Modern shooters are unworthy of the name. Call of Duty: Black Ops II is the perfect example. It’s not a battle against enemies, it’s an endless corridor full of screaming people and fancy machines, but none of it has anything to do with you, and if you happen to be injured you’ll be quickly healed. That’s not a shooter, that’s a hospital. These “hospital hallway shooters” have taught a whole generation to walk towards a glowing light and shooting everyone you see. Please note that in most metaphysical situations, shooting everyone you meet means you won’t be allowed into the glowing light.
Twin-stick shooters are the antidote. They don’t even have a fire button, because that would mean there was ever be a time you’re not firing. Instead you have two joysticks: one to tell your guy where to go, the other to tell your bullets where to go, and they’re equally important. It’s Full Metal Jacket’s Marine hymn as a game mechanic. The greatest example in history was Smash TV, a game so relentelessy violent its idea of a relaxing joke was RoboCop.
They’re the Tyrannosaurus Rex in Jurassic Park of shoot ’em ups: they used to be king, went extinct for a while, and now human technology and interest in retro things has resurrected them. And they’re killing us. Twin-stick shooters make most modern games look like hugging simulators. And here are four you can play right now.
Available for: Xbox, PC, iPhone, iPad, Nintendo DS, Wii
Geometry Wars does more for kicking ass with lines and curves than the blueprints of the first machine gun. The enemies are all basic geometric shapes. You develop instant combat reactions to green squares and red circles – it’s like a baby’s reading book for future star warriors – and you learn to destroy an entire enemy fleet by diving at an imploding black hole. This simple 2D shooter embarrasses an entire generation of boring 3D games that tried to show off with polygons .
Your reward for staying alive is even more enemies trying to kill you, and you’ll love it, because it means more targets. An exponential bonus multiplier provides an escalating reward for battling high scores, and the way each play mode maintains its own high score table means you’ll always have excuse for One. More. Try. The high score challenge 3-minute mode is more exciting than most people’s sex lives.
Available for: PC via Steam
Most music games are button-pressers, versions of Simon Says set to “Ace of Spades.” Note how I don’t say that as a bad thing. Because when Simon Says “Rock out to Bohemian Rhapsody” the only answer is HELL YES, SIMON! Other rhythm games build levels from your files, setting you surfing past obstacles, feeling the rhythm, and generally not trying to blow up the entire universe with a drum beat. Beat Hazard fixes that.
Beat Hazard’s energy bars are POWER and VOLUME, and both increase how many things explode. You’re alone in a universe filled with murderous rocks and spaceships, but you also have rock and a spaceship, and that’s all you need. When a game can turn a Basement Jaxx album into an enemy boss ship half the size of the screen and fitted with more cannons than the Hundred Years’ War, well, I don’t know why you’re still here reading this sentence.
Available for: PS3
In Dead Nation the zombies are here and you already know what to do next. Two players co-operatively blast through graveyards, hospitals, and military bases, because action heroes are genetically drawn to the absolute worst possible location in any crisis situation. The game technically has a single-player mode, but so does sex – it’s much more fun with two people.
It’s less a co-operative game than a relationship pressure test based on swearing at the undead. Whether two heads are better than one depends on whose heads they are, but two rifles are guaranteed. It’s also the only game where I insisted that my friend should take the rocket launcher because I needed to fully upgrade my flamethrower. Which I think means we’re now guy-married.
Available for: PC via Steam
Transcripted merges twin-stick high-score chasing with the match-three gameplay of games like Bejeweled. That has to be an attempt to end human civilization. The only reason it’s not classed as a narcotic is the government testers haven’t filled out their reports, and in fact will never do anything related to work again. The gameplay is based on shooting things and matching colored cubes, and you can shoot the cubes as heavy weapons. And yes, if you blow up multiple enemies with a piece which completes a triple, you do get the sweetest bonus points ever scored.
It’s exactly what a small independent game should be: smart, different, and incredibly polished. That last part is the hardest for small developers to pull off, but the most important. The addictive gameplay is boosted along by a compelling plot – never intrusive, but enough to give you more than a new level number as a reward. It’s also an example of how much good voice acting can add to even a simple game story. Good acting keeps it interesting. Bad voice acting kills a game’s story faster than a power cut.
Transcripted also emphasizes the most important part of twin-stick shooting, the thing lacking in many modern games: it’s your fault. Big-name shooters load you into Special Commander Supertough Badass, and then hold your hand the entire way through the game to make sure he doesn’t die, causing the player to sulk. Transcripted won’t just let you die: it’ll hunt you down and kill you and you’ll know it was your fault. The difference between a glorious save and table-pounding death is pure accuracy, with bonus points for difficult shots, so when you finish a level you know that you finished it. You didn’t just play long enough for the game to say “Good boy!”
Luke McKinney watches the new Halo series and mocks The Craziest Scientific Theories of U.S. Politicians.