Presented by Daniel Primed of DanielPrimed.com
The rail shooter is a genre synonymous with the arcades, synonymous because it’s where the on-rails format began with force-feedback guns, large displays and adults only red curtains. Sadly, by the time the rail shooter started to establish itself arcades were slowly dropping off the map, leaving the genre stagnant and on all but on life support. Fortunately, the Nintendo Wii, with it’s pointer functionality, has in many sense breathed new life into a genre on the verge of becoming irrelevant. Blessed with a combination of arcade ports and new, forward-thinking titles, the Wii has become a haven for traditionally-minded shooting and old school gameplay sensibilities. So, to celebrate the reemergence of classic genre, let us review the current state of the rail shooter on the Wii.
Resident Evil: The Umbrella/Darkside Chronicles
As a duo, Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles and Darkside Chronicles provide an overview of the tangled history of the Resident Evil franchise, focusing on key events from Resident Evil 0-3 and Code Veronica as well as the exploits of super villain Albert Wesker. The recreation of these games in 3D and in the rail shooter format both act as a service to fans (who will surely enjoy the slew of hidden files and backstory) and a palatable point of entry newcomers.
As a shooter, the Chronicles games bring little additions to the standard formula, besides some neat tweaks and flourishes, but this isn’t important. What is important is the way these titles engineer replayability. Rail shooters, being a coin-sucking genre from the arcade, have always been cursed with limited playtime, particularly when moved to the home consoles, the Chronicles games remedy this issue by offering not just a generous amount of content, but by providing incentive for players to replay levels. For example, to gain a higher grade, find hidden files behind destructible objects, gain more dough to upgrade your weapons and experience alternative paths. Each mission lasts roughly 15-20 minutes and each game contains more than 20 missions, which equates to a significant amount of play time. One could very easily pull 20 hours of gameplay from either of these titles—it takes at least half that to complete the extended slew of missions. Both of these titles therefore offer fantastic value for money for the rail shooter fan.
The shooting itself is enjoyable, the range of enemies is quite broad , as is the arsenal of weapons and levels themselves. Quick time events are effectively interspersed at certain points and the Wii’s capabilities are well realised. However, the Chronicles games have been criticised for having rather finicky aiming, which is indeed true. Zombies–the most prominent foe in the game– have two forms of headshots, a standard headshot and a critical shot. The critical shots are really difficult to land, so it can be a little frustrating initially.
Between the two games, Darkside Chronicles is a significant improvement from Umbrella Chronicles, the monotonal graphics are replaced with colour and bloom lighting, the archive and upgrade systems are expanded, however Darkside Chronicles suffers from severe shaky cam. Neither game works well with the Zapper, best to go Wii-mote and nunchuck.
Final Word: A well designed rail shooter which defeats the age old problem of lastability and finds itself a welcomed place on the consoles.
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The House of the Dead: Overkill
Sega have contributed greatly to this list with an upgraded port, compilation and House of the Dead: Overkill, a new, console-exclusive instalment in the popular series. Overkill is a little more conservative than Resident Evil and Dead Space: Extraction, playing it straight with the familiar rail shooter experience as found in previous entries in the series, focusing on an uncomplicated combo system, a grindhouse aesthetic and humourous dialogue.
The combo system rewards consistent accuracy, granting additional points for head shots, saving civilians and hitting other bonuses. This makes Overkill a more tense rail shooter experience. Most interestingly, players forfeit score when using continues, providing reason for seasoned players to avoid taking damage. That is, until the director’s cut is unlocked (a slightly extended retread) and the system reverts back to a fixed amount of lives.
Overkill’s other main hook is the grindhouse/exploitation direction, seen in recent films such as Planet Terror and Death Proof, and the parody of series conventions. The acting in cutscenes is intentionally B-grade and completely over-the-top, dialogue is littered with F-bombs, gore and sexual innuendo is gratuitous. It all adds to an exaggerated sense of style which is as effective as it is often humourous. Personally, I loved the way characters constantly query Agent G over the meaning behind his name his sole initial (“When you gonna tell us what the f**king ‘G’ stands for?”).
Overkill features 7 episodes, each lasting for roughly 20 minutes a piece, totalling a couple of hours of gameplay. In terms of lastability, Overkill employs a weapon upgrading system similar to Resident Evil, there’s a director’s cut feature and a handful of mini games which do add a decent amount of length, however, Overkill primarily services high scoreboard chasers. Overkill isn’t so much innovative, but simply polished, one of the most polished games on the system, which in the past has tended to be the exception for this genre.
