The Cultural Gutter

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"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." -- Oscar Wilde

Chasing the High Score Dragon

Gutter Guest
Posted June 30, 2011

I’m not hardcore. Admitting that, opens up a world of possibilities, and closes no doors. Labeling yourself as such opens a Pandora’s box of criticism from people who live and bleed what you think you do. So I’m not going to make any outlandish statements, and start to think that I’m hardcore because I’m ranked in the top 17 “all time” world wide for a harrowing retro 2d shooter game like Picopicofighters, currently available, completely for free on the iphone, ipod touch at the App Store. (Now the writer’s face collapses into a smug imploding grin, much like a soft-headed Muppet, hidden human fingers pulling back the lips into a warbling sort of underbite).

No, sadly, the truth is, I’m probably already out of the top twenty.  But those morphine-injected 7 hours or so were blissful, so satisfying in a life packed full of underwhelming disappointments beyond your control–it was great to know a global mark was made. The high score is a drug, once you’ve tasted your first top ten, it’s hard to play other games. You know, the ones that give you trophies or achievements for passing the first level, for pressing a button, for waking up in the morning. Perhaps the most emasculating is the trophy many games give you for killing your 100th or 1000th enemy. Like I need a reminder of how long I’ve been stuck on this level.

But no, what I’m talking is about the shot of endorphins you get when you see the leader boards, can turn and say, I’m world-ranked at this shit.  I may never be a high school wrestling champion or basketball star, and this shit may be wasting thousands of people’s time, but somehow, in this moment, I’m number one!  Or 25!  Out of a 12,000…  Not too shabby!  I… exist!

Of course no one around me really cares, not if they’re sane!  But this moment isn’t for them.  Because maybe today I won’t bring down any terrorist cells or invent any cancer cures.  Maybe today my purpose was just to beat yesterday’s high score.  Better than winning another trophy that every little Jimmy’s got!

And I’m not pretending that this stuff is productive–but I could argue that it is.  It’s productive to keep productive!  Getting over an end boss slump just might be the bump up in your day you need to tackle a bigger, real life problem!  If you need that kind of reinforcement.  Okay, it’s a tough sell, but I can often sell myself, because like I said, it is a drug.  A sweet, sweet drug.  So you’ll beg and plead, and you find ways to make it work, even as other responsibilities drop by the way side.

And I’m just talking about the shooters man!  (But also secretly sending
subliminal thought waves for the otherwise-unrelated game, Demon’s

These are the only ones that keep me coming back.  The rest of the world has moved on into 3D polygonal graphics, and now actual pure 3D images that explode from your TV set, but I’m chasing down 8-bit crack rocks.  (Again my felt-fashioned mouth flap crumples inwards and chews into a self-satisfied, self-aware smug smile).

So now for some actual information, because–I’m done with the drug
metaphors, let’s use something else; I’ve found the “melted marsh-mellows”, the s’mores of 2D shooter games (or shmups, STG’s, and even “schumps” as I hate reading).

And no it’s not that floozy R-Type (link to last article) – which is more like the Foie gras of shooters–taste perfection, often associated with animal cruelty, and leading to severe gout if over indulged…

But quite, the melty marshmallows of the genre- the pure sugar rush that’s only up and up before your inevitable adrenaline crash…

I’m talking about the sub-genre of Caravan shooters!

They’re the most boiled-down, streamlined experience:  Here’s the deal, you generally have the choice of a 2 or 5 minute run.  So, you pick one of these, and you play through a level or two and just score score score, blasting bad guys on a 2D plane, with generally… a 2D plane (or spaceship). They tend to be even more indulgent with the scoring opportunities; tons of hidden bonuses, NES era-style secrets (bizarre techniques that rack up even more points).  And when the time’s up, that’s it.  You’re done.  Fix over, and still plenty of time left in your day.  Didn’t get the score you were chasing?  Hm, so these aren’t really two minutes after all.

Why are they called Caravan Shooters?  Here’s the fast version: Hudson Soft used to tour Japan with their latest games in a big yellow bus, holding high score competitions for everyone in it’s path, dishing out prizes.*

A yearly Caravan was born… but that regularity ended in 1993.  The Caravan while sometimes including other games, such as Bomberman or Adventure Island, largely showcased the Star Soldier franchise:  Star Soldier, Super Star Soldier, Final Soldier, Soldier Blade, etc., and briefly returned for 2008’s Hudson Soft release of Star Soldier R.  Here’s to hoping they bring that back, and bring it over to North America! Sounds way more fun than filling up balloons with inadequate squirt guns at the Carnivals we get over here.

Soon after the Caravan was in full swing, another Japan-based shooter intensive company named, Naxat, took advantage of this craze, running their own yearly shooting carnival, which included the release of the legendary “Summer Carnival ’92 Recca”–which some say is the first bullet hell shooter, and is a damn fine game even to this day. And yes, Recca includes a time and score attack modes for bite-sized Caravan-style decadence!

Most recently a stunning tribute was created in Blade Buster –HLC’s amazing home brew creation, playable on many NES emulators, and publicly available from the programers site! If there was ever an argument to play homebrew games, give this one a try!

I’ll leave you with another thought–and though I will say I had this thought myself, I scoured the shmups boards and learned I am unoriginal, but perhaps that makes it a universal truth:  We were all sperm once, playing a game of impossible odds to dodge and weave our way through untold hazards to create our own existence.  Perhaps that’s why these games are so primal, and connect so deeply with their fan base; as they are bout just that, overcoming impossible odds to make your mark.

Or maybe that’s just another excuse I tell myself to keep playing when I should be doing the dishes.


*Just saw that the majestically evil (and lovely) Konami absorbed Hudson Soft this year and shut it down.




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