As the arena shooter returns, it's still video games’ purest genre

Projects like ‘Boomerang X’ and ‘Severed Steel’ take the first-person shooter back to acrobatic, pulse-racing best.

One straightforward rule trumps all in the arena shooter: kill everything.

This defining principle draws a line from the genre classics of the 1990s like the aptly-named Quake 3: Arena, to foundational shoot-em-ups of decades prior — games such as 1978’s Space Invaders where there was literally nothing to do but clear the screen of oncoming enemies. In all these titles, no matter what your avatar resembles — a spaceship, marine, whatever — functionally, you’re a gun. Point, shoot, and revel in the exploded virtual matter.

Amidst increasingly elaborate stories, a move towards gigantic maps, and RPG elements like loot and leveling-up, the shooter’s emphasis on pure action has arguably gone missing in recent years. Happiness, it seems, isn’t just found in a warm gun but the ancillary activities that surround pulling the trigger. And yet, if it felt like the arena shooter’s time had come to an end, that its elemental take on violence was consigned to the annals of gaming history (OK, the mid-naughties), I’m thrilled to report the once ailing genre is undergoing something of a renaissance. From the just-released Boomerang X, an acrobatic shooter available on PC and Nintendo Switch, to the upcoming Severed Steel whose bullet-time action genuinely earns the adjective “balletic,” developers are reviving the genre typified by tight maps, an absence of story, and, most importantly, frenetic ballistic action. Even Ubisoft, a company synonymous with open world environments is leaning into it with DefiantX.

The thrill of Severed Steel.Digerati

The arena shooter’s resurgence is not new. Developers have been mining the genre for a while now, none more popular than 2016’s Superhot. But the clean, futuristic lines of that game is a relative rarity — game makers seem to be more interested in digging up the aesthetics of the past to evoke the classic FPS genre. Take Devil Daggers, released the same year as Superhot, and 2018’s Dusk, indie titles that mechanically and visually echo the early-to-mid 1990s entries of the Doom and Quake franchises respectively. But just as nostalgia seems to work in waves, now developers are paying homage to the shooters that arrived at the tail end of the ‘90s and beginning of the millennium. Games like 1999’s Unreal Tournament were a touch quicker than their forebears, and featured maps which stretched upwards as well as sideways. You were just as likely to score a kill hurtling through the air as you were running on the ground.

Unreal Tournament was the title that kicked off Severed Steel developer Matt Larrabee’s love affair with the genre. Initially, it was the box art that drew him in — a shiny gold trophy crowned by three hulking figures holding comically large guns — but the game’s immediacy, Larrabee explains over Zoom, defined the experience. “Some games require you to sink three or four hours in them until you get to the good stuff,” he says. “With arena shooters, you choose the map, the rules, and you’re straight in.” He fragged, and then fragged some more, getting deep into the game’s mod scene, before picking up Quake 3: Arena and doing exactly the same thing. At some point, he picked up a 2002 mod for 1998’s Half Life called “The Specialists.” It allowed him to pull off John-Woo-esque dives and flips in first-person — a generous dollop of bullet-time style for the classic FPS.

Larrabee’s own game, Severed Steel, is built on these kinds of stunts — dives and flips, sure, but slides, pistol whips, kicks, and wall-running. From what I’ve played of the nearly-finished game, you move through a series of levels with little goal to speak of beyond a vague sense that you need to escape. That, and the fact that all of its SWAT-looking enemies must die. However, the mostly solo effort started life as a conventional narrative shooter, one which followed the well-worn beats of story, combat, and puzzles. About a year into development, Larrabee and his publisher were trying to figure out how to actually ship the game. Their solution was to boil Severed Steel down to its basics — no puzzles, no real story, just concentrated combat, all taking place in bite-sized environments that force the player to rely on split-second reactions.

No puzzles, no real story, just concentrated combat, all taking place in bite-sized environments.

Like other righteous arena shooters, the game gets to the essence of what makes the genre great — the relationship between player, 3D game space, and threatening fast-paced objects. It’s a dance, albeit one that’s only half choreographed by Larrabee, and the rest of which the player improvises. The game’s action is often beautiful and even oddly serene — the sensation of running along a wall in slo-mo while unloading a clip into the face of a hapless enemy is hard to beat. It's also sweetly chaotic, not to mention tense, at least until the final adversary is downed. At various points, I had to remember to breathe.

I could just as easily be describing the action of the recently released Boomerang X, although in contrast to Severed Steel, it’s the rare breed of shooter that doesn’t actually contain any guns. Instead, you’re given the titular boomerang — magical, it should be noted — which doesn’t just allow you to scythe down enemies on a rotational axis but lets you teleport to where the boomerang itself is thrown. Combined with its own slo-mo mechanic, you’re able to transcend the normal rules of video game gravity, ascending skywards with a string of boomerang throws before suspending yourself in mid-air as you line up the perfect shot. Boomerang X takes place mostly in compact environments reminiscent of gladiatorial combat arenas but its spaces are never stifling. On the contrary, the game feels emancipatory, conveying a thrilling sense of velocity all while you, the player, sit utterly inert. Honestly, it’s quite the magic trick.

Boomerang X is also difficult — fiendishly so — but this aspect of it, which stems mostly from the game’s speed, was toned down during development, designer Ben Caulkins tells me over Google Hangouts. “We were the only ones playing it so we got really, really good. But then, when other people got their hands on the game, it was psychotically hard — it was like people were having a brain aneurysm.” he says. “We spent a lot of time breaking the game down until it was in a palatable place.”

Just like other purified arena shooters, there’s a cyborgian thrill to honing your computer skills to their lightning-quick potential in Boomerang X. Those split-second moments where you’re checking your surroundings, assessing threats, and then, finally, lining up the shot and pulling the trigger, are like the point-of-view shots in 1984’s The Terminator. While a recent design trend has sought to make the algorithmic processes of video games feel more human, a laudable goal I’ve got a lot of time for, these games veer gleefully in the other direction. Their aim, perhaps, is to help the player occupy the space between robot and person, to experience the gentle fusion of flesh and machine.

In this way, the arena shooter, both in its historic guise and modern iterations, ties back to their heyday of the late 1990s and early 2000s, a moment when society was both electrified and terrified by technology’s potential. They’re kind of exercises in Y2K nostalgia but indebted less to the shiny surfaces and kitsch design of the period than with a kind of hacker cool. At the risk of hyperbole, to play these games is to enter into a communion with the computer, just like Neo did in the millennium-defining movie, The Matrix. I can feel myself changed when I play these games — twitchy, dry-eyed, utterly switched on — almost as if the software has infected me.

Still, maybe I’m running away with myself. Some would argue that the arena shooter never went away, and they’d be right to an extent. Its DNA courses through popular team-based hero shooters such as Valorant and Overwatch, but those titles are a touch more tactical — not just about the principle interplay of avatars, architecture, and projectiles, but the various abilities of their lore-filled characters. This more cerebral approach makes me think of them as a twist on the arena shooter, an evolution, rather than a straightforward celebration of its fundamentals. For something closer in spirit to genre classics, players might do well to check out the recently released Splitgate, an utterly deranged sci-fi multiplayer arena shooter that many on the internet are reductively describing as a shameless Halo meets Portal mash-up — that’s entirely accurate.

This, I think, gets to the point of arena shooters. They’re base pleasures, but no less filled with the same love, art, and craft of ostensibly more thoughtful-looking games. The gun goes bang, the enemy goes splat, and somehow — between the computer’s fizzing circuitry and my own rapidly firing neurons — a tingle rushes through my body. Time for another round.