Shmups 101: A Beginner’s Guide to 2D Shooters

Beginner's Guide to 2D Shooters

Presented by BulletMagnet

Note from racketboy: Combining to popularity of our Genre 101 series (see Survival Horror 101Beatem-ups 101Platformers 101, and Fighters 101) and the expert shmup writing of BulletMagnet (see his guides to shmups for the PlaystationSaturn, and PS2 and the Games That Defined the Shmup Genre) this guide is one of most epic posts ever.  I hope you enjoy the detail and loving care that went into this piece!

About the Shmup Genre

If you utter the word “shooter” in this day and age most gamers will assume that you’re talking about Call of Duty or Halo, but not too terribly long ago those seven letters meant something quite different: they represented the enduring spirit of a time when one button was all you needed, two was a luxury, and three was pushing the envelope. When the only “motivation” you or your onscreen character ever needed to keep going was “the screen doesn’t scroll the other way” “that, and the fleeting opportunity to enter a few measly letters onto a list that would reset every time the machine was unplugged. When pretense, pandering, and half-baked rationalizations were not allowed within spitting distance of the all-important “start” button. “Shooters”, as they were originally conceived, and unlike so many of their “legitimacy”-hungry descendants, make no apologies about what they are and the purpose they were created to serve.

This straightforward self-awareness still lives on today, within the classic gaming genre of shoot-em-ups, or “shmups” for short: the silly-sounding abbreviation, whose coining is generally attributed to Commodore-centric UK magazine Zzap!64, has grown so pervasive that fans are sometimes called “shmuppers” or “shmup-o’s” (in Japan the category is frequently labeled “STG”, ostensibly an abbreviation for “shooting game”). A crucial midwife to the birth of the video gaming medium, shoot-em-ups have experimented and evolved on occasion, but never strayed far from their primeval nature: fittingly, the shmup stands tall today as one of the “purest” digital experiences available. Fashionable buzzwords like “realism”, “immersion” and “cinematic” are routinely cast aside in favor of the bedrock principles that launched the industry: simplicity, precision, and the raw joy of racking up big points in the face of seemingly-impossible odds.

To contemporary audiences raised on sidequest-laden open worlds and control pads requiring roadmaps to navigate, however, a product whose modus operandi can be summed up as “move, shoot, and roll credits after 40 minutes” is all but destined to be passed over, especially if it retails for anything above bargain-bin price. Anybody who’s ever played a shoot-em-up “in earnest”, however, knows better. Despite their easy-to-grasp premise, shmups outright refuse to treat their audience like insecure children ” it’s the individual player’s job to mine the depths of each and every compact, focused experience, gradually honing one’s skills not in flailing pursuit of some arbitrary virtual trinket, but because the game is fun and well-crafted enough to replay again and again on its own merits. It’s a notion largely lost to a culture obsessed with getting top dollar back on its disposable trade-ins, but to anyone out there who would further explore such a “radical” approach to video gaming, be advised: once you’ve experienced the rush of a finely-tuned shooter for yourself you might find it tough to go back.

Themes and Influences

Perhaps the most significant single contributor to the STG’s collective “aesthetic” is science fiction ” so many shmups over the years have been set against some manner of “futuristic starfighters in outer space” backdrop that the expression “space shooter” has coalesced into a catch-all designation. As Japanese developers have historically granted the genre more attention than their Western counterparts, the most common and direct thematic elements tend to be derived from dogfight-heavy anime like Space Battleship Yamato and Macross (though these in turn are often indebted to Star Trek and its ilk); requisite “giant robot” elements also make frequent appearances. In a nutshell, pick a shooter to play at random and it’ll probably involve evil aliens and laser beams ” if it doesn’t, chances are good that you’ve snagged a “wartime” shooter instead, featuring a fictionalized “real-world” setting filled with comparatively-“lifelike” vehicles and landscapes, most commonly inspired by the World War II era. Thanks to these thematic stimuli, a vast majority of shmups put the player in control of a spaceship or airplane of some sort.

As sci-fi and anime have shifted their emphasis over time, shmups have to a significant degree followed suit: traditionally, little to no emphasis was placed on story or characters, with developers preferring to let the game’s action speak for itself, but gradually more and more shooters have turned a brighter spotlight onto narrative and personality (including a disproportionate amount of pretty-girl “moe” eye candy) to draw modern audiences in. While this progression has spawned its share of ill-conceived marketing stunts (yeah, “Rule 34″ applies here too), it’s also opened the door to an unprecedented array of subject matter to explore: fantasy, mythology, steampunk, horror, humor, parody, social commentary, and even abstraction have all served as window dressing for shoot-em-ups. Since genre’s proverbial undercarriage is so straightforward, more superficial aspects are highly malleable, to the point that just about any canvas can be successfully stretched over the framework by a capable designer.

Space Invaders (Arcade) Screenshot

Space Invaders (Arcade), 1978

History of the Shmup

As the raw technical concepts which would eventually take shape as “video games” were churning within the minds of early computer programmers and hobbyists, the shoot-em-up, like every other “established” genre we’ve since become familiar with, didn’t truly exist. Their key outline of traversing a two-dimensional plane and firing off projectiles, however, was one of the very first to come to life onscreen: in the beginning, there was Spacewar!, developed in 1961 for the PDP-1 computer by a group of MIT students. Ten years later it was first installed in cabinet form at Stanford under the moniker Galaxy Game: two months after that, the soon-to-be founders of Atari took their own crack at it, this time as Computer Space, the very first commercially-produced video game. A tremendously important occasion for the infant industry and genre alike, Computer Space also marked the genesis of multiplayer ” not only did certain cabs support two-player mode, but a 1977 revision, Space Wars, could only be operated by two human challengers (a networked version titled Orbitwar had also appeared in 1974).

