As long as there have been video games, there have been shoot-em-ups. From the pioneering Spacewar to the arcade giants of Space Invaders, Galaxian and Xevious, they are one of the medium's foundation stones. Their narrative trappings in the early days were as basic as could be: you control an attacker or a defender, piloting a small and usually experimental ship against swarms of enemy chaff, often fighting off super-sized boss enemies at a level’s end.
Early schmups were, all told, quite austere affairs. Even when the 16-bit generation brought in more lavish visuals, the stories remained simple and little more than set-dressing for the act of replaying a game over and over again. R-Type tasked you with “blasting off to defeat the Bydo Empire”, and had some faint allusions to the Bydo being an earth Bioweapon gone wrong, returning from its voyage through the galaxy to assimilate its masters.
Despite the fanciful settings, delirious graphics, and winks to grander sci-fi themes, they were not the main thrust. Honing your skills, learning enemy patterns, mastering the one-credit-run and subsequent score chasing were the reason for their continued existence and popularity.
Nevertheless I've always found myself fascinated by the narrative flavour around shmups, despite being rubbish at them. I graduated from Space Invaders and Timepilot on my grandad’s BBC Micro to the intoxicating geiger-esque nightmare of R-Type on my dad’s Amiga. I can still close my eyes and imagine the ominous bell-tone of the title screen, the gruesome Dobkeratops leering out of the screen, the adrenaline rush of the R-9 Arrowhead dashing into the level to a sizzling synth score, the brain-busting Force mechanic that was far too much for my 10-year old mind to grasp.
In later years I did my best to play as many shmups as I could, setting off a long love affair with the idea of bosses in games, endlessly fascinated by the care and detail that went into making such complex and coherent enemies and level designs in games with so little explicit narrative. Instead of finding these morsels of story throwaway, I started to think of them as oblique, mysterious, even compelling.
The handful of imagery and scraps of narrative running through Treasure’s Radiant Silvergun and Ikaruga confirmed this. The former’s “Stonelike” final boss re-appears in Ikaruga, perhaps acting as a catalyst for the events of the game, which starts with a black and white ship blasting off of a mechanical scaffold to fight alien forces, and ends with black and white birds flying over a serene forest view. The synopsis in the manual talked of a man uncovering a godlike power and conquering the world, but the game hardly foregrounds this. Ikaruga's mechanical prowess is always at the fore, one of the most stylish and highly regarded games in the genre.
It’s impossible to ignore the pull of Ikaruga’s world though, the brilliant division between black and white calling to mind Yin and Yang, the idea of complementary forces rather than opposing. There's something completely at one with the idea of a shoot-em-up in this concept: every dictator with a horde of death machines and Approaching Giant Enemy Vessels calls into existence a hero in an experimental ship to cut through them over and over again, a never-ending cycle of destruction and high scores.
Perhaps the most evocative shmup in terms of stories, for my money at least, is 2004’s sublimely elegiac R-Type Final, a goodbye from Irem to its fans, that pulls no punches when getting supremely weird with its narrative. It indulges in bizarre timelines and alternate realities, nodding and winking at its own artifice with the briefest of glimpses of a ship flying the wrong way in the first stage foreshadowing the huge time travel loop that one of the possible routes through the game can escalate towards. With 101 ships to unlock, each with their own design, force module and charge beam, it eventually less a score-chase than, for long-term R-Type fans at least, some sort of museum simulator.
The slow crawl through many of the levels is eerily silent, reminiscent of a wake, before enemies from the past lurch into view. The game recasts the famous screen-filling battleship levels as an eerily sombre affair, stripped of all bombast. The final levels are a kaleidoscope of bizarre imagery, the final boss made up of multiple failed attempts in previous timelines: it even spews out replicas of the series’ iconic force module that must be dodged whilst you charge up one final meta-shot that skewers the heart of the whole series. It's the most prominent example of the genre being aware of and digesting its own fiction to tell a new kind of story, and a concept that is explored to the fullest in System Erasure’s criminally overlooked Zer0ranger.
Zer0ranger is, without a shadow of a doubt, a love letter to shooting 2D aliens. Every facet of the game exudes brilliant craftsmanship, from its stunning two-colour presentation, intricate sprite art, and wonderful music. As a standalone shmup, it’s fantastic, with plenty of incentive to replay just to admire the skill of its construction.
For those familiar with shmup terminology, it is presented in an arcade TATE-style vertical format, something it makes great use of for screen-spanning bosses, with one especially memorable encounter tasking you with dispatching a giant that climbs up a mineshaft whilst spraying death from countless bodily orifices. Instead of dealing with disposable power-ups as found in games such as Gradius, after each boss you are given a choice of two different options that fulfil similar roles: one choice lets you choose between a forward-firing diagonal laser, or a rear-firing afterburner, both of which help clear enemy waves hitting from oblique angles.
