Given the recent slow news cycle, it’s given me some time to sit down and continue upon my editorial series I call “Missing In Action”. I take a look at a particular genre of games that used to have a strong presence in arcades but in recent times have gone to the wayside for various reasons. They are genres that I believe with the right game concept could still be both viable and profitable in today’s market. Take a look at previous MIA articles: Space Games; Puzzle Games; Scrolling Fighters; Tank/Planes/Mechs and More ; Adventure/RPGs; On The Defense. Today I’m going to look at one genre that still manages to show up on earnings reports every now and then, the Run ‘N Gun type game. So let’s get started
What makes a game a “Run ‘N Gun” title?
First let’s define run ‘n gun. Typically it’s a 2D sidescrolling game that has the player(s) running from point A to point B and in-between they face a nearly insurmountable amount of enemies that they need to gun down using gigantic amounts of fire-power. Usually that firepower is at the end of a gun but often they include grenades and/or melee attacks to enhance the destruction. They essentially boil down to games that focus upon factors such as copious amounts of destruction, constant movement and a high degree of difficulty. Often it’s a one-hit kill per life. By these guidelines it’s doesn’t have to strictly be a 2D game or even a sidescroller but for the most part that is what we will be looking at. These kind of games found a nice spot in arcades which thrive off of fast moving action titles of this nature. In some ways, they share common traits with shmups. For many, games like Contra and Metal Slug defined what it meant to be a run n’ gun game but they aren’t the only games to have inspired in this field.
Early Run’N Gun games – 1982-1986
Before sidescrollers really became the “in-thing” due to Super Mario Bros., run n’ gunning had it’s place in a slightly different form of the angled top-down view- a precursor to the many third person action games so prevalent in today’s gaming world. Among the first would be Front Line by Taito, released in 1982. There is plenty of running and gunning involved in this game from a top down view. The game also gave the player grenades to use against targets and you could even climb into tanks to wreak some havoc (sound familiar in a Metal Slug sense?). Down the road there were a few arcade games which carried this style along with them – Commando (Capcom, 1985); Ikari Warriors (SNK, 1986). Ikari added an interesting aspect by using joysticks where the tops could twist, causing your character to face that direction. Ikari would not only spawn a couple of sequels (Victory Road and Ikari 3) but it also would inspire similar run n’ gun games such as Heavy Barrel (Data East, 1987), Time Soldiers (RomStar, 1987) and in a way Xybots (Atari Games, 1987).
One game that found it’s own way to be different as video game technology improved would be Sega’s Space Harrier. I doubt many would consider this much of a run ‘n gun game since you generally spend more time in the air than running on the ground but it’s still an excellent game that’s close enough to satisfy me.
With the popularity of sidescrollers starting to catch on in 1985 we begin to see some of the first sidescrolling run ‘n gunners such as with the cleverly named Konami’s Rush’ N Attack (Get it? Rush’N…hahanah). You mainly deal with melee attacks until you punch someone out who is carrying a gun. RNA received an arcade sequel in 1989 with Missing In Action. Rush N’ Attack demonstrated the viability of the the whole concept in a sidescroller format for arcades and within a short time many other games would follow suit with their own twists on the idea.
One of those twists happened to be Namco/Atari Game’s Rolling Thunder (1986). This let players step into the boots of a well-armed secret agent, who is in charge of eliminating hordes of purple hood wearing thugs, rescuing the girl and defeating the head criminal boss. You could duck into doors for bonuses or to avoid enemy fire and the overall experience is quite fun. 4 years later Namco would produce Rolling Thunder 2 although it’s uncommon to see outside of Japan.
Also before we get too far off from 1985, it’s worth noting Ghosts ‘N Goblins. While not a R’NG game in the sense of carrying a gun, the similarity in play but with a medieval theme is just as fun and effective as games that did feature explosive armaments. This would get a sequel in 1988 called Ghouls’N Ghosts and both games garned a wide reputation not just for the fun play but also for the high degree of difficulty.
