Gradius Talk and Why I love Shmps

July 29th, 2008

gradius collection artwork

Shmps or shoot ’em ups are a very difficult genre. Not challenging difficult (although in most cases this is also true) but difficult in that from a distance it is hard to see the appeal. Shmps are a genre whose bread is buttered on traditional, two dimensional gameplay, that is; you either shoot or dodge or do them both at the same time. Unfortunately this simple natured foundation has been a anchor restricting shmps from returning to the mainstream. While shmps use to be the best in its league unfortunately as game mechanics have advanced, shmps haven’t, they simply can’t! So in the current gaming environment shmps, particularly for younger players, are difficult to break into compared to the more successful genres.

Like a lot of gamers I never really made shmps a priority. Sure I’d played Space Invaders and some R-Type on the Commodore 64 but it was a genre that I couldn’t really care about. In the past year though I have slowly turned this around and have adopted several top tier shmps into my gaming collection. I have already discussed how incredible Ikaruga is so today I want to talk about another inspiring shmp; Gradius.

I’d been eyeing down Gradius Collection on the PSP for a couple of months now and finally decided to grab it from my favourite games retailer. Gradius Collection consists of several classic Gradius titles being Gradius I-IV and Gradius Gaiden, unfortunately Gradius V from the PS2 is not included. Basically you get the five games, some neat menus and a few extras thrown in for balance. You can also choose to play in super duper stretcho PSP vision or at the native proportions.

So now that the obligatory press release is over lets break into why I love shmps and particularly this shmp so much. There isn’t much to say about what is presented in front of you, shmps are usually very bare bones (Nanostray 2 being a possible exception) and Gradius is the same; you have your ship (plus respective power ups) and a series of incoming enemy units each moving in their preset patterns.

It is in the design of these patterns where shmps either succeed or fail. You see patterns and pattern recognition are some of the basic building blocks of human thought. It is this process which shmp developers bank on and is what I think makes these games so provocative to play. A game like Ikaruga with its symmetrical patterns and diverse range of pattern sets make full use of such a mechanic and has been praised respectively.

Another prime mechanic of shmps is the impulsive ‘twitch’ gameplay where simple, short and tactile dodges are required to avoid your way through an overwhelming mass of bullets (often called ‘bullet hell’). Much like patterns, shmps really do bank on this twitch gameplay, more so than any other genre.

gradius screenshot psp

When you graft these pure elements of game design together you get what is the shmp experience.

You often start off a shmp game as you and the game remaining as completely separate entities. You’re slowly lead into the first level. The game makes clear the patterns that are emerging and on most accounts you can hold speed with the game’s rhythm. The second stage carries forth and the game begins to pick up a little leading into the chorus. Before you are aware of it, thought shifts and the sounds of firing bullets begins to take over. Your brain slips into the subconscious, pulsing to the symphony you are now creating as you weave your way through the heightened streams of enemies counter reacting to your every twitch. You and the game suddenly merge into one and then before you know it, the final verse is sung and you are wiped out by that stray bullet that had been dancing behind the music all along. The meditation ends and you return back to a natural state, ready to do it all over again.

It is this highly meditative experience that I am attempting to describe to you which defines the pure essence of this difficult genre. Shmps; aren’t in need any of these modern day gameplay mechanics purely because they streamline it all to provide this type of skill based experience that I just attempted to describe.

Now if only Raiden Fighters Aces would come to PSN!