Continuing from the creation of the shoot ’em up from last week, I find myself asking “what makes a good SHMUP?“. SHMUP classics like Ikaruga and Raiden rely on a foundation of challenge and elegant design that make it fair and fun. It’s necessary for a SHMUP’s level design to present a problem that the player might certainly never beat, but through many deaths and much practice, a solution will present itself. Difficult and engaging SHMUP level design is a troublesome beast to tame. Dark Souls – known for its challenging but fair gameplay – challenges players to treat each encounter as a puzzle which will unfold as the player learns an enemy’s attack patterns and finally defeats them. Likewise, a good SHMUP is best thought of like a puzzle that the player will unfold by exploring the game’s mechanics.

Raiden (Seibu Kaihatsu, 1990)

Initially, the key to designing a well-made level is to know the game you are building it for. For example, in Ikaruga the player can move in four directions, shoot two different coloureds bullets, and polarise their shield to these two colours as well, known as the “Polarity system”. If the player gets hit by a different coloured bullet, they lose health. Otherwise, the player will absorb a same-coloured bullet to build up a powerful laser attack. Knowing these mechanics, we can consider how we can use them to create a SHMUP that can be challenging and entertaining.

Attillo Carotenuto, a developer at Himeki Games, wrote Designing smart, meaningful SHMUPS (2015) after his personal experience playing games of the genre to learn their systems and how they create levels that are engaging and entertaining. He described the basic skeleton for a well-paced and progressed SHMUP level:

1: “Begin with an interesting, but not too challenging wave, to introduce the player to the theme of the level.”

A slow introduction is essential to train the player and familiarise them with the game’s mechanics, and the qualities of the level. A level needs to be contextually appropriate or inappropriate based on the context of the game. If the player is expected to use or learn a mechanic that is unique to a particular level, the level should be visually distinct from the others. Most famous for this sort of level design is Nintendo with Mario Bros. World 1-1 (1983). Nintendo’s games usually introduce players into a live situation where they must learn the game’s design organically, rather than by hand-holding. In World 1-1, the player is dropped into a situation where they must quickly adapt and understand Mario Bros. two most important mechanics: moving and jumping. A Goomba approaches the player, requiring them to jump to evade it or defeat it. The player will figure out that they can only move forward, not backwards, and must use both mechanics to avoid or eliminate the Goomba. Optionally, the level encourages the player to interact with the Question Blocks that hang nearby. The player will die until they understand these principles. While it may be questionable to immediately treated the player with death, the importance,and ubiquity of these mechanics throughout the Mario Bros. experience make them essential to teach as ruthlessly and immediately as possible.

2: “From there, keep building with more enemies and different twists to that same mechanic.”

Continuing with Mario Bros., World 1-1 will demonstrate to players more of its design principles. The player will encounter Koopas, which require a similar, but different technique way to Goombas. The player can interact with pipes, a mechanic that isn’t taught but exists for experimentation. Further level introduce more enemies, each of which is distinct in gameplay, providing new and unexpected twists on gameplay.

3: “Around mid-level, the player will have a good understanding of the mechanic and theme. That’s the right moment to use a mid-boss, as a climax to reward the user for mastering the new gameplay element.”

Mastering gameplay is the second most important aspect of Level Design – especially when gameplay mechanics are concerned. Portal (Valve Corporation, 2007) – a game that can be considered almost entirely tutorial – tests players continuously until they complete the final test chamber and encounter the ride into the fire pit. The game releases control of the player, and Portal tests their knowledge of  its mechanics and dynamics. The player will independently complete advanced manoeuvres without the game’s subtle design hints. Portal’s breakout section is complimented its level design change, with an entirely new environment that communicates the situation that the player is in, and the newfound independence the player has.

