SIDEQUEST 01 : RANKING SYSTEMS

Once again there is no quarter given and not a shred of mercy shown.

I’ve been looking at some STG’s lately in the hopes of finding something to practice on. Mainly I’m looking for a game that I can play on the side, something not by Cave. OK I’ll be honest… I’ve been looking for something a little easier to start with! If Ketsui is my main quest, then I want something a little more light-hearted to be my lover on the side. Something relaxed and distracting. There are a few candidates for this, games I’ve spotted around the net and on random forums. I’ve tried a bunch by now and was starting to get worried. Why can I make it to stage 3 on one credit in DonPachi when I die all the time playing games like Battle Garegga, Shienryu and Strikers 1945? I think I would have gone mad if I hadn’t stumbled across a great review of Shienryu over at Edward’s 1CC Log for Shmups. It was here that I read about rank management for the first time. I’d seen the term in other places before of course, but I’d never thought much about it. Turns out I should have.

 I followed a link on Edward’s blog to a review of Daioh by shmupper called Battletoad and continued from there across forums and blogs as if following a digital grapevine. Slowly understanding dawned on me. One glance at the strategy section for Battle Garegga over on the Shmups! forum told me all I needed to know. I’d been going about it all wrong. I’d been holding the fire button down and dodging bullets for all I was worth. Looking for something a little less manic in terms of the labyrinthine bullet patterns of Cave games I’d found something else, something decidedly unsettling. Here was intelligence, even thought perhaps. In the code behind the detailed and inviting graphics something lived, pacing to-and-fro in the gingerbread house. That something wasn’t very nice either. It watched you from behind the shiny reflection of the screen, greedily caressing your fingertips from beneath the buttons. Battle Garegga sneers at your feeble efforts at fame and wants nothing more than to bring you to your knees.

I think I may have flinched a bit when I realised just how many things affect your rank. I tried to find something less bullet heavy and succeeded in finding something far more manic in a totally different way. Not passive, as bullet patterns mostly are, but active and constantly evolving. Not only was it menacing, it had teeth.

Scratch the surface and you’ll be amazed how many shooters employ some sort of rank system. Few are as psychotic as Battle Garegga though. In my mind the AI trapped in 8ing/Raizing’s shooter has the cold calculating voice of HAL from A Space Odyssey 2001.

I would have simply put this damned thing in my rear-view mirror if the game itself wasn’t so incredibly fun. I can understand why this particular shmup has such a devoted following within the community. Just have a look at the list of TV tropes attributed to Battle Garegga for instance. You can feel that there’s something special about the game just by looking around the internet randomly. This is perhaps why I hate the game a little. I wanted to find something easy and fleeting and what did I end up with? I fell in love with a game that would need even more attention and hard work! It’s like dating a girl who’s really terrible for you. You know this, yet for some ungodly reason that you’ll never understand, you simply keep at it.

You drift, a slave to every sweetly torturous moment.

 

 

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“Battles that last five minutes spawn legends that live a thousand years.” – Stephen King, The Dark Tower

 

About two weeks ago I woke up and felt the soft pulse of restless frustration I’d been feeling every day for a few months. Today I’ll write at least five pages, I promised myself.

Five pages may seem like nothing to most people reading this, unless of course they’ve ever tried to seriously write a novel. It’s strange how just about anything can become terrifying simply because you’ve decided to take it seriously. A lot can happen in five pages. The world can end in five pages. Hell, it could end in less than one.

 

Writing, to me, is about discipline and perseverance. I can find dozens of excuses on any given day to justify why I didn’t write one sentence, couldn’t write a single word. Excuses are easy to find. Motivations on the other hand, are sly beasts. I used to obsess about every sentence, every line, every damned character twitch in my stories. It got to the point where writing a short story took me months. It was maddening. It was a form of OCD so developed that I could hardly put pen to paper for fear of the process that would follow.

Then I read a quote by Iain Banks which allowed me to take a step back and breathe. Of course what he said seems obvious now, but things feel very complicated when you’re intimately close to them.

