An understanding of the boardgame Go will help the reader in this article. I will do my best to cover the specifics without getting too technical.
Who am I kidding? Longform is the purpose of this site.
I suggest that for a player to excel at playing shmups, they must grasp the concept of ‘territory’. Dodging is nice. Reflexes are helpful. Memorization comes in handy. However, these are only tools to meet an end. Understanding the game arena as a whole is more important.
Why? Because a dodge without context may just as well crash you into a bullet. Reacting to a curtain of bullets may just as well pin you into the corner. Memorizing a pattern may just as well fail you when an unfamiliar attack shows up.
To learn about territory, we can learn from one of humanity’s oldest boardgames, Go.
In China, Go was considered one of the four cultivated arts of the Chinese scholar gentleman, along with calligraphy, painting and playing the musical instrument guqin. [Source]
The pattern-recognition and spacial-orientation skills found in a Go player’s toolkit are just as handy for the shmup player. So, we will use Go as our foundation.
Pictures are courtesy kisedo.com, a good resource for learning Go. I would recommend reading the short article at the link, but I will try to capture (heh heh) the essence of the rules here.
Two players compete over an empty board. Novices tend to focus on capturing the opponent’s stones when first learning Go. Capturing stones is important, but the amount of territory claimed constitutes most of each player’s score at the end of the game.
Once you grasp the basics, learning how to claim and defend territory becomes far more important than individual captures. You may even sacrifice a group of stones (planned bomb? planned death for rank?) for the sake of claiming a bigger territory somewhere else on the board.
Kisedo.com provides a sample game on a 9×9 board. The numbers denote the turn. Even without knowing much about the game, you can see how the game progresses, stone by stone, until the conclusion when territory is counted.
No captures are made in this sample game. One can easily perceive the jostling for territory. Stick with me. We’re getting there.
We need two more pieces of the puzzle before we connect this with the genre of shmups: ladders and cuts.
Hop over to senseis.xmp.net to learn about ladders. A ladder sometimes appears when one player puts the other players stone into “atari” (about to be captured, like “check” in Chess). The defending player may attempt to escape atari by extending their group, but there are cases where sacrificing the stone is a better choice.
Black plays at 1 with the intention to capture the White stone marked with the red circle. Now it is White’s turn.
An experienced Go player would recognize this situation as hopeless. There isn’t enough territory in the corner to build a defensible group from such a weak position. Our novice plays out the ladder, ultimately losing many more stones.
A more drastic example of a ladder can be seen below:
This pattern appears in shmups regularly. It’s not called a “ladder” and it rarely looks so clean. If you’ve ever tapped yourself into a corner while slowly being chased by narrow walls of aimed bullets, then you’ve been the victim of a Go ladder.
While the player above does escape, the long string of narrow bullets puts them into a precarious situation very much like a Go ladder. They must march up the side of the screen to avoid being hit.
One possible answer to a ladder is a cut.
White places a stone at 1 to cut between Black’s two stones. Although this is a simple illustration, one can imagine White slicing across Black’s territory with this maneuver, strengthening their own control over the board while also weakening Black.
Go players should always be searching for good cuts since the move is both defensive and offensive. Cuts are an important part of shmups, too.
This player bides their time and then makes several precise cuts across and against the direction of the bullets, ensuring survival. There are circumstances when it is better to let bullets pass over you instead of cutting against the flow, but as we’ll discuss later there are many shmup patterns designed to kill the tap-dodger. Cuts address large groups of enemy bullets in a swift motion. As long as the cut can be performed consistently, it will often be safer than attempting to stream a whole pattern.
In other circumstances, a cut may be necessary to reach an area of the screen quickly enough to maintain a chain, point-blank an enemy, or something similar.
Now that we understand territory, ladders, and cuts, it is time to finally discuss shmups.
You can think of a shmup as a contiguous string of Go patterns. The difference is that one is played in real time and the other is turn-based, but many of the same concepts hold true for both games. Learning more about one should help conceptualize the other.
For the sake of this comparison, I’ll consider “capturing a stone” to be analogous to “dodging a bullet” in a shmup. Important, sure, but hardly the focus of the entire game. We already learned that territory is more fundamental to the game of Go and the same holds true for shmups. Is there a hard and fast rule as to where a player should keep their ship on the screen? Is some territory more valuable than other territory? Can I stop stringing you along with leading questions? (No, never)
Staying as far away from a bullet seems like the most sensible choice upon first examination. A player who keeps against the furthest edge of the screen has the most time to observe an incoming pattern and adjust their ship position accordingly. Bullets usually originate from the top (in a vertical shmup) or from the right (in a horizontal shmup). Keeping to the bottom or left edge (respectively) provides the most space between your ship and the origin-point of the bullets.
This territory at the edge of the screen has another advantage. Nearly all shmups are limited to 8 directions of movement, and moving diagonally is typically slower than moving in the cardinal directions. This can be abused at the edge of the screen by “pressing” against it with a diagonal motion, resulting in a slower movement.
