Let’s get one thing straight: twin-stick shooters existed long before Halo. This is different from dual analog FPS; it’s an entirely separate genre. Twin-stick shooters have a long history, beginning with arcade games and using one stick to move a character around and using the other to shoot in an opposing direction. On the surface, it doesn’t seem too different from the venerable FPS or TPS genres, but the difference is the perspective; these are shooters where the camera has distanced itself from the player’s avatar. It’s less about immersing yourself in a character like with FPS, or getting an intimate feel of a character like in a TPS like Uncharted. These are games that are as much about keeping track of the arena as your own character.
And while the genre disappeared for a while, Twin-Stick Shooters have made a huge comeback in the past few years in the indie scene. It’d be easy to lose track of all of them, so why not take a look at some of the best of the past and present? It’s always fun to see where the genre came from and where it is now, after all!
10 .True Lies
- System: Genesis, Super Nintendo, Game Gear, Game Boy
- Publisher: Acclaim, LJN
- Developer: Beam Software
- Release Dates: December 1994
Harry Tasker was a seemingly normal computer salesman, but, unbeknownst to anyone, he’s actually a Black Ops agent! This time, he’s been sent out to stop the Crimson Jihad, a Palestinian terrorist organization led by none other than Salim Abu Aziz. It’s up to Harry to infiltrate the organization and bring Aziz to justice once and for all.
No, you’re reading that right. That is in fact the plot to the hit Arnold Schwarzenegger film of the same name. And, yes, it’s a mid-90s licensed title made by the notorious Acclaim. Everything about True Lies works against it. And, yet, somehow, they pulled it off. True Lies manages to be the game that everyone always knew should have been the blood-pumping action game that Schwarzenegger always deserved, but somehow never actually got.
- System: Playstation 3, Playstation Vita, Playstation 4, PC
- Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
- Developer: Arrowhead Game Studios
- Release Dates: March 3rd, 2015
The world of Helldivers features an idealistic world with a new and improved form of democracy called “managed democracy”… which is just a fancy way of saying “guided democracy”. It’s actually not that great of a life; in fact, it’s used as propaganda on Super Earth to justify bringing democracy to the different corners of the galaxy, all while wiping them out to boot! You’ll play as the Helldivers themselves to pursue this most noble of missions.
While Helldiver carries on the proud tradition of twin-stick shooters, directly borrowing the plot from a cult-favorite action movie (Starship Troopers in this case), Helldiver’s biggest claim to fame is actually 4 player co-op. It’s got a unique system where friendly fire is always on, no matter what. You’ll actually need to strategize around not shooting through or at your friends to kill whatever space monster comes your way. You’ll even need to be careful about summoning vehicles, and doing so at the wrong time can actually crush your team mates! It’s this kind of anarchic party fun that gives Helldivers a unique flavor among its peers.
Helldivers – Launch Trailer:
- System: PC, Playstation 4, Xbox One
- Publisher: Devolver Digital
- Developer: Reikon Games
- Release Dates: September 26th, 2017
It’s 2091. Humans are just as violent as they’ve always been. You’re sick of the blatant corruption in Rengkok. It’s time to take action. You’ll play as a renegade out to save your brother and finally shine a light to what’s really been going on in Rengkok all along. You won’t be alone, though. You’ve got a hacker who’s managed to force their way into your own mental system and will actually guide you along the way.
Ruiner is really about the diversity of the combat mechanics. Many twin-stick shooters would be satisfied with just simple run-and-gun mechanics, but Ruiner takes it a step further by mixing in plenty of melee combat to go along with the chaos. You’ll actually plan out your attacks ahead of time and dash in with a mix of physical altercations and gunplay to unleash carnage all around, encapsulating that primal rage we all want to feel playing an action game.
Ruiner – Launch Trailer:
- System: PC
- Publisher: Squid in a Box
- Developer: Squid in a Box
- Release Dates: November 16th, 2011
The actual gameplay of Waves is a pretty standard arena twin-stick shooter. You’ll play as a shape avoiding being touched by other shapes while blasting as much as you can in the process. There’s the standard mechanical hook to separate Waves from other games of its genre, like the ability to slow time down briefly or set down a bomb. Plus, there’s a myriad of different modes to choose from, like your normal survival and arcade modes that give Waves plenty of extra content.
All of this is somewhat meaningless in describing what makes Waves tick, however. It’s really more the type of game you need to experience firsthand to fully appreciate. It’s like the difference between explaining your Friday night and actually living that house rave in a drunken stupor at 2 am. Maybe hearing about it will give you a general idea of what it’s like, but to play Waves is like falling into electronic synesthesia. You’ll never know what it’s like until you give it a go yourself. But, hey, there’s a free demo! No excuses to not give it a shot!
Waves – Official Gameplay Trailer:
Waves – Official Gameplay Trailer:
6. Enter the Gungeon
- System: PC, Xbox One, Playstation 4
- Publisher: Devolver Digital
- Developer: Dodge Roll
- Release Dates: April 5th, 2016
You ever wonder if bullets were, like, alive? And had their own planet? No, of course not, no one ever has. But that’s the setting of Enter the Gungeon. Said bullets use guns to defend their own special gun with the incredible power to kill the past. The concept of the past. You want that power for yourself? Choose one of four different characters of varying talents and abilities to break into the Gungeon and reclaim the gun-torn past yourself, or play with a friend who gets their very special own fifth play-style.
Enter the Gungeon is a giant mishmash of tons of different game genres that really shouldn’t work together. After all, what other game could claim the elusive twin-stick bullet hell roguelike loot-based dungeon crawler genre all to itself? But, strangely, Enter the Gungeon manages to balance out all of its seemingly at-odds concepts with one another and creates and experience the likes of which the twin-stick shooter genre has never seen.