Dead Space: Extraction
Dead Space Extraction is the prequel to 2008 science fiction horror title Dead Space. Extraction is a very unique rail shooter in that there’s a great deal of atmosphere setting and narrative spliced between the shooting. The single player story therefore becomes a much more padded out experience, filled with sequences of conversation and quiet moments of down time. No doubt some people will complain about this (there is a separate mode which will satisfy their itchy trigger finger, however), yet Extraction is a quality production and these external elements only work to make the shooting feel meaningful in a genre which can occasionally feel trite with repetition.
In regards to the shooting itself, Extraction adapts many of the properties which individualised the original Dead Space, such as strategic dismemberment, paralysis and kinesis, giving Extraction a very unique flavour in respect to other rail shooters. Head shots are no longer your main priority, but instead shooting off limbs. The necromorph’s (space monsters) alien amalgamations of body parts ensure that each creature has their own characteristic weak points and the shooting is therefore consistently varied. Player’s can also temporarily paralyse necromorphs, giving them minor control of the pacing, injecting a surprising amount of strategy and depth into the gameplay. These two aforementioned points (strategic dismemberment and paralysis) are just a handful of the good ideas incorporated throughout Extraction. There’s also some mild puzzle elements, branching paths, a knife slash, glow worms as well as all the other spoils which come with the modern rail shooter. In many ways, Dead Space: Extraction is an evolutionary step in the genre and one which is worth visiting.
Final Word: If you’re looking for a more progressive take on the rail shooter then Dead Space Extraction is one of the freshest new entries in recent years.
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The House of the Dead II + III: Return
It’s not like these games need an introduction, do they? Two classic rail shooters in the same package, what more could you possibly ask for? Well, perhaps the original House of the Dead. The absence of the Saturn original is disappointing (although somewhat understandable given the difficulty in Saturn emulation), and reflects on the compilation as a whole. Return delivers two great games on the one disc, they’re ported decently and play as you’d expect, but sadly that’s it. There’s little in the way of extras, no widescreen support, no online support, no art galleries, it’s just a quick and easy port.
With all this said though, the quality of the individual games stand for themselves. House of the Dead II features an organic branching path system whereby the objects you shoot (or don’t shoot) determine your path of progression. House of the Dead III lacks the magic of its predecessor, but is nonetheless an interesting experience. Swapping pistols for shotguns, House of the Dead III allows players to choose their own course through the game, placing an emphasis on epic boss battles and speed cutting death animations to save on speed run time. Invariably, House of the Dead II is superior, in that the progression system is constantly offering up surprises. I still stumble across routes I hadn’t previously experience 12 years after its original release, it just keeps giving.
Final Word: It goes without saying though, if you’ve never experienced House of the Dead II or III before, both titles are worth your greenback, otherwise there’s nothing new here.
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Ghost Squad is another arcade port, this time from 2004. If you’ve played Ghost Squad in the arcades then you’ll already know that it’s a highly enjoyable terrorist-blasting rhomp with memorable story sequences and some nifty ideas. The port to the Wii is a faithful one, with the additions of online leader boards and a 4 player mode.
Ghost Squad is packed with inventive ideas which keep the Time Crisis-flavoured gameplay entertaining throughout the span of the 3 missions. Players rescue hostages, fight hand-to-hand, pick off guards with a sniper riffle and remove land mines, all expertly integrated within the confines of the point and shoot mechanics—the variety and execution is superb. Personally, I see Ghost Squad’s campaign as a string of good ideas pieced together through the rail shooter interface.
Unfortunately, in moving to the living room, Ghost Squad faces the unavoidable issue of lastability. The arcade title was only 3 missions long which is roughly 45 minutes of gameplay and although Ghost Squad was put out as a budget release, it doesn’t compensate for the severe lack of content. Sega supplement the 3 missions with two secret modes where the characters and weapons are reskinned to humourous effect, but these added frills do little to clear the stench of a quick cash in.
Link’s Crossbow Training
Link’s Crossbow Training isn’t a complete rail shooter, per say, but a light gun title which begins as a rail shooter and then layers on a additional levels of control in each successive stage until it ends up as Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition. There are 3 stage types in all, so a third of Link’s Crossbow Training is officially a rail shooter. The game is bundled with the Wii Zapper, the console’s light gun mold.
