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

Updated: Feb 12

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 as 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

Video by Al82 Retrogaming Longplays

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

Video by Gea Force

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, as you can see in the video below.

[Amiga] Z-Out – Longplay

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

Video by Back to the Roots

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 ostrichlationand 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’?

Video by PEG

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?

Video by World of Longplays