One game I’d like to mention before we move onto 1987 is a little-known game that is a bit like Contra – Xain’d Sleena by Technos. I’m sure the awkward name didn’t help much when it came to marketing but it’s a great game worth checking out if you ever stumble across it. It features double jumping, great power-ups including the spread, multi-level select, and a shmup bonus round after levels.
In 1987 the run ‘n gunning genre began to expand with several iconic titles, which all started out as arcade games and were so popular they were soon ported to inferior home consoles. Of course it was around this time that the typical macho 80’s action hero was popular in movies as well and these films served as a catalyst for video games which tapped into the craze. I find it interesting how often popular movies are the foundation for great arcade games, whether they are directly based upon them or not since so often in the home console arena where movie-based games are shunned for their general suckiness. I think it’s because in arcades we only have to focus on the action parts that everyone enjoyed about the films in the first place instead of trying to out-story-tell the film and in turn that produces excellent games. But that’s a subject better left for a different article in the future.
Getting back on track, the most famous of these titles from late 80’s would probably be Konami’s Contra (which was inspired by the film Aliens) . 1-2 players could control shirtless commandos who take out anyone and everyone who gets in their way. This game also offered certain levels in a pseudo-3D which was pretty cool. Konami would release Super Contra a year later with better graphics, sound and more things to blow up but unfortunately that was the last time the series found itself in arcades.
Also in 1987 we saw some other important games that got their start in arcades. Sega released Shinobi which brought a run ‘n gun take on the ninja genre and made ninja games cool all-around. While your primary weapon of choice in the first Shinobi happens to be shurikens but on occasion you get a pistol.
Most games we have discussed come from Japanese developers but American developers dabbled with the run ‘n gun game around this time. Aliens continued to spread it’s influence into arcades when Midway would release Xenophobe. This game stood out due to it’s unusual three player cabinet, each player gets their own horizontal slice of the screen as they fight to eradicate the alien infestation on different starbases across the universe.
I already mentioned a couple of other games inspired by this movement that came out in ’87 – Heavy Barrel, Time Soldiers, The Real Ghostbusters and Xybots. Of those three games Xybots was certainly the most unique and is seen more as a predecessor to the likes of Doom. First-person games of today really owe a lot to the run ‘n gunners of the 80’s, they just offer a different angle on similar action. Even the popular and crude series Duke Nukem which is only done as an FPS now had much more humble beginnings in the early 90’s as a sidescrolling run ‘n gun game(although not in arcades). It’s also worth mentioning Sega’s Alien Syndrome was released this year as well.
The next year the movie influence came along again with RoboCop (Data East, 1988). I’m more partial to RoboCop 2 which came out in ’91 but both games feature plenty of gun action (although RoboCop doesn’t really run along, it’s more of a brisk walk). Also noteworth in ’88 was Cabal by Fabtek. Cabal would set the standard for a number of games over the next few years in the R’NG genre as it used a different take on the third-person top down shooter by putting the camera directly behind the player. It’s a technique that I think could still work in modern arcade games but with shiny new 3D graphics. Fabtek would follow-up Cabal with Blood Bros. a couple of years later.
Williams would blaze a trail with a run ‘n gun game in 1988, with NARC. This immediately stood out as it’s powerful 32-bit hardware would open up the doors to digitized 2D sprites, a technique that would rock the video game world for the next several years. The game quickly became known not just for it’s cutting edge graphics that few other games of the time would manage to touch but also for it’s crazy, over-the-top violence and other adults themes including drugs.
While none of the games we’ll cover over the next two years could touch NARC graphically (which is a testament to the advantage that arcades could more easily hold at the time) , that didn’t stop developers from coming up with their own explosive experiences in the genre. 1989 seemed determined to go out with a bang in this regard. Taito capitalized on the 3rd Rambo movie with Rambo III, which returned to something the likes of Ikari Warriors (which was already inspired by Rambo to begin with) but with the setup used in Fabtek’s Cabal a year earlier.