Spacewar!’s use of “manual thrust” movement controls gives it the closest kinship with Atari’s later arcade hit Asteroids, but the latter cannot claim credit for bringing the medium into its own: that honor goes to 1978’s cultural sensation, Space Invaders, which simplified and focused the shooting experience by limiting players’ movement area to a single horizontal line and fixing their firing direction straight upwards, rendering its rules and interface easy for anyone to grasp within mere seconds. These refinements, plus its pioneering implementation of both onscreen obstacles and a more involved scoring system, made Invaders so popular that it caused a shortage of 100-yen coins in its native Japan upon release, and still exists as a bankable brand today. Two years later Nichibutsu’s Moon Cresta allowed players to occasionally “dock” with more potent ship parts, arguably the first bona fide “power-ups”, but soon found itself overshadowed by Namco’s popular Galaga, which offered the more strategic ability to sacrifice and win back “captured” fighters to double one’s shot output.

Xevious (Arcade), 1982

Xevious (Arcade), 1982

The Founding Fathers

With the genre’s basic groundwork firmly set, by the early 1980’s more and more of the features we presently associate with shoot-em-ups were beginning to appear. A number of these innovations came courtesy of Western developers: Williams’ Defender debuted as the first “side-view” shooter, as well as the first to feature a screen-covering “smart bomb” special weapon. Atari’s Caverns of Mars, on the other hand, is generally thought to be the first game to implement a “non-infinite” scrolling backdrop, though Activision’s River Raid, which followed on the 2600 console a year later, takes a form more familiar to modern shooter fans. Perhaps the single most important release of the era, however, arrived from Namco’s Japan in the form of Xevious, which introduced background targets that could only be destroyed by a separate secondary weapon (in turn influencing Tehkan, an early incarnation of Tecmo and developer of Star Force) plus more powerful end-level “boss” enemies (which later turned up in Capcom’s own hit 1942).

Growth continued unabated during the mid-to-late 80’s, which oversaw the rise of some of the most successful and enduring shooter names of all time: first and foremost among these, of course, is Konami’s Gradius. A veritable showcase of some of the most varied, memorable levels and set pieces yet conceived, from the twin-pronged “Vic Viper” player craft to an army of “core” bosses and ring-spitting “Moai” statues, Gradius also features a unique “power-up bar”, which allows players to collect and stockpile generic pickups which can then be expended on a “buffet line” of upgrades. Players could now tailor their ship’s abilities to both their personal preferences and the demands of each individual area ” from ground missiles to frontal shields to “option” helpers, a fully-loaded Vic Viper was, and still is, a force to be reckoned with.

Flush with success, in 1986 the series branched off into the Salamander side story, which included both horizontally- and vertically-scrolling levels within a single game, as well as a then-unusual emphasis on gooey “organic” backdrops and enemies; eventually this offshoot grew popular enough to spawn an anime mini-series. Konami, however, was still not done: that same year Twinbee, which spurned the already-cliché futuristic/military vibe in favor of a light, cartoony atmosphere, also charged out of the gate, planting a flag for the so-called “cute-em-up” aesthetic and almost single-handedly expanding the genre’s potential audience exponentially. Before long the seemingly-tireless developer was venturing into flat-out send-up territory with the aptly-titled Parodius on the MSX, but it had picked up a few “admirers” in the meantime: SNK, rather unsurprisingly, was one of them, as its Alpha Mission allowed players to stockpile and expend “energy” stocks to activate special (if familiar) “armor” abilities. Sunsoft and Sega also decided to team up and give Twinbee a bit of competition with the whimsical Fantasy Zone: though the game’s core structure actually mimics Defender most closely, the unusual “shop” power-up system, in which you can spend coins dropped by defeated baddies, helps to set it apart.

Other established developers, for their part, certainly had no intentions of being left behind. Taito in particular kept itself plenty busy on the shmup front, though it didn’t land its first big post-Space Invaders shooter hit until the 1986 release of Darius, built from the ground up for a massive triple-screen cabinet display, all the better to show off its branching level paths and bizarre robotic fish enemies (whose bosses prompted a now-famous “Warning! A Huge Battleship Is Approaching Fast!” message upon arrival). Then there was former cabinet rental outfit Irem, which had by now dipped its toe into the shooter realm on several occasions, with limited success: in 1987 it finally struck gold with the iconic R-Type. Not only did its detailed enemy and level designs impress audiences and critics alike, but its front-and-center power-up, the indestructible “Force” pod, bestowed the player’s humble R-9 spacecraft, and the rest of the game, with a unique and compelling identity. In the background, another Sega/Gremlin feature, Astro Blaster, quietly snuck in a long list of hidden scoring tricks which other developers would bring out into the open later on, as well as a limited-use “warp” ability, gaming’s very first “bullet time” mechanic.

Much as Konami’s successful productions had, these early standouts lured their own string of eager imitators out of the woodwork; thankfully for gamers, the more resourceful ones managed to carve out a less-ephemeral niche for themselves through skillful refinements and departures from convention. Hudson Soft, for instance, crafted Star Soldier as an unofficial continuation of Tehkan’s work, and its unveiling of a timed, score-centric “Caravan Mode” was to be the first of many; the game’s most famous competitor, the fast-fingered “Takahashi Meijin”, was later immortalized as the protagonist of the Adventure Island platformers. Elsewhere, the fledgling Tecnosoft put out an obscure little cassette-based multi-directional scrolling shooter called Thunder Force, which would find much greater success upon shifting to a permanent side-view format two sequels later. In other semi-hidden sectors experimentation was afoot into the realms of both polygonal graphics (Game Arts’ Silpheed) and ever-more-involved scoring systems (UPL’s Omega Fighter), though these exploits would remain rare overall for some time to come.

