Design Sins (and Pet Peeves) in Shoot 'em Ups

Updated: 8 hours ago



I love a good old skool shump (Shoot ‘em up). Some of my earliest video game memories were of playing Defender, Scramble, and 1943: The Battle of Midway.

However, as shumps grew in complexity several irritating quirks started to appear.

Unfortunately, many of these irritating quirks became fundamental gameplay features in the shumps that came later. Some have even persisted to the present day and are found in modern-day retro-style indie shooters.


Therefore, I have composed a list of my top ten most irritating design sins and pet-peeves about shoot ‘em ups. What’s the difference between a Design Sin and a Pet Peeve? A design Sin is something objectively bad, a Pet Peeve is something that subjectively ‘grinds my gears’, but other players may like.


1) Non-Controllable Speed



This is definitely a Design Sin. In some shumps your starting speed is glacial. This doesn’t affect the scrolling speed of course, but it does affect how quickly you can move around the screen. If it is too slow, it may prove impossible to avoid being shot or crashing into something. In many shumps, the solution is to pick up speed boosting power-ups. The problem with this is that if you pick up too many your ship, mech, plane, helicopter, etc. (which I’m going to refer to a Ship for brevity) may become uncontrollably fast, resulting in the player crashing into something.


The obvious solution is to allow players to control the speed of their ship in-game. Later shumps, such as Einhander and R-Type Delta on the PSOne allowed this, with the player’s Ship having four speed modes - slow, average, fast, and fastest, that could be altered on-the-fly via a button press. This prevented a lot of crashes. Speaking of which…



R-Type Delta Longplay (PlayStation) [60 FPS]

R-Type Delta is a great shump marred by several design sins in its later stages


2) Lethal Landscape



Some games have complex level geometry, and death by crashing becomes a bigger threat than ‘death by baddies’. Your ship is often extremely fragile, and the merest brush with the landscape results in instant death. This is made worse if the game has janky collision detection.


Games, where your ship has a life bar, overcomes this by draining some HP with each collision. But what about your typical glass cannon ships in most shumps?

The PS2 exclusive R-Type Final has the solution. You can bump and scrape past the geometry without concern, however, if you fly headlong into the landscape you explode. You will also get killed if your ship gets ‘stuck’ behind an obstacle when the screen is scrolling. Which brings us to…



PS2 Longplay R-Type Final

Take a classic. Remove irritants. Add 100 flyable ships and multiple level paths.

The result - R-Type Final. It’s a good thing


3) Memory over Skill


I prefer my shumps to be based on skill, not memory. Games such as Super Aleste/Space Megaforce got this right - if you died, it was because you screwed up. Unfortunately, some shumps have such complex level geometries that getting through them was a case of remembering exactly where your ship needed to be at any given second. This would only be discovered by trial and error.


Even more infuriating is being killed due to becoming stuck behind the landscape as the screen scrolls past it. This could easily happen if you took the wrong path. Of course, by the time you realized this, it was too late to do anything about it.


The original R-Type was (probably) the first offender of this. Unfortunately, most of the R-Type clones that came after it suffered from the same problem.


[Amiga] Z-Out – Longplay

Note the obligatory late-game ‘Aliens’ levels. This was a very common trope in ‘90s games


4) Sending you Back to the Start of the Level if you Die


This is exactly what it sounds like. If you die, even if you have reached the end of level boss, you must play the entire level again from the start. This is infuriating. I would argue this is objectively a Design Sin since it is so universally hated. Super R-Type* for the SNES is a notorious example of this. This is made even worse if you also lose your power-ups at the same time. *Thankfully ‘ostrichlation’ and save scumming solves this problem in many retro shooters.


Super R-Type (SNES) - 2-ALL Clear No-Miss (Hard & Pro)

Of course, it is only infuriating if you die, which this player doesn’t. So, er, ‘Git Gud’?


5) Losing all Power-ups When you Die



Far too many shumps remove some - or even all - of the player’s hard-earned power-ups when they die. This isn’t fair if you stop to think about it;


“I found this section too difficult, so I died. And now I am expected to get through the said section with a ship that has less firepower than before? Screw you Game, and the devs who coded you.”


This is made worse if it is combined with poor level design. There are some games where getting through a level even fully powered up is a challenge, but doing so with your ship's MK1 pea shooter is near impossible. Two notorious examples are Project X on the Amiga and its PSOne sequel X2: No Relief.


Watch the video below. Note how many times the player is only able to destroy oncoming enemies, or clear a path through obstructions, in the nick of time - when fully powered up. In some instances, it would be near impossible to do so in time with your default weapon. As such, if you die in either of these games you may as well quit and start again because further progress will be all but impossible.



