Dim lights, loud techno music, bleeps and bloops, intricate wire-frame models of exotic spaceships, and obscenely high scores; this scene could be any one of dozens of pizza parlors or game rooms of the '70s and '80s, featuring staples of the times from Battlezone to Galaxian with everything in between.
Except it's not. It's my bedroom. The dim lights are my own fault, and the rest is coming from a game called Gunroar, released an ancient seven-odd months ago. And it's not part of any Midway Classics collection or some such nonsense either. Gunroar comes courtesy of ABA Games, a one-man operation run out of Japan by one Kenta Cho.
Gunroar is the latest entry in a veritable pantheon of classic arcade-inspired titles. The vast majority of ABA Games' releases fall into the shoot-'em-up genre ("shmup" to the initiated) which usually includes both horizontal-scrolling (R-Type, Gradius) and vertical-scrolling (Strikers 1945, Raiden) ship-based shooters, as well as one-man-army shooters like Contra, Metal Slug, and Gunstar Heroes.
It's no secret that the shmup genre has fallen well out of the scope of the mainstream in a steady downward spiral that probably began around the release of the PlayStation, and the fact that arcade shoot-'em-ups are being made by independent developers is hardly newsworthy to any follower of the industry. Indeed, aside from a few relatively high-profile releases like Ikaruga and Gradius V, the shmup scene is largely a niche that caters to the hardest of the hardcore (as in, the people willing to shell out a few hundred U.S. dollars for Radiant Silvergun) and not many others, and so the vast majority of new titles have been coming out of independent developer associations, mostly in Japan, who give their dedicated fans what they're looking for - generally in the form of ever-increasing waves upon waves of bullets.
Mr. Cho's games are different, somehow.
To be sure, every ABA Games title boasts an impeccable audiovisual experience; each title offers its own modern re-imagining of the arcade games from which it draws inspiration. The graphics range from game to game, but inevitably consist of a series of abstract wireframe and polygonal models that, at first, remind you of Asteroids, until you take a look at a gargantuan boss ship in rRootage and realize how painstakingly animated each vector is. In other cases, the art is childishly simple, like the player's own ships, for example. Your beloved gunboat in Gunroar is a mere five-line drawing that approximates the Platonic form of a boat, and the spaceship (if it can really be called a ship) in rRootage is an odd little abstract thing that consists of a small box surrounded by a set of transparent, parallel rectangles. The repetitive electronica soundtrack's thumping bass lines keep your adrenaline flowing, so you can focus at the task at hand, which usually entails dodging lots of bullets and laser beams of various sorts.
All of this is neat. Very neat, in fact.
But the true artistry running through Kenta Cho's games isn't located in a well-written storyline (there aren't any), or the graphics, or the music, or any of that. His games don't fascinate us with explorations of videogames as a vehicle for post-modern narrative or a study of human behavior in an immersive online environment. All they do is dissect some of the assumptions that arcade games make, and as it turns out, playing with the standard rules of the arcade game can yield some pretty interesting gameplay mechanics.