"You totally did not!"
Paulie is incredulous. He's a year older than I am. He has money - or rather, tokens - that I can only dream about. And yet, his high score has fallen to his overweight 12 year old friend Julesy. Me. For the last 20 minutes I've been in a groove, milking my quarter for every second, shooting every spindly vector ship that flew past me in reverse.
Tailgunner was my first railshooting heartache. Rez HD is my latest. It's been almost 30 years, and I'm still falling in love.
When Rez was revving up the game world and triggering 1,000 Rated-M-for-Mature jokes with it's Trance vibrator add-on in 2001, I was busy trying to figure out what the hell you do when the 2 year old poops in the tub. It wasn't exactly gaming's golden age for me. So my experience with United Game Artists' offering for the Dreamcast and PS2 remained something of a joke, a snarky side-note to the mid-life PS2 golden age I missed. But if I'd known that the team behind it was the same folks who'd made Panzer Dragoon back in 1995, I'd have handed my daughter off to the Nanny and grabbed a copy.
Because I love a good railshooter.
The fundamental conceit of a good railshooter is that of inexorable momentum. The rails that you're on are that of a roller coaster, and the only way it ends is either by running into a wall or breaking through. In a good rail shooter, there's a constant sense of failure intermixed with an odd hint of freedom and euphoria. It's the kind of freedom that comes from having no control, no ability to stop, no way to stop the inevitable, and ultimately letting go.
I suspect that the early prevalence of rail shooters has to do with their seeming simplicity. In an d y 80s stand up video game system, both control and screen real estate was at a premium. Ergonomics are challenging in the best of times, but in the loud and crampt quarters of the local arcade, it's especially tricky. Add to this the brief flash in the pan that was the late 70s/early 80s Vectorbeam era and you had a display system that was simply incapable of showing much information on the screen at one time – the complex visual cues required for navigation maxed out at with Battlezone.
But even more problematic, today as then, is training. Even the most hard-core console first person shooter sequel still spends the first 15 minutes teaching the player how to move, how to jump, how to aim and how to shoot. We're fond of arguing about how many hours we, as gamers in the SciFi year of 2008, should give a game before we give up and look for something that's actually fun. In a 1980s arcade, that learning-to-fun time window had to last less than a quarter, or no more quarters would be forthcoming from these pockets.
The two earliest examples of railshooter bliss I recall were both vector games. The first was the 1979 arcade hit Tailgunner from Vectorbeam/Cinematronics/Dan Sunday. While the motion was decidedly backwards (the star field moves away from you) the sense of claustrophobia and your limited motion is intense and effective. Add to that the subtle mechanic of losing a life every time you missed a target - instead of every time your ship was hit – and you had the makings of the kind of "we can only fail" emotional construct railshooters thrive on.
The second more well known railshooter I recall from those days of pizza stained jeans and post-punk hair was Star Wars, the definitive 1983 vector game from Atari. No subtitle, no episode number, no nothing. It was just called Star Wars, and while it did offer at least the illusion of control, you were still falling down the inevitable pit towards the destruction of Darth Vader's ultimate weapon. What can be more "on rails" than the trench of the Death Star. Star Wars excelled not just because it used the breathtaking innovation of color, but because it, like all good railshooters since, created a perfect illusion - that you actually had some measure of control, that victory was possible. And Star Wars let you win - it let you defeat the boss - the thermal exhaust port. The "next level" after the boss was just doing it all over again.
This sliding-towards-doom-or-glory dynamic is also what makes Guitar Hero, Rock Band and DDR so compelling. Before you start, you already know exactly how the game can end – with total failure, or with complete victory. It seems almost by accident, or the tyranny of the 3 minute song, that this kind of brutal game play has emerged into the public consciousness, ironically in the guise of somewhat "casual" games.
Rez HD takes this combination of music and railshooting to its most boiled down apotheosis. By relying on extremely well trod ground - railshooters, vector graphics - it gives the player room to breath. Unlike recent quasi-retro vector-esque games like Space Giraffe, Everyday Shooter, and Geometry Wars, the visuals never get so complex that they get in the way of the game. Some of this is just artistic restraint, but they also train the player to accelerate the visuals at their own pace: the first level of each area starts at a 1980s level of simplicity, and advances in complexity only as the player chooses to move layers deeper into the game by shooting portals.
This is the gift of Rez - it lets players have the space to explore. The game can be played from start to finish (skipping the unlockables) in a few hours. But Rez isn't about finishing, it's about experiencing. Like Lumines (designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi's best-known claim to fame) it's the process that's satisfying, not the result. The music is tied to players actions (as in Lumines) where each shot, explosion or missed cue results in a change to the soundtrack. But the feedback, both in the main controller or the optional other three, is masterful. A few hours of total immersion in Rez should be mandatory for anyone who ever programs force feedback, on anything. Ever.
But this space that Rez gives the player is also why it won't find a place on enough gamers "bought" list. Played in the wrong environment, even the wrong mood, Rez HD would be wholly unsatisfying. It is not a difficult game. Indeed, the best way to play it is in "traveling" mode where you can't actually even die. (I lost my wife to traveling for an evening. And just shut your trap about "vibrators" or I'll come over to your house and kick your dog.) Played in a noisy college dorm room surrounded by Tenacious D posters and cases of Mountain Dew, it's not gonna push the right buttons. But sitting on a couch, with your feet up, the lights low, 5.1 headphones on and the extra controllers stuck behind your back and under your feet, the game will take you somewhere you haven't been before.
This is what games are supposed to do. Games are supposed to take you into core fantasies - experiences that completely divorce the self from the real world. Rez HD does this. $10 is way to little for a game that does it this well.