Also in ’89, Data East released Midnight Resistance, which was a sequel to Heavy Barrel but moved in the direction of Contra this time around. Data East also brought a James Bond-esque touch to the genre this year with Sly Spy. Konami was keen to jump into the Spy-shooter genre as well at the time with S.P.Y. Special Project . 1989 is also when Fabtek released Toki, where you play a sort of mutant gorilla on a quest to save your love from an evil wizard.
Sega had a few games to throw at the genre this year – Bay Route (Sega/SunSoft, 1989) gave Sega an entry into the Contra-style run ‘n gunner, E-Swat was sort of an answer to Data East’s RoboCop and Bullet an answer to Heavy Barrel. They had something for everyone at the time.
The 80’s had some excellent games to fill the genre but that was only the beginning as we moved into the 90’s. In 1990 Sega introduced a shooter that seemed partially influenced by GhostBusters but involved aliens instead with the three player Alien Storm (1990). Konami also had something alien-related up their sleeve at the time but backed by a big movie license – Aliens. It took four years but we finally had an official title behind the movie that had influenced many other run ‘n gunners. Between the two alien-themed games, Konami’s effort certainly wins out in terms of graphics as well as with leaving a lasting impression.
This was the year the Neo Geo MVS would start finding some footing in arcades and while that platform is quite famous for another run ‘n gunner that would come out a few years down the road, in 1990 SNK released Cyber Lip. The game may have been forgotten through time but it demonstrated the potential of the system in this genre, especially when it came to large bosses (as pictured to the right)
A relatively unknown company called V-system would also release a Cabal-like game this year, but with larger, more colorful sprites called Spinal Breaker.
Data East would give us three interesting R’NG games in ’91, first with Desert Assault/Thunder Zone, followed by Wolf Fang and then with RoboCop 2. Desert Assault was a crazy and entertaining game that allowed up to four players to wreak havoc level to level using an isometric view. Wolf Fang went back to layered sidescrolling but you drive a sort of mech-tank and RoboCop 2 was a fine example in how movie games can actually be fun thanks to the arcade-style format.
Also in ’91 came Total Carnage. Midway hadn’t done much in this genre since NARC and TC played much like Smash TV but with scrolling.
Before leaving 91, Konami also gave us Sunset Raiders, a wild-west take on the idea, combined with elements they gave to their 4 player scrolling fighter games which were big at the time.
1992 had some notable R’NG games to play. First there was G.I. Joe, which offered Konami’s take on what Fabtek had done with Cabal a few years earlier but along with Konami’s signature 4-player action and improved graphics. Data East once again showed their R’NG love with the quirky but amusing Boogie Wings, which looks like a sidescrolling shmup at first glance but once your plane goes down you begin blasting away on foot. This game is strange enough to warranty a video clip below
Also in ’92 Taito gave us Dead Connection. It’s probably not considered much of an R’NG game but it features many of the same elements you see in these games, minus scrolling environments. Dead Connection instead relied upon destructible environments on single screens, long before that was really a buzzword. Some other R’NG games from ’92 include Fixeight (Toaplan); Desert Breaker (Sega);the strange TH Strikes Back which was like a mashing up of Rambo and DBZ and Heated Barrel (TAD)
1993 has little to speak of in terms of R’NG gaming as the arcade world was widely caught up in the new-found passion behind one-on-one fighting games fueled by Street Fighter II in the previous year. That said, Konami did give us Mystic Warriors this year, another 4 player R’NG game that uses ninja warriors for a theme.
This brings us to 1994 and a particular game that would shape R’NG gaming from there on out. Irem is mostly know for their R-Type series and not so much the GunForce games. In ’91 they released the first Gunforce, which didn’t do much to stand out in the genre. But with Gunforce II (also known as Geo Storm) you only have to take one good look at it to see what I mean about what influence it had down the road.
