Ugh. I should've known better than to write an article criticizing Cave games, because even when I'm not deliberately picking fights, their fanbase is more than a little bit touchy. To be fair, they've had it rough - for a long time their console ports were either slow to come, nonexistent or buggy, most gamers have marginalized them, and even the better entries tend to get hand waves from the reviewers. (Ikaruga is about the only exception I've seen in recent shooter-dom and that's not even a Cave game. There are reasons for this, but I'm not in the mood to spread more filth and lies and get into more pointless arguments wherein people stick their fingers in their ears and yell really loudly. There's only so many times where you can reiterate and reclarify the same points before it's just time to give up.)
What the Cave Dilemma does bring up, though, is how games should teach you how to play. I will fully admit I am bad at Cave shooters, although not necessarily shooters in general. They're pretty difficult, and I'd venture that anyone who says otherwise is...well, for the lack of any better word, wrong. They're certainly not impossible, but they do present what is, at first, an overwhelming challenge. When I complain that the barrier of entry is too high to attempt a 1cc, what I mean is, there needs to be a way to create minor, meaningful goals - smaller hurdles, if you will - that will hopefully lead you to become better at it.
I've brought up Gradius and R-Type before, but let's veer away from shooters for a bit and talk about something different - classic Castlevania. There are six levels in the game, each divided into three sections, and each section is filled with a variety of enemies. Your character can only take between four and eight hits, and has four lives total - these are your margins of error. If you screw up, you lose some health. Screw up enough and you're back at the beginning of the section, losing one life. Run out of lives, and you have to start the stage over. As you get farther in the game, the levels get harder and your margin of error goes down, because enemies inflict more damage.
It's very simple the way it's set up - each enemy is an obstacle, a goal to be overcome. If you fail too many times, you have to repeat it until you do it right. Do it enough times, and hopefully you've picked up some skills to be used in the broad sense - not only for killing that one awkwardly placed bat, but every awkwardly placed bat. It's forgiving in that you get as many chances as it takes to get it right, but tough enough that you still get some enjoyment for increasing your skills. Your reward for your skill and persistence is the next level, and then the next, until you've beaten the game.
Now, ideally the amount of time you spend replaying a section shouldn't be too long. Everyone has their own specific tolerance, but I say if you make someone replay any more than five minutes, then that's probably too much. If kept under control, then you keep the player from becoming too frustrated. You need to have an acceptable margin of error too - gamers aren't robots, and to expect to make precise movements without making some mistakes is too harsh...at least until they've become an expert, anyway.
Modern game design has pretty much followed this template. They've taken out the lives and continues, because memory cards and save games made them meaningless. But they still work in the same framework - nice and bite size chunks.
The problem with the insta-respawn mechanic that I'm criticizing is that there's no immediate feedback, no way to learn from your mistakes until you've started the whole game over. You die, and the game just keeps going. The primary goal - a 1cc - is set way up in the sky, to essentially play a perfect game. The only other goals are the ones you set yourself, but for those of us that are used to having our goals set for us, it's too abstract, too spongy. It's a very fundamental aspect of psychology, these small rewards, and they're gone.
Furthermore, by opening the gates to unlimited continues, you've essentially opened up the entire game. With that incentive gone, what's the value of getting better beyond self improvement? People with a spirit of competition, surely, but not everyone has that, nor cares. (PAY ATTENTION HATERS: THIS IS THE PRIMARY DIFFERENCE BETWEEN YOU AND I.)
Furthermore, let's look at some numbers. A single Cave game lasts about 20 minutes, during which you have a total of three lives, on default. That's an EXTREMELY low margin of error - to demand that kind of perfection is ridiculously stressful to a newcomer. It's particularly nasty in Cave games, considering it expects you to dodge bullets within mere pixels of your character. It's heavy, and it's easy to dismiss the game as being way outside your skill range - especially when, again, the rewards aren't nearly as meaningful as other games.
I'm not saying implementing checkpoints in Cave games is necessarily a good idea - it probably isn't. You really need to design your levels specifically for that type of mechanic, otherwise it doesn't really work, especially for arcade games. The worst example was the Xbox port of Metal Slug 3. Aware that many gamers complain of infinite continues and being able to blaze right through it, they restarted you back at the beginning of the stage when you ran out of lives. But the final stage was ridiculously long, and quite tough - repeating that long from scratch every time you ran out of lives was remarkably tedious. That's why I think it would be better to leave the core game alone and design a stronger framework to add some stronger incentives, set some more tangible goals, and make getting better at the game more rewarding than getting better for the sake of it.
Shooter fans, this will not hurt your beloved genre! Please stop acting like it's a heresy to criticize its design! You guys spend so much time screaming at reviewers and people who "just don't get it" without realizing what a strawman it is. As much as you may want to think otherwise, people are not idiots. They approach - and dismiss - things for very specific, very real reasons, and they're not ignorant to do so. The truly fantastic video games are the ones that are playable in newcomers and provide longtime play value for the hardcore. If it's done right, you might even find some novices making the transition. That's the sort of thing that can really only be beneficial for everyone, as much certain folks hate their ivory towers being so crowded.