The side-scrolling shooter: 1980-2004?

Once an arcade mainstay, the side-scrolling shooter seems to be dwindling from existence. Ryan looks back at a sadly neglected genre...

In a furious blast of energy, a pair of classic shooters arrived in 2004: the PlayStation 2 titles R-Type Final and Gradius V. Coupling traditional side-scrolling action with up-to-the-minute, often quite striking graphics and sound, the games took the genre from late 20th century arcades and into our 21st century living rooms.

Yet even as these games offered up a sharp refinement of a tried-and-trusted relic from gaming’s silver age, they also signalled what now appears to be the genre’s epitaph. Even as R-Type Final showed how polished a side-scrolling shooter could look on a current-gen console, and Gradius V hinted at some fresh ideas which could be explored further in the future, these games brought their respective franchises to an end.

So what went wrong? Why was this genre, which at one stage was positively bursting with fresh ideas, allowed to wither and fade?

Defender, and the birth of a genre

The side-scrolling shooter owes its existence to design genius Eugene Jarvis, whose seminal 1980 game Defender established many of its most familiar attributes. The player’s dart-like space craft skimmed the surface of a barren planet, aliens hurtling in left and right like swarms of bees. The aim was to protect the helpless, tiny human sprites cowering on the planet’s surface – let the aliens take them all, and the dreaded Game Over legend rolled onto the screen.

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After the static screens of Space Invaders, Galaxian and their assorted clones, Defender’s speed and relentless intensity was mesmerising. As a result, Defender became one of the most popular games of the amusement arcade’s golden era, and the side-scrolling shooter was born.

While Defender established Williams as one of America’s big names in game design – Joust and Robotron 2084 were two of its other major hits in the early 1980s – other developers were also looking closely at Eugene Jarvis’ breakthrough shooter. Just one year after Defender appeared in arcades, along came Konami’s Scramble.

Less mind-bogglingly fast than Defender, Scramble was clearly derived from the same DNA as Williams’ earlier hit. The player’s ship traversed a rocky landscape, taking out alien craft with bullets and bombs while replenishing a constantly-falling energy supply by taking out fuel drums lying on the surface. Like Defender, Scramble was ferociously difficult, particularly when the rolling planet surface gave way to claustrophobic little tunnels, where the environment became as deadly to negotiate as the waves of alien craft.

That same year saw also saw the release of Stargate – Jarvis and Larry DeMar’s sequel to Defender. The aim was the same (defend the hapless humans from the aliens) but was distinguished by its control system, which presented the player with no fewer than six buttons as well as a two-way joystick – quite a bewildering sight in 1981, particularly if you were used to the ‘left-right-shoot’ mechanics of most of the era’s blasters.

Defender, Stargate and Scramble ushered in a wave of official and unofficial ports and clones, ensuring that, even if you’d never set foot in an arcade back in the early 80s, you’d probably played or at least seen a side-scrolling shooter if you owned an Atari 2600 or a home computer. The Commodore 64 alone saw a range of thinly-veiled clones of Defender and Scramble, each rechristened with names such as Survivor, Skramble and the rather rude-sounding Shaft Raider.

Konami somewhat cheekily recycled the code from Scramble itself, with Super Cobra (also released in 1981) offering up the same frantic vaunt through tunnels and across mountains, except this time in a little helicopter. But Super Cobra was, if anything, an even more widely-ported game than Scramble, with versions of it appearing on the Atari 2600, the Colecovision and the MSX home computer.

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Konami continued to experiment with the shooter genre in the years after Scramble and Super Cobra came out, with such games as Time Pilot, Mega Zone and Juno First. It wasn’t until 1985, however, that it would return to the side-scrolling format of Super Cobra.

Gradius and the side-scroller’s heyday

Created by a group of four developers in their early 20s, Gradius was originally envisioned as a direct sequel to Scramble, before its design gradually drifted away from the game which inspired it. Inspired by Star Wars and an anime adaptation of EE “Doc” Smith’s Lensman, which had just appeared in cinemas in the mid-1980s, Gradius’ designers allowed their imaginations to run riot. While you can see the influence of Scramble in the game’s opening level, with its undulating planetscape and sharp outcroppings, the designers also added screen-filling, magma-spewing volcanoes, enemies which scuttled around on the planet’s surface, and a huge, show-stopping alien ship to fight at the end – and this was only stage one.

Players expecting more of the same on stage two were surprised to find themselves in an entirely different environment: a surreal network of maze-like columns, rocks and Maoi heads, which spat hoops of deadly lasers. Later levels were set among metal chambers, or grotesque, organic caverns.

