Shooting Things in Public: Battle Garegga and the Arc of a Genre

(This essay was originally published in SHOOTER in June 2015.)

A History

It‘s safe to say that shooting things has captured the global imagination throughout recorded history. Long before the genre of the first-person shooter, the medium of the videogame, or even the invention of the firearm, cultures have celebrated incredible feats of aiming at and hitting targets in legendary tales surrounding figures such as David and Goliath, Robin Hood, William Tell, Heracles, Houyi, or Emperor Jimmu. There is something near-universal in the allure of a process of 1) aiming at something, 2) firing at it, and 3) seeing evidence of effectivity. Shooting things has provided that sense of instant gratification since long before the term was en vogue to describe the impact of electronic technologies on the human psyche.

At the beginning of 20th century, the United States experienced an overhaul of the midway, the boardwalk, the promenade, the park, and most other public spaces of amusement. Their successful transformation into places where visitors would play quick games of chance and skill was at least partially indebted to the successful proliferation of target-based shooting games. Operators at places like Chicago’s Navy Pier and New York’s Coney Island were becoming wildly successful by competing with one another over increasingly thrilling rides, more outlandish attractions, and progressively more complex games. Shooting games in particular, which would often incorporate actual firearms, various electronics, pneumatics, circuitry, or various kinds of screens, were regularly some of the most technically impressive games on the scene. By the 1940s, games like Rapid Fire (Bally, 1940) boasted an experience of shooting 100 shots in fifteen seconds so as to “satisfy that ‘blaze away’ urge.” Marketing materials boasted that prospective operators of the newest shooting games would attract “’gunthusiastic’ players” and subsequently bring in “hundreds of dollars daily!” Though the success of public amusement spaces would wax and wane over the twentieth century, having a cutting-edge shooting simulator was usually central to the fortunes of any arcade. Eventually, those cutting-edge shooting simulators would become video games.

In the late 1960s, Sega was creating some of their earliest electromechanical games such as 1966’s sub-shooting game Persicope and 1969’s cowboy vs. cowboy game Gun Fight. As the 1970’s dawned it was clear that the future of shooting things would be in video game form. And though the first coin-operated videogame involved shooting (1970’s Computer Space [Nutting Associates]), the first successful one (Pong [Atari, 1972]) did not. In fact, for much of the 1970s the nascent video game industry tended towards development of titles that focused on adaptations of sports and racing, not shooting. While games like Tank (Atari, 1974), Gun Fight (Midway, 1975), and Space Wars (Cinematronics, 1977) found some success in the interim, it wouldn’t be until Taito’s wildly popular Space Invaders was released in 1978 that videogames would become the indisputable venue of choice for shooting things.

Initially, many companies made Space Invaders clones that were based on the core mechanics of the game. They typically featured a static background against which rows of alien-shaped targets would move horizontally and down, increasing their firepower and speed as the levels cleared and the player advanced. Within a couple of years, however, the popularity of games like Galaxian (Namco, 1979) and Galaga (Namco, 1981), Defender (Williams, 1981) and Scramble (Konami, 1981) would advance the genre considerably by introducing a wider variety of enemy types and patterns, a fuller range of player movement, a progression of stages, and a scrolling background. These elements came together to define a specific genre of shooting videogames that has since become known as the “shoot-em-up” or “shmup”.

A shmup is generally defined as a continuously scrolling, target-based shooting game in which the player has full control over the orientation of their character/ship, the rate of their shots, and their movement across the screen’s X/Y axis. The genre would, for much of the 1980s and early ’90s, come to define the arcade game experience for players around the world. Many of the most critically acclaimed games available on home consoles from this time period were situated within this genre. Ports of arcade greats like Gradius (Konami, 1985), R-Type (Irem, 1987), and Raiden (Taito, 1990) as well as well original titles such as M.U.S.H.A. (Compile, 1990) on the Sega Genesis, Einhander (Square, 1997) on the Sony PlayStation, or Lords of Thunder (Hudson Soft, 1993) on the NEC TurboDuo found commercial and critical success. By the mid-90s, the shmup genre had come to represent the most advanced and profitable form of the videogame shooting experience. Bolstered by an impressive stable of mostly Japanese developers, the genre enjoyed an intense and almost unparalleled period of creative and nuanced game design, cross-studio competition, and international financial success.

