Necessities for twin-stick shooters.

robotronJust recently I’ve rekindled an interest in twin-stick shooters. The type of game where you, the player, flies around in a 2-D plane, moving around with one joystick and shooting mans with the other. Robotron 2084 was an early example of this, and it’s still fun 20-some years later. But not all twin-stickers are the same, and in my vague quest to pick some more up on Steam I’ve narrowed down a few things that new games of this genre really ought to have.

Temporary and permanent rewards. This is crucial for such a simple game. Temporary rewards either last for a limited amount of time or until you die. Permanent rewards last throughout all of your lives, or until the end of the level, whichever comes first. Temporary rewards can include score multipliers, boosted abilities (like more firepower or speed), or other short-lasting advantages. Permanent rewards can also include score multipliers (though this is pretty empty), or other things like upgrading your ship to be stronger for the rest of the play, or even out-of-game rewards like new ships to fly or new levels to play.

Competing for score and competing for game progression. Sure, a game where the entire point is getting a high score can be fun for a while, and some people will string it out and make it a temporary career. That’s fine. But there is a lot of pleasure in some overarching goal. As mentioned above, permanent rewards are a lot of fun, and the more tangible the reward, the more a player will strive toward it. Give every ship fifty new paint jobs if you like, forty of which can be earned or found simply through playing the game, the last ten of which require some incredible feats in the different modes. Proud display of skill.

HexodiusEven the act of unlocking further levels to challenge is game progression, however basic. But allowing the player to compete for a high score in whichever levels would be appropriate (which can be challenging depending on the game structure, Hexodius is a good example where high scores don’t work well) is also fun. Challenge your friends, if you have friends who play. Challenge the internet. Challenge perhaps only people from your state or region, and then take that to the world stage if you’re good enough. Give the player bronze/silver/gold medals depending on what percentage they’re in. Knock them down if it’s been too long since playing. Keep them coming back.

Easily distinguished friendly/enemy bullets. Moving more to the technical aspects of a game, if I don’t know what I’m shooting at, I’m going to be frustrated quickly. This is something that Beat Hazard messes up royally. I can’t count how many times I died in the demo and couldn’t tell where the shot had come from. Whether this is something as simple as “the player shoot green, the enemies shoot red” or something more complicated where “the player shoots thin, fast-moving shots, the enemies shoot round, slower shots,” the obviousness of every bullet on screen must be apparent.

Airtight controls. I shouldn’t really have to mention this. First thing I noticed about Hexodius was that controlling the ship was a little jumpy at times. At first I thought my controller was on the fritz. It turns out that pointing either the move or fire joystick directly southwest would cause no input to be read. With every single other game working perfectly, I could only conclude it was a problem with the game. And that broke the game. That is very near a cardinal direction, and I can’t shoot there. It was the cause of many deaths. More generically, default move speed should be comfortable, not too slow or fast, and bullets should fly faster than the default ship speed at all times.

beat hazardBalance. This does not apply to every twin-stick shooter, and I know it. But I felt the need to bring it up, as it’s very important. If you offer the player multiple ways to shoot enemies and present them as equal, they really truly ought to be equal. Special weapons that take time to recharge or must be found are an exception, of course, but all the player’s normal, default tools should be even. Super Stardust HD is an egregious example of how not to do it. The player’s Gold Melter, because of the way the weapon behaves (firing in a continuous stream), makes it the superior choice over the Rock Crusher and Ice Splitter simply because it pushes every obstacle away, a crucial tactic in the game, even though the three are supposed to be used roughly evenly because of the existence of three separate types of asteroids. This is silly, and removes all strategy and thought.

Preferably more enemies instead of stronger enemies. This is the point where things start getting a little more subjective. There is nothing wrong with enemies taking a few hits, and boss monsters are absolutely acceptable. But the presence of a few strong monsters, who can all shoot at you but only from a fixed point, tends to make the game a “hover your gun over the first bad guy until he dies, move on” snorefest. On the contrary, a swarm of enemies who take exactly three hits from your primary machine gun weapon turns the game into a challenging joystick swivelfest, where you want to focus on each individual enemy exactly the right amount of time so as to move on to the next enemy quickly. That, and it’s usually more satisfying to utterly obliterate a screen-covering swarm of bugs rather than a couple of queen bees. Though perhaps that’s just me.

