As strange as it sounds, the Playstation 5 exclusive does indeed have roots in an old arcade game released in 1990. Returnal draws from 2 decades of game design evolution and contains fundamental core values that originated in Smash TV. This is how Smash TV created Returnal.
In days of old, amusement arcades were temples of skill. This was a necessity. Arcades needed to make money and it wasn’t profitable to have one person hogging a machine, depriving other patrons a chance to play. Thus, did early game design adopt the following attributes: instant action, easy to understand yet hard to master.
The birth of the Multidirectional Shooter
Enter Sheriff in 1979, one of Nintendo’s first arcade games and the first Multidirectional Shooter game.
You can shoot, you can aim and you can move. Hit the criminals and stay alive as long as you can. Simple and easy, until the levels increase and the quantity of 8-bit bullets becomes too much for you to handle, and you don’t quite have enough points to make it on the leaderboard.
This concept resulted in a charming game with an enjoyable, quaint gameplay loop that gave players an introduction to reflex-based action. The game was met with roaring success, being one of Japan’s top ten highest grossing arcade games of 1979!
However, it wasn’t perfect. Whilst the game allowed you to both aim and move independently, an awkward stick and dial setup was used to achieve this. Furthermore, once the novelty of the game wore off, fighting the same enemies did get stale.
There was room for improvement. The question was however, who was going to do it?
The evolution into the Twinstick Arena Shooter
Just a mere few years later, the genre saw further innovation in the form of Robotron 2084, created by the arcade gaming giant Williams.
Whilst successful, the true importance of this game was that it set the foundation to the origin of the definitive Twinstick Arena Shooter; Smash TV.
Robotron built upon Sheriff’s gameplay by filling the screen with more collectibles and even more threats. Yet gameplay was still largely the same; shoot bad guys and avoid bullets. To truly stand out, Williams had to go further with game design.
In 1990, that is exactly what they did with Smash TV. Williams evolved the twin-stick shooter gameplay by leaps and bounds, adding elements of player decision and a unique zany setting.
The obvious The Running Man (1987) inspiration serves as a great backdrop for the wanton death and destruction, with its bright contrasting palette setting it apart from other games. What kept people playing after the initial presentation was its surprising amount of depth.
Players who could skillfully navigate through hordes of enemies were rewarded with powerups that gave access to devastating weapons. Meanwhile, boss fights had unique, complex, multi-phase attack patterns, that required understanding and swift decision-making. These are common features we see nowadays, but back then, such polish was only present in a few games.
Combine the above with a multitude of rooms and different routes, and you had one of the most dynamic and engaging arcade games of the 90s! It set the genre’s standards; intuitive aiming controls via dual-stick setup, skill-based gameplay and enough guns to make a Texan blush.
Williams truly were trailblazers of this genre, earning them accolades such as the Amusement & Music Operators Association’s (AMOA) “most innovative game” award in 1990 and ranked 6th in Electronic Gaming Monthly’s best arcade game of all time in 1997.
This iconic game naturally served as an inspiration to many other titles and in time, spawned its very own genre.
How the genre has developed; the twin-stick renaissance
After Smash TV, a few twin stick shooter games were released, but these were mostly relegated to arcades and didn’t quite make as big of a cultural impact as their predecessor. This is mostly because interest in arcades diminished as gamers shifted towards console and PC gaming.
That was, until Hotline Miami arrived on the scene in 2012, sparking a renewed interest in the genre. The game was a massive hit, gaining wide critical acclaim, proving that the demand for fast paced, high skill gameplay still existed.
Its surreal, pulp fiction story evoked a sense of dark nostalgia of the 80’s, whilst the ability to choose playstyles via masks created an avenue for personal player expression.
It modernized Smash TV’s powerups by making them weapons you could pick up. However, these weapons would have limited ammunition, adding an element of resource management and tactical weapon swaps. The main character Jacket, was spoilt for choice, with weapons ranging from the classic shotgun to the exotic katana.
The game also featured a quick restart function; death was now only a minor inconvenience, and you would quickly find yourself at the floor entrance, so you can immediately get right back into the carnage. This stood in contrast to unforgiving nature of Smash TV, which would send you to the beginning of the game if you lacked the coin for extra lives.
The final product was an adrenaline rush that had an absolutely addictive gameplay loop and a banging soundtrack.
Enter The Gungeon
After Hotline Miami revived Twin Stick Shooters, it was only a matter of time before others followed in its wake.
Enter the Gungeon was another twin-stick shooter that, just like Hotline Miami, gave you a choice of characters with different abilities and a wide array of guns. Instead of stopping there however, it asked how much further can we go?
The answer? More guns; from Judge Dredd’s pistol, to Futurama’s wind up laser rifle, to a shotgun shell that shoots guns, Enter the Gungeon took random weapon drops to its most logical extreme. But that’s not all, it decided to meld the twin-stick shooter gameplay with rogue-like and bullet hell mechanics, creating yet another staple of the genre.
With death being a constant occurrence in all three of these type of games, it made sense to mix these genres. It made so much sense that these days, you rarely see them apart.