However, retreating from incoming bullets is a useful tool. Pinning yourself against the bottom removes this option. By staying against the edge, you’ve robbed yourself of the ability to flee. Some patterns intersect at the bottom of the screen and become far more difficult to dodge. The rule cannot be “stay as far away from the origin of bullets”, therefore.
Perhaps a player should push toward the origin-point of all bullets during all sections of a stage. The closer you are to the origin of a bullet, the harder it becomes to dodge bullets, or you may even crash into a ship (if the game has collision of that type). The tradeoff is a player can retreat and buy themselves some time to evaluate the field of play. Plus, the player may be able to finish off enemies from close range (known as “point blanking”) before they can fire. Furthermore, in certain games like Dodonpachi, you can prevent enemies from firing at all (known as “bullet sealing”) if you are close enough to them.
By all accounts, staying as close to the spawn-point of enemies should result in the best run. We can think of this as “having the most territory” like in Go. The more territory you have, the less damaging your mistakes become. Having less territory will punish even the smallest of mistakes. Being able to retreat from a pattern is incredibly useful, so it stands to reason that having the maximum amount of territory is the ideal way to play.
In most shmups, it isn’t quite this simple. Killing enemies too quickly or too slowly might interrupt a score-chain or prevent you from cancelling a large cloud of bullets. These factors also determine where you want to be on the screen at a given time. So, the rule cannot be “move as close to the origin-point of all bullets”, either.
The value of a piece of territory depends on many things, safety and optimal scoring being the most important to keep in mind. I don’t believe there is any hard and fast rule dictating where you should put your ship. It’s highly dependent on the game and your own goals.
In the clip above, a small strip of territory renders the complex pattern completely safe. Have you considered how bullets will intersect on the field of play? This, too, determines the value of territory.
Like most things in life, a middle-ground can be found. We should not hug the edge of the playing area, nor should we risk ourselves (and our chain) by point-blanking every enemy that appears.
Instead, we should be thinking of how much territory we control at any given time. This consideration supersedes the minutiae of dodging individual patterns or cancelling specific groups of bullets. When you have territory, you have control over the field of play. At all moments, your territory is infringed upon by bullets, forcing you to relocate and claim new territory.
Qualities of Good Territory
I believe there are common rules for determining good territory.
The advice to “look for safe spots” is often given to new players, but that advice is incomplete. “Look for valuable territory” is more wholistic, because the safest location now may become a death-trap in a few moments (and vice versa).
Ask these questions. Not in the heat of a run, of course, but only when you are reflecting upon your run and considering the kind of territory you need to accomplish your goals. If you want to attain a high score, the most-desirable territory will likely be different than if you only want the safest 1-credit-clear.
- Are there aimed shots? These bullets will directly intrude on your territory and force you to move in some manner.
- Are there any fixed patterns (meaning, non-aimed)? Fixed patterns should be considered the underlying grid for all potential territory since the area they cover is outside of your direct control.
- Are enemies coming from a certain area on the screen? Territory that puts you in firing range of these enemies will be important for two reasons. One, if you want to keep a score chain going you need to be shooting where the enemies are. Two, if you want to survive you should have an idea of where new enemies (and bullets) are going to appear.
Movement is 8-directional. Of course, players can use small taps and adjustments to move in any direction, but the ship itself only moves in 8 discrete directions. Movement along these 8 axes (as in axis, not a hatchet) is the most reliable since it requires no fine-tuning from the player. Territory along these 8 axes is therefore much more valuable compared against territory that requires fine-tuned movement to navigate. Can you place your ship accordingly? For instance, if a group of aimed-shot enemies appears to your right, moving slightly down and then cutting a straight line to the right will dodge 100% of their shots. Any territory that allows you to avoid unnecessary or complicated maneuvers has some measure of value.
Territory in the center of the screen is more valuable than territory on the edges, on the merit that you have the most room to navigate without getting laddered against the wall. This is true for Go and is true for shmups:
Do not neglect your “territory clearing” tools, either. Bombs and bullet cancels must be incorporated into your strategy as many shmups are designed to pin you against walls and kill you when you have nowhere to run.
I’ve not yet talked about power-ups, medals, and other collectible doodads. These also have a significant impact on the value of territory. Territory in the path of collectibles that disappear off the edge of the screen is more valuable than if the item bounces around the screen several times before vanishing. Territory with dense clusters of medals is more valuable than territory with only a few.
If you are in a safe area, is the value of the collectible worth leaving your territory?
Let’s consider the specific example of a Power Up in Dodonpachi: Daioujou. If you are maintaining your chain with the laser, collecting a Power Up interrupts the laser. This interruption may be enough to break your chain. In this instance, territory near to your target and in the path of the Power Up becomes very valuable.
Instead of thinking of a “route” as a rigid path, you should be stringing together clumps of high-value territory. That is how routes are made.
Eventually, players hoping to improve at Go must consider more than just keeping individual stones and groups alive. Instead of local squabbles over small sections of the board, all potential territory must be considered. The same is true for shmups. Dodging bullets and patterns is essential, but it is a means, not the end. Claiming new territory is not the end either, but it is a meta-goal one layer above the niceties of dodging and memorization.
Explore new territory, young ship, and stake your claim. Your 1CC may depend on it.