Shmup Essentials: Minus Zero

Shoot ’em ups are one of the oldest types of video game, having been around pretty much since the birth of the medium. So in order to stand out in this modern era, a new shmup needs to either do what it does really well… or do something unusual.

Triangle Service’s Minus Zero, originally released as part of the Xbox 360 compilation Shooting Love 200X in 2009, opts for the latter approach. It’s one of the most unusual shoot ’em ups out there — and one of the most addictive.

It’s a completely abstract game, consisting entirely of geometric shapes accompanied by a background and soundtrack that increase in complexity as you progress, but its main twist on the usual formula is that the only weapon you can use is a “lock-on” similar to that used in Sega’s Rez.

There’s another twist, too: unlike danmaku (“bullet hell”) games, which allow players to navigate through seemingly impossible bullet patters thanks to a tiny hitbox considerably smaller than the actual player sprite, Minus Zero’s means of making the player feel like a superhuman monster fending off impossible odds is through clever use of invincibility.

The way it works is simple: lock on to at least one enemy and fire a shot, and the triangle you control turns red for a brief moment, during which period it is invincible. Likewise, when an enemy is destroyed and the game’s over-the-top explosion effects are lighting up the screen, the triangle again turns red and is invincible for a brief period.

In this way, so long as you keep shooting and hitting things, you can theoretically be perpetually invincible. Combine this with the ability to lock-on to and destroy bullets as well as enemies and you have a game in which the odds should very much be stacked in the player’s favour.

And yet, despite all this, Minus Zero still manages to be monstrously difficult. The chaos that the screen quickly degenerates into makes the main challenge become keeping track of both your triangle and the lock-on reticle, which is positioned a fixed distance up the screen from the triangle’s top point. A moment’s hesitation causes you to lose that precious invincibility — and if you have no idea where you actually are when this happens, disaster will inevitably strike.

It’s not total chaos, mind you; Minus Zero is split into discrete levels, with progression to the next available simply by shooting a circle that is red rather than the usual yellow. And within each level, the attack patterns are learnable: while they’re not entirely pre-scripted as in a bullet hell game, the actual ways in which the enemies interact with you and each other are pre-determined according to the level.

For example, in the first stage, the enemies take the form of large hollow circles with a ring of smaller yellow circles that orbit them in an expanding and contracting ring. Destroying the large yellow circle causes the smaller circles to drift off away from their former “host”, so the most effective means of dealing with them is to lock on to the whole lot in one go before firing your shots.

In the second stage, meanwhile, hollow yellow circles initially split into four smaller ones when you hit them, which in turn split into the drifting small yellow blobs from the first level. In the third, you deal with snake-like formations of the small blobs. And in the fourth, the concentric rings are back, only this time they slowly come in from the extremities of the screen, only stopping if you destroy their prospective “host”.

Playing Minus Zero effectively, then, becomes a matter of learning how to deal with these various attack patterns as well as locking on to as many enemies as possible as soon as possible. To throw a spanner in the works, though, the point value for the things you destroy gradually increases over time, in many ways incentivising a certain degree of hesitation if you want to rack up the best possible scores. It becomes a balancing act of risk and reward: do you fire your shots more often, or do you try and clear as much of the screen as possible in one go?

Minus Zero’s enormous addictiveness comes from a combination of factors. Firstly, the overall challenge level of the game is set in such a way that it is difficult, but never feels unfair. In your first attempt, it’s not unusual to immediately crash into an enemy with a feeble score of just a couple of hundred points; in doing so, you learn about keeping a safe distance from your foes while ensuring your lock-on. From there, every subsequent death is a learning experience: you’ll learn how to maintain your invincibility for longer — and how long it lasts — as well as effective means of dodging particular formations. You’ll learn the best way to move that lets you keep safe while continuing to lock on to as many foes as possible. And you’ll learn the best pace at which you should fire off your shots.

Minus Zero is not a shoot ’em up that you “learn” and optimise your approach to in the same way as more pre-scripted, traditional titles, particularly those in the danmaku subgenre. What it is, however, is an easy to understand but difficult to master game. It can easily be played as an idle diversion for a few minutes — a single attempt is a couple of minutes at most, particularly when you’re starting out — but those who take a bit of time to dedicate themselves to the game, learning its effective strategies and mastering the techniques required for success, will quickly discover its dangerously addictive nature!

Minus Zero is available now as part of Shooting Love 200X on Xbox 360, or as an individual title for PC on Steam.

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