Another small “me-too” arcade developer, Orca, tended to stick particularly close to Xevious’ design mentality across its brief lifespan; upon folding, several of its programmers regrouped as Toaplan, to slowly build a more solid industry footing for themselves, but wouldn’t truly hit their stride until 1988’s Tatsujin, which paired blistering challenge with a bold, intricate sprite art style (affectionately dubbed “chunky” by fans) that would become a company trademark. On the home console and computer front Compile won its own batch of admirers with Zanac’s rapid pace and impressive arsenal ” in an additional twist, the player’s weapon of choice actually affected enemy placement, making each trip through the game a bit different. Also of note is a little outfit known as Seibu Kaihatsu, whose early shooter Air Raid passed through arcades largely unnoticed; that title’s bright red jet fighter, however, would soon be reborn and achieve legendary status in Raiden.

Gradius (Arcade), 1985

Gradius (Arcade), 1985

Shmups Hit the Big Time

By the 1990’s video games had exploded into a full-fledged cultural phenomenon, and shooters, still boasting solid mainstream appeal, found themselves more in demand than ever. Not only did the most successful series see a sequel or two (or three, or four”), but the field became densely crowded with upstarts eager for a piece of the pie: unlike many of their plagiarizing predecessors, however, a surprising number of them were able to stand on their own two feet from the get-go. One of them, Video System, introduced itself to the masses with the approachably kooky Sonic Wings series (the only shmups, before or since, to feature a talking dolphin as a fighter jet pilot), but only after its personnel later reformed under the Psikyo banner did the formula truly stick: Sengoku Ace, Gunbird, and Strikers 1945, along with the rest of its catalog, retain much of the same gameplay feel, not to mention oddball characters and settings aplenty, though their challenge level is generally a good deal more robust.

Just about everywhere you looked, the scrolling shooter scene was bursting with energy and resolve: European fans in particular recall this era as the heyday of “computer shooter” development on the Amiga and similar systems, which were granted the likes of Apidya, Space Manbow and Uridium. Rough patches, of course, were not unheard of, though even in the face of adversity the shmupping onslaught continued unabated. The once-mighty Toaplan was abruptly shuttered in 1994, but its final release, Batsugun, marked perhaps the genre’s most significant turning point since Xevious: easily the most over-the-top shmup audiences had ever seen, Batsugun’s screen-filling assault on the senses blew the door wide open for the torrent of “bullet hell” releases to follow. A tweaked “Special Version”, never intended for official release, was also discovered, and ended up exerting additional influence via its tiny, dodge-friendly “hitbox” and arcane, counter-intuitive scoring mechanics.

Toaplan’s former employees, in the meantime, quickly moved on to form their own outfits and keep the momentum going: foremost among these establishments is Computer Arts Visual Entertainment, better known as Cave. Picking up where Batsugun left off, Cave quickly made it their mission to further the cause of “bullet hell” shooters, starting with DonPachi and its smash sequel DoDonPachi, which allow players to instantly “focus” their weapon power and movement speed when the situation warrants it: Guwange and Dangun Feveron later experimented along vastly different mechanical and aesthetic fronts. A second ex-Toaplan faction joined forces with a couple of Compile veterans to found Raizing, and took things in another direction entirely: after cutting its teeth on the fantasy-tinged Mahou Daisakusen, 1996’s gritty Battle Garegga redefined the company overnight, putting an invisible, dynamic “rank” system front and center, demanding careful sacrifices from players to keep it in check. Armed Police Batrider, Battle Bakraid, and several later Raizing titles built their own approaches on top of this revolutionary mindset.

One more notable ex-Toaplan group was Takumi, whose name most would probably associate with 1999’s over-the-top-and-proud-of-it shooter Giga Wing, one of the few destinations in gaming which routinely sends the score counter soaring into the trillions and far beyond. Enemies throw everything but the kitchen sink at the player, but the odds are evened by a “reflector” mechanism which grants temporary invincibility when activated, if allowed enough recharge time between uses. Elsewhere, Konami’s own now-independent outgrowth, Treasure, finally entered the shmup fray itself with Radiant Silvergun, lending a long-absent sense of “epicness” to shooters which had never truly hit home before, though Sony and Squaresoft, via the story-heavy Philosoma and Einhander, respectively, had certainly given it their best shots. Forget all that artsy stuff, though: when you get right down to it, this era’s most distinctive new shooter property of all was probably none other than Masaya’s bizarre and infamously buff-dude-centric Cho Aniki.

Though this period’s most visible triumphs belonged to the new blood, longtime genre names were once again far from silent. Taito, seemingly dead-set on cementing its position as the “old reliable” of shooting game development, exerted a great deal of stylistic influence on those to follow with Gun Frontier and Metal Black, not to mention Layer Section, the first true evolution of the “ground target” mechanic since Xevious. Seibu Kaihatsu, by now a premier shmup presence, introduced a slew of new scoring mechanisms and game modes to Raiden DX in 1994; this, in turn, served as a precursor to the Raiden Fighters series, which administered a welcome shot of adrenalin to both the diversity and pace of the action two years later. Then, of course, there’s Konami, which was largely content to rest on its laurels: though a handful of new properties saw daylight during this era, existing ones received some of their most stellar and polished entries, including fan favorite Gradius Gaiden. Even the increasingly-dormant Capcom and Irem threw fans an unexpected curve or two with 19XX and R-Type Delta.

Unfortunately, despite all of the important and exciting advancements being made on so many fronts, the genre had simultaneously stretched itself too thin, and was finally unable to dodge the consequences any longer: for every finely-crafted product on the market there existed a plurality of average, redundant, or just plain awful shooters to crowd the good ones out and send players away in droves, soured toward the whole lot. What’s more, this poisonous trend’s timing couldn’t have been worse: the market’s demands for more technically-complex and grandiose experiences were growing louder, eating away mercilessly at the arcade, birthplace of the shmup, along with the player base which had long comprised its lifeblood. The once-mighty shoot-em-up was, to put it mildly, poised for a fall.

