I realize how cliche the next clause is going to sound, but I miss the side scrolling shooters of old. I’m well aware of how little things have changed. The Contras and Terminators of yesterday became the Battlefields and Expendables of today. Yet this doesn’t mean that no change has occurred. Although modern shooters preserve the quick reflex action, they’re still very different creatures than what came before them. At their best, older shooters feel like a haunted house exhibit: a quick ride where all manner of things pop out at you and give you a rush of adrenaline. I doubt that modern shooters, with their focus on hyper-realism, can completely capture that feeling.
Now I don’t bring any of this up to disparage modern shooters. I’m just trying to contextualize what it is I think makes Cyber-Lip work. A Neo Geo shooter released in 1990 (just as SNK was becoming an arcade giant), this game is definitely a product of its time. Its scenario take inspiration from the same action movies that inspired similar games at the time, and gameplay-wise, Cyber-Lip is a missing link between the gritty Contra series and the more cartoonish Metal Slug games. However, the high level of craft and playful spirit ensures that it all works out in the end.
I can think of no better place to see this in action than the premise. Our story takes place in the near future. The government has created a space colony and put a super computer in charge of things. But when said super computer goes out of control, it’s up to two chiseled heroes to go in, guns ablazing, and set things right. Between the sunglasses on our muscled protagonists, the robot skeleton in the game’s opening cinematic, and the copious amount of guns on display, it’s not hard to see where the game’s getting its ideas from.
Although that’s not to say the game’s lazily slapping story elements together. I want to give it more credit than that. Instead, I think the game’s performing these action movie tropes more than it’s straightly representing them. The president’s orders, for example, sound a little too exaggerated to be authentic to the situation. And the aesthetic isn’t very serious, either. Its peppy music and bright colors contribute to the game’s slight cartoony abstraction. While I’m aware of the role technological limitations play in these choices, it’s hard to ignore the effect the choices create. It’s like the game’s an actor on a stage, asking you to watch as it plays around with various tropes. I’d call this inviting, but that would be slightly misleading. After all, the game doesn’t ask you to join in that performance. Still, the word gets close to the meaning I want. With Cyber-Lip treating itself so carefree and fun, it’s hard not to have fun yourself.
And that carefree attitude carries into the gameplay. Although side scrolling shooters were never a serious genre, they often placed a heavy emphasis on skill. Games like Gunstar Heroes and Ninja Commando were about pushing through crowded spaces, eliminating the enemy as soon as you could see them, and saving the day from certain danger. I’d be lying if I said none of that makes its way into this game. I wouldn’t even begrudge you for seeing Cyber-Lip as just another shooter. All the ingredients are there. The muscled up hero runs through a collapsed sci-fi world, blasting robots with his flamethrower, bazooka, grenades, and a few weapons ripped from the pages of Contra. Enemy fire rains down on him from all sides. It’s a chaotic world, and only the most seasoned veterans can make it through.
However, I don’t see the game as emphasizing accomplishment. I won’t deny its place in the game, but I still view Cyber-Lip more as being about thrill than anything else. All sorts of baddies pop out at you over the course of the game. While you should shoot them, they’re less objects to be shot and more objects to excite. They pop out of the corners of your vision, forcing your eyes to dart every which way to see where they’re coming from. Some of them enter the screen slowly enough to act as targets. Others jump out so suddenly that you don’t initially see them like that. They excite, exhilarate, stress you out, get on your nerves, and everything in between. It all results in a complex of styles going into the game’s structures. The action movie aspect is obvious enough, but I think there’s a bit of my haunted house metaphor from earlier lurking in here, too. Maybe with a bit of target practice mashed in. I imagine the game’s cartoonish abstraction connects here, as well.
Of course, even if the game relied more heavily on skill, I think it would do just fine. Some of that’s because of the overlap between skill and thrill. Yet I think just as much comes from how much craft went into making this game. As I made my way through the space colony, I spotted a few inconspicuous design decisions here and there that kept the game more engaging. The timing, positioning, and general behavior of a boss’s attacks; enemies coming out at just the right time; gunfire and enemy groans being rendered in stereo. All these little choices told me that the game was expecting more of me than just going along for the ride. It wanted me to be quick on my feet; to see how well I’d mastered its systems.
If that sounds like it’d contradict the joy ride part of the game, don’t worry. Cyber-Lip is surprisingly adept at balancing the two approaches. For one, you never see any of these design choices. They’re invisible; a natural part of the world. So you never feel like the game’s actively pandering toward you. Second, these choices don’t only make the game more skill-based; they also make it more accessible. For all the skill the game demands of you, it also gives you enough room to deliver on that skill. Provided you can spot that room, of course. More often than not, it’s a window in an enemy’s attack range, or a pattern to how they’re firing their bullets. I admit that it’s something not everybody might see at first glance. Yet at least in my experience, I found the game succeeding in balancing skill-based gameplay with its more visceral structures.
And really, that summarizes what it is that I miss from these old games. It’s not the focus on dexterity. Plenty of games have carried that legacy into today. Unfortunately, less games concern themselves with the kind of presentation that makes Cyber-Lip what is is. For as much as these games bought into their action movie premises, they were just as willing to mock them. Games like Cyber-Lip walked halfway between being serious and playful, and I just don’t see as much of that today. Yes, you could argue that Call of Duty hits these notes, but it isn’t the same. So for everything that I like about Cyber-Lip, I must ultimately recognize it as an artifact from the past.