 

“Writing is like everything else: the more you do it the better you get. Don’t try to perfect as you go along, just get to the end of the damn thing. Accept imperfections. Get it finished and then you can go back. If you try to polish every sentence there’s a chance you’ll never get past the first chapter.”– Iain Banks.

 

So following this advice I’m finally making progress on something that should have been completed two years ago.

 

What struck me recently is how applicable this advice is to playing vertical shooters or shmups, as they’re also known.  Not all of the quote of course, but the feel of it. It’s the same as the first time I read the sentence “Don’t be afraid to use your bombs regularly” in a review of Mahou Daisukusen by Malc. Until reading that I’d ben hoarding bombs as if they were the entire point of the games.

 

Shmups have become my personal form of martial arts, my Mount Wudang if you will, with Cave as my shifu. Martial arts instill discipline in one’s mind through physical and mental exertion and concentration. You need that discipline and balance in order to gain a bit more control of your life. I know this because I watch about 110 kung fu movies every week! Don’t argue!

 

Together with renewed motivation in writing I have taken my first steps towards one credit clearing my first Cave shooter. It seems an impossible task right now to be honest and I’m filled with doubt as to whether I can even do it. I haven’t played a lot of shmups in my life but they’ve always held a special place in my heart. I’m 30 years old and this in itself seem to be a bit too late (if I listen to all the younger gamers out there).

The thing is that vertical shooters take dedication and discipline. You will not beat a shmup on your first attempt if you aren’t familiar with the genre. Fact.

 

You may wonder why I chose Cave as the mountain I must climb. The answer is simple. I played Dodonpachi at a friends house once upon a time and it blew me away, quite literally. Since then I’ve had an eye on the company and follow their works keenly. I’m not a Cave elitist though. I’m a huge fan of G.Rev, Treasure, Raizing and a lot of other companies too.

 

 

 

“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.” – Confucius, Confucius: The Analects

 

It’s while playing shmups that it started to dawn on me how many similarities there are between the quest to 1CC a shmup and the quest to write something with substance. That realisation is what lead to the creation of this blog. It is here where I plan to document my struggles and triumphs. So to start it all of I thought I’d talk about some novels and how they resonate with my shmup experiences.

 

There are three literary characters I love which come to mind immediately when I think about explaining this journey. Roland Deschain, Alonso Quijano and K; from The Dark Tower, Don Quixote and The Castle respectively. 

These characters have one thing in common, they’re all entwined in seemingly impossible quests. There is something they feel they must do no matter what the cost. Other people might think they are insane, and perhaps they are, but that is of little consequence. They continue onwards, ever onwards.

 

“Willpower and dedication are good words. There’s a bad one, though, that means the same thing. That one is obsession.”– Stephen King, The Dark Tower

 

In Stephen King’s series we follow Roland Deschain of Gillead, the last gunslinger, on a perilous path towards the titular Dark Tower. He has been questing for hundreds of years and has lost and sacrificed countless people on the way. He is the solitary anti-hero with unmatched, almost mythical, skills. That’s how I feel when I play games like Dodonpachi, Battle Garegga or Ketsui. I feel like I’m the gunslinger, standing alone against insurmountable odds. I could give up my quest and live out my days in peace but I will not, can not. There is no one else who will stand against the threat now before me. Failure is not an option.

 

 

“By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.”– Franz Kafka

 

Facing those hellish patterns makes me feel like a hero! I’m just a normal guy who sucks at these games in general and dies all the time during the second stage of Ketsui, but I believe that I can do it! 

It is this insane and deluded belief that is mirrored by the character of Alonso Quijano in Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes. The aging retiree has read so many novels about heroism that he starts to believe in them as fact. He adopts the name of Don Quixote and sets out to revive chivalry and become a knight. In his distorted mind, every day inn’s are castles, cloaked monks are enchanters and windmills stand as terrible giants! 