DoDonPachi (Arcade), 1997

DoDonPachi (Arcade), 1997

The Underground Years

Unthinkable as it had once seemed, the other shoe dropped and one of gaming’s founding pillars was suddenly passé, outclassed, yesterday’s news. In the aftermath of this mass abandonment by both consumers and the gaming media, few remained to keep the fires burning save battle-scarred stalwarts with very specific demands for struggling developers, who had no choice but to acquiesce. The shmups of this era, as a result, are primarily noted for their inherently high levels of challenge and complexity, catnip to paying customers at the time: moreover, these placed a strong emphasis on intense, single-player experiences, largely relegating player interaction to niche internet message boards and scattered enthusiast gatherings. Cave, in particular, met these conditions head-on with hard-nosed releases like DoDonPachi Dai-Ou-Jou and Ketsui, and kept its books solidly in the black: even so, the company was obviously nostalgic for bygone times, occasionally dipping its toe back into more universally-appealing territory with Espgaluda and Mushihime-sama. Surprisingly, enough of a foothold was gained to pique the company’s interest further in this direction, though opportunities to act on these impulses any further would, for now, remain scarce.

Much of Cave’s competition, however, would never get the opportunity to reflect on what might have been. Even in the face of some of their highest-quality output ever, Raizing, Psikyo, Compile and Seibu Kaihatsu all went out of business completely; Capcom, Konami, Taito and Irem survived, but basically left the genre for dead. As had taken place in Toaplan’s wake, however, certain fragments banded together to keep the shmupping spirit alive: two separate groups of Taito refugees split off to form G. Rev (which produced unofficial Darius spinoff Border Down) and Alfa System (creators of Shikigami no Shiro). The latter series actually borrowed a key design facet from new Korean developer Skonec, whose Psyvariar places a similarly heavy emphasis on “cheating death” by hovering as close as possible to threats for maximum rewards. A handful of of Compile’s ex-programmers, meanwhile, started over at Milestone, while much of Seibu’s staff was able to reunite under the MOSS banner.

Additional signs of life could be detected in less-prolific sectors, not to mention some downright unexpected ones if you knew where to look ” Treasure’s “polarity-based” Ikaruga garnered widespread praise even from normally-unfriendly press outlets, as did chaotic, missile-happy pseudo-shmup Bangai-O. Project Gotham Racing developer Bizarre Creations, of all outfits, cooked up an out-of-nowhere hit in hidden mini-game Geometry Wars, which suddenly revitalized the long-neglected “twin-stick” shooting control format and established a new standard for online scorekeeping. Perhaps the biggest single driving force of this era, however, was an unprecedented outburst of “homebrew” activity by the fans themselves: while earlier breakout hits like Famibe no Yosshin’s Cho Ren Sha 68k and Siter Skain’s Kamui had set the stage for amateur developers to follow, it wasn’t until professional houses started to abandon old-school shooters en masse that shmuppers with coding knowhow, especially in Japan, really stepped up to fill the void, with the Windows-based PC format serving as their base of operations.

The most singularly successful “doujin” shooter story is that of a lone Japanese programmer known as ZUN: his Cave-inspired “Touhou” series is not only still going strong after more than 10 years, but has spawned its own creative fanbase, source of a dizzying array of “tribute” projects. Kenta Cho (ABA Games)’s abstract style has also done well, with Tumiki Fighters (plus a few others piggybacking along) earning an eventual port to the Wii, while several of Murasame (Platine Dispotif)’s more cartoony creations were eventually granted a Western retail package on their native PC platform. Other homebrewers chose to set up camp in the more remote corners of the console market – the Sega Dreamcast, long after its “official” demise, has served as a launching pad for more than a few fledgling developers, while Bandai’s ill-fated Wonderswan portable played host to M-KAI’s Judgment Silversword, often touted as the best handheld shooter ever made.

Even on “life support” the shmup scene remained remarkably vibrant, its latent energy bubbling just below the surface of an increasingly mercurial industry: before it had a chance to settle any further into this newfound role, though, outside forces would once again reshuffle the deck, in dramatic fashion.

Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved (Xbox), 2005

Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved (Xbox), 2005

An Unlikely Resurgence

As we enter the contemporary video game era, two enormous shifts have rewritten the modern history of the shoot-em-up: the rapid onset of downloadable content (whose reduced cost of developer entry gels well with most shooters’ relatively unobtrusive filesizes) and the proliferation of online play (accompanied by a resurgence in the arcades’ spirit of direct high score competition) has given the humbled shmup an improbable shot at a comeback. Out on the periphery, the rise of YouTube and other online video outlets have also allowed once-isolated STG devotees to share their love with larger audiences than ever; bit by bit, bleary-eyed video gamers disenchanted with today’s trends are noticing, rediscovering, and exploring this intriguing departure from modern convention.

So far, this opportunity to re-expand the genre’s audience has been seized upon with relish: Cave’s Deathsmiles is a prime example, allowing players of all skill levels to adjust the inherent difficulty of each stage, a once-unthinkable “concession” to the less-experienced. Full-featured “physical” releases remain rare outside of Japan, though a couple of Eastern publishers are starting to renew outreach efforts to international fans with import-friendly “region-free” disc pressings. “Old-school” genre sensibilities are also alive and well thanks to the likes of Triangle Service’s throwback Trizeal and “modernized” visions of classics a la Taito’s Space Invaders Extreme: though not every effort to recapture past glory (Otomedius, Thunder Force VI) has turned out quite so well, shooter fans as a whole have reason to be excited about the sudden abundance of content available to them, easily more than has been seen in years.

The downloadable scene, however, remains easily the most active theater of operations for shmups in this day and age. The doujin PC market hasn’t slowed down a bit, thanks to Crimzon Clover and Hydorah, among many others: a lucky few, like Trouble Witches and Exception, have even been blessed with commercial arcade editions. It’s not an exaggeration to state that today’s homebrew scene recalls the genre’s heyday in terms of sheer volume”and is still growing unabated. Back on the home console front, all three “current-gen” systems’ digital distribution services not only open the floodgates for a slew of budding indie developers, but offer a sampling of shooters from days long past, including some obscure and hard-to-find specimens from across the spectrum. Plenty of brand new “professional” stuff has also popped up here and there: much of it consists of enhancements and re-imaginings of existing properties (R-Type Dimensions, Gradius ReBirth), but promisingly original material is also out there for those with the will to seek it.

