Spaz: A Gift to Gamers

When most videogame players hear the word "shooter" today, they think of space marines fragging their way through 3D mazes and corridors filled with hordes of mutants or wielding a light gun against a small army of criminals and zombies in a frantic test of marksmanship. However, it wasn't that long ago when a shooter was piloting exotic space craft against waves of enemy ships and vicious, gigantic bosses, memorizing patterns and overcoming what initially seemed to be impossible odds to manoeuver past barrages of enemy fire while collecting better weapons and raking up the highest score. And they were plentiful, with classics like Gates of Thunder, Thunderforce III, MUSHA, and Gaires ushering in a golden age of shooters.

Perhaps too plentiful, because somewhere along the way people got tired of them. Street Fighter II and its numerous contemporaries replaced the shooter (and Final Fight style brawlers, for that matter) as the big moneymakers in arcades. Retailers began to become weary of even carrying the latest shooter. Many ignorant professional reviewers, demonstrating faux sophistry and hipness, bash these games almost without exception in their reviews, not for their individual merits or lack thereof, but simply because of the genre to which they belong. Simply put, the shooter is in trouble, and in desparate need of a revival.

I've been playing videogames since the Intellivision and the Commodore 64, and have rather broad tastes in the types of games that I enjoy. I've been a fan of RPGs since Lunar: The Silver Star on the SEGA CD, their interesting stories and characters, and appealing anime graphics sucking me in. But after a bad day, sometimes I just like to blast a few thousand alien scum and blow some stuff up! Sometimes I want a good story, and sometimes I want a stress reliever.

A healthy market for shoot'em ups domestically will give Japanese developers extra incentive to continue to produce the quality shooters we have come to love. To be sure, interest in Japan is of prime importance, but the prospect of strong sales internationally and the large sums of money international sales can generate will certainly help to keep the shooter genre alive. A few thousand fanatic shooter fans importing the latest shooters from Japan does not constitute that level of international support. A small and dedicated fanbase alone cannot support their own gaming habits. For that, the casual game buyer must be reached and there must be broader interest in these types of games. That will not happen by clueless publishers like Electrobrain and ASCII releasing hot shooters with absolutely no marketing, fanfare, and hype, expecting consumers that don't even realize these products are out there to purchase them. No, it will take a company so dedicated that with hot shooters, solid marketing, and tireless effort, they slowly but surely pick up the pieces and make shooters viable again. That company, of course, is Working Designs, via their Spaz label.

Spaz has done a solid job not only bringing us a select few arcade style games, but like they do with their RPGs, making them better. Nowhere is this more clear as in the case of SEGA Ages, a collection of 3 vintage SEGA AM arcade games: Out Run, Afterburner, and Space Harrier. In the original Japanese releases, each of those games were sold separately. Had Spaz not released this collection here, retro gamers would have had to spend more money importing just one of those games than buying all 3 through the domestic release! For their other titles, they have made sure to boost the difficulty of the US versions so that players cannot simply breeze through the game on the easiest difficulty level. It took me about 2 weeks to complete Elemental Gearbolt (published under the Working Designs label I know, but close enough) on the normal difficulty setting. Without the difficulty boost, the game would have offered much less replay value and the sense of accomplishment from finally nailing Bel Cain would have been lost. Add in the $10000 contests and typically beautiful packaging, and you've got a company treating shooters the way they deserve to be treated.

Also remember that arcade type games are much less work to localize than RPGs. The resources freed up were Working Designs to stop publishing RPGs through Spaz would not necessarily equate to more RPGs. I like the RPGs Working Designs publishes and their translations and packaging dearly, so I look forward to every new RPG they release. But if you think Working Designs could have just released something like Sakura Taisen 2 or Tengai Makyo IV had they not been so busy with SEGA Ages or Raystorm, well, you're kidding yourself.

Some may argue that consumers are voting with their wallets when they make shooters less successful, and they are demanding more RPGs. One could just as easily say consumers were demanding the same for shooters in the early '90s and late '80s, and Working Designs should have been publishing shooters and leaving games like Lunar and Popful Mail in Japan. Instead, I am grateful that Working Designs and Spaz persevere and continue to deliver high quality shooters to starving fans, and hope that like RPGs, eventually the shooter achieves the popularity in the US it deserves. That Working Designs is releasing shooters does not prove they no longer care about their fans or the games, and are just in it for the money. To the contrary, it proves that they haven't strayed.

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