The MoeGamer Awards: Coolest Scoring Mechanic

The MoeGamer Awards are a series of made-up prizes that give me an excuse to celebrate games, concepts and communities I’ve particularly appreciated over the course of 2017. Find out more and suggest some categories here!

Today’s category suggestion is brought to you by my dear friend and talented pixel artist Mr Chris Caskie, aka MrGilderPixels. Check out his site for progress updates on his awesome wooden pixel art standees and wall plaques, and order some of his past work or commission a pixel art avatar on his Etsy shop.

Since we’ve looked at a bunch of short-form arcade-style games throughout the year, particularly shoot ’em ups, Chris suggested I should highlight what I thought was the most interesting or distinctive scoring system in the games I’ve played. So let’s do that!

And the winner is…

Steel Dragon Evolution/Shienryu Explosion

A lot of people think of the 16-bit era as the golden age of shoot ’em ups, and to a certain extent that is true, but there are a lot of interesting and cool games that came out in subsequent generations.

In particular, the PlayStation 2 played host to a wide variety of excellent shoot ’em up titles, consisting of arcade ports, original games, reimagined versions of older titles and obscure Dreamcast titles brought to a wider audience. Some of these great games remained Japan-exclusive, but some managed to make it to certain Western territories.

One such example was Steel Dragon EX (or The Shooting ~Double Shienryu~, as it was known in Japan), a double-pack compilation that is the 36th volume of D3 Publisher’s budget-price Simple 2000 Series for PlayStation 2. Consisting of an excellent port of the arcade, Saturn and PlayStation Raiden-style 2D vertical shooter Steel Dragon (Shienryu) and an all-new sequel with polygonal rather than sprite-based graphics, Steel Dragon EX is a great package for shmup fans who still have a PlayStation 2 in their media setup.

Steel Dragon Evolution (Shienryu Explosion) was the one I found particularly striking of the two. Barely recognisable as a sequel to its predecessor, it nonetheless remains a solid shoot ’em up that eschews the genre’s usual extreme difficulty in favour of a much more involved scoring system accompanied by a wonderful sense of spectacle.

A number of shoot ’em ups over the years have experimented with awarding differing point values for destroying enemies with different types of shot — a good example is Cave’s Deathsmiles, though that’s a particularly complicated example. Steel Dragon Evolution adopts this basic mechanic, but strikes a good balance between accessibility and demanding a certain degree of technical finesse without overcomplicating things, and that’s why it gets this award.

Here’s how it works. You have several different power levels you can fire your shots at, ranging from a weak but wide shot that can easily be “bent” around the screen to obliterate popcorn enemies without too much difficulty, to a more narrowly focused power shot that covers less of the screen but does a lot more damage. Destroying enemies with the narrow, powerful shot causes them to score up to 256 times their normal point value, though the tradeoff is that while firing said power shot, you move a lot more slowly and thus may find it more difficult to hit everything.

A further twist on this is added through the score items that scatter whenever you destroy anything, and which you can also cancel bullets into by using a bomb. These are subject to an inversion of the formula for determining the points you get for shooting enemies; in other words, the less intensely you are firing when you pick them up, the more points you will get, with the biggest multiplier being received if you stop firing altogether while collecting them.

The score items also allow you to earn extra lives at a much more rapid rate than in typical arcade-style shoot ’em ups, though the more extra lives you earn, the more score items you need to collect in order to earn another extend.

The upshot of this deceptively straightforward-seeming system is that it demands you think about how you tackle things rather more than simply holding down the fire button and trying to destroy as many things as possible. You’ll want to time firing off bombs not to use purely defensively as you might in bullet hell titles, but instead so that they go off while a hail of bullets is heading your way, triggering a shower of score items that you can then collect while restraining yourself from shooting for a brief moment. It provides a wonderful sense of risk and reward to the experience as a whole which, as many people often note, is an essential component of a good arcade-style experience.

And the nice thing about it all is that if you’re not a “score attack” sort of player, you can freely ignore it altogether to just concentrate on trying to make it through the game’s levels and see the ending. While you won’t get the highest possible scores in this way, it’s nice to have a game that gives you the option of playing in a less “optimal” way while still having an enjoyable experience — ultimately this makes the whole package feel a lot more accessible to newcomers, which is important in a genre as potentially daunting as shoot ’em ups.

In many ways, Steel Dragon Evolution is an inversion of the format established by its predecessor. Steel Dragon is a brutally challenging Raiden-alike with not a lot of flexibility in its scoring system, while Steel Dragon Evolution is much more forgiving and flexible. Despite not appearing to have anything in common with one another, the two games complement one another very well and together form a great package that no PS2-toting shmup fan should be without.

More about Steel Dragon EX
More about The Simple Series

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