Some fans have become concerned that this increased emphasis on digital distribution will end up hamstringing future prospects for “larger-scale” shmup releases, but for the moment things are still going pretty strong on both ends – whatever ends up happening down the line, at this crucial juncture it’s an undeniable treat for the shooter crowd to finally see their genre of choice coming back into a bit of favor again.

Deathsmiles (Arcade), 2007

Deathsmiles (Arcade), 2007

Genre Conventions

(The following segment lists some of the most frequently-invoked “requirements” to “officially” define a game as a “shmup”; keep in mind, however, that individual players have countless, highly disparate personal definitions of what a shmup “technically” is, and that total consensus will never be reached. In short, there’s no need to take any of these items as “definitive” in any meaningful capacity.)

  • Projectile Weapons:Well, it just plain isn’t a shooter if you’re not shooting, right? Though players do sometimes have access to short-range “melee” attacks or other motivators to engage in up-close combat, generally the name of the game is to stand back and let your disintegrator beams do the talking ” often, the real trick therein is determining whether you should equip a spread gun, piercing laser, splash damage mine, homing missile, rotating shield orb, or something else to meet the particular challenge in front of you. Most of your enemies, of course, are packing heat of their own, so maintaining distance is also essential for avoiding a face full of hot lead.
  • 2-D Movement ” A tiny sliver of shoot-em-ups (most famously Gremlin/Sega’s isometric Zaxxon) choose to flout this traditional genre boundary, but the vast majority (if you’ll pardon the pun) flatly refuse to acknowledge the existence of a z-axis: at most you’re allowed to move your onscreen avatar up, down, left, right, and diagonally, though the entire screen is usually traversable to some degree. Despite this relative freedom of motion, however, your weapons typically only fire straight ahead of you (and very rarely are you granted the ability to face in multiple directions at will), so be especially wary of threats approaching from the sides and rear.
  • Auto-scrolling Backgrounds ” There’s a reason you hear the term “scrolling shooter” used as an all-inclusive genre label so often. At any given moment your hands are probably full enough dealing with the waves of pesky malefactors out to ruin your day, so basic forward progression is usually handled for you; as in certain platformers, however, this unstoppable and near-constant advancement can become an adversary in itself, especially during fast-moving sections filled with obstacles. Definition-wise there is a bit of inherent wiggle room here, as several shooters which require players to manually move things along (Kaitei Daisensou, Outzone, etc.) are still considered “genuine” shmups by many, as are Space Invaders and a number of other “non-scrolling” single-screen specimens.
  • One-hit Death ” Yup, remember this, from back in the day? Once in a blue moon you’ll be granted a “shield” meter or some other means to survive a bit of damage, but absent this a single screw-up will almost certainly be enough to cost you a life (usually from a default starting stock of three). Some shooters allow you to instantly respawn right where you died, but others boot you back to a mid-stage “checkpoint”, or even the very beginning of the level ” while this sounds frustrating (and it certainly can be), in shmups which reduce your craft’s weapon level after death you’re generally sent to specific “recharging” spots, which allow you to power back up enough to stand a fighting chance again. Regenerating health fans, be thus advised: in this neck of the gaming woods individual mistakes can and will cost you dearly.
  • Score Tally ” Surviving any decently-challenging video game all the way to the credit roll is satisfying in and of itself, but shmups make it their business to encourage players to push themselves beyond the minimum clear requirements and go for the top spot on the leader board. In purely practical terms, high scores do traditionally award “extends” (bonus lives), but a minimum point total is also sometimes required to access certain special areas and boss fights, such as post-game “loops” which allow you to tackle the journey a second or third time with the difficulty level significantly raised. If you really want to see everything an intricately-constructed shmup has to offer you must strive to squeeze as many points as you can out of it even after crossing the finish line in one piece.
  • Powerups-a-Plenty ” While some shooters prefer to simplify things and keep their weaponry’s power level constant throughout, many offer players a sense of progression (and occasional evil glee) by gradually beefing them up in various ways as they persevere and get further in. This process is stereotypically helped along by collectible icons and trinkets left in the wake of certain enemies, though sometimes rewards come in other forms: the most commonly-seen “power-ups” strengthen, supplement, or switch up your current weapon, but a wide variety of enhancements also exist to adjust movement speed, deploy a defensive shield, or award bonus points, to name but a few. One particularly iconic acquisition is the mighty “smart bomb” – expending one grants temporary invincibility and/or a super-powerful screen-filling attack, so players can typically cart along only a limited stock.
  • Hitbox ” Many older shmups render your entire onscreen avatar as a “hitbox”, i.e. totally vulnerable to attacks: if something nasty so much as grazes even your outermost edge, you can wave goodbye to a spare ship. As later games started cramming more and more bullets onscreen, though, developers decided that some pixelated fat-trimming was needed to keep things reasonable: these days, your so-called “hit area” is often shrunk down to a small, specific zone within your craft/character, and hazards can pass right through any other part of you with no penalty. Though usually located near the center of the sprite/model, the hitbox’s size and shape varies from game to game and relatively few titles render it openly visible, so learn its location well before you try to replicate those seemingly-impossible dodges from that crazy video someone linked to on the forums.
  • Slowdown ” Arcade gamers should be especially familiar with this one: at some point during a game, the screen (and the hardware processor) gets overloaded with objects and effects and such, which forces the action on display to chug and wheeze along at a fraction of its usual pace. Often (and rightly) frowned upon as a  reflection of poor programming and/or inferior tech specs, especially since shooters are so reliant on a smooth frame rate to play properly, in some shmups slowdown is actually added deliberately to tough spots to make them more manageable (and/or dramatic), so it doesn’t always merit outright condemnation when it appears. In the interest of cross-platform accuracy home ports of arcade shooters frequently include a “wait” option, which effectively allows players to turn the original slowdown “on” or “off”: fans tend to be particularly picky about this factor for score comparison purposes, so expect to see a lot of discussion about slowdown accuracy and such within the community.
  • Rank ” A sometimes-controversial feature, “rank” is a catch-all term encompassing various auto-adjusting difficulty systems operating “in the background” of many shmups. Basically, a shooter with “rank” gradually gets a bit harder or easier overall depending on how you perform in-game: for example, enemies might become more aggressive as your weapons grow more powerful, but lighten up on you a bit if you lose a life. Usually the idea is to constantly rebalance the game’s challenge level to keep the curve relatively steady throughout, to the point where the player hardly notices: some games, though, have taken the concept to an extreme, all but forcing shmuppers to carefully construct strategies with the specific purpose of “rank control” (basically, keeping the game from getting “too angry” at you) in mind. Hard info on particular rank systems can be tricky to dig up, but there’s usually a hint or two floating around to reward persistent observers.
Darius (Arcade), 1986

