Twin-Sticking To Your Guns – From Robotron To Lara Croft

by Jeff Cork on Dec 08, 2014 at 12:35 PM

Twin-stick shooters have been around since Robotron: 2084 made palms sweaty back in 1982. The genre’s popularity has risen and fallen over the years, enjoying an unmistakable resurgence in 2005 with the release of Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved and a wake of imitators. Now, with the recent release of the latest Geometry Wars game, Tomb Raider and the Temple of Osiris, Secret Ponchos, and more, it looks like we’re on the cusp of another swell. We’re taking a look at the genre and why it seems to have such long-lasting appeal.

First, let’s define what we’re talking about. When I say “twin-stick shooter,” I’m talking about a genre that forks a bit. There’s a subtle distinction between the two main variants, but it’s worth noting. In the traditional twin-stick shooter, players interact with the game using two joysticks. One controls a character’s movement on the screen, while the other is used to automatically fire shots in the direction that the stick is aimed – think Robotron or Geometry Wars. In the other version, you still move and aim with two sticks, but you press another button to fire your weapon. Games like Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light fall into this subcategory. 

Now that we’ve established the basics, let’s dig in. Looking at the current state of the twin-stick genre’s present and recent past, I noticed that games tended to fall into three main categories. Keep in mind that this is by no means meant to be a comprehensive catalog of every game within the genre. Consider the examples I use representative samples, but not the only ones out there. 

The Spinoff
Twin-stick shooters give developers a chance to put a new perspective on familiar franchises

The decision to create a twin-stick Tomb Raider spinoff seemed a bit strange at first, but Crystal Dynamics knew what it was doing. Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light earned rave reviews for its take on both Tomb Raider and its clever use of the genre. The developers incorporated puzzles and cooperative play, which left players wanting more. The new entry, Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris, builds on that initial formula, doubling the co-op support to include up to four adventurers. 

Halo fans already got a twist on their favorite series with 2009’s RTS Halo Wars. Four years later, 343 Industries and Vanguard Entertainment released another interpretation of Halo Universe, Halo: Spartan Assault. As with Halo Wars, Spartan Assault let players take on Covenant forces with a birds-eye view, though the latter release sacrificed strategic planning for the immediacy of battle that Halo players are accustomed to. To its credit, even though the perspective changed drastically, it didn’t feel completely foreign.

Both Spartan Assault and the Lara Croft games don’t feature characters who endlessly churn out bullets. They both require players to press additional fire buttons. It works well, considering the heroes in those franchises aren’t simply walking turrets, and it gives players room to selectively draw from their respective arsenals.

Q-Games’ line of PixelJunk games isn’t technically a series in a traditional sense, but I thought I’d bring it up here. Previous entries included the simple slot-car game PixelJunk Racers and a tower-defense game called PixelJunk Monsters. When the studio decided to move the action to the shooter realm, they went with twin-stick mechanics. The result, PixelJunk Shooter, is a game where environmental hazards like active volcanoes pose as much of a threat to your tiny ship as the enemies that inhabit its worlds.

Space Cases
Games with abstract, over-the-top visuals have a comfortable home in the genre

As I mentioned earlier, twin-stick shooters have been part of gaming since the glory years of arcades in the early ‘80s. Back then, developers like Eugene Jarvis made do with the hardware they had at the time. Even with those primitive tools, Jarvis and other pioneers were able to depict simple humanoids, robots, spaceships, and other objects with surprising clarity. With Robotron: 2084, Jarvis was able to teach players a visual language of sorts. The indestructible Hulks looked different from the missile-firing Brains, and players would have to learn to recognize and adjust their strategies according to the enemy makeup that each wave provided.  

Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved and its sequel took that idea and ran with it – or launched it into space. By 2005, the idea of enemies looking and behaving differently from one another wasn’t novel. Retro Evolve took the basic essence of Robotron and amplified it to the point of near absurdity. Pink squares would break into smaller pink squares when shot. Green squares would shyly dart away from your ship’s fire. Blue diamonds would slow charge the player’s position. It was overwhelming at times, but completely exhilarating. 

Housemarque took a cue from Geometry Wars when revisiting its own Stardust franchise and further evolved the gameplay. Instead of placing the action on static, rectangular stages, Super Stardust HD’s battles took place on a sphere. Players moved around the surface of each planet, blasting hordes of bizarre space aliens and acquiring a wide array of powerups. It was a great demo game for the still relatively new PlayStation 3, with its abundance of dizzying particle effects.

The arms race between the two series continues. Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions came out a few weeks ago, and it features a variety of 3D battlegrounds, shaped like spheres, pills, and even strange peanut-like objects. Super Stardust Ultra was just announced, and it’s adding elements to the series such as co-op and leaderboards that will let players taunt their friends with high-score challenges.


Stretching The Genre
These games incorporate gameplay elements that would have been unthinkable a decade ago

One of the many things I like about the twin-stick genre is how it’s barely a genre at all. Once you move past the superficial control similarities, games under the heading can be wildly different from one another. Take the following examples.

Switchblade Monkeys’ game Secret Ponchos is set in the Old West. It’s also a – you guessed it – twin-stick shooter (Never mind that combatant who prefers pointy sticks over a shotgun or six-shooter, okay?). Secret Ponchos does something none of the other games I’ve mentioned so far do, which is straight-up competition. You might squabble with your teammates over loot in the Lara Croft games or annoy your buddies with your Geometry Wars scores, but you’re not directly attacking them. That’s the object of Secret Ponchos, which arrived on PlayStation 4 last week.

Housemarque clearly has a thing for this genre. Even though its PS4 game Resogun doesn’t fit my definition completely since the second stick isn’t used for 360-degree directional fire, you do need to keep both of your thumbs on the sticks to play it. The studio’s PS3 game Dead Nation is much more of a typical genre pick, in more ways than one. Players battle mobs of the undead in twin-stick combat, including those big, exploding ones. You can upgrade your weapons and items, too, which is helpful if you’re hoping to survive. The studio rereleased the game on PS4, dubbing it the Apocalypse Edition. The new version added a special broadcast mode, which allows viewers who tune into a player's livestream a chance to influence drops and enemy spawns via votes.

Finally, I’ll poke the hornet’s nest a little bit. If Resogun doesn’t fit the bill, my last entry definitely doesn’t, but I’m going to toss it in. It’s my list, after all. The console version of Diablo III is much more action-heavy than its PC counterpart, since you take direct control of your characters instead of using your mouse to point where you want them to go. The right stick lets you pull off a dodge roll – which is definitely not a gun, cannon, or other projectile – but I’ll be damned if playing as a Demon Hunter doesn’t at least convey the sense I got when I first battled remorseless hordes of androids in Robotron: 2084 decades ago. Like I said, it’s my list.

I know that I’ve missed out a ton of great twin-stick shooters. Did I gloss over any of your favorites? Let me know in the comments. Even though it’s a squishy genre to define, I’m always looking for new ones to play.