Three Linux shoot’em ups

2010-10-01

I normally consider myself a fan of strategy games, as most of my all-time favorites belong to this genre. But my latest game happens to be a shooter, and the next will be one as well. Trouble is, I'm not really familiar with the genre. I've played R-Type, Chronos and Star Force back in the day, and that's about it, unless Galaxian counts. So, what's a developer supposed to do? Why, don the player hat and blast some aliens for a change!

To achieve this noble goal, I turned to the vast selection of games in the Fedora Linux repositories. After filtering out any title with 3D graphics, as well as a racing game filed under shooters for some reason (I think it's the kind where cars have cannons), I stopped at three titles that seemed the most promising. Here's how it went.

xsc screenshot

I started with xsc, a tiny game with vector graphics which is apparently adapted from an old arcade title. You fly a spaceship much like the one in Asteroids, except you're fighting some sort of boss in a fort. The game looks like it has a lot of potential. Too bad a number of problems make it unplayable. The controls are undocumented and completely non-intuitive: it's not the cursor keys, not WASD, not even the Vi keys! (I think it's d, f and j, k -- which might just make sense for a touch typist, come to think of it; still, a bad idea). Also, the controls are tuned the wrong way: the ship should rotate quickly and accelerate slowly, not the other way around! Finally, the lack of a title screen makes the game feel very unpolished. At least it auto-pauses when the mouse cursor leaves the window; that's a nice touch. The other problems should be easy to fix, too.

vor screenshot

As the name shows, VoR (short for Variations on Rockdodger) is yet another adaptation. You're in a little round spaceship, trying to dodge asteroids with well-placed rocket thrusts. That's it! Unlike xsc, VoR is easily controlled, and has two difficulty levels. Unfortunately, it's a one-trick pony. Thirty seconds in, you've seen it all. But given the control scheme and the average play time, I think VoR would be an excellent mobile game. Also, a nitpick: it's not a shooter unless you can shoot at things! Then again, were it not miscategorized in the Fedora repos, I wouldn't have found it, so it's all good.

powermanga screenshot

And then I ran into PowerManga and played for three hours straight. No, seriously. The game is just that good. Slow enough for my terrible reflexes, with ships and enemies looking like colorful plastic toys, and very good pacing -- you start with a slow ship and piddly pew-pew gun, and with patience you end up flying a powerhouse that sprays self-guided missiles all over the screen. There is also an element of resource management, as you can always choose what upgrade to take next.

PowerManga did start off the wrong foot. Specifically, in full-screen by default, and with a 640x480 resolution... on my widescreen LCD! Also, the music wouldn't stay off no matter how many times I turned it off. But the game has an actual man page and command line options -- which it remembers on subsequent runs -- so these small annoyances were easy to fix.

Last but not least, the game is very well optimized, a rare thing in this age of cheap CPU cycles. I've seen similar games that would push my aging laptop over the limit, while PowerManga runs smoothly. That shows care from the part of the author(s), and most importantly allows me to actually play it.

I switched to shooters as of late, both as a player and a developer, as my dwindling patience and energy are no longer enough for more involved games. But there's a whole niche to be explored here, and even though I'm late to the party, it promises to be fun. Pew pew!