January 1, 2013 4:00 PM | Danny Cowan
While arcade-styled shoot-'em-ups are practically extinct in the world of retail releases, the genre still has a lot of life left in it, as indie developers continue to prove year after year.
This roundup covers a broad spectrum of niches and tastes, and its featured titles showcase surprising ingenuity and innovation in a genre that's as old as video gaming itself. Here are my favorite indie shooters released in 2012.
10. Teletrooper (Adam Butcher, Ben Claxton) [Windows, free]
Eight years in the making, Adam Butcher and Ben Claxton's freeware Windows shooter Teletrooper finally launched this year, and the pair's hard work pays off in a unique entry in a rarely explored shoot-'em-up subgenre.
Similar to the overhead-view sections from the vintage Sega Genesis shooter Thunder Force II, Teletrooper also cites inspiration from the seemingly dissimilar Star Fox 64. The result is an expansive work that delivers tough-as-nails gameplay that will challenge even the hardiest shmuppers.
9. Big Sky Infinity (Boss Baddie/Ripstone) [PlayStation 3/PS Vita, paid]
I have major issues with Big Sky Infinity's presentation. The eye-searing laser light show in some segments makes enemy attacks difficult to dodge, and the (thankfully optional) narration is grating in the worst way.
The concept, however, is strong enough that these issues do little to interfere with my enjoyment of Big Sky Infinity. The randomly generated levels provide consistent challenge, and the wealth of gameplay modes keeps the experience fresh even after multiple extended play sessions. Great job, guys -- next time, though, maybe go easy on the Internet memes.
8. Verminest / Verminest '83 (Locomalito) [Windows, free]
Developers plumbed the depths of the single-screen shooter genre back in the early days of the arcade. Space Invaders, Galaxian, and Galaga were some of the most popular games of their time, and remain just as fun to play today. The genre's popularity waned quickly, though, as tastes soon shifted to scrolling shooters.
Locomalito recalls the golden age of arcades with Verminest, a freeware tribute to Galaga, Centipede, and other classics. The fact that so few games attempt its style of gameplay nowadays is what makes it stand out, but its skillfully executed gameplay makes it more than just a novelty.
7. Super Ox Wars (Llamasoft) [iOS, paid]
Veteran developer Jeff Minter has a keen eye for shoot-'em-ups, and he has a unique talent for essentially creating unofficial sequels for deserving games that never received officially sanctioned follow-ups.
Super Ox Wars is a variation on Tecmo's 1984 arcade game Star Force; its polarity-shifting mechanics, however, add a satisfying layer of depth, resulting in an experience that eclipses its inspiration. Super Ox Wars is one of the best shooters for iOS, and easily stands among Minter's best work on the platform.
6. LD24 X0ut (X-0ut) [Windows, free]
Despite being "completely un-optimized" and touting unexpectedly steep hardware requirements, LD24 X0ut received accolades in the Fun and Overall categories of Ludum Dare 24. After playing it for a few minutes, it's easy to understand why it's so highly regarded.
LD24 X0ut is a horizontally scrolling shooter that pits players against innumerable spinning cubes. Depending on your hardware setup, your survival may depend on how efficiently you can keep the screen from being choked with cubes -- an unexpected challenge, for sure.
5. Retro/Grade (24 Caret Games) [PlayStation 3, paid]
Retro/Grade's timing-based, cue-striking gameplay technically classifies it as a rhythm game, but the infusion of elements from the shoot-'em-up genre is what makes it really shine.
No other rhythm game, to my knowledge, requires you to dodge enemy attacks from both the front and rear of your ship as you fire/absorb your own counterattacks...while you travel back in time. There's nothing else quite like Retro/Grade; it succeeds not just as a rhythm game, but as an unconventional (yet delightful) shoot-'em-up.
4. Shoot 1UP (Mommy's Best Games) [Windows Phone 7, paid]
Mommy's Best Games' Shoot 1UP still stands as one of the best Xbox Live Indie Games releases to date, and a smattering a smart new additions make this year's Windows Phone 7 port even more engaging.
Shoot 1UP's gameplay mechanics are as brilliant and unique as ever -- players control an entire squadron of ships at once, rather than a single craft -- and the gameplay forces you to carefully balance risk and reward as you blast through armies of indescribably strange enemies. Years from now, this will still be regarded as one of the best games on the Windows Phone platform.
3. Ether Vapor Remaster (Edelweiss) [Windows, paid]
The first thing I noticed about Edelweiss' Ether Vapor Remaster was its perspective-shifting gameplay, which recalls one of my personal favorites, Square's PlayStation shooter Einhander. In terms of gameplay, it cribs from classics like RayStorm and Ikaruga. It had a lot to live up to, in other words -- thankfully, the gameplay doesn't disappoint.
Ether Vapor Remaster is a shoot-'em-up for shoot-'em-up fans. It effectively encapsulates the best elements from the genre in a briskly paced experience that's frequently surprising and fun from start to finish.
2. All Against One (Leon Arnott) [browser, free]
Most shooters boast numerous levels, complex bullet patterns, and a variety of challenging boss encounters. It's surprising, then, that a game with a single backdrop and gameplay that basically amounts to a series of one-on-one boss fights against 15 largely identical foes is one of my favorite shooters of the year.
The twist: each round in All Against One equips players with a new weapon, each seemingly more unwieldy than the last. This simple mechanic forces players to approach traditional shoot-'em-up challenges in new and creative ways, and the resulting gameplay is memorable, addictive stuff.
1. Snops Attack! Zombie Defense (Snops) [Xbox Live Indie Games, paid]
The title might make you think this is just another generic zombie game, or maybe some kind of tower-defendy nonsense. Instead, Snops Attack: Zombie Defense is a vertically scrolling bullet hell shoot-'em-up -- and a damn fine one, too!
Inspired by the chain-based scoring systems in games created by respected arcade shooter developer Cave, Snops Attack is among the best in its crowd, easily rivaling top XBLIG shmups like Score Rush and fellow list-maker Shoot 1UP. It's an XBLIG standout, and it's my favorite shooter of 2012.