Gungeon’s game design
The aim is not to beat the game in a single run like Smash TV. Instead, you are expected to venture several times unto The Breach, and obtain gradual permanent power gains after each run. This is achieved through either finding new NPCS to unlock new features or gaining special currency to unlock new weapons.
This game evolved the genre further by giving purpose to the constant death. Traditionally, your character’s power was directly connected to your skill. Now, every attempt gives you more tangible advantages than purely practice. This means that characters will grow stronger independently, compensating for any skill deficit and giving more return on your invested time.
Furthermore, the ultimate goal is to not only clear the game, but to also uncover more of the story and lore, adding another layer of player motivation.
Essentially, the twin-stick shooter was no longer the sole gameplay aspect, as progression systems served to engage the player on a more strategic and narrative level. This gave some much needed depth to the genre as it still suffered from short playtimes.
The missing link: Synthetik
Another notable title that helped shape the genre was Flow Fire Games’ Synthetik. The game blew up in popularity after being covered by popular Youtuber SSethtzeentach, who highlighted the fast-paced action, in-depth class design and mechanics complimented by satisfying weapons.
The game did not innovate that much more over what we’ve already seen in Enter The Gungeon. However, it did offer an important variation of the genre, providing a reticle for aiming and providing a mixture of passive and active items, pushing the game closer to a more traditional first person shooter.
More importantly, the game also gives you more avenues to fully customize your gameplay experience. You can choose a wide array of different unique passive traits within each class and even increase or decrease the probability that certain weapons and items will appear in your run.
The genre typically prided itself on its unpredictable and reactive nature, but Synthetik manages to retain some of that whilst giving players significant control over influential gameplay elements. Thus, more focus is put on player skill instead of luck.
New dimensions; how Returnal adapted the formula
At this point, one could argue that the genre had peaked and any more innovation would be minor variations at most. Whilst that may be true, the core philosophies could be transferred to other genres and games. Gungeon’s bullet hell, Synthetik’s aiming, dodging and class customization, all culminate in this game.
Returnal adopts those designs and adds its own features. We have now entered the 3rd dimension, viewing the arena from behind the player model, guns forward. The threat however, remains the same. A bullet hell blankets the field and you the player, must once again slip through the gaps and eliminate all hostiles.
With the new perspective comes new challenges and options. There is now an added element of verticality. Areas will have cliffs or underground sections that can be used as cover or vantage points, attacks have varied height and shape, enemies can be above and below.
A lack of a top-down view means that it is harder to ascertain enemy positions and incoming projectiles. Furthermore, attacks could now come at any angle, meaning there is an increased demand for spatial awareness. Gameplay is fundamentally similar to Enter the Gungeon and Synthetik, but now players must jump and duck to avoid damage, and camera movement is now an important skill.
The redo of death
As Enter the Gungeon created an over-arching plot to provide player motivation, Returnal goes further by contextualizing its rogue-like features within the game’s narrative. There is an in-story explanation for why you cannot permanently die.
The acknowledgement of player death is not a new concept especially in Rogue-Likes. However, what sets Returnal apart is how it makes it integral to the plot. Typically, death is dismissed as a result of the player’s lack of skill and is not ever addressed within the wider context of the canonical story. Even if it is addressed, it is done so light-heartedly to no consequence.
Each “loop” clearly takes a toll on Selene, as she tries to understand what has happened to her. The game explores the concept of death and hyper focuses on it, asking poignant questions against the scenery of cosmic horror.
Through Returnal, the genre’s gameplay had elevated itself from its light-hearted arcade roots, into a legitimate format of videogame narrative. What was originally used for nostalgia, is now an allegory for the suffering the character goes through.
This in my opinion, has the potential to go even further with future games in the genre. Its simple premise and sinister approach leaves plenty of room for writers and developers to experiment.
From past to present; how gameplay design changed
The genre first started as a rudimentary way to create an action game with shooter gameplay, to being the definition of chaos, spectacle and difficulty. Then, during the resurgence of the genre, we saw a shift from the reward focus of high score and competition, to story and lore.
Since then, gamers have come to value customization and expression. Of course some will still relish in the unfavourable odds, but most will have a preferred style. This is where we see the twin-stick gameplay being repurposed in other games, separate from its arcade roots.
Swords, pistols, shotguns, rifles, rocket launchers and even sorcery are now at the player’s fingertips; you will now face these insurmountable odds on your terms. Of course, there will be some who still enjoy the disadvantage as it is a mark of true skill, but it is no longer the only option available for the genre.
Twin-stick shooters went from being the game itself, to just being one aspect of several. It has out-grown its origins of simplicity and is seemingly more at home with games that contemplate life itself. A bleak world that surrounds your seemingly endless struggle, where death appears to be a constant companion.
There’s no better representation than the brutal difficulty of twin stick shooters, where you can only rely on skill to survive such adversity.
Have I missed any games in this retrospective? Maybe you disagree or agree with my analysis? Whatever it is, go wild with your thoughts down the comment box! Also, join our Discord and discuss all things gaming and entertainment with the All Maverick team and community!