The level of detail might look familiar as this game was put together by individuals who would later move on to form Nazca, who would create the legendary Metal Slug series two years later for the Neo Geo MVS.
Jumping ahead to Metal Slug, this series has for many defined what it means to be a Run ‘N Gun kind of game. The incredible amount of detail in the levels and enemies, the frantic arcade action, the iconic sounds and a level of difficulty that takes some skill to conquer all combine to make for a game personality that many players gravitated towards. The initial release proved so popular that it went on to spawn one sequel after another, culminating in arcades with Metal Slug 6 in 2006. Many fans consider Metal Slug 3 to be the best of the series but any MS game you come across you are guaranteed a fun challenge.
For most of the 90’s on, Metal Slug would capture most of the attention in the R’NG genre but there were a few other efforts that came into being at the time. Jumping back a little bit to ’94, there are a few other games worth taking a look at: Taito gave their classic Elevator Action game the R’NG treatment with Elevator Action Returns, and Namco had a twist on the idea with The Outfoxies, which was more of a R’NG combat game. Also the widely unknown Nix released a Cabal-like game called Pirates this year but it didn’t do much to boost their reputation on the market.
The year prior to Metal Slug didn’t have much to offer players in the R’NG genre. There was BioMechanical Toy by Zeus, a strange and relatively unknown game that has you blasting a bunch of evil toys set in some goofy landscapes and Capcom brought MegaMan into arcades again with Rockman: The Power Battle, although without MegaMan’s popular name in the title, many had no idea he starred in an arcade title (which he did the same year in Megaman: The Power Battle which is more of a one or two-on-one fighting game).
But also in the years after Metal Slug, the popularity of that series strangely did not spawn a large up-tick in clones, as is generally seen. Aside from the Metal Slug sequels there were a pair of games called Shock Troopers which hearkened back to the isometric overhead view for play.
In 2000 when Metal Slug 3 appeared on the scene, Taiwanese company IGS did produce an MS style game however by the name of Demon Front. The game did add a few touches of it’s own to the idea, with familiars and a final boss that would change depending upon secrets uncovered throughout the game. And with that, we move into the fabled “21st century”
There really hasn’t been much to discuss in the arcade R’NG genre in the new millenium, aside from several entries into the Metal Slug series, which seems to have come to a close with Metal Slug 6 in 2006. Sammy did release a side scrolling 2D/3D R’NG game in 2003 called Dolphin Blue. Players ride across the water on dolphins and blast pretty much everything that gets in their way. It’s unfortunate that this is hard to come across today.
Also Capcom/Mitchell released a Cabal-like game in 2002 called Gamshara which you can see in action below. It’s not a common game by any means as it’s one of those games that got most attention in Japan.
Is there a future for run ‘n gun games in modern arcades?
I think that this is a decent question to ask – in the modern arcade scene it seems that players aren’t very willing to spend much money on games that aren’t a part of the light-gun/driving/music trifecta. I don’t believe that the blame can be laid solely at the players feet however – they need a game they see as worthy to spend their money upon in the first place.
One disadvantage run ‘n gunners have with them in the arcade is that they are distinctly joystick/button games, a type of control scheme that outside of Japan has become all but anathema to the West. Part of that has to do with the fact that there is not much unique about it to draw players in, especially in a day and age where hone consoles are applying other arcade technologies into their control schemes such as motion gesturing. But also I think a little bit has to do with the fact that when an arcade title is released these days with such a control layout, it’s all but expected to show up on consoles and in the event of the arcade version having nothing that stands out with the joysticks, it takes a hit (not to mention the extra content consoles get in these cases).
I’ll use the recent arcade release of Super Street Fighter IV Arcade Edition to make this point. When I finally had it installed in the middle of April 2011, it immediately started bringing in much more money than any other game I’ve seen at an arcade. It was quite amazing but was soured due to the fact that it wasn’t long after I made the purchase Capcom announced that they were delighted to screw over customers (my words on the situation of course) who had spent several thousand dollars on their game by releasing the exact same thing in the home at a pretty cheap price. However I do have one game that has done pretty well for me despite existing on consoles, Blazing Angels. It uses a flight stick and that with the cabinet design seems to be enough to keep people interested.
