Shoot ’em ups, shmups, STGs, shooting games, whatever you want to call them — they’ve been around since the very dawn of gaming in one form or another. And somehow, the genre as a whole has never managed to go stale over all those years.
I mean, sure, as we advanced through the eras, there’s always been a certain amount of rumblings from various quarters that gaming needed to grow up and be about more than mindless violence.
But that’s the thing; shoot ’em ups — good ones, anyway — have never been about mindless violence. Instead, they’re about testing a variety of different skills, and different types of shoot ’em up test different skills. Bullet hell games test your powers of observation and quick thinking; twin-stick shooters are often about target prioritisation and pattern recognition; seemingly “sedate” shoot ’em ups like R-Type are about maintaining a laser focus on what you’re doing and not becoming complacent.
Shmups Skill Test, a 2006 game from Triangle Service that subsequently saw western releases on Xbox 360 (as part of the “Shooting Love 200X” compilation) and PC (as a standalone title on Steam) is a game deliberately designed to test and train your abilities in several different areas, with the aim of making you a better shoot ’em up player. Whether or not it’s effective at the latter aspect is perhaps debatable — but it’s certainly fun. And one of the most gleefully bonkers games you’ll ever play.
Shmups Skill Test, as the name implies, unfolds as a series of self-contained challenges. In most cases, you only have a single “life” to complete each test, but there’s no means of getting a “Game Over” before all the tests have concluded in one way or another; failing one test simply means you finish it early, miss out on some potential points and move on to the next one.
Once all the tests are concluded, Shmups Skill Test rates you in the various different areas it was testing you on, presents your information in a chart, compares you to the online average if you’re connected to the Internet, then presents you with a “Gamer Age” that supposedly reflects your level of general skill, vitality and virility. Much as in other titles that rate your “age”, it’s a completely unscientific process, but it is a fun means of reflecting how much you improve — or decline — over time.
The exact combination of tests you take on varies from playthrough to playthrough. Sometimes you’ll be rapid-firing your way through armoured enemy ground forces in “Tank Tank Tank” (or its harder variant “Tank Tank Tank Tank Tank”); at others you’ll be blasting away at retro gaming-style enemies, starting with monochrome definitely-not-Space Invaders and centipedes, then moving on to more colourful enemies from later eras of gaming if you survive long enough.
It’s not all shooting, either. Several tests challenge you to deal with incoming bullet patterns in several ways; several more task you with avoiding scenery objects in a backdrop that moves increasingly erratically as the test proceeds. And each set of tests tends to conclude with the same game: a rather laid-back affair that sees you shooting empty cans floating in space with the aim of gently guiding them into a rubbish bin.
In your early playthroughs of Shmups Skill Test, the fun is as much from determining exactly what on Earth it is you’re supposed to do as much as it is actually completing the challenge — particularly when the on-screen instructional text has a distinctly smug tone about it. “See it through!” it orders before bombarding you with a complete screenful of tanks, all shooting bullets at you. “You failed to see it through,” it notes after your inevitable and almost immediate destruction.
Once you’ve got a feel for each of Shmups Skill Test’s individual challenges, however, your focus shifts; it becomes less about frantically figuring things out and more about demonstrating an understanding of not only the basic mechanics of the stage, but also how you’re scored. In many stages that don’t specifically focus on shooting, you can boost your score by blasting away at targets while you complete the other objectives — but since the game only gives you a rapid-fire function in certain levels, I hope you brought some strong arm muscles with you to bash that fire button, because you’re going to need them.
Shmups Skill Test carries with it the same sort of gleeful chaos found in “microgame” titles such as the WarioWare series, albeit with a visual presentation that plays things rather straight rather than deliberately attempting to be cartoonish. That somehow makes things all the more amusing, however; whether it’s an impenetrable barrage of bullets flying at you from the aforementioned screenful of tanks or a background cityscape acting increasingly drunk as you survive longer without crashing into anything, Shmups Skill Test is a game that happily revels in its own ridiculousness.
And this carries across to the soundtrack, too. Featuring a fine selection of quasi-melodic wailing and driving beats that Zuntata would be proud of before concluding with what can only be described as a gentle space waltz, this is a game that sounds as chaotic as it plays. Plus in a nice little nod to the game’s inspirations, the stages that look a bit like Raiden actually feature music from Go Sato, the lead composer of most of the Raiden series.
The great thing about Shmups Skill Test is that despite initially appearing to be something of a joke game, it’s actually built on very solid principles. Each of the tests is a very good way to familiarise yourself with a specific kind of situation that you might find yourself in over the course of a modern shoot ’em up — and figure out a solid way to deal with it. And since most of the tests just get continually faster and more difficult the longer you survive, it’s also a good means of building up your confidence for tackling more advanced difficulty levels.
Plus there’s the fact that shoot ’em up skills are surprisingly transferable to other game genres. Timing and dodging skills are useful in platform games, for example, while pattern recognition along with understanding and reacting to telegraphs is massively helpful in games with various types of real-time 3D combat — be they Dark Souls or Final Fantasy XIV.
So if you enjoy a good shoot ’em up but feel like you suck at them, be sure to give Shmups Skill Test a shot — no pun intended. You might be surprised how much you can improve in just a short session — just remember to see it through.
You… you didn’t see it through.
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