Darius (Arcade), 1986

Critical Elements

  • Theoretical Perfection ” Perhaps the single most important quality for any respectable shmup to possess: it should be technically possible for a player to make a “perfect” run through the game, without getting hit even once. Put another way, there should never be spots where eating damage is 100 percent unavoidable ” no matter the situation, your raw skills should always be sufficient to get you through if you’re good enough. Of course, only a select few gamers actually are that good, but this ideal MUST be legitimately attainable: failing to tie up this crucial loose end during development is guaranteed to hamstring any shooter, no matter its strengths in other areas
  • Minimal Downtime ” The fact that so many shooters routinely skimp on story and other ancillary elements in favor of short, action-packed runtimes isn’t exactly shocking: their audience just plain isn’t interested in stagnation of any sort. By and large they’re here to feel those fingers twitching, and the heck with everything else. Relentlessly overloading shmuppers to the point of mental exhaustion isn’t a wise course either, mind you, but 99 percent of the time there had better be something tangibly engaging going on: enemies that put up a genuine fight. Trickily-placed obstacles to dodge. Exploitable opportunities for scoring bonuses. A well-crafted shooter should never, EVER allow a player to “sleepwalk” ” the game should require your near-constant attention, and you should be only too happy to indulge it.
  • Ample Firepower ” On a related note, any shooter enthusiast will tell you that there’s a marked difference between being briskly challenged and being utterly overpowered: the former, even upon defeat, leaves you satisfied, while the later, even following victory, leaves you exasperated. Pitting a lone escape pod against a galaxy’s worth of bug-eyed, tentacled hostility ought to stack the deck against the player enough from the get-go: stranding him in a rough part of town armed with only a spitball gun is just overkill. Weapon and item access, damage levels, fire rates, movement speed, enemy durability, stage length, checkpoint locations and other factors must be carefully balanced against each other to ensure that the challenger always feels like he has some semblance of hope against the hordes: if the bad guys are going to mercilessly crush us under their heels they should at least have to earn it.
  • Engaging Score System “A shmup can be a lot of fun even when the scoring is something of an afterthought, so if a more substantial tallying system IS included it had better a) Not be “broken” in any way, and b) Do its job – that is, serve as an enhancement to the experience, not a distraction. Ideally, ratcheting up the point ticker encourages players to utilize all of their inherent advantages on a whole new level, without making these important “tricks” unnecessarily obtuse or impractical ” a well-executed high-score play should be packed with thrills and free of excessive repetition, a thing of beauty and exhilaration for executor and observers alike. In like manner, a good scoring system makes you want to go the extra mile to learn it, even if you don’t technically have to ” to help players compare and compete, online and local tallies should be well-organized, detailed, and easy to read.
  • Optimal Visibility ” Pretty simple, really: if a game is going to saddle you with a very busy screen and minimal defenses, you’d darn well better be able to see everything that’s going on around you at all times. As much as we all love intricate foreground elements, huge fiery explosions, and bits of shrapnel flying all over the place, these lose their charm VERY fast if they prevent you from spotting a torpedo hovering inches from your nose. The most obvious solution is to give enemy bullets bright, garish, and/or flashing colors and animations, making them tough to ignore under any circumstances – this certainly helps, though thick patterns of this stuff can sometimes render the baddies themselves tough to pick out beneath it all. Muted background graphics can help everything in front of them to “pop”, but too dulled a palette delivers a hit to the overall visual charm: there is, again, a balance to be struck here, but a shmup CAN be both attractive and accommodating, if its designer puts the effort in to make it happen.

