Space shooters: where the art is in the execution.
When one wants to make the point that games should be placed alongside other forms of media when it comes to artistic merit and enriching our lives, there are a number of what have become stock examples from which to draw favorable comparisons. Far Cry 2 and Bioshock are held up (if debatably so) as examples of games with compelling narratives. Grand Theft Auto allows us to live out a gritty and realistic, if highly implausible, fantasy. Passage and World of Goo are indie upstarts, small productions highlighted as shining examples of what an independent mind or two can do with an interactive medium.
They're fine examples, all, but there's a common thread -- there are many layers to these games. There are texts and there are subtexts, many instances in which we can ask ourselves what it all means, what the developers and writers were trying to say, and they are all ripe for analysis in the ways that our actions as players drive what happens on the screen in front of us.
So what, then, is the place of the space shooter, that straightforward, constantly scrolling, entirely linear bastion of the old-school? Ultimate Shooting Collection, a very quietly-released, destined to be forgotten collection of old arcade-to-Dreamcast (Dreamcast!) conversions has me wondering.
It's true, there's very little audience for these types of games anymore. It takes a true standout performance from a bullet-hell game to get people to stand up and notice, and even then it can take years for the general public to come around. Look at Ikaruga, perhaps the only shooter in recent memory to pull any sorts of accolades from the gaming press. This is a game that looks utterly beautiful -- the clean lines of the enemies, the distractingly beautiful backgrounds, and even the detail put into the tiny little good guys is emblematic of the time and love put into the game. The music is majestic and attention-grabbing while still staying firmly in the background, and then there's the polarity mechanic of the game, which allows you to run into half of the bullets coming after you at any given time, making the concept of "bullet hell" seem just a little bit more palatable. This is a game that first appeared in Japanese arcades in 2001, showed up on American GameCubes in 2003, but only really saw the attention it deserves when it was re-released last year on Xbox Live Arcade.
Aficionados of the genre deride Ikaruga a bit because its challenge doesn't approach that of the genre's hardest games, but the sheer beauty and relative accessibility of the game allows it to stand out even to gamers who haven't played a space shooter since Life Force.
None of the shooters on Ultimate Shooting Collection reach the heights of Ikaruga, though players introduced to the genre via that particular shining example shouldn't by any means find themselves disappointed. These aren't the prettiest space shooters out there, nor are they the most innovative, but all three are solid examples of the genre that will give you plenty of opportunities for pattern recognition and being blown up by tiny bullets. There are big bosses, bullets of all sizes, and complimentary impossible odds. The single-pixel player-death spot in each game makes sure that the player understands that nothing was to blame for a loss other than that player's ability (or, specifically, the lack thereof) to properly compensate for the oncoming bullets and enemies.
Finally, there's Karous, whose visual style is very much like that of Radio Allergy, but whose color palette is largely limited to black and white. This isn't for any reason other than presentation, but it does serve the purpose of separating the active participants in the battle from the background, which offers more than black and white, but is often muted. By the time you're flying over the city in the fourth stage, however, the sense of the colors opening up is palpable, and it's hard not to get swept in by the scenery as you try desperately to stay alive.
So where is the art? It's in the design. It takes a true artist to turn this many bullets into something playable, and it takes a true artist to convince you to look at something other than those bullets. There is barely any narrative to speak of other than "destroy the little baddies until you have to destroy a big baddie," but it doesn't matter. There's no subtext, no questions about the greater nature of humankind, and not even any sort of imaginative mechanic. For shooters like these, the art is in the execution; it may not be obvious, but it certainly exists.
That said, none of the shooters in Ultimate Shooting Collection could honestly be called great games (though Karous comes close), because they don't snare players in the way that Ikaruga (or Gradius 4, or Silpheed, or Axelay) does. They're passable, and they're enjoyable. Not all art must be great, after all.