 

Is this not what I have done in adopting a gamers nickname? Not many people I know play games under their own names. Everyone picks a name they like, something personal for the most part. They strike out under these monikers every day and do battle in fantastical worlds! We are a horde of Don Quixote’s out to become knights of the modern age.

The world of knights is part of a dead and archaic world of course. The world we live in is that of McDonalds and Starbucks, not dragons and honour. Many people do not see the excitement of that forgotten age. The same can be said for shmups. I’ve met countless people who look down on the genre. With a look of disgust on their lips and a cold sneer they turn away saying things like “The graphics are so dated…” or “It’s too one dimensional and they’re all the same anyways. Play one and you’ve played them all.”

Then they walk over to the couch and power up the latest first person shooter. You know the one. It’s plastered all over the front page of every gaming website on the internet. Don’t even get me started on RPG’s. I love the genre to a fault but I swear that I’d trade in my balls for just one ounce less hand holding.

 

Take Ocarina of Time for instance. It’s heralded as one of the best games on the planet! It’s genius and yet that damned fairy will insist on treating you as if your brain was made of some soft sponge, an incontinent one at that.

 

“I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men.” – H.P. Lovecraft, The Outsider

 

Modern games are there to remind you that your mother will never think of you as being older than five. A shmup is that awesome uncle or aunt who let you stay up late and watch Predator 2 when you were ten, because you told him you could handle it. Of course Predator 2 ended up terrifying the living hell out of you and a game like Dodonpachi Dai Jou Ou will leave you for dead at the roadside. Reality can be a brutal teacher and it loves cocky little bastards. You always feel OK though, no matter how many times you  fail. You feel OK because you made the decision to face these things and know it.

 

 

“Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them.” – Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote

 

This fantasy of being capable of anything, this madness I suffer from, sometimes cracks and falls victim to self-doubt. What if I’m too old to be playing games? What if playing shmups is stupid? What if I will never succeed in a 1CC?

Thinking this way reminds me of Franz Kafka’s novel, The Castle. In this story the protagonist (known simply as K.) struggles to gain access to a castle in which mysterious authorities reside. This story is about the pursuit of an unobtainable goal. The frustration of seemingly futile and hopeless attempts at a quest. Throughout the tale K is stuck in the village below the castle. He is at the foot of his goal. It is right in front of him! Yet he cannot get to it no matter how hard he tries. This is exactly how I feel some days when I try to clear a stage of Ketsui without dying. It feels impossible! It makes me want bang my head against the screen until the glass or my skull, I don’t care which, breaks. But then there is hope, and hope as we all know, is the last thing to die.

 

 

“If you are going through hell, keep going.” – Winston Churchill

 

Kafka passed away before finishing The Castle but suggested that the novel might end with K. dying in the village without ever reaching his goal. It’s dark and it’s crushing because it’s so horribly believable. This is what fills me with fear and doubt. There is the real possibility that I will never 1CC a game. It is when I’m at my most frustrated that I know I could try and try and try… and fail. At times like this I just stare at the bullets. I don’t see them but I know they’re there, filling the screen. Then hope sparks up once more deep inside my heart and I feed the machine another coin.

 

The games know I will return and are content to wait patiently. They think they’ll remain victorious forever but I know better.

 

“Let evil wait for the day on which it must fall.” – Stephen King, The Dark Tower.

 

Come Rocinante let us ride, for the tower and the high score.

 

 

 

 

NEVER GIVE UP, NEVER SURRENDER!

 

I was playing Espgaluda yesterday when my girlfriend asked a simple question. The question she asked was asked so matter of factly that I just stared at her.  Ageha of course took a bullet straight to the face.. poor bastard.

 

Let me just say that I really love Espgaluda. There’s just something about it. I’m not talking about the music or the graphics now, although I could easily go on about them for hours. I just love the game. I love the simplicity of the scoring system and how much fun it all is.

 

I’m no expert at it yet, but it goes something like this:

 

Hitting the B lets you enter Kakusei mode. In this mode time is slowed. You know this because all bullets turn purple and a counter around your character gradually decreases. Destroy the enemy who fired the bullets on screen and all of them turn into gold! Exit Kakusei mode again and wait for some other jerk to fire a bunch of bullets at you. Enter Kakusei. Destroy the jerks. Bathe in gold. Repeat.