By the end of the decade, both the shmup genre and the arcade culture in which it thrived had been relegated to a niche within the larger gaming landscape. Before that happened, though, Battle Garegga (Raizing, 1996) would provide the shooting game’s apogee at the twilight of its public viability.

A Capstone

Released the same year as Quake (iD, 1996) and Duke Nukem 3D (3D Realms, 1996), Battle Garegga is representative of a kind of “last great gasp” before fully 3D first-person shooters became the mode of choice for at-home shooting and before light gun games took over as the dominant shooters in the quickly dying arcade (The House of the Dead [Sega, 1996] and Time Crisis [Namco, 1995] came out within months of Garegga). As such, it is a title that occupies an interesting liminal space as a kind of distillation of the full history of the arcade, a mature expression of its specific genre, and a kind of “capstone” experience that most other shooter genres — including first-person shooters — have yet to experience for various reasons.

Battle Garegga’s pedigree is unimpeachable. Raizing studio’s staff when the game was developed was a veritable shmup supergroup composed of some of the top talent in the genre, including those who had recently worked at various competitor companies (i.e. Compile, NaxatSoft, and Technosoft). For example, the game’s most significant programmer, Shinobu Yagawa, had previously worked on the expertly designed and technically impressive Summer Carnival ’92: Recca (NaxatSoft, 1992 ) . Yokoo Kenichi, who worked on Garegga’s story and characters, had also worked on the influential Aleste (Copmpile, 1988–1993) and Spriggan (NaxatSoft, 1991–1996) series, both of which had helped define the genre’s visual aesthetics in the early 1990s. Most of Battle Garegga’s team would eventually go on to do some the more highly regarded work in the shmup genre after its peak popularity had passed, with many of them moving to Cave when Raizing shifted development towards other genres.

From a history-of-design standpoint, Battle Garegga is an especially interesting artifact. It was released at a moment in genre’s evolution when design philosophies were dramatically transitioning. Through the 1980s and early 1990s, the genre had seen a lengthy and gradual refinement of the target-and-environment-focused approaches to shooting. In other words, designers asked players to focus their attention on the enemies they were shooting and on the spaces through which they were moving. This style was largely “perfected” by companies like Compile and Toaplan in the early 1990s. In the mid-1990s, however, a more bullet-focused (danmaku) approach to the shooting game emerged as a popular variant, asking players to focus almost entirely on dodging patterns of enemy fire. Battle Garegga has the distinction of representing elements of both of these major approaches to game design in the genre; and mastering Garegga thus requires a literacy with and flexibility across both styles of gameplay.

Thus, for a newcomer to Battle Garegga, the amount of things going on at once that all need to be accounted for can be a bit overwhelming. For example, there are eight different ships to choose from, each with a different way of firing shots. Each ship offers a different rate of speed and ease of traversal, and thus has a different technique for scoring. In the game, there are various kinds of bombs pick up, power-up icons of various sizes, and accumulating chain-based medals that drop from certain enemies. Additionally, there are secret areas of the game that can only be uncovered by strategically placed shots and require specific actions to access effectively. Battle Garegga taxes both the mind and the reflexes.

Furthermore, to play Battle Garegga well it is necessary to deliberately die. “Suiciding” is the only way to reasonably control the game’s rank system — a difficulty system that punishes the player for doing well by adjusting the speed, type, and difficulty of enemies based on the amount of power-ups the player has collected. To score well, it is vital to avoid shooting except when absolutely necessary, to avoid building up reserves of bombs or lives, and to avoid many power-up items. When one enters an area of the game where having a highly powered ship offers more risk than reward, it is helpful for the player to deliberately crash their ship or get shot down, thus resetting the ship’s power status and reducing the number of ships in reserve. As a result of this masochistic rank system, many of the best players in the world begin Battle Garegga by deliberately dying.

It is precisely because of these complex systems that Garegga is such a capstone experience in the genre. Like the best games in any genre, it both incorporates and “riffs” on some of the existing ideas that genre loyalists have grown accustomed to. In the process, it creates a challenging set of rules in which experimentation, strategy, and technique are richly rewarded. It does this as well as it does because of the talent involved in making the game, a market environment that rewarded experimentation, and a significant player base that could appreciate the nuances of the game’s design. To play Battle Garegga well in the arcade space in 1996 was to put one’s expertise on display, to create a kind of cultural capital that bespoke a deep appreciation for and knowledge of shooting game design history. Like great feats of athleticism or musicianship, one credit runs in the Battle Garegga were arcade performances that demonstrated one’s commitment, physicality, and acumen.

