Light gun lightning in a bottle

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“The world’s first 3D-CG gun shooting!” boasts the front-facing strip of Virtua Cop‘s Saturn spine card – and for once this eye-catching bit of advertising bluster can be taken at face value. By the time Virtua Cop graced arcades with its presence in 1994 (the Saturn port shown throughout this post came just the year after) plenty of excellent light gun games across every format imaginable had been and gone, and although even the smallest arcades still appeared to be legally obliged to have at least one shooty-game cabinet standing on their sticky carpets the genre seemed to be rapidly heading towards its twilight years: Whether they were using sprites, live-action footage or ReBoot-smooth pre-rendered characters we’d shot at everything there was to shoot from the Wild West to outer space and all the trendy licenses in between. Light gun games needed to change. Light gun games needed Sega.

And just as AM2‘s Virtua Fighter had shown the world how 3D technology could change the way fighting games not only looked but also played, so too did their future-focused philosophy coupled with the raw power of Sega’s Model 2 arcade hardware breathe new life into a genre whose history can be traced all the way back to the mechanical games of the 1930’s. It may sound a touch over-enthusiastic to place such a high level of historical importance on a game that for all its cutting-edge technology and classic status can still broadly be reduced down to the exact same core mechanics as almost any earlier example – shoot bad guys, shoot items to pick them up, don’t hit anything friendly – but Virtua Cop’s innovations were so inextricably linked to this three-dimensional graphical overhaul it became a watershed moment in gaming, definitively splitting the genre forever into “Light gun games before Virtua Cop” and “Light gun games after Virtua Cop”. 3D meant more than being able to charge a premium for each credit, more than advertising flyers filled trendy buzzwords like “texture mapping” and “polygons per second”: For the first time ever enemies were no longer forced to stand in place behind a convenient piece of scenery or repeat a short run cycle along perfectly flat horizontal/vertical planes; targets could now turn up inside vehicles, aim at you from behind a pane of glass, stand on a nearby table, or travel down a conveyor belt at an angle – anywhere you could look at, in, or around could potentially be brimming with sunglass-wearing baddies itching to send a bullet your way. And when your own shot hit its mark? No longer did you have to watch an endless parade of palette-swapped sprites all fall over in the exact same way before flashing out of existence; the employees of Virtua Cop’s EVL Corporation (yes, really) might hold their arm in pain, tumble forward over railings (sometimes – and you can’t help but feel sorry for them when it happens – straight onto an explosive barrel), or be blown backwards straight through a stack of wooden crates, sending splinters flying everywhere – it all depended on where you shot them and where they were standing at the time.

The environmental damage that accompanied these context-sensitive shootouts – sometimes as small as a broken TV or a shattered window pane, sometimes explosions so devastating they would topple large structures and kick up enormous clouds of dust – created a wonderful veneer of interactivity, every player-generated dint and ding reinforcing the illusion that each stage’s fixed route was more than a passive firearm-based theme park ride that had exhausted all its spectacle on the very first run through. Light gun scenarios were no longer restricted to scrolling shooting galleries and endless sprite-scaled corridors – Virtua Cop’s stages were places, somewhere with an upstairs, inside, outside, and rooms beyond closed doors you might actually end up seeing for yourself. Lobbies you had just fought through became the background for tense shootouts on glass-sided balconies, distant machinery an upcoming battleground, not an idle background feature.

There’s no talk of Virtua Cop without mentioning its distinctive lock-on sight, that initial green “tunnel” naturally leading your eyes and your attention to the next target, the arrows moving around the edge as well as the green/yellow/red warning system giving you all the time-to-ouchies information you need without this screen-sized icon ever getting in the way. The zooming-in effect that accompanies this is more than just a neat gimmick made possible by polygonal power – by ensuring every gunned-up goon would eventually be seen up close and centered on the screen – an easy shot even for the most inept arcade gunslinger – AM2 were free to be more imaginative with their enemy placements, allowing dangerous targets to appear off to the sides, at awkward heights or starting off just a few pixel high on a distant ledge. And because this targeting happened in real time, stopping the instant an enemy had been taken care of (or if you were very quick, not even starting up at all), your view of the action would dynamically shift based on your own personal performance in that precise moment, making every credit of Virtua Cop play just that little bit differently from the last. Maybe this time you shot an enemy before they got into position, the lock-on targeting skipping straight over to the next one – and because this is “real” 3D, everything happening within a single location all at once, perhaps an earlier avoided hostage, arms covering their head, will still need to be avoided as they dash in your direction for cover, or the change in focus allows you to take an easy shot at another enemy before they duck behind a shipping container. Crucially this visual warning isn’t used as a countdown to you taking damage but to an enemy taking a shot, and in practise this seemingly minor bit of nitpicking makes a huge difference: if the sight goes red you aren’t about to receive a guaranteed credit-sapping slap on the wrist, your inadequacies circled on screen for all to see, you’re in grave danger – and that’s infinitely more exciting.

