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Rail shooter (also known as on-rails shooter) is a subgenre of shoot 'em up video game. Beginning with arcade games such as the 1985 Space Harrier, the gameplay locks the player character into a set path, only allowing for limited or no divergence from it, in a similar manner to a theme park dark ride (which are typically on train tracks). While moving on this path, players must aim and shoot enemies while dodging projectiles and avoiding damage. Many rail shooters feature a flying protagonist or ship; however, some take place while walking, running or driving. While rail shooters saw a resurgence on the Wii due to its Wii Remote control scheme, new games in the genre are considered a rarity in the modern day, although many games of other genres contain rail shooter segments.
The rail shooter genre stemmed from arcade games, with seminal games being Space Harrier (1985) and After Burner (1987), both developed by Sega. The original Star Fox (1993) further popularized rail shooters, adding 3D graphics. By the mid-1990s, first-person rail shooters became popular in arcades, such as Time Crisis (1995) and The House of the Dead (1996). Panzer Dragoon (1995) and Panzer Dragoon II Zwei (1996) were two well-regarded rail shooters released around this time, with Star Fox 64 releasing in 1997 and gaining wide renown for its graphics, level design and non-linearity. However, it was the last primarily rail shooter Star Fox game, with Nintendo switching to a fully 3D range of movement going forwards. Bucking the trend of combat-oriented games, Pokémon Snap (1999) was one of the first nonviolent rail shooters, and also popularized the photography game genre.
Starting in the late 1990s, the genre started to become unpopular, with on-rails gameplay becoming a "dark mark" due to a stigma of being overly shallow. While games such as Panzer Dragoon Orta (2002) were still released during this time, the lull lasted until the advent of motion control on home consoles, leading to a "rebirth" of the genre with major third-party releases in order to capitalize on the light gun-style gameplay. These included The House of the Dead: Overkill (2009), a grindhouse-style prequel to the original, and Dead Space: Extraction (2009), a spin-off of the survival horror Dead Space franchise, although the developers, facing controversy over its differences from the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions, used the term "guided experience" to describe its gameplay. Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles (2009) featured shakycam movement, while Sin & Punishment: Star Successor (2009) was praised for its impressive graphics. The Kinect also saw its own games, such as Child of Eden (2011), although other developers avoided making their games rail shooters, fearing negative reception.
Following this motion control "boom", the genre dried up yet again, with releases like Crimson Dragon (2013) being sporadic and low-quality. While many modern games limit the player to linear levels, they still allow for free movement within those levels. In the modern day, the genre has become largely relegated to indie games, such as Ex-Zodiac, a retro-styled game heavily inspired by the now-defunct Star Fox series.
- Handley, Zoey (2019-05-18). "It's time for the rail shooter to take flight again". Destructoid. Retrieved 2023-04-06.
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- Hernandez, Pedro (2009-11-01). "The Rebirth of the On-Rails Shooter - Feature". Nintendo World Report. Retrieved 2023-04-06.
- Kalata, Kurt (2017-08-01). "Sin and Punishment: Star Successor". Hardcore Gaming 101. Retrieved 2023-04-06.
- Cunningham, James (2022-07-21). "Saving the Solar System in the Rail Shooter of Ex-Zodiac". Hardcore Gamer. Retrieved 2023-04-06.