Enter the Gungeon – GameplayTrailer:
5. Smash TV
- System: Arcade, Atari ST, Amiga, Commodore 64 NES, SNES, Master System, Genesis, Game Gear, ZX Spectrum
- Publisher: Williams
- Developer: Williams
- Release Dates: April 1990
In the distant year of 1999, humans have given into their most violent instincts. Television has become the battleground of modern day gladiatorial combat. One show in particular is an unstoppable force of ratings: Smash TV. You’ll play as a contestant on Smash and blast your way through hundreds of humans and robots all for the sake of winning big money and big prizes. Good luck! You’ll need it!
Okay, ignore the fact that we could’ve copied the Wikipedia entry on Running Man for the summary and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Smash TV still holds up today for one reason and one reason alone: relentless, nonstop action. Every second is packed with swarms of enemies making a mad dash for you as you quickly grab power-ups and mow down everyone in your path. It’s the perfect encapsulation of everything we love about 80s action movies, despite being released in the 90s.
4. Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions Evolved
- System: PC, Xbox One, Playstation 4
- Publisher: Activision, Sierra
- Developer: Lucid Games
- Release Dates: November 25th, 2014
Geometry Wars is about as pure of a twin-stick shooter as you can get. All you’ve got are shapes, an arena, and shooting. Simply dodge wave after wave of enemies, shoot them down and try to survive for as long as possible. You’ll progress through over 100 different arenas, all to the vector retro stylings of Asteroids if it had itself a Las Vegas makeover.
What sets Geometry Wars 3 over its predecessors is the shift to 3D arenas. The gameplay is still stuck to a 2D plane, but the arenas themselves are full 3D prisms where anything could be around the corner. Maybe the original Geometry Wars brought retro back, but Geometry Wars 3 is the one that fully is living up to the original’s “Retro Evolved” moniker by fully experimenting with what can be done with this type of gameplay. You won’t find any other game on this list that even dares move away from a flat surface.
Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions Evolved Launch Trailer:
- System: Arcade, Atari 2600, Atari 5200, GCE Vectrex
- Publisher: Stern Electronics
- Developer: Stern Electronics
- Release Dates: November 12th, 1980
The granddaddy of all Twin-Stick shooters. The premise is naturally pretty simple. You’re placed in a small maze with a bunch of robots. You have to shoot them all. Once they’re all destroyed, the exit opens up and you’ll move onto the next room. You better move fast too, because hot on your trail is Evil Otto, the demonic, invincible smiling face. It’s kill or be killed, and, going by the nature of arcade games, you know how that’s going to end up.
Stern Electronics may not have realized it at the time, but with Berzerk, they ended up starting a revolution in gaming. It’s not just one of the first examples of a twin-stick shooter using a human character; it’s also one of the first games to extensively use voice as a hook. The synthesized robotic voices fit perfectly within the world established in Berzerk, and now it’s impossible to hear the phrase “Intruder Alert” without imagining “Get the humanoid” in front of it.
2. Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth+
- System: PC, Playstation 4, Xbox One, Switch, Mobile, New 3DS
- Publisher: Nicalis
- Developer: Nicalis
- Release Dates: January 3rd, 2017
Isaac has lived a shockingly depressing life for an elementary school student. His cat’s dead, his classmates make fun of him, and, to top it all off, his mother is trying to kill him. That part is pretty recent, though, as apparently God himself told her to kill Isaac to prove her devotion to him. Isaac finds a loose floorboard in the nick of time and escapes into a seemingly neverending labyrinth infested with demons. All Isaac can do to defend himself is cry and hope that his tears burn away his attackers.
Binding of Isaac just so perfectly encapsulates that helpless feeling of your fate being left up to god. You’ve only got five levels to work your way through, but every time you start the game, you’re given a completely random level layout, along with totally random items at your disposal. Sometimes you’ll find dead cat heads that will increase how hard Isaac cries, other times you’ll find demonic symbols that give Isaac the power to shoot laser beams. It’s up to you to make use of whatever you find, creating this wonderful interplay between fate screwing you over and overcoming your own fate.
It’s also quite gross. So, you know, be aware of that too.
Binding of Isaac Afterbirth Release Trailer:
1. Hotline Miami
- System: PC, Playstation 3, Playstation Vita, Playstation 4, Android
- Publisher: Devolver Digital
- Developer: Dennaton Games
- Release Dates: October 23rd, 2012
Jacket, as he’s called, is a weird guy. One day, in 1989, he receives a mysterious phone call telling him he had some cookies delivered, only to find a rooster mask in the package. He’s asked to take on a hit and retrieve a briefcase for unknown reasons. Apparently it’s important, because he is told that he’s not allowed to mess this one up. After his successful mission, he’s continually haunted by the very masks he wears to protect his identity while out on a slaying, apparently feeling guilty about his actions.
If Waves is akin to experiencing Zen, then Hotline Miami is the equivalent of a fever dream. The world is portrayed in just the brightest, gaudiest neon as pumping electronica plays in the background while you smash a mobster’s brains out from behind with a baseball bat. But everything you do in the game -from memorizing enemy positions to the most efficient way to blast a man with a shotgun before getting caught- is so mechanical, that it’s completely at odds with the hallucinogenic imagery. It numbs us to our own actions and actually causes us to avoid analyzing what we’re doing, perfectly depicting the senseless mayhem of video games as a whole.
Hotline Miami - The Masks Trailer:
Whoever said this was it? We’re still getting new Twin-Stick shooters almost monthly at this point, so clearly, this isn’t a fully comprehensive list. However, we feel it’s a good start for anyone who wants to get an idea of what to expect from Twin-Stick shooters. Do you have your own suggestions? Let us know in the comments below!