Though the pursuit of score and 1 credit clearing are on the mind of any serious player, there is a preponderance of 1CC-hunters in the shmup community. 1CCs are worn like a badge of honor. Moreover, 1CCs serve as currency, a sort of recognizable credibility to use while we exchange our opinions and compile our Top 10 lists.
By 1CC-hunter, we shall consult my own arbitrary dictionary to understand what that means:
wən sē sē ˈhən(t)ər
An individual who learns a shmup well enough to 1 Credit Clear, then migrates to a new shmup, repeating the process ad nauseam. Their tendency to ignore scoring strategies sadly excludes them from the most thrilling aspect of the genre.
What? I can’t believe they would dare print that in a dictionary.
There isn’t anything wrong with being a 1CC-hunter, is there? Inherently, no, of course not. We are all free spirits able to pursue our hobbies as we choose.
But is being a 1CC hunter anything special?
That’s what I would like to examine.
It appears that our focus on 1CCs has neutered the competitive spirit of shmups. We hone our competency for a particular shmup 80% of the way and then throw it in the trash bin after clearing the game. Let us explore the strange synthesis of clearing a shmup in one go and of pursuing a high score. Perhaps I can convince you to set aside your lonely clear-hunting and to instead keep your eye on that combo gauge before moving on to the next conquest.
Shmups are unique in our videogame hobby. At the easiest difficulty levels, a shmup takes an afternoon. At the highest skill levels, the same shmup might take years to master. They can be beaten in about 30 minutes by credit-feeding until the end, but this is really no different than cranking down the difficulty of a fighting game to Easy and button-mashing your way through arcade mode. Sure, you “beat” the game but no one really cares. Would anyone concede that credit-feeding is truly beating the game? For that matter, beating the game through save-states (save-scumming) is no different than playing it straight on one credit, right? Wrong. No one really cares. Were someone to submit a stitched-together run for a record, it would be considered cheating.
The community doesn’t backslap one another for credit-feeding or save-scumming, so we clearly have a metric for what is and isn’t a notable accomplishment in the shmup genre. We would say that “anyone can do that”. Truthfully, though, not everyone can do that. There’s still a basic level of skill required to piece together a full run via save-states. It’s not impressive, but it’s also not something that anyone can do.
Begrudgingly, we acknowledge that save-scumming is “hard” from a certain perspective, yet we choose not to praise it. This makes sense. There must be some standard for what is and isn’t “hard”. Just because some people cannot do something — even if a very large number of people cannot do it — that doesn’t make the task itself inherently difficult.
Why are credit-feeding and save-scumming any different than getting a 1CC? The limitation of one credit, of course. The limitation frames the challenge and makes it exciting. Most players cannot win with only 1 credit. To do so is to definitely an accomplishment. We discussed above that not everyone can save-scum through a shmup, but an even smaller number of players can successfully 1CC a shmup. I would point out that 1CCing is harder than save-scumming and therefore deserves more praise in comparison.
However, I do not understand how a 1CC is different compared to beating any other difficult videogame from any other genre. I have beaten plenty of games in my life. Why is beating a shmup so special?
“These games are super challenging, that’s why. A 1CC is hard enough without worrying about score. It’s worthy of being celebrated.”.
Yes, these games are challenging.
That’s why I play them, but I cannot have it both ways: if I play them for the challenge, why boast about overcoming the least-challenging facet of the genre?
This is why Dark Souls Let’s Play videos aren’t much of a thing anymore: no one cares if you beat the game. People hardly care if you beat it naked, minimum level, on New Game ++++. Beating the game is a fine accomplishment, but if Dark Souls internet message boards were full of nothing but “I did it!” posts, the community would crumple under the weight of its own superficial glee.
There seems to be a missing element to the equation of what makes shmups interesting. Can it be the challenge of a shmup — and nothing more? — that intrigues us?
“Think about how long it takes to gain enough skill to 1CC a shmup”.
It takes about as long as the average-sized Japanese RPG. I wouldn’t puff out my chest if I happened beat Chrono Trigger.
“But that’s different because these games take skill“.
In what way? The controls and mechanics are simpler than a Super Mario Bros game: 8 cardinal/inter-cardinal directions and one to three buttons. There is nothing complicated about playing a shmup.
“I didn’t meant the control scheme took a lot of skill. I meant…”
Memorization? Twitch reflex? I think there’s something more fundamental at play here beyond the mere mechanics of the genre.
The missing element
In all endeavors, quality is relative. I can cobble together a birdhouse, but my quality wouldn’t justify paying even $5.00 for it, let alone $100s. How do we know what is best? How can I go to sleep at night wondering whether my birdhouse is good or garbage?
Thankfully, humans use a time-honored method to answer these questions.
If I take my birdhouse to the birdhouse fair and try to sell it, I am opening myself up to comparison. If my birdhouse sells for much more than the other birdhouses, that says something about my birdhouse compared to the others. I could say — in the context of that birdhouse fair — mine was higher quality.
Perhaps it tickles some corner of our limbic system to gain an advantage over another creature. Competition is an exciting venture. We are hard-wired to enjoy victory and we are hard-wired to regret defeat.