The points earned from shooting these targets with your beautifully chunky bright blue Virtua Gun is based on time between an enemy’s appearance and you shooting them down – the faster you shoot them, the more points you’re awarded for doing so. It’s possible to hit a single enemy up to three times, increasing your score and the bonus multiplier bar with every blow (now you know why your standard pistol as well as every special weapon has an ammo count divisible by three) – if you’re consistently good the multiplier will earn you a whopping x9 points per hit, vastly inflating your score. This triple shot bonus system presents an ever-changing choice between survival and score: The obvious thing to do is to blast anything that crosses your path three times, maximising the points wrung out of every enemy… isn’t it? Three bullets represents half of the ammo your gun (the shotgun and magnum too) can carry at one time, so even if every single bullet is a perfect point scoring shot you’ll need to reload after every other enemy, leaving you vulnerable to attack – and if they hit even once (also: If you shoot a hostage) they’ll instantly lop two whole ranks off your current score multiplier – when dealing with large crowds or sudden rushes of enemies sometimes taking quick single shots ends up being the safer, higher-scoring, option. “Justice Shots” add yet another layer of strategy to points scoring: they’re worth a flat 5000 points no matter how long you take to perform one (earning you far more than even a super-fast three hit combo), but as they only trigger when the first shot you take hits an enemy’s weapon arm there’s a high degree of skill involved even when lining up a shot against a static close-range target, and if you miss you’ll end up with either a greatly decreased time-based bonus or maybe even getting shot yourself.

This beautiful marriage of quickfire arcade action with the latest and greatest in gaming technology plays out across three freely selectable scenes, arranged as they always should be in order from the easiest to the hardest (do watch out if you go for a nonstandard order though – you’ll end up missing the true last boss that way. Your score won’t thank you for it but your trigger finger might). As with any truly excellent game the first scene naturally introduces you to most of the core gameplay mechanics without ever behaving like a formal tutorial, and yet in this short space of time you’ll still face off against the full range of the game’s bread-and-butter scenarios: Enemies off in the extreme distance, hostages, exploding barrels, special guns hidden inside destructible crates, distraction enemies that never shoot at you (theses are also another source of delicious points if you’re quick enough to shoot them before your actual target fires at you), and enemies that suddenly roll into position rather than politely popping up from around a corner or behind a nearby barrel. Once you’ve become skilled enough to survive those threats the stage goes on to expand upon those foundations, introducing two further enemy types that don’t trigger the lock-on sight – melee and projectile throwing enemies – and if you can survive them you’ve got all the knowledge you need to handle not only the stage boss, Kong (you may be interested to know the one after’s called King) but also everything else the game throws at you afterwards.

You come away from playing Virtua Cop with little doubt this game is as carefully thought out as it is pretty, that everything in here has been included because it went towards making this release the best-playing light gun shooter AM2 were capable of creating at the time, far above and beyond any real concerns about superficially capturing popular trends or looking commercially appealing to arcade-owning customers. Those surprising melee-range muscle have a long player-friendly wind-up animation in addition to the vast amount of shot-enabling screen space they take up. Enemies in the first stage are easy to pick out from their surroundings, whether they’re wearing suits and sunglasses, sunglasses and suits, or bright orange jackets (and sunglasses) – it’s only towards the back end of the second stage they become deliberately harder to spot (grey clothing against concrete, balanced out by their close range), and it takes until the third before the game makes any real effort to truly hide them from you (Green with black jackets. At night. Enthusiastically leaping out of shubbery.). Hostage body posture, clothing, and audio cues mean that when you do shoot one down there’s never any doubt who’s to blame for the error (it’s you) or a sense that AM2 weren’t playing fair – sometimes sneaky, sometimes testing your aim, but never unfair. And because there are two mutually exclusive ways of squeezing extra points out of every single enemy as well as all sorts of differing conditions and enemy types that can effect the best way to approach every micro-scene, there are always enough minor variables that – like a good shmup – even a great and experienced player who knows where to aim before anything’s appeared can sometimes come away feeling they’ve had an especially good run or curse their poor luck and want to try again.

Virtua Cop changed the genre forever, and its historical significance cannot be understated: It stood out a mile at home and in arcades, showing the world there was brighter possible future for light gun games that didn’t involve laserdisc storage or increasingly outlandish novelty plastic firearms. But more than anything it’s remembered so fondly because it’s good. Age has done nothing to diminish Virtua Cop’s exquisite craftsmanship and engaging gunplay, and it’s influence can be felt within every game that followed in its footsteps.

[Thank you for making this article about a classic light gun games possible, Ko-fi supporters! I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!]

2 thoughts on “Light gun lightning in a bottle

  1. A very great game ! Even if the second one is better, i remember this one at the arcade ; i was mind-blowing at how fast and fun the action was !!! ;)

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  2. I didn’t even know this was the first “proper” 3D light gun game.
    For me it was simply that one Saturn game I only bought (twice) because it was cheaper to get the bundle with the gun than buying two guns separately. I just wanted to play House of the Dead. :P
    My guns are black, though. So I guess there were different models?

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