4: “In the final phase, try to go slower and give the player an interesting challenge”

Pacing is a critical tool in a Game Designer’s belt. The pace of a game needs to fully engage players for as long as possible. Cleverly and intelligently managing the intensity of the game experience will engage a player long-term. Humans become exhausted from undergoing high-intensity situations and become bored from low-intensity experiences for too long. Good pacing will anticipate a player’s level of exhaustion and peak and trough the action to match. Jacek Wesolowski, a designer at People Can Fly studios, wrote a piece for Gamasutra titled Beyond Pacing: Games Aren’t Hollywood. Wesolowski discusses the particulars of video game pacing. Pacing a video game level is very different compared to a movie, where the player is completely free to turn the other way and totally miss high-intensity moments, and they require an entirely different language to evoke the same emotions. Slowing down the intensity of the game in order to provide a left-of-field challenge will allow the player a moment to recover before they encounter the climax of the level, like in the Star Wars pacing diagram below. For a SHMUP, this is where alternative enemy compositions will enable the player to slow down and tackle a new puzzle before their skills are tested in a boss fight.

Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 9.29.48 am.png
The increase of intensity over the course of Star Wars: A New Hope (Lucas, 1977). Image courtesy of Jacek Wesolowski

5: “The final boss should feel like a summary of everything you learned up to that point”

The final climax is where all of the lessons the level has taught come together. Mike Stout, an Activision and former Insomniac designer broke down into four points what makes an interesting boss fight. Firstly, “The boss should feel like a reward”. Naturally, as the grand finale of the level, a boss fight allows the player to stretch their legs and show off their skills. In a SHMUP, a good and rewarding boss fight tests its players’ skills in a new and challenging environment. Secondly, the boss fight needs to feel like a goal. Punishing there player for successfully making it through the level doesn’t make sense. The entire level preceding the boss fight prepares the player for the challenge they will face, which is the third point. The boss fight needs to be contextually appropriate, and allow the player to demonstrate the skills that they acquired in the level. Through a challenging boss fight the player can work out the level’s rising tension in a satisfying way (see below)

Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 9.47.09 am.png
The Waxing and waning intensity of Super Mario Bros. 3’s boss fights over the course of the game. (Nintendo, 1988)

After creating a cohesive and engaging SHMUP, Carotenuto mentions several additional methods for maintaining player engagement. “The player [must be] busy at all times” to avoid circumstances where the screen is empty and the player becomes disengaged from the game. As SHMUPs are highly dextrous and reactionary, the player mustn’t feel cheated or punished for mistakes they didn’t know they made. Carotenuto recommends that bullets cannot be overdone – and should always have a critical paths for the player to take, and the bullets themselves need to contrast and be easy to see. The opposite is true for non-gameplay elements, which must be clearly and visually distinct from background and scenery; anything that isn’t a gameplay element.

Ikaruga and Raiden are SHMUPs which enjoy lasting reputations as challenging and intelligently designed games. Through elegant design, smart pacing and satisfying game feel it’s possible to create games – SHMUPs and otherwise – that enjoy similar reputations. Despite the temporal nature of SHMUPs, design and pacing principles still apply, and if anything, provide more focused experiences because of it. As designers, we are responsible for the experience our players have, and we need to use every tool in our arsenal to make those experiences memorable.

Works Cited:

Carotenuto, A. (2015). Designing smart, meaningful SHMUPsGamasutra. Retrieved 23 June 2016, from http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/AttilioCarotenuto/20150930/254963/Designing_smart_meaningful_SHMUPs.php

Stout, M. (2016). Gamasutra – Boss Battle Design and StructureGamasutra.com. Retrieved 23 June 2016, from http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/134503/boss_battle_design_and_structure.php?print=1

Wesolowski, J. (2016). Gamasutra – Beyond Pacing: Games Aren’t HollywoodGamasutra.com. Retrieved 23 June 2016, from http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/4032/beyond_pacing_games_arent_.php?print=1

Raiden [Computer Software]. (1990) Japan: Seibu Kaihatsu

Ikaruga [Computer Software. (2001) Japan: Treasure

Super Mario Bros. 3 [Computer Software]. (1988) Japan: Nintendo

Mario Bros. [Computer Software]. (1983) Japan: Nintendo

Portal [Computer Software]. (2007) US: Valve Corporation


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