For the youths crowding into arcades back in 1985, this was thrilling stuff. While the galactic setting was a familiar one, there’d never been a game delivered with this much detail and sheer class before. Gradius not only challenged you to beat your own score, but seduced you with its visuals – playing the game became as much about seeing what would scroll into view next as it was about defeating the alien threat.

Then there was the innovation in Gradius‘ ingenious power-up system. Shooters had featured power-ups for several years since 1985, but none allowed the player to customise their ship to their own style of play. According to designer Hiroyasu Machiguchi, Gradius‘ power-up gauge, with each lighting up depending on how many glowing tokens you’d collected, was inspired by the layout of function keys on a computer keyboard. It was a clear, easy-to-grasp system, allowing skilled players to tailor their ship’s defences to the specific challenges in each stage.

It’s worth pausing here to give Gradius‘ music a special mention. A mix of triumphant fanfares and angst-filled end-of-level melodies, its hummable, addictive quality perfectly suited the game’s space opera atmosphere. What’s all the more remarkable is that it was the first work of its composer Miki Higashino, who was just 16 and still a student when she wrote it. Higashino would go on to write a string of superb soundtracks for Konami, including Yie Ar Kung-Fu, other entries in the Gradius series, and the RPG series, Suikoden.

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Gradius was a solid hit, sparking not only a wave of ports to home computers and consoles, but also a string of sequels and spin-offs, which appeared annually through the rest of the decade. Salamander (1986) provided a simplified weapons system and a two-player co-op mode. Nemesis II (1987) was a seldom-played yet extremely good spin-off for the MSX. Gradius II (1988) introduced some stunning graphics, most of which survived in a remarkable port to the Nintendo Entertainment System later that year. Gradius III (1989) offered a greater range of weapon options, but also saw Konami ramp up the level of difficulty to frightening extremes.

Gradius‘ popularity was such that Konami decided to have some fun at its own expense in 1988, with Parodius: The Octopus That Saves The Earth – the first in a string of surreal comedy shooters which fused Gradius character designs with animals and Japanese cultural references. Full of imagination and deliciously strange humour, the Parodius games were classics in their own right.

Irem and the mighty R-Type

While Konami spent the latter part of the 1980s exploring the possibilities of the Gradius series, another contender appeared in arcades. Launched in 1987, R-Type was a shooter created by Irem, a developer previously known for such games as Moon Patrol, 10-Yard Fight and Kung-Fu Master.

At the time, R-Type looked like something sent back from the future. Coming with its own innovative power-up mechanic – a constantly-evolving pod (or ‘Force’) which could be attached to the front or back of your craft – it provided a slowly-unfolding tour of a hypnotically alien, palpably dangerous landscape. The game became famous for its trio of astonishing area bosses: a screen-filling, Giger-inspired monstrosity called Dobkeratops, a hideous, pulsating giant heart called Gomander, and a kilometre-long warship which took up the entirety of level three.

Seemingly inspired by Irem’s technical achievement, several separate companies produced their own ports of R-Type, some of them spectacular – a version for the Japan-only PC Engine was remarkably faithful, if not arcade perfect, while the ZX Spectrum port, programmed by Bob Pape, was arguably the best shooter available for that machine.

(You can read the full, incredibly geek story of how Bob Pape crammed R-Type into the Spectrum in his free-to-download book – it’s well worth a read.) 

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With R-Type available for just about every system you could name by the end of the decade (including a monochrome version for the humble Game Boy), Irem produced a string of sequels and loosely-connected spin-offs, such as the vertically-scrolling shooter Image Fight (1988), R-Type II (1989), R-Type Leo (1992) and the SNES-exclusive R-Type III: The Third Lightning (1993).

Other shooters appeared from the developer around this time, all with an unmistakeable similarity to R-Type. There was Dragon Breed, with a vulnerable human protagonist riding on the back of a giant bullet-proof serpent, and X-Multiply, a queasily organic shooter which replaced R-Type’s Force mechanic with a pair of indestructible, whip-like tentacles.

The problem Irem and Konami faced, as the 90s dawned, was that both arcades and consoles were becoming gummed up by a slew of identikit shooters. After 1987, every shooter had to have a gigantic boss at the end of each level and its own distinct weapon system. The Sega Mega Drive, to take but one system, had dozens of side-scrolling shooters to choose from: Gaiares, Zero Wing, Gynoug, Grind Stormer, Hellfire, Steel Empire, Thunder Force IV, Super Fantasy Zone and Airbuster were among the best ones. Others, such as Whip Rush and Insector X, were largely forgettable.