Both Dopamine and Endorphins are released when playing videogames. Even without the meta-accomplishment of beating a game, our brains enjoy the constant feedback and positive-reinforcement of videogames and will react by cranking up our pleasure hormones. This biological response has often been cited by politicians and medical academics hoping to warn the public about “video game addiction”.
Economics and brain chemistry are fine topics, but we must return our focus to shmups and to the matter of skill.
If quality is relative, it follows that skill is also relative. Any shmup must offer us a way to gauge who has more skill. Otherwise, there’s no way to determine relative skill levels. Each is designed with an internal measurement, a running counter, a score. And since score is a blind deity — interested only in the final number — we know it is a fair way to judge mastery of a game.
Since the mid-80s, shmups have offered ways to prove your skill above and beyond just clearing the title on one credit. These scoring systems are myriad. Consider them your New Game Plus, the next layer up, the true final form of the shmup in question. Completion (even a difficult completion, like a 1CC) is not mastery. Completion is — at best — merely a prerequisite to something far more compelling.
In modern times, shmups are a solo pursuit, something for basement-dwellers. When did this transition occur?
Earlier, I said that we throw all our hard work into the trash bin when we 1CC a game and then move on. Beating arcade mode in a fighting game but never playing against another human is considered wasteful as well. It’s like carrying around a massive keychain full of keys that match no locks.
At least it jangles loudly when you wear it on your belt.
Why should I practice for a 1CC when it is a superficial demonstration of the game’s mechanics?
“Well, because that’s how I love to play shmups. It is what I enjoy.”
That’s valid. But then why do I do this over and over again, making a huge list of all the times I superficially explored a shmup? I cannot come up with an answer.
Each score run is a declaration, an unambiguous pissing on your territory for said game. No need for platitudes or excuses. Your score is better than everyone below you and inferior to everyone above you.
Beating a game is personal and rewarding but it contributes nothing to the community at large. Posting a score does. Entering a tournament does. Competing with other shmup players does.
Not everyone wishes to pursue high-level play and I see no problem with that. Our current problem emerges when we elevate the bog-standard way of completing a game above the mastery of a game.
When we hold up a high number of completions as some kind of accomplishment and we dominate the conversation with the jangling of our keychains, we water down our definition of accomplishment in the hardest game genre on the planet. Yes, yes, let’s praise one another for 1CCs, but why is it the predominant sign of skill in the community?
I made the comparison to Japanese RPGs which I will return to now: many RPG fans also hold up their total number of RPGs completed as a badge of honor. Within that community, it is a sign that you are well-travelled in the world of RPGs and can offer a more educated opinion. But it is not taken as a sign of skill. All players know that completion is merely a matter of investing hours.
If I have a tally of 1CCs to my name, what have I done differently compared to the RPG player? Like them, I am bragging about time invested, not mastery demonstrated. I merely join the ranks of the hundreds of others who’ve invested the hours. Yes, yes, a 1CC is a challenge and I freely admit that. But after your first few 1CCs, you attain an underlying competency to the point that subsequent 1CCs are no real test of your skills. Investing your time is nice. But is it skillful? Is it brag-worthy?
Shmups have become like single-player MMOs, complete with our own warped interpretation of the loot grind. We explore a long list of titles instead of exploiting the mechanics of each. We play tourist instead of pushing ourselves to accomplish something more substantial.
Outwardly, to a viewer who plays Madden and Call of Duty, our 1CCs are impressive. But impressing an audience in that context is nothing more than putting on a magic show at a child’s birthday party.
“Impressed, are you? Wait until you see me beat Ikaruga!”
*Audience claps because they hear the title of a game they recognize.*
We are bragging about nothing. Yes, yes, a 1CC is a lot of hard work, but that is part and parcel of our genre. Imagine if we spoke this way about other genres:
“Heh, I just beat all the Guitar Hero songs on Hard. Yeah, I’m pretty much amazing at this game”.
“Heh, I just beat Super Mario World. I had, like, 20 extra lives after I beat Bowser. Pretty much a normal day for an expert like me.”
“Heh, I just hit max level in Diablo. Not sure if you knew that was even possible but I totally did it.”
If you want to show off, show off your scores.
Scoring well requires a mastery of mechanics above and beyond what is needed to clear the game. Most scoring mechanics are ignored or used clumsily since a 1CC doesn’t usually require you to understand them. Should I brag if I play Street Fighter III without bothering to ever use parries? Should I brag about my chess accomplishments when I take no advantage of en passant and castling?
Why then would I brag about beating a shmup if I am not also leveraging the score system? What does my 1CC contribute to the community at large? 1CCing a game is not competition. It is a binary “beaten” or “not beaten”. It lacks nuance. It is unable to compel me to reach for higher accomplishments.
On the other hand, if I outscore you then I have accomplished two things: I have shown myself to be better than you while also reaching down my hand and offering you a chance to prove me wrong. By doing so, I add to the community spirit. I create a new challenge out of thin air. I create a chance for you to prove your skill. A 1CC is monolithic, unchanging, uninteresting. But a score? That can be improved upon.
From this spirit of competition, shmups reveal their most interesting facets.