PSX Longplay X2: No Relief

Project X was criticized for this Design Sin, so why did Team 17 repeat it with the sequel?

6) Scary Powerups



Imagine this scenario; Your ship has exactly the mix of weapons you want, and the Evil Mutant Space Cyborgs are dropping like flies. You laugh at their pathetic attempts to stop you. Then you see a power-up icon. You don’t want it because it is for a weapon you don’t like. But the screen becomes a bullet hell and the only safe path involves flying through the power-up.


You have now swapped your mighty Kill O’ Matic 9000 for the worthless Love-Tap Zero. The Evil Mutant Space Cyborgs laugh at your pathetic attempts to scratch their paintwork. Then you die. Have you ever experienced this? I have.


The Gradius franchise had a polarizing power-up mechanic. On the upside, it gave players a fair degree of control over which upgrades to use. On the downside, if you picked up too many you would ‘overshoot’ the power-up ‘option’ you were aiming for. Some people loved it others hated it.


In my view power-ups should never be feared, they should be coveted. There is a very simple way to solve this problem. Which is…



Gradius V HD PCSX2 60FPS [1080p]

Gradius - a franchise with an influential but polarizing power up mechanic


7) Not Being Able to Swap Between Weapons on the Fly


… By allowing players to swap weapons on-the-fly. Your ship could, for example, have three weapon types. Picking up an upgrade will make one or more of those weapons stronger. You can then swap between them at the touch of a button. Power-ups need never be feared again, and this could open up opportunities for interesting tactics and divergent level designs.



Arcade Longplay Hyper Dyne Side Arms

Side Arms got this right back in 1986. Why couldn’t everyone else since then?

8) I Can’t see CENSORED!



To play a game, you must be able to see what is going on. Unfortunately, some shumps make this very difficult, for several reasons. In some games, the background is too ‘busy’ to make out the enemies and their bullets. In others it is due to a monochrome colour palette, thus rendering shots, enemies, and the scenery in the same colours.


Occasionally, it is due to the level being so insane that it is very hard to work out what is going on - Jump to the 33:41 mark on the earlier R-Type Delta video to see what I mean.


At other times it can be due to having so many power-ups that you can’t see their shots because yours are covering the screen. You can see an example of this in the video below.



Batsugun Arcade


Jump to 11:16 to see what you can’t see. It gave me a headache just looking at it…

9) Lack of Auto-Fire



Constantly mashing buttons is bad for your controller/keyboard etc. and is harsh on your body too. Including an auto-fire feature solves this problem.


We need auto-fire to prevent this…

10) Bullet Sponge Bosses


Some shoot em ups inflate the difficulty of their bosses by making them bullet sponges. This makes fighting them a long, frustrating, and boring experience. The increased difficulty comes from repetition - if you must perform the exact same sequence ten times in a row there is a chance you will mess one of them up. This appears to apply to a lot of vertically scrolling Japanese shoot em ups.


Einhander has a far more interesting method of making its bosses challenging - their attack patterns are reactive - what they do is partly determined on what you are doing. As such, rote memorization will not work and you will have to think on your feet.

Einhander (Hard Mode, No Death, All S. Bonuses) Longplay - PSX, PS1

Did you know Square Enix made a shump? You do now…


Bonus Peeve - Is it on my Level?



This is a problem with some 2D shooters with 3D graphics - especially the early ones on the PSOne. To show off the PSOne’s 3D graphics these games had enemies coming ‘out’ of the background, or going ‘in’ from the foreground. This looked great, but caused some problems.


When an enemy or piece of level geometry is in the foreground/background they are generally harmless - you can’t hurt it, it can’t hurt you. However, it is not always clear when they have arrived at your ‘level’ and are thus a threat. This can be frustrating because the player may waste time trying to shoot something that they thought was on their plane but wasn’t. They may also crash into something they thought wasn’t on their plane but was.


The R-Type Delta and Einhander videos show this irritating little trope well. Thankfully, more recent ‘2D but with 3D graphics’ shooters do not suffer from this much since polygons are the norm and so games are not trying to show off, concentrating instead on playability.

Conclusion



Shoot ‘em ups have had their ups and downs over the decades, with many new ideas added as time went on. Some of these were changes for the better, some were changes for the worse.


It is gladdening to see that some of the more recent big-name examples, such as R-Type Final, have mostly perfected the art of flying around and blowing things up. This bodes well for the upcoming R-Type Final 2, which is due to be released later this year on Xbox One, Switch, PS4 and PC.


So, there are my Top Ten Design Sins and Pet Peeves about Shoot ‘Em Ups. Do you agree? If not, what are yours? Do you have any shoot ‘em up experiences you would like to share? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.


Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to on-line multi-player. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17, and contacted via email at the_nomad78@outlook.com


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