 

There’s a lot more to it but that’s it in essence. There’s a multiplier and the guard barrier etc but I wont go into that now.

 

I was happily flying about blasting every enemy foolish enough to fire more than three bullets at me. Watching with glee as the multiplier kept increasing a warm feeling grew inside me. There’s something about watching a screen full of bullets turn to gold that gets the heart pumping!

 

So from the side my girlfriend, who was staring at the screen, suddenly asked:

 

“Are there shops in the game? No? What’s the point of earning all that money if you can’t spend it on anything?”

 

There was no mocking tone or malice in her voice. She simply didn’t get it. I was dumbstruck. I hadn’t thought about it at all.

I thought for a moment then replied.

It isn’t about that,” I said. “It’s about getting the highest score you can and then trying to improve upon it. It’s about going as far as you can on one credit and starting over if you die.”

 

That’s when it struck me. This is what I love about shmups. There aren’t any achievements or other meaningless things to unlock. Not really. You don’t play a shmup for that reason. You play it because you want to get better at it. You want to improve. That’s what makes it beautiful. It’s gaming in its purest form. Gaming for gaming’s sake.

When you die you know it’s because you messed up. You respect the developers as you would respect a worthy adversary. When you somehow avoid a wave of bullets only to be killed by a single bullet headed straight for your hiding place you know. You know the developers outplayed you. You salute them, make a mental note, then try again.

I actually once found myself laughing out loud and yelling “You clever bastard! Next time I’ll get you! I swear it.”

 

I have a long way to go before I 1CC my first shmup. No doubt about it. There’s a long road ahead of me. I will continue though, because on the day I make it I’ll know that I did it. On my own, because I refused to give up.

 

It will be a great day indeed.

WARNING! WARNING!

Welcome reader~

I grew up in a 3rd world country, it isn’t important which one. Like every kid I loved video games. My uncle sent me a Game Boy from overseas when I was 10 or so and I spent every free moment (and some not so free ones) glued to its little screen in blissful ignorance of the world outside.

Then one day I discovered the magic of the video game arcade. It was a fleeting experience, the nearest center was in a city more than a thousand kilometers away, but it stuck in my mind. I remember spending hours lost in the lights and sounds. I played everything I could get my hands on! Time Crisis, Killer Instinct, Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, Pac Man and 1942. This last one especially drove a wedge into my thoughts. There was something about it. Something so simple and yet so unforgiving. Oh and how I sucked at it! It must have been painful to watch but I was hooked. I had no way to feed this interest. I had no consoles of my own and no way to practice. Still I obsessed about the game. I bought any magazines I could find and memorised tips and strategies by heart. 

 I never got to consistently play it or anything like it, so my interest faded. It never died mind you, it just faded. Years later it would re-emerge but still find no outlet. Still that was a good 12 years down the line.

Life and the world, moved on. School became more strenuous. Girls became interesting and teenage awkwardness mixed with peer pressure kicked in. Boarding school made gaming almost impossible and life in general started to assert a dull and inevitable pressure on my life. 

So I slogged my way through the usual stuff. I got some degrees. Worked at my career. Traveled some. Saw my life heading down a straight line and broke out. Yup. I’ve left the good old 3rd world behind me. I took a chance, put it all in my back mirror and rolled the dice. I packed up my life into one little backpack and got on a plane. Starting over is a damned scary thing let me tell you. Was it a wise choice? Was it worth it? Honestly it’s too early to tell.

So what is this blog all about? Well let me put it this way…

Out there is where I push a trolley full of newspapers so I can make rent, eat and get my foot in the door of an international career.

In here though is where I talk about my love of shmups and the strange similarities between their never ending challenge and my never ending quest to become a writer.

In short, this is the place of hopes, dreams and adventure.

Join me and together we will chase the next high score!