with that wonderful, magical sword.
There’s a constant mental note-taking process that happens in Radiant Silvergun, moreso than in any shmup before or since. There is not just success/fail; there is failure and then there are degrees of success, largely because optimal play in the earlygoing will translate to easier play later on. All of this is achieved while maintaining the genre’s reputation for punishing and brutal difficulty, even as the right weapons reduce that difficulty.
The player eventually comes to memorize the most logical order of operations. As in any of these games, knowing what’s coming can make a galaxy of bullets seem entirely navigable, a swarm of enemies barely a threat to be acknowledged. Radiant Silvergun‘s insistence on familiarity with the available weaponry also makes occasional improvisation a possibility; a player in the wrong place at the wrong time has the tools to correct whatever mistake was made. Not only has the player memorized the layout, but the player is now proficient enough with the game’s mechanics to respond to a mental lapse or an unaccounted variable. The game slows down. The gaps seem bigger, the enemies far less threatening than they once did.
What a player cannot expect of Radiant Silvergun is for these elements to become clear without investment. Apart from a barebones-but-interesting story, there is little outside motivation to progress. Taking on the challenge of truly learning Radiant Silvergun is a choice left entirely to the player. Making that choice to engage it, though, is to open oneself to the sort of strategy that most shmups only hint at. Practice makes proficient; proficiency offers utter satisfaction and—eventually—pure joy.