Tips and Tricks

  • Equip Yourself Well ” In any shooter, precision is paramount ” players must be in total control at all times just to stay alive, let alone excel. Unfortunately, console hardware manufacturers these days simply aren’t designing with shmuppers in mind (and, to be blunt, haven’t been for some time now), so a bit of supplementation is often a good idea. Some diehards have gone so far as to acquire full-fledged arcade cabinets or other high-end accoutrements for the most “authentic” shooting experience possible, but the rest of us can still make things significantly better for ourselves on a smaller scale.  First and foremost, definitely shop around for a (wired, to minimize input lag) controller with a responsive d-pad, or a joystick featuring a short “throw” (high sensitivity). When playing a game intended for a vertical monitor, check to see if the options menu features a “tate” (vertical) option ” this allows you to physically turn your screen 90 degrees on its side, banishing those ugly letterbox bars and giving you a more detailed (and pretty!) view of the action. Just make sure your display device of choice won’t be damaged in the process: look around the web a bit for more detailed info.
  • Know Thy Hitbox ” As was mentioned in an earlier section, not every pixel of your onscreen “character” is always vulnerable to enemy assaults. Knowing which parts ARE is essential: typically the “danger zone” is a square, rectangle, or circle near your avatar’s center, but many times it’s hidden from view, so whenever you get shot down do your best to take note of exactly where you were drilled for future reference. Even in cases where the vital area is plainly displayed onscreen you have to get used to focusing on it whilst ignoring most everything else, so don’t be discouraged if you have some trouble at first. Of course, if you’re playing an older shmup with a “full ship” hitbox, just stay the heck away from everything!
  • Use the Entire Screen ” When you’ve got an extraterrestrial armada with a severe case of the crankies staring you down, one’s first reaction, understandably, is to stay as far away as possible, hugging the back end of the screen for dear life ” don’t let that instinct (healthy as it is) stop you from utilizing every inch of the real estate you’re given when the opportunity arises. Sometimes it’s actually in your best interest to get right up in a bad guy’s grill and “point blank” him for maximum damage, bringing him down before he gets a shot off; on other occasions slowly luring streams of hostile fire along an edge or even staying perfectly still in the middle of a nasty-looking pattern can, against all appearances, keep you safe. Always keep an eye out for “safe spots” in unlikely places ” depending on the situation, either a daredevil dash across the battlefield or a tiny nudge to the side could mean the difference between (virtual) life and death.
  • Bomb When You Gotta ” In many cases your finite stock of “smart bombs” serves primarily as a “Plan B” for when “regular” shooting and dodging just aren’t quite enough to push you over the top ” as you get better you won’t need to fall back on them as often, but no matter how comfortable you are with a particular shmup you’d still better know when to whack the “bomb” button and when to lay off. Obviously you don’t want to waste your payload on spots where they’re not absolutely necessary, but even in familiar situations things sometimes don’t go according to plan ” being too stingy may well end up costing you a life instead of a bomb, rarely (if ever) a worthwhile tradeoff: if you frequently find yourself dying with unused bombs in stock, shake up your approach a bit and make those little explosive bundles of joy count. Oh, and make sure to note any inherent delay between the moment you press the button and the instant the bomb actually activates, too.
  • Self-Motivate ” This is perhaps the toughest item for a lot of modern gamers to wrap their heads around: to truly get your money’s worth out of a shmup you need to set certain challenges in place yourself, rather than allowing the game to do it for you. Exhibit A: The all-important one-credit clear (1CC). If you brag to a genre enthusiast about how you “beat” a shooter and only had to continue eight times to do it, consider yourself lucky if all he does is roll his eyes: for shmuppers, you haven’t truly conquered a game until you’ve done it on default settings, without continuing. Even after accomplishing that, of course, you’re still not finished: now it’s your job to seek a higher score. Most shooters don’t fall back on unlockables or other carrots and sticks to coax players in a particular direction (though many will reset your point tally after your initial credit), so what you end up getting out of a shmup is what you put into it: while this might sound overbearing at first, in practice it’s far more intuitive than you’d think, and becomes second nature before you know it. See the upcoming paragraphs for a bit of related info.
  • Practice Makes Perfect” ” Kind of an obvious one, but considering that a number of shmups are in the same league as tourney fighters in terms of the time commitment required for even “competent-level” performance, a bit of persistence is definitely your ally. “Credit feeding” through tough stages to take a peek at later areas is okay at first, but as you get more naturally accustomed to how a game works you should gradually start “playing for score” and aiming for the coveted one-credit clear. Recording footage of your attempts, which some games can do for you out of the box, might help, as can studying “superplays” of “expert” runs, which are both watchable online and packaged as full-featured commercial videos. Off to the side, some shmuppers speak in furtive whispers of “the zone”, a semi-mystical extra-focused gaming state of mind attained under certain mysterious circumstances: it’s not an “official strategy” for progress by any stretch, but if you do somehow happen to achieve your own “zone” as you play, go with it!
  • “But “Perfect” Is NOT Required! ” As awe-inspiring as it is to watch a highly-skilled shmupper strut his stuff, the experience can also be an intimidating one: after all, if you’ve never been devoted enough to video games to put in the kind of time and effort required to reach that degree of skill, are shmups really even worth trying out “just for fun”? The answer, you may be surprised to hear, is an emphatic YES ” getting the essential “basics” of most shooters down is a simple process, and individual “sessions” are almost always short and to-the-point, perfect for gainfully employed gamers in need of titles which can be quickly finished up for the time being and easily resumed during a spare few minutes later on. Contrary to what you might have heard, this is actually a big part of what makes the genre so appealing to its admirers: even if you lack the ability or inclination to totally “master” a shmup, advancement can still be made even if you only pick up a controller “when you can” or “when you feel like it”. So long as you don’t try to boastfully lump yourself in with the “top-tier” set, your fellow shmuppers will never criticize you for taking it slow: many of them, after all, are in the exact same boat. So relax ” when you’re playing something with a name like “shmup”, feel free to check your self-consciousness at the door.
Super Star Soldier (TurboGrafx 16), 1990

Super Star Soldier (TurboGrafx 16), 1990

Principle Scoring Systems

(Individual shmups’ approaches to bringing home the big bonus points range from the bleedingly obvious to “who thought THIS up?”, but when you get right down to it nearly all are dependent on a short checklist of basic features, namely 1) Enemies, 2) Bullets, and 3)Items. Messing around with these three things in some manner or combination forms the backbone of nearly every scoring system ever implemented in a shooter: below are a few of the more common applications, to give you a general (though far from complete) idea of what to expect as you become more familiar with the genre at large.)