Lesson learned for the future, apart from not trusting Capcom with any arcade release ever again is that a joystick game can work in arcades – as long as it is not undermined by a home release. It is true that Street Fighter is one of the most highly recognized video game franchises on the market and that gives it a distinct advantage. But the right game will make money and if it’s a great game, the lack of recognition won’t last very long. It will be very interesting to see how Darius Burst Another Chronicle fares as it lands in the US for testing this month. I think that when it comes to run ‘n gun games, we just haven’t really seen the right game come along recently. Dolphin Blue is certainly a fun game and it looks great to boot, but for whatever reason it wasn’t widely received at the time of release
Since Metal Slug 6 came out a few years ago there hasn’t been anything new to catch people’s attention in this genre for arcades. Literally nothing. Fortunately that is going to change when NG: Dev Team releases their Turrican-esque GunLord for the Neo Geo MVS. But I won’t use that as a measuring stick for how run ‘n gunners will fare today since it’s running on 20+ year old hardware. However I really look forward to seeing where they go with it as it certainly will be a treat for NeoGeo fans and a few hardcore gamers. A Turrican-like game is not something you would ever expect to see in an arcade and perhaps a few venues will actually pick it up.
So what could be done for a Run ‘N Gun game in today?
I have a number of ideas/plans for this (and many other genres actually but not being a programmer means I’m stuck planning these things out and feeling frustrated most of the time since they don’t go anywhere beyond paper. Any programmers out there feel free to hit me up about this if you would like 😉 ) but without setting down a completely detailed look at a particular R’NG idea, let’s go over what would make such a game great in today’s world.
Our Run ‘N Gun Arcade game of the FUTURE!
As we have seen in this article, even though R’NG games sometimes take different paths in how they play, they do share some traits in common, especially the good ones. And in the interest of putting my money where my mouth is, I feel obliged to offer up an idea of what I would want in this sort of game.
Lots’O Destruction thanks to awesome firepower – If there isn’t mass destruction found in the game then it’s pointless to make it in the first place. Thanks to Physics Processing found on today’s high end graphics cards, that could make for some killer effects in laying absolute waste to building, vehicles and the hordes of enemies the player will face. You also want to make sure all this stuff flies around at as close to a constant 60 fps rate as possible, which can be a challenge for any game. The weapons in any R’NG game are important as well – the standard is a pistol type weapon which is enhanced temporarily by a variety of power-ups and a bomb type weapon for dispatching groups and vehicles quickly. That doesn’t mean you absolutely have to stick to that exact format given what’s out there in the world of weapons but it’s a solid start.
Interesting and Detailed Levels – This is one place that games like GunForce and Metal Slug stood out. The large amounts of detail found on each level gave you a reason to play the game again just to see all the little things they stuffed into the game. What obstacles will the player face to break the possible monotony of constantly shooting? That helps with the game “personality” so to speak. Secrets are always a welcome feature to a game that give you a reason to search through levels and how any level is setup sets the tone for the game. In my idea of a modern R’NG game, I would like to see this combined with high res (at least 1080p, if not 1600p although the cost on that could be asking too much), vibrantly colored graphics that will entice players the first time they come across the game.
The Theme – What are you fighting against, what is the setting? For the most part R’NG games have been set in a military theme and while that could be reused again(nobody seems to be tiring of Call of Duty…yet), there’s no reason you couldn’t find something else to dive into. Zombies are still quite popular and hard to go wrong with aliens, dinosaurs, robots, pirates or ninjas. Of course there’s no reason to stop at any of those themes as we saw with BioMechanical Toy, even evil toys can be turned into something worth shooting. I actually think that a new kind of horde to take care than mentioned here of would be most interesting. The theme can also extend to the cabinet design – any modern cabinet will need to make appropriate use of sweet LED lighting.
