The above image is “Spacewar!” running on the PDP-1 [Photo: Joi Ito]. This is the earliest known video game. It also happens to be a “shoot-em-up.”
The Ladon Device is also a shoot-em-up. Since this oldest genre of video games is now over fifty years old, it isn’t easy to introduce something new to it. The following is the list of shoot-em-ups that I have played over the years, which is what will shape Ladon. This isn’t an exhaustive list of shoot-em-ups (there are plenty of those), and it isn’t a top-10 list, either. And, no, “Spacewar!” from 1962 doesn’t make the cut. I’m old, but not quite that old.
The first shoot-em-up that I played was called “Parsec” on the TI-99. It was a side-scroller, which just means that the surrounding world scrolled past you from right to left, as opposed to top to bottom, etc… Today, there so many variations of shoot-em-ups that some people categorize them into sub-genres based on things like which way the screen scrolls. Back in 1982, when Parsec was the cutting edge in video games, there was no concept of “genres” of video games. If you were lucky enough to have a video game console of some kind, you had about five cartridges for it, and each one was it’s own genre — you had one shoot-em-up, one maze type game, one sports game, and so on. I can’t remember if I ever finished Parsec or if it even had an ending. Many games back then would just continue forever, until some variable like the player’s score got too big and caused the game to crash.
After the TI-99, I had an Atari 2600. There were several noteworthy shooters for the Atari. The Atari’s joystick had one button and it was called the “fire button,” so it seemed like the system was kind of built with that type of game in mind. Asteroids was the first one that I remember. There were some unique things about it that aren’t common these days. The player’s movement was physics-based, in a way. As opposed to most shoot-em-ups, where pressing up made the player’s ship move up, in Asteroids, you had to turn the ship to face the direction you wanted to go, then move the joystick up to thrust in that direction. There were no brakes, so, in order to stop going in that direction, you had to spin around completely and thrust in the opposite direction. It was a really simple and subtle difference, but it made the game feel completely different from everything else. It almost felt more like a realistic simulation of spaceflight than a shoot-em-up. It also had the interesting “wrap” feature, meaning that moving off one edge of the screen just looped you back to the opposite side. It all worked, apparently, because Asteroids was incredibly popular for its time. Every pizza restaurant had an Asteroids console in the lobby, and I put quarters into most of them.
Lots of “top down” scrollers were popular on the Atari, like “Vanguard” and “River Raid.” I remember trying to reach a certain high score (I think it was 100,000 points) in River Raid and take a picture of the screen because the game’s publisher was offering some kind of prize if you mailed the picture to them. I think it might have been a T-shirt. Sadly, I never pulled off the feat. I reached the target score maybe two or three times, but never happened to have a camera handy. We didn’t carry around camera phones at all times in 1983!
The rest of the 1980s were really the golden age of the shoot-em-up. There were so many of them that I couldn’t play them all. The one that I remember liking the most was called “Side Arms.” It wasn’t extremely popular but it just had a feel to it that I thought was perfect. It had just the right amount of progression — there were five different weapons that you had to acquire, and each one could be upgraded, independently, by collecting power-ups. Side Arms’ big gimmick was the “alpha” and “beta” concept. In two-player mode, one player was the “alpha” and the other was the “beta.” There was a special power-up that would cause the two players to combine into a single, more powerful mech. For some reason that I can’t explain, this was the coolest thing I had ever seen in a video game. The funny thing about the combined alpha/beta mode was that the alpha player controlled the movement and the beta player just fired. So, in this mode, all the second player could really do was hammer the “fire” button as rapidly as possible. It was awkward and didn’t really add anything to the gameplay, but it made the game my favorite, hands down.
The other shooters that I fondly recall from the golden age were “Defender,” “Galaga,” “Galaxian,” “Xevious,” “Sector Z,” “Life Force,” “Ikari Warriors,” “Commando,” “Zaxxon,” and a few little-known titles like “Land Sea Air Squad” and “Uridium.” I’m sure there are others that I just don’t remember playing. Ikari Warriors was different in that it had a special joystick. You had to physically rotate the handle of the joystick to turn your player in the direction you wanted him to shoot. It was a cool effect that I never saw in subsequent games, possibly because the special joystick was more expensive to make and had a tendency to break easily.
The genre peaked around 1990. The two games that represented the real pinnacle of the shoot-em-up, for me, were “Darius” and “Raiden.” Darius had the craziest arcade console that anyone had seen. It had three monitors wedged in, side by side, to give it an apparent triple-wide screen. I can’t imagine how many man-hours must have gone into hand drawing the graphics for all those gorgeous, widescreen levels. I remember just standing back and watching other people play the game because it was just that visually impressive for its time. The gameplay was also excellent, even without being revolutionary in any way. It was just a standard side-scroller, but the depth of power-ups available kept it from ever getting boring. The fish-themed boss enemies at the end of each level are still a fondly-remembered in-joke among us shoot-em-up enthusiasts. They had ridiculous names like “Fatty Glutton” and their approach was always preceded by the ominous message, “Warning! A huge battleship is approaching fast!” Good times.
Raiden was a more standard shoot-em-up, but the level of detail that went into making it was impossible to ignore. The sheer number of power-ups that you could attain was staggering. And every part of the game was overly detailed. Every explosion sent smoke and tiny pieces of shrapnel flying in every direction, as opposed to the standard, quick, circular flashes of color that served as explosions in just about every other game at the time. Like Darius, the two-player, cooperative gameplay was just really well thought out and fun.
The creation of shoot-em-ups didn’t end in the early 1990s, but times changed. Wolfenstein and Doom made the first-person-shooter genre popular and we never really looked back. Games moved out of the arcade and onto the PC. Darius and Raiden had numerous spin-offs, but everyone seemed to gradually lose interest. The concept of the “bullet hell” shooter has found a little bit of popularity, recently, but shoot-em-ups in general don’t really scratch the surface of video game sales today, whereas they dominated them back then.
So, Ladon will be a game from a past era. But, it will be modern in its visuals and will have a gameplay twist that has never been present in any shoot-em-up, as far as I know. My hope is that it will appeal to both the nostalgic gamer of the shoot-em-up age and the modern gamer who is looking for something different from the repetitive (in my opinion) titles being released today. What is the unique twist? Stay tuned!