Ketsui and the Cult of Shmups

ケツイ ー 絆地獄たち ー

ケツイ ー 絆地獄たち ー

The man in the picture above is playing Ketsui, a scrolling shooter game that, in my opinion, is the best video game in existence.  Ketsui is a very simple game that uses three buttons and a joystick and with practice, can be beaten in less than half an hour. It should be noted that in this case, "practice" means probably over 200 hours of gameplay, because Ketsui is very, very hard. Judging by the positioning of the man's hands, he does not have much practice with the game or even the genre.

Ketsui is part of the genre of games known as scrolling shoot'em ups, or "shmups" for short. These games are generally 2D games, are most often sprite-based, and are very short and very hard. They have been around since the early 80s, and, despite being 2D in a graphics-obsessed gaming culture, retain a loyal fanbase, of which I am a part.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly when I started playing shmups. My first real memory of one was when I played Raiden DX for Super Famicon in 3rd or 4th grade at a friend's house. From then until my senior year of high school, I didn't give the genre much thought. Sometime during my senior year, though, I became hooked.

I wonder what about these games attracts me to them? Perhaps the fact that they are very personal? They are almost always hand-animated, with bullet patterns comprised of gorgeous colors; most developing teams are less than 15 people. The games are extremely well-crafted. This is a genre that caters to the extremely hardcore gamer crowd - a group of people who would not think it unreasonable to pay $1500 for an arcade machine and then shell out upwards of $1800 for a single game to play on it. Ketsui alone can go for over $2000. This is a fanbase that keeps count of frame data in games, memorizes every enemy wave pattern, and breaks down a chaining mechanic to maximize high scores. These are people who put in 300+ hours into a single game and can tell you that a it moves at 36 frames per second and that you will earn 412 points for every frame you stay alive, meaning that you earn almost 15,000 for every second you can evade a bullet pattern comprised of 46 bullets.

Game companies don’t keep these kind of fans happy by releasing half-assed games. These days, there just is no such thing as a buggy shmup. There will be no need to release updates or patches. A revision means almost a total overhaul of the entire game. Take, for example, a scene I witnessed a few years ago.

I was at a testing release for a game called Mushihimesama Futari at the Hey! Arcade in Akihabara, Tokyo. There were four machines lined up against a wall, each running a copy of the latest beta. There was a line of at least ten middle aged men behind each machine, patiently waiting their turn while at the same time watching the players in front to learn how the game played. All of a sudden, the entire roon erupted in deafening cheers.

Someone had counter-stopped their copy of the game!

To put it simply, they had mastered the scoring and chaining system so well that they had maxed out the score counter. The score couldn’t go any higher, meaning the guy had essentially broken the game. In a genre where high score is everything, a game able to be counter-stopped would sell next to zero copies. Clearly, the developers had a lot of work ahead of them.

This kind of dedication is something I really admire. In a industry where the latest and greatest 3D game is lucky to be a best-seller for a week, here hides a genre that still thrives, mainly because of developer dedication and a highly knowledgeable fanbase. I don’t claim to be a leader in this fanbase, but I do enjoy the games - they are probably the only video games I still play.

Why would I continue this masochistic hobby of playing games that continually beat me down? Because there is a goal. A seemingly unachievable goal that I know I can reach if I try hard enough. And once I reach that goal, the results will be supremely impressive. All I have to put in is the time...