After watching a speed run of Daniel Remar's Hero Core recently, I was thinking maybe trying my hand at some kind of shmup game for a first project - well, second project, if we're counting Everything Happens So Much - might be something fun to do. (Side note: EHSM recently got played for a few minutes by indie gaming evangelist Jupiter Hadley in her Twitsy Jam part 1 video.)
Hero Core is interesting to me because of how it seemingly blends the Metroidvania and shooter genres; as I think Dragondarch points out pretty early in this playthrough, if he were going for an Any% run instead of a 100%, you can fight the final boss of the game almost right away (though doing this leads to the worst ending, whereas the 100% run he does here in an impressive time gives you the good ending instead). So I started looking into other shmups with branching paths, or alternate endings, or exploration aspects, and this is a list of things I have been looking into.
Shmups with a non-shmup mode
The most obvious example of these is The Guardian Legend, which features an overhead, Zelda-like overworld and vertically scrolling shmup "corridors" as the titular Guardian, a shapeshifting gynoid with human and robot forms, attempts to stop the alien-filled planet-prison of Naju from colliding with Earth - by triggering its self-destruct sequence.
Another example, which took me some time to remember, is HAL's Air Fortress. This one's a little more straightforward, and just offers a linear alternation between side-scrolling shmup sequences when approaching one of the titular Air Fortresses (though aren't they more of a Space Fortress...?) and exploration sequences inside the Air Fortress in which the hero must find their way to the central reactor of each Fortress, blow it up, and then find their way to their awaiting ride (which looks like a flying sled, if we're being honest) to get out. None of them are laid out the same, and there's a timed aspect too in that you only have a limited amount of time to escape the Fortress after blowing up the reactor, or else it'll self-destruct with you in it; interestingly, there is no visible timer for these segments - instead, the lights immediately dim and the music turns ominous once the reactor's blown up, and the screen shake and distant explosion noises gradually get more violent as your hidden timer runs out.
Shmups with multidirectional gameplay
This one's much shorter because there's not a ton to think about here; an obvious example is Hyper Dyne Side Arms - boy, that's a mouthful - which seems like a pretty obvious inspiration for Hero Core with its ability to fly in any direction but shoot in two, left or right, depending on the button. That, in turn, reminded me of the Fantasy Zone franchise, specifically the extremely dramatically named Fantasy Zone II: The Tears of Opa-Opa. The Fantasy Zone series is surprisingly dark for how cutesy it is (the very first one forces sentient spaceship Opa-Opa to confront the enemy armada invading the titular Fantasy Zone, only to discover that his own father was in charge of the invading squadrons). Fantasy Zone II added the concept of sub-zones within each level that you have to enter, rather than just freestanding bases in the main area to destroy.
Shmups with branching stage layouts
A few obvious names to bring up: Capcom's Section Z, Tecmo's Super Star Force: Jikūreki no Himitsu, and Treasure's Radiant Silvergun. Section Z doesn't do a whole lot with the concept, despite having anywhere from 26 to 60 branching levels (depending on which version you're playing), though the NES version is another good example of bidirectional fire - the arcade featured the fairly clumsy "one button to fire, one button to swap directions" approach, while the NES changed it to "one button fires left, one button fires right."
Super Star Force seems like a straightforward shoot-em-up, but interestingly the branching can happen at multiple points in mid-stage, and are jumps to different stages but also to different time periods, forward or backwards. The player must jump to each time period and retrieve a particular item in order to receive the good ending; beating the game without it leads to a "but the future refused to change" style bad ending. It doesn't add a lot of depth to the gameplay but it's there. Interestingly, the game uses your score as a mechanic - it's sort of your "time fuel" to jump forward or backwards; you need more points to go further backwards or forwards in time, whereas jumping to neighboring periods require less. Something to think about.
The grandaddy of them all for shmups trying to tell a story, even if there are only a couple branches, has to be Radiant Silvergun.
It's got time travel, it's got ridiculously huge bosses, it's got an intricate weapon system based on chaining attacks against the same color of enemy over and over, and the pre-boss screens are practically a meme in and of themselves. Oh, and you start in the middle of the stages, and the stages prior are a prequel that you experience as a flashback.
BE ATTITUDE FOR GAINS
- If a shmup offers branching paths, be sure there’s a purpose. Section Z offers branches, but sometimes they just kill you, or lead you backwards. Super Star Force’s time jumps offer a little more gameplay, as well as a reason to push your high score, but they amount to a glorified way to extend gameplay. On the other hand, Radiant Silvergun uses its branches to properly set a story in its own timeline, and Fantasy Zone II does it to let you decide the order in which you intend to tackle its bases and enemy spawners.
- Using mechanics that normally exist outside of the gameplay as an in-gameplay mechanism is an interesting twist, if it can be worked in in a way that doesn’t feel forced. For example, points are pretty much always just points - until Super Star Force uses them as time jump fuel. Radiant Silvergun takes this on as well; its point multiplier forces you to play in a specific, interesting way that also makes the game harder, but rewards you with weapon powerups.
- Non-shmup modes can be interesting if handled well. Air Fortress’ exploration segments are kind of cool, but hampered by the sheer size of the player character, as well as being kind of dull until you need to get out in a hurry, at which time they’re kind of tense. They also appear at set times - every second half of a stage - which could be a positive or negative, depending on which mode of gameplay you prefer. Meanwhile, The Guardian Legend is arguably actually a Startropics-like game where you’re occasionally forced to play a shmup instead, and that feels bad. (I didn’t mention it here as an example, but Atlus’ Xexyz is another example more like Air Fortress, except it’s actually on alternating stages - odd-numbered stages are platformers, even-numbered stages are shmups, while in Air Fortress they’re really just differently-paced shmups - something to think about.)
- Thinking about mechanics that lead a game to be speed-runnable might help lead to a community forming around that game. But what kind of mechanics lead to a game being “speedrun worthy?” More research required.