The 90s and the final stage

The early 90s also saw the emergence of a new breed of shooter: the danmaku, or ‘bullet hell’ shooter. Led by such games as Toaplan’s Batsugun and Cave’s DonPachi, the bullet hell genre provided a mesmerising firework display of multicoloured bullets. It was a genre designed to test player skills to their limit, while leaving ordinary mortals overawed at the sheer madness of it all.

In an attempt, perhaps, to lure Japanese players back into games centres, developers increasingly neglected the side-scrolling format: the vertical shooter was something that could only really be appreciated on the custom hardware of an arcade machine. Anyone who’s played a vertical shooter like Radiant Silvergun or Ikaruga on a home console will know that, on a conventional widescreen monitor, the play area occupies a small area down the middle of the screen.

As the traditional shooter retreated to arcades and the increasingly challenging bullet hell genre, it was at risk of becoming a niche interest. The 90s brought with it the first-person shooter, and as 3D action games captured the world’s imagination, the 2D shooters of the past began to look outmoded.

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Nevertheless, Konami and Irem made attempts to update Gradius and R-Type for the 3D generation. Gradius Gaiden, released for the PlayStation in 1997, retained the hand-drawn sprites of old while adding some impressive screen-rotation and laser effects; the traditional gameplay and music were present and correct, but with an added late-90s sheen.

From a technical standpoint, R-Type Delta (1999) pushed the side-scroller further still, with the sprites of the earlier games replaced almost entirely by textured polygons. For the time, it looked magnificent, and even found ways of incorporating the third dimension into its side-scrolling gameplay in inventive and challenging ways: the first level saw a giant metal snake (akin to the one which first emerged from Gomander back in 1987) swoop in and out of the screen – a relatively fresh idea in an often predictable genre.

Other late-90s shooters tried to move with the times, too, including Taito’s G-Darius and Raystorm, and Square’s incredibly difficult but supremely polished Einhander. Compared to those titles, Gradius IV, which cautiously dipped its toe into 3D polygonal waters in 1999, seemed somewhat quaint.

Then again, the whole shooter genre was beginning to look quaint in the face of such groundbreaking experiences as Half-Life, Medal Of Honor or Halo – after years of clones and copycat shooters, the genre simply failed to evolve quickly enough to keep up with newer, emerging forms of game. The side-scroller may have been trying to update itself, but as the new millennium arrived, titles like Einhander and R-Type Delta were beginning to look like relics from a bygone age – wonderful relics, undoubtedly, for those who still played and enjoyed them, but relics nonetheless.

This is why, perhaps, in the early years of the 2000s, Irem decided to create one last game in the R-Type series – a final hurrah for its seminal shooter, and a thank you to its loyal fans. “This will be the last R-Type game Irem releases,” producer Kujo Kazuma said in a 2003 interview.” If we didn’t add ‘Final’ to the title this time, players would be waiting expectantly forever. It gradually dawned on me how cruel that would be, so from the start I thought it would better to say up front, ‘this is the end’…”

R-Type Final and Gradius V

Initially, the team dedicated to making R-Type Final met some resistance from the bosses at Irem. “There was a lot of anxiety about whether the game would sell well, given that [the shooter] is not a mainstream genre,” Kazuma said. “When I’d hear the developers say things like “shooting games can’t sell”, I’d think to myself, ‘Don’t say that. If you think that way, you’ve lost before you’ve begun, and it’s an insult to the R-Type name.’ So when we started the project, I was very determined. Also, the requests from players to make another R-Type kept gradually coming in, and that was another motivator.”

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Spurred on by the realisation that, however small they might be, a group of hardcore fans was eagerly awaiting a new R-Type game, Kazuma’s team threw its energy into making the final entry as definitive as it could make it. To this end, the developers created an overwhelming number of ships and weapons, including 10 kinds of missile, 53 variations on the Force, 83 wave cannons, and no fewer than 101 unlockable ships.

Rather than chase the trend for fast, bullet-strewn shooters of the day, Irem instead fell back on the slow, strategic atmosphere of the earlier titles. The funereal pace, coupled with composer Yuki Iwai’s dramatic score, gave the game a majestic, appropriately melancholy tone – this was the final volume in a 17-year saga drawing to a spectacular close.

Meanwhile, in Tokyo, designer Hiroshi Iuchi and his team at Treasure were busily putting together a definitive sequel of his own: Gradius V. It’s fitting that Konami chose to outsource the production of Gradius V to Treasure in order to save costs: Treasure was formed in 1992 by a group of artists and designers who’d left Konami to make their own kinds of dementedly individual games, including the non-stop boss rush of Alien Soldier (1995) and the classic vertical shooters Radiant Silvergun (1998) and Ikaruga (2001).