The popular shmups.system11.org message board, often referred to as the “Shmups Forum” has regularly asked its membership of genre enthusiasts to nominate and vote on an annual list of the best shmups in the history of the medium. Since that poll began in 2002, no game has claimed the top spot more often than Battle Garegga, where it has remained in sole possession of the title of “Greatest Shmup of All Time” since 2008. A read through the forum’s extensive discussions on the game will reveal that its difficulty and design choices are also quite divisive. The game has its share of detractors who argue that Garegga’s complex blend of genre designs makes it a jack-of-all-trades-but-master-of-none title. (Also worth noting is the barrier of entry to even play Battle Garegga. The game belongs to a period where the shmup genre, long a staple of the home console market worldwide, stopped seeing many games released for sale outside of Japan. Battle Garegga’s 1998 home port was exclusive to the Japanese Saturn and, along with other Saturn games like Radiant Silvergun and Batsugun regularly sells for $200+ on eBay).

If Battle Garegga is (at least one of) the “Greatest Shmups of all Time,” it is also one of the last games to be released during a period when arcade game design was the creative driving force for the game industry. Especially in America, the late 1990s saw the start of a mass public exodus from the arcade space. Battle Garegga and its predecessors were designed for public score competitions and spectatorship. What followed was a retreat of shooting games to almost exclusively private spaces, the abandonment of design informed by public exhibitionism.

An Abandonment

Shmup design would continue to evolve in the years after the demise of the arcade and the resulting, relative dearth of games in the genre. The current niche status of companies like Cave and Touhou means that, in order to be financially viable, most of the development on new shmup titles has catered to those who are already invested in the history and legacy of the genre. Though games in the genre are still released on arcade hardware, the arcade has long since ceased to be the golden standard for game development. Now, most shmup arcade boards are only produced in numbers that meet the expected demand of hobbyists, not of arcade owners. Digital distribution services have been a boon to the doujin shmup scene and the genre has a dedicated fanbase, but the heyday of the shmup as the videogame shooter par excellence is past.

There are a number of external factors that explain this abandonment. Game hardware began to emphasize 3D spaces that made X/Y axis games seem dated. Fighting games redefined the arcade at its end. Doom’s success announced a new paradigm in PC gaming and, by the time Garegga was released, had gained a foothold in console gaming, too. Around the same time, the Japanese game industry was (like much of Asia) impacted by the International Monetary Fund Crisis, and this period of time saw many arcade-focused studios shift their development strategies, combine, collapse, or fade into obscurity. Concurrently, the growing complexity of the genre made it an increasingly niche pursuit. While a public demonstration of mastery in a game like Garegga can function as a sight to inspire other players, empty arcades offer little incentive to immerse oneself in thick systems with steep, costly learning curves.

Today the shooting game itself is no longer a staple of public entertainment spaces. Battle Garegga, a game where users were made to draw on a nuanced knowledge of the history of the genre (and its developer) in order to realistically compete for high score, owes its design to a long history of shooting game development. That history extends back to Space Invaders, electromecahnical guns on the boardwalk, and target-based games at fairs in the 1800s. Game design choices across this history were reflective of the fact that skill-based shooting was itself something that one did in public, in short bursts of time, in front of and in competition with all comers. Arcades and their biggest hits thrived on collectivist notions of shared experiences of learning and competition. A competent shmup encouraged players to get further on their quarter by studying patterns, learning techniques, and engaging their local arcade community. As the arcades dwindled, shmup development slowed. As first-person shooter games grew in popularity, shooting things became more of an individual and private experience where interaction with others was optional and typically limited to those sharing a room or connecting remotely. A competent shooter in a private setting orients its player and scales its difficulty across the length of a game that is itself rarely completed in a sitting. It celebrates personal accomplishment in physical isolation.

The larger effects of this shift from (mostly) public 2D shooters to (mostly) private 3D shooters are chronicled, in various ways, throughout this book. There has been an increased emphasis by designers on story, on character, on graphics, on gore, and on lengthy, persistent, personal experiences. Historically, when skilled shooting was a public activity, these ideas were largely incidental to the development of a shooting game. Today, they are essential.