Varied Enemies & Vehicles – Usually the enemies you face in an R’NG game are fodder and the bosses are what keep you really busy. That doesn’t mean you just have to shoot the exact same guy over and over again. Also many R’NG games give you some sort of vehicle to commandeer at a point (even Front Line had you doing that) for that extra surge of power flowing through your veins. Vehicles are not necessary but they do help as monotony breakers – they change the flow of the game for a time that can make it more interesting and fun. Done properly, it’s an extra incentive for players to look forward to when they play.
Sidescrolling? – As I’ve tried to show here, R’NG games don’t necessarily have to stick to the sidescrolling angle, they just need to keep the player moving while allowing them room to move around enemy fire. The extra free movement means they can be more interesting than a light-gun shooter but that also introduces the risk of alienating players who need video games to basically win for them (just don’t let the game spank them that hard towards the beginning and make it fun/interesting enough to keep them dumping coins in the machine. Easier said than done). I think that a new game along the lines of Cabal could work just as well as something like Metal Slug.
The controls – As I mentioned earlier, one thing that could hinder some interest in the genre is that they pretty much are a joystick/buttons kind of game. I don’t think that necessarily means that it has to be the standard ball-top kind of stick though – there are other kinds of joysticks out there. Ikari Warriors and Xybots gave the joystick a rotary twist or there’s always the joystick/trackball (which would be great on a Cabal-style game), joystick/spinner combo or it’s about time arcade joysticks had some feedback added to them.
Licensing? – I don’t believe that every single game these days needs to be attached to a license of someone else’s work but history has shown that it can be effective at times. The right license means easy marketing to a pre-installed fanbase, although if the game isn’t up to the task then it can be turned against you.
The Sound – I like my arcades games to be loud and thumping with bass when objects explode. That often creates force feedback built right into the cabinet, which is something often unique to a particular game (T-Mek is an excellent example of that)
A Little Something Else – The typical R’NG gives you a basic gun with unlimited ammo, power-ups for temporary enhancement, a melee attack, some grenades, a jump and maybe something like a dash. These are all great features that have withstood the test of time but that doesn’t mean we can’t throw in something else. Perhaps a leveling system where so many kills puts your character into a new state where the attacks are enhanced. Or finishing moves for a defeated boss for a sort of “Fatality” ending to a level. Maybe some levels don’t necessarily need a boss battle right at the end but an objective like a reactor to explode. Or a kind of defense you can take like a temporary shield or cover (like in Blizzard’s BlackThorne). Imagine a run ‘n gun game with a Darius Burst Another Chronicle-like super widescreen setup? There are a lot of new ideas to explore although something that could be done best in an arcade setting is certainly the way to go – like a unique controller to activate a special weapon like a pinball plunger or lever like is found on Sega’s Pigs Might Fly. I’ve also imagine a special coin slot that is separate from the primary slots below could be used to activate a certain devastating weapon or character mode that temporarily changes things could be interesting as long as it is optional.
Online/Smartphone Connectivity and Interactive Attract Modes – Yeah this is still kind of a dirty word for Western arcades but good online features can enhance replay value to the game – from online leaderboards for scores and ranking, more importantly to Smartphone connectivity. As we recently saw with the interactive McDonalds billboard in Europe, there are ways to create incentives to play at the arcade with digital coupons. Make the attract mode interact with a smartphone, where the smartphone user attempts to to shoot down the CPU player on the screen as they run through a level by dropping bombs on the screen or something like that. Or perhaps an active assist so people watching with a smartphone can occasionally do something as a way to assist the player with power-ups. It would have to be difficult to appease operators but depending upon how the user does they get a half or full digital coupon towards a game purchase to get them started and hooked. This is really an idea that could be used on pretty much every arcade game out there (even pinball) to draw more attention to arcade play.
So there are a few ideas to chew on, hopefully a few of which I can bring to life one day. Thanks for reading!
Again you can check out past MIA articles: