Shooter Gallery #7: Design Experiments in Unfixed Shooters

Gorf wasn't the only game experimenting with adding vertical motion to fixed shooters in the post-Space-Invaders arcades.  All of the games here used 2D motion, with varying amounts of success.  

Note that these are all fixed-screen, gallery-style shooters.  I will cover scrolling shooters and Asteroids descendants separately.

Killer Comet (1980, Centuri)

Gameplay and sprites from the 1980 arcade game, Killer Comet.

Following their lackluster entry into game development with Megatack, Centuri decided to try their hand at a shooter with full two-dimensional freedom.  Killer Comet is a good demonstration of what not to do when unfixing a shooter.  The enemies drift slowly across the playing field and fire mindlessly downwards, not following any patterns or showing any awareness of the player.  You have the ability to shoot diagonally, meaning the only thing you need to do to avoid enemy fire is avoid going directly underneath them.  

There are eight different types of aliens, but they all behave in the same way and attack in one continuous flow, making the gameplay highly monotonous.  There is one interesting enemy, at least-- a glowing orb that tracks the player's position -- but it doesn't move quickly enough to be much of a threat until the later levels..  

Killer Comet strikes me as a game without a design.  Centuri provided all of the pieces needed to make a game, but didn't do anything with them.  To be fair, it's difficult to design patterns for a playing field with no preferred direction; after all, the player could be anywhere.  However, there are better alternatives, as the next game demonstrates.

Altair (1981, Cidelsa)

Gameplay and sprites from the 1981 Spanish arcade game, Altair.

Not all arcade games were being made in the USA and Japan in the early '80s.  In 1980, a Spanish company called Cidelsa started producing games for their domestic market, including a conventional fixed shooter called Destroyer and this less-conventional shooter, called AltairAltair not only gives the player 2D motion, but also allows them to flip between firing upwards and downwards. 

Unlike Killer Comet, where the enemies just drift lazily about, the enemies in Altair bounce around the playing field in a manner that's reminiscent of the old ball-and-paddle games.  Bouncing motions are common in early shoot em ups where the player has 2D freedom; this is likely to be because bouncing enemies will naturally end up exploring the entire space and moving in all possible directions.  You don't want to leave the player with an easy place to escape to.  Unfortunately, this also means that the gameplay tends to randomize quickly and the designer' has little meaningful control over the player's interactions with the enemy after they enter.

A sample path of an enemy in the 1981 arcade game, Altair.

As I mentioned before, this is symptomatic of the larger problem with fixed-screen, 2D shooters.  Any designed pattern in a game like Altair has to account for the fact that the player can be anywhere on the screen.  In a fixed shooter, the enemy dive patterns are designed with the knowledge that the player will be somewhere along the bottom row.  When you open up the rest of the game board to the player, you either need enemies that are smart enough to follow the player or enemy movements without a preferred direciton.  Altair goes with the latter, but sacrifices control over the action in the process.

It's difficult to overstate the importance of this consideration for shoot 'em up game design.  In fact, many of the various genres of shoot 'em up are distinguished by how they break the symmetry of a 2D playing field -- fixed shooters, scrolling shooters, tube shooters, and rail shooters all direct the player-enemy interaction in different ways.

Astro Fantasia (1981, Data East)

Gameplay and sprites from the 1981 arcade game, Astro Fantasia.

One of the aforementioned shoot-em-up genres, the tube shooter, was soon to be born in the form of Tempest (1981), but even before that, several shoot em ups were experimenting with enemies emerging from the center of the screen.  I already touched on this design concept in my analysis of the fourth stage of Gorf, but Astro Fantasia presents us with a more fully realized example.  

Astro Fantasia is laid out in a pseudo-3D perspective, with enemies growing in size as they descend on the player.  The game is played on what looks like a track, but the player doesn't move along it.  Instead, enemy attacks emerge from the center of the track, with patterns alternating between straight lines, sweeping arcs, wall bounces, and erratic dives.  These various motions give the player plenty of opportunities to make use of their two-dimensional freedom, such as moving above sweeping UFOs.

A gameplay sample from Astro Fantasia demonstrating the player's 2D freedom.

There are echoes of Radar Scope in the layout of the first stage and the boss battle is so similar to the one in Gorf that it's hard to believe that it was designed independently.  Still, the game doesn't play like a clone or a knock-off.  It's worth noting that Astro Fantasia lets the player fire two bullets at a time, and at a more rapid pace than even Galaga.  Rapid-fire capability would become more common as shoot em ups evolved.

Space Encounters (1980, Midway)

Gameplay and sprites from the 1980 arcade game, Space Encounters.  The player is shown flying down a trench in a TIE fighter.

If I had a nickel for every unauthorized Star Wars video game from this era, I'd have plenty of pocket change for the drug store. Space Encounters reimagines the Death Star trench run as a TIE fighter against various sci-fi looking sprites, including what appear to be Klingon warbirds. Much like Astro Fantasia, the game is against a pseudo-3D backdrop, but in this case it's changing to give the impression of forward motion through a trench.    

Space Encounters is different from other shooters of its time in two key respects.  First, the player uses a joystick that issues absolute position commands, meaning that there is a direct correspondence between the position of the joystick and where your ship moves. This is in contrast with most shooter controls, in which the joystick position indicates the direction and speed of your motion.  In a sense, the joystick for Space Encounters is functioning like a two-dimensional paddle controller.

Secondly, Space Encounters translates uses your vertical position on the screen to determine the apparent speed of your ship down the trench.  I don't see any evidence that the gameplay actually changes with increasing speed -- the enemies move at the same rate -- but moving upwards gives the player less time to react to approaching enemies, so it does come with increased risk.

Enemies bounce back and forth within the trench, but only seldom approach close enough that you need to avoid them.  The real advantage of the 2D motion is that it allows you dodge enemy debris, which will come careening at you after a successful hit.

Big Picture

These early experiments with unfixing the shooter met with mixed results, but the future of the shoot em up was elsewhere.  To really advance beyond the shooting gallery, shoot em ups needed to open up more than just the player's movement.  They needed to open up the game world.