In NYC, an introduction to Japan's most difficult game genre

Joe Salina, a member of gaming evangelists Babycastles, is joined by friends Dave Mauro (Anamanaguchi, 8-Bit Alliance) and Kurt Kalata (Hardcore Gaming 101) to chat about their love for the Japanese genre. It's the beginning of Day 2 in the Babycastles Summit, and like other panels that will follow, the format is loose, a sort of a conversation between a panel and an audience of likeminded individuals.

Joe Salina compares his favorite genre to Ambien and drone music. Shmups, short for shoot'em ups, notoriously difficulty scrolling shooters, allow Salina to zone out by focusing purely on a screen covered by thousands of bullets. "If your girlfriend comes in and asks where's the peanut butter, you're dead."

Salina, a member of gaming evangelists Babycastles, is joined by friends Dave Mauro (Anamanaguchi, 8-Bit Alliance) and Kurt Kalata (Hardcore Gaming 101) to chat about their love for the Japanese genre. It's the beginning of Day 2 in the Babycastles Summit, and like other panels that will follow, the format is loose, a sort of a conversation between experts and an audience of likeminded individuals.

For someone unfamiliar with the genre, the discussion is a crash course in its history, with Salina doing his best to translate the jargon whipping across the room.

"If your girlfriend comes in and asks where's the peanut butter, you're dead."

Though the panel never crescendos to a single revelatory point, it cooks up a number delicious factoids. Here are a few:

"Most games now have a specific narrative and a specific end game," says Mauro. "People are used to playing a game until they beat it. If you have infinite credits, you'll beat the game, but it's not really the point." The point, the panel agrees, is improving your skill level. They're games about the journey not the destination.

Shmups developed by the studio Treasure often have set patterns that bullets travel on, while the studio Cave's patterns are determined by the player's placement on the screen. The former is more about memorization, while the latter's about getting into a flow, a sense of how to do rather than what to do.

At this point, Salina hops off the stage with a controller in his hand. "Anyone want to play while we talk?" A shaggy haired man volunteers, snapping up the controller wirelessly tether to a projection of a shmup playing behind the panelists. On screen, his ship explodes almost immediately. He hits continue, ignoring the advice just given.

The bullet hell genre, shmups that blanket the screen in bullets, is only a couple years older than the Halo franchise. It's built upon the shmups that preceded it, and is a genre that takes flagrantly embraces the obscene difficulty of some of its predecessors. Something the guys admit keeps outsiders away.

"Anyone want to play while we talk?"

The games look old, because so many of them were designed at a low resolution, sometimes as paltry as 240 pixels across. When ported for a 1080p TV, they have to be upscaled, making the art look grainy and dated.

Scoring systems are a key differentiating factor between shmups, since dodging bullets isn't that different from one game to the next. Some scoring systems require the player to collect medallions others use combos. While discussing more systems, Salina laughs, noting how niche this genre really is.

With a few minutes left, Salina launches into his thoughts on the name of the panel: "Japanese Shmups & the Ascension of a Bodhisattva." Like intense mediation, he feels the games can inspire a transcendent experience, one that requires rigorous practice and patience.

"Like Dance Dance Revolution," says Mauro.

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