For Gradius V, Treasure brought extraordinary freshness and imagination to a now formulaic series, with beautifully-designed levels that pile on spectacle after spectacle. Even when compared to R-Type Final, Gradius V looked and sounded extraordinarily polished; the opening cut-scene, with the Vic Viper launching to the strains of Hitoshi Sakimoto’s pounding electronic soundtrack, gave Gradius V a cinematic quality never before seen in a side-scrolling shooter.

That cinematic quality continued into the game itself: the first level saw the Vic Viper scrambling from a space station under attack from invading Bacterion forces, and with the player’s help, launching a laser-heavy counter-strike. With updated controls and additional weapon arrays, Gradius V felt perfectly at home on the PlayStation 2; one weapon system, which allowed the precise direction of Option fire by holding down the shoulder buttons to rotate it left and right, simply wouldn’t have worked with the chunky controls on an arcade cabinet.

There were hints in both R-Type Final and Gradius V of where the side-scrolling shooter could go next, both visually and mechanically. R-Type Final’s branching levels proved that the genre didn’t have to be repetitive and predictable. Gradius V’s second level, in which two Vic Vipers made their way through a network of tunnels, gave a tantalising clue as to what a two-player, online Gradius could have looked like in a future series entry.

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Both games’ polished graphics and captivating design were also evidence that, given the right budget, a traditional blaster could be just as dramatic and exciting as a first-person shooter. Just like their first entries in 1985 and 1987, Gradius V and R-Type Final made us feel as though we were playing our part in a pitched battle against relentlessly hostile invaders. Sure, the premise was time-worn and simplistic, but the care and sheer conviction that evidently went into both games’ design made them feel as vital as their forebears had almost 20 years earlier.

Sadly, R-Type Final and Gradius V arrived too late to popularise the side-scrolling shooter genre beyond its faithful group of hardcore players. Although we don’t know exactly how many copies each title sold, it’s telling that neither Irem nor Konami attempted a shooter on the same scale again.

Back to the present

Konami’s next game in the Gradius series was Gradius ReBirth – a remixed homage to the first three entries, right down to its pixel graphics – which appeared as a download-only title on the Wii in 2008. A spin-off from Gradius, called Otomedius, launched in Japanese arcades in 2007 and on the Xbox 360 in 2008, but relied more on scantily-clad ladies and fan service than the kind of design verve seen in Gradius V or even the long-neglected Parodius series.

As for R-Type, Irem remained true to its word. A turn-based strategy spin-off called R-Type Tactics (or R-Type Command in the US) emerged for the PSP in 2007, but the company never opted to revive its shooter series, or even return to some of the other games it created in the 80s and 90s, such as X-Multiply or Air Duel – these days, Irem largely concerns itself with making pachinko games.

The games industry continues its onward march, and small Japanese developers such as Cave keep the shooter flag flying with up-the-screen blasters like Deathsmiles and Akai Katana. Yet the side-scrolling shooter is now a niche within a niche, the preserve of tiny indie games like C-RUSH, Soldner-X: Himmelssturmer or Jets ‘N’ Guns Gold.

When playing R-Type Final and Gradius V today, it’s hard not to wonder what could have happened to the genre had they been a greater success. Could we have seen a new generation of 2D shooters, where several players assist each other over a huge scrolling landscape, and where each player’s action alters the battlefield for everyone else? Imagine a 2D shooter blessed with the kind of budget enjoyed by, say, a Halo sequel; what kinds of branching levels, enemy AI and design ideas might we see then?

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It’s possible that, one day, Konami might redouble its efforts to make Gradius VI – a title planned for the PlayStation 3, but later dropped. Maybe we’ll see an entirely new developer rediscover the as-yet untapped potential in this apparently basic genre, and turn a new generation on to its possibilities. Or perhaps the traditional shooter will continue to fade, remaining as a historical footnote remembered by a select few.

At its best, the side-scrolling shooter presented us with a slowly-unfolding adventure full of colour and movement. There were rarely any words or characters, because there didn’t need to be any. There was just our lone space craft and a strange alien world stretching out before us. We were living in the moment, defending ourselves from invading hordes, but also anticipating where that strange, star-lit tunnel might be taking us next.

The side-scrolling shooter offered nothing less than a pulse-pounding journey into the unknown. In its simplicity lay a wonderful, timeless purity.

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