Being able to keep hold of power-ups after death, and the specific combinations you can build towards, means the difficulty curve is finely plotted and it’s possible to make hefty progress over a few hours without savant-like skills. This is something I appreciated, along with the ability to take a hit or two before dying, but for more dedicated players the scoring system rewards you for memorising waves of enemies and taking out key elements in order, which unlocks bonus lives and points rewards. Even though I didn’t chase the high scores, the variety of unlocks and the combinations available (especially when you bag a surprising melee weapon) make this system a key part of the variety found in repeat playthroughs.
Zer0Ranger is also packed full of references to other media, but not out of trite nostalgia. Instead, the game fully assimilates its inspirations. Hints of R-Type, Neon Genesis Evangelion and Gurren Lagann litter its story, and set up ideas beyond the dismissive brush of narrative most shmups settle on. Ships and scenarios specific to other ships abound, with one boss referencing the final boss of fan-favourite Guwange, whilst the R-9 arrowhead and Vic Viper turn up as mid-bosses with movesets based on their infamous loadouts.
An opening crawl is filled with imagery that will raise the eyebrows of any fan of Evangelion, and the story is so steeped in the kind of fetishised religious imagery that litters much of anime it has appeal beyond its shmup roots. One of the aforementioned melee weapons will please fans of Gurren Lagann, and it’s fun to see how the developer has maintained certain imagery over the years: the influences that bleed through into Zer0Ranger can be seen in many of the bosses the same developer created in the shmup community boss-builder Fraxxy.
As with R-Type Final, Evangelion and Gurren Lagann, layers of narrative mystery get pulled back to reveal more information that re-colours the whole experience: and, in the case of Zer0Ranger, this at one point becomes literal.
In a similar manner to 2017’s NieR: AutomatA, Zer0Ranger is a game that needs playing through multiple times to unwrap all of the mysteries. It unlocks new mechanics as play continues, and rewards experimenting with them, building towards a beautiful twist on the climactic boss battle that is inventive as it is indebted to the genre titans.
The process of playing through the game multiple times is never a chore because of how bombastic it is. Where it isn’t paying homage to games across history (even a brilliant Undertale section sneaks in) in a manner that makes you grin from ear to ear, Zer0ranger is focused on blowing shit up in spectacular fashion to fist-pumping music, blending the hyper-stylised anime aesthetics of Gurren Lagann with pixel art.
One section involves a battle against a fleet of giant battleships as you soar towards a planet covered in fire breathing skulls, which builds to a crescendo as you burst through the planet's crust into its mechanical core. It's one of the boldest and most exciting action sequences I've played in years, pure white-knuckle brilliance, and deserved much more notice than it received.
Here is a game that understands its genre, serving both as magnificent exemplar and commentary on the purgatorial nature of replaying shmups over and over. And to what end? The life-banking mechanic lets you save up to 8 lives, the process of creeping ever-forward in the game built into a narrative that involves time loops, simulations of reality, and tangles with Buddhist philosophy. I don’t feel particularly equipped to deal with the nuances, but there is a subtext of existence being suffering and the enlightenment of Nirvana: a final act that can be accessed by those fully committed to honing their skills, to reliving the same life over and over again, and finally getting it right.
Without spoiling the final few acts of the game, the choice you are given to access the final boss is utterly genius. It rivals some of the ideas in AutomatA, acknowledging the cyclical, endless nature of playing through a shmup, and giving you a chance to break the wheel with a steep cost: far steeper than nearly any game asks of its players.
Simply put, it tasks you with ascending from bullet hell before plunging head-first into the game’s final blow. It’s a testament to the skill of the developers that it feels entirely fitting, achievable, and like some sort of explosive meta-commentary on the genre as a whole, a final grasp at something unique, and one which can only be made when the player has shown their own devotion.
As schmups become increasingly niche, with high-score focused games doing much of the heavy lifting, Zer0Ranger returns to what was once the genre’s mainstream appeal: a tiny ship battling insurmountable odds, with gorgeous visuals backing it up. The story here may seem as oblique as the classics, but it boldly points forward and attempts to stake out new territory within the genre.
It feels right that AutomatA, with its shmup-inspired combat and on-rails sequences, tackled the same ideas of futility and repetition, and what can be dug out of them on a narrative level. Zer0ranger is a shoot-em-up where, like the birds at the end of Ikaruga, the loftier ideas and grand history of the genre have come home to roost.
It is a self-contained cycle that sees itself as part of an even larger cycle, a beautiful looping narrative from Space War to Zer0ranger that builds on itself every time. The core of the story is simple. Players may often end up where they began; but we've learned so much in the process.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.