This third, titled Target Shooting, is really quite fantastically made. Targets are well positioned, the combo system rewards accuracy over spam shooting (as with HotD: Overkill), there’s a secret branching path in every stage, plenty of side fodder and the visual and aural cues are clear and effective. Furthermore, the feedback from the Zapper/Wii-mote combo is great and the Zapper mold makes for a convincing bow gun.
Final Word: Two birds with one stone, Link’s Crossbow Training is an ideally designed rail shooter game and a worthwhile starter kit if you prefer to use a light gun in your shooting games.
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Medal of Honor: Heroes 2
Similarly to Link’s Crossbow Training, Medal of Honor: Heroes 2 isn’t a complete rail shooter, rather EA Canada decided to include a rail shooter mode as a way to appease the casual gamer crowd. This may sound condescending, but the rail shooter portion is surprisingly substantial and well-made. The only real concession made for newer gamers is the dense iconography populating the screen (used to distinguish soldiers from the drab monotonal backgrounds), but this is hardly affects play.
Fundamentally, the “Arcade Mode” is an on-rails version of the campaign mode, condensed into 8 levels. The shooting itself is good fun and includes all the standard tropes you’d expect from the genre (branching paths, health packs), however, the scoring system is admittedly quite weak, based solely on one’s kill count. Fortunately, this is partly rectified by the achievement-like awards offered at the end of the campaign based on certain criteria, such as 75% accuracy or achieving a set number of kills.
Final Word: The rail shooter mode is pretty decent on its own, and the bundling with a FPS campaign is a new idea used to appeal to a casual gamers which is a neat idea.
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Eco Shooter: Plant 530
The bizarrely named Eco Shooter: Plant 530 is an environmentally friendly rail shooter for Nintendo’s WiiWare service created by Intelligent Systems, the developers behind Fire Emblem and Advance Wars. Eco Shooter’s story is equally as weird as its name. Aliens have come to Earth and are threatening to destroy humanity by using our discarded waste against us. As a worker at plant 530, it’s your job to remove the variety of cans (yes, all enemies in this game are/consist entirely of cans) with your special energy gun. I told you it was strange.
This odd premise acts to establish the energy management system which the rail shooting hinges on. Blasting a can foe twice will transform it into energy which acts as ammunition for your gun. The gun has two functions, shooting and sucking, once you’ve zapped a barrage of cans into energy, you can then switch to the suck function to absorb the energy for your gun. Since ammunition effectively takes the role of your health, Eco Shooter is a game which demands accuracy and precision, random blasting will only serve to make to squander your progress.
The energy management system is interesting and the pacing makes allowances for players to gather energy, however basic issues plague Eco Shooter. The cans are often difficult to distinguish from the moldy wasteland backdrops, the sucking of energy breaks the game’s momentum and the three bosses are identical, albeit successively more difficult. With only three levels total, Eco Shooter’s length is also rather short and the extra modes offer little incentive to keep players interested.
Final Word: A unique shooter which is unfortunately marred by occasional oversights.
Target: Terror is an arcade port originally developed by Eugene Jarvis, creator of arcade classics Defender, Robotron: 2084 and the Cruis’n series. Target: Terror sees you defending some of America’s popular cities and landmarks against an invasion of terrorist foe with a fairly standard, although sometimes outlandish, arsenal of weapons. I haven’t personally played Target: Terror and critical reception would suggest that I shouldn’t as reviewers have unanimously panned this title as a complete budget flop which best be avoided or purchased only for comedic value. The core criticism is that the technical issues impede significantly on what is a fairly bog standard rail shooter with a low frame rate and common glitches. It seems it would be best to stay away from this budget release.
As has been highlighted over the past several pages, the Wii features a rather diverse library of rail shooters, many of which are in their own ways are developing the foundations of the genre. Whether it be on a fundamental level with strategic dismemberment, paralysis or a clever combo systems, on a contextual level with stylised storytelling or simply in terms of replayability and adaption to the home console format, the rail shooter has not only been revived, it’s continually growing.
As a closing point of reference, this article has concentrated exclusively on first-person rail shooters and not the 3rd person variety, such as Sin and Punishment, which have also been prevalent, albeit to a lesser extent on the Wii and Virtual Console.