Preferably lasting pick-ups. If I shoot an enemy and he drops a gun upgrade, but I’m in the middle of a firefight, I the player feel like I have earned a gun upgrade. Maybe I shot him from far away and am now confronted with a new wave of enemies at point-blank. Whatever the reason, if that power-up disappears in just a few seconds, I will either disregard it entirely and risk being outpaced by more and more enemies, or take the risk upfront to try and grab it, chancing a stupid death for a power-up. Timing out can be a solid game mechanic if used right, sure, particularly if there are a lot of things to snatch and merely grabbing a majority of the spoils will keep you in the game. But cheating the player into risky situations if he does not make every decisive play is troubling.

wavesNot a quick-time combo system. Based partially on personal preference, but Waves in particular felt incredibly awkward to me because of such a mechanic. The only way to do well in the game was to physically stop shooting and let the enemies accumulate so that you could shoot more of them faster for bonus points and a multiplier. This is frustrating. Any second spent not moving and shooting in a genre based entirely around moving and shooting should be only about pounding the desk in frustration in between lives. Exceptions exist, sure, like the “Dare Devil” bonus in Beat Hazard if you didn’t shoot for a set amount of time, but forcing the game to revolve around it is a bad idea.

Not sudden or often button pressing. Pressing buttons should be a rarity. Buttons can be powerful, and many games have clear-the-screen oh-shit-bombs in a limited capacity to help during tough times. Super Stardust HD had two buttons, one for bombs, one for a hyper-boost that needed to recharge. Both abilities were not used very often (although mastering the boost was crucial) but were decisive.

An aside: something Stardust did so, so, right: when you use either button ability, the boost or the bomb, you were essentially invincible. The boost could take you through enemies, doing damage, and the bomb not only destroyed enemy ships but enemy bullets as well. Pressing buttons like this that are often the pinnacle between staying alive and dying—and that already distract you and take your mind off the controls for a moment!—perform much much better when the risk of using an individual ability is low, though the risk of affecting the game itself is high.

Anyway. Hexodius is particularly bad about button presses: while the weapon upgrade system is novel and the rewards are thorough, the game requires you to have your fingers on all four shoulder buttons of a controller for nearly the entire game, and about half the abilities are available nearly all the time where the others are on arbitrary cooldowns. This is hell for the player, who (when he is me) spends half his time slamming the shoulder buttons when he wants to just shoot mans. A turret ability is very cool! Turrets and mines and firepower and speed, all independently managed, isn’t so much.

super stardustPerhaps a list of other fun items. This list isn’t comprehensive and assumes plenty about twin-stick games, which are by and large roughly the same game and have many tropes that one can count on, should the developer have the time.

  • The more modes of play, the better, particularly if they’re all unique. Stardust did this right, with a campaign, individual level challenges, timed levels, and two different infinite modes, as well as bomb-only and boost-only modes.
  • Multiplayer. Not all games are set up to play with two heroes, and that’s fine. But allowing two buddies to speedrun the campaign mode, or even going the extra mile and programming up a competitive shooting frenzy, or going even further than that and making bots for enjoyment of multiplayer gametypes fun alone…all these things can only strengthen a game’s playability.
  • A sense of game progression. This was touched on earlier in parts but I wanted to place it here. Something simple like a campaign mode does well, rewarding the player with more, new, hopefully distinguishable and different levels to play in. Something more complex like unlocking new game modes, ships, and other physically game-changing options is even better.
  • Options to control on-screen chaos. Beat Hazard again rears its ugly head. Playing the game at anything above 50% explosion ferocity rendered it nearly unplayable, as every shot was obscured. (And the slider goes up to 200%.) Dazzling special effects are always appreciated but the headache-induced or simply more competitive player will want to hone in on what’s really important: shooting mans.
  • Options for display visibility. Showing the number of lives in the corner conspicuously but not distractingly is always a hard balance. Showing other less constant information, like the number of shots left in a weapon or the number of enemies left in a level, can be even trickier. Oftentimes the easiest solution for a player who finds himself looking away is just to turn down the opacity of these elements, allowing him to look through them should he need to.
  • Customization. Whether it’s pointless (Stardust) or a method of showing off (the fifty different paintjobs brought up earlier), being able to affect the game without affecting the game will give a veteran a goal to strive toward, a newbie a reason to try the game, and a struggling player intermediate goals to check off.

I don’t mean to rip too hard on some of the games I’ve mentioned. Most twin-stick shooters have some redeeming merits. Stardust may be unbalanced, but it’s still a blast to play. Hexodius might be complicated but I played the demo to the end, and it wasn’t a bad ride. Beat Hazard…well I had a lot of problems with that game but it was only one in a sea of raw, enjoyable shooting games. If any game ever comes out that solves all these problems, they could sell it for fifty bucks and I’d pay the price.

(after it went on sale on Steam for 75% off.)