  • Chaining ” Most commonly associated with Cave’s shooters, the basic idea behind “chaining” is defeating enemies (or collecting the items they drop) either a) In a specific order or b) In near-immediate succession, without leaving too long a gap between “hits”: the longer you can keep this up, the higher the “chain”, and your point bonus, grows. This technique requires both practice and attention (i.e. to memorize where enemies show up, so as to be ready to pick them off at the right moment), as well as restraint – simply snatching up everything on sight will often lead to a break, so you need to “space out” your maneuvers appropriately, even if this means giving the bad guys additional time to attack. Some “chaining” shooters are infamously strict and can be frustrating to master for all but the most devoted players, though not all are quite so demanding. (Examples: DoDonPachi, Mars Matrix, Radiant Silvergun, Game Tengoku)
  • Medaling- Countless shooters wedge some manner of item collecting into their structure, but “medaling”, named for the “medal” items from several Raizing shooters that popularized this system, is a specialized variation meriting further explanation. As you destroy certain enemies or containers, these unusual point-awarding items (“medals”) start to show up: at first they’re only worth a pittance, but for each one you collect the next one’s value increases, and once the sequence tops out the points quickly start to pile up. Most such games require that no “medals” be missed in order to keep the bonus climbing: allowing a single reward to drop off the screen often forces you to start the “medaling” process over. A related “item-based” scoring mechanic requires the moment of collection to be timed precisely (usually in sync with a visual cue) to up the ante. (Examples: Battle Garegga, Gunbird 2, Twinbee, Trizeal)
  • Proximity Bonus ” Sure, keeping a safe distance from threats is usually a good idea, but every once in awhile a shoot-em-up will tempt you to forget everything you know about personal safety in the name of bonus points: “You really gonna let that armed-to-the-teeth battleship say mean things about your momma? Dry those sissy baby tears and get in his FACE!” The most common and straightforward implementation of this seemingly-suicidal gimmick simply awards extra points based on how close you are to enemies when you kill them; other times you’re compensated for hovering near any threat onscreen, including walls and projectiles (exploiting the latter, specifically, is known as “grazing”, “scratching”, “scraping”, or “buzzing”). The constant risk of being “point-blanked” by nearby baddies makes both muscle-memory repetition (you’d better know exactly how long it takes to kill that thing before it unloads on you) and twitch reflexes musts for success. (Examples: Omega Fighter, Ketsui, Silpheed: The Lost Planet, Shikigami no Shiro)
  • Kill Bonus ” Now here’s a category which truly taps into that most primal shmupping instinct: blowing lots of stuff up! Of course, if you want to reap maximum profits from all that destruction you’ll have to channel your taste for mayhem in slightly more nuanced directions: for instance, you might want to lure groups of enemies close together and then take them all out in one shot to multiply their value. Alternatively, it might be in your best interests to bring down your adversaries extra-quickly, or simply not let a single member of a particular “marked” group (including non-aggressive “environmental” targets) escape your fury. Sometimes your goal will be to blast away every single “outer” piece of a boss before “shooting the core” for the final kill, while on other occasions you’ll be rewarded for a single “sniper shot” to a well-equipped enemy’s elusive weak spot. Countless variations on this theme exist, so give the manual or in-game tutorial a quick glance before setting off to wreak glorious havoc. (Examples: Layer Section, Vasara, Raiden III, Star Soldier)
  • Resource Management ” A relatively recent and somewhat complex addition to the list, these shmups usually require the player to amass and expend (or “cash in”) two or more separate “resources” (items, power meter, etc.) in appropriate tandem to product the best results. For instance, say that taking down targets with your “main” weapon makes them leave behind ammo for your limited-use “super” weapon: defeating enemies with the latter, in turn, causes them to spawn bonus points, but depletes the weapon’s energy faster, leaving you with less to fall back on in a tough spot. How much time you want to devote to either stockpile is up to you: going in one direction often means an easier 1CC, while the other leads to higher scores. “Resource management” can often be tricky to wrap one’s head around at first, but hands-on experimentation can usually clear up misconceptions much faster than reading or hearing about it from outside sources. (Examples: Mushihime-sama Futari (Maniac), Espgaluda, Radirgy, Akai Katana)
  • Milking/Leeching ” Not really a “scoring system”, per se, but a loosely-defined “technique” used to squeeze as many points as possible out of adversaries – “milking” usually refers to lengthy battles, like bosses, while “leeching” is a briefer variation applied to minor enemies. Many games enable its use, but a few are especially dependent on it for high score competition. Basically, instead of dispatching nasties immediately, slow down and take “em for all they’re worth: if a boss regenerates destroyed parts, let him live and blast them off a few times apiece for extra points. If a mid-size opponent fills the screen with bullets when allowed to linger too long, tempt fate and summon forth the onslaught before unleashing a special attack to cancel the whole mess into bonus items. This obviously requires patience on the player’s part, so most developers use a timer or other means to limit “milking” to a degree: allowing it to go on indefinitely, after all, gives a skilled player free reign to essentially break the game. (Examples: Giga Wing, Psyvariar, Muchi Muchi Pork!, Border Down)
  • End Bonus ” One of the many little pleasures coveted by shooter players is taking a few well-deserved moments to relax after a hard-fought level is finished ” of course, this brief respite is SO much more fulfilling if you get to watch the game tally up a nice long list of awards before moving on. As with “milking”, a ton of games award extra bonuses at the end of each level (and/or the game’s conclusion), though the criteria evaluated varies widely: remaining lives and/or bombs, enemy shoot-down percentage, score item count, secrets discovered, and boss clear time are a few of the more established ones. Though the amount of points given can seem somewhat inconsequential compared to what’s “actively” gained mid-stage, a strong finish to each level can still make or break a high-score run in more than a few cases, so try not to die at a spot where it’ll be tough to recover before the end (or at all, if you can manage it!). (Examples: Viper Phase 1, 19XX, Raiden DX, Blast Wind)
Cotton

Cotton (Turbo Grafx 16), 1991

Subgenres

(Though some fans choose to subdivide shmups based primarily on their viewing perspectives [“vertical”, “horizontal”, “isometric”, “uphill”, etc.], most prefer a more detailed and specific grouping method, based on numerous other factors: most of the “accepted” classifications formed in this manner are listed here, though individual games provide plenty of opportunities for overlap.)

  • Proto-shmup ” A “big tent” category encompassing any and all very early video games which contained, and in some cases pioneered, “shmup-ish” elements before the genre was well and truly founded. These titles (and/or their native hardware formats) tend to place strict limits on how many shots the player can squeeze off at once, so there’s much more emphasis on precision aiming (to make those precious few shots count) than in most of their descendents. Take your pick of just about any “shooting game” released up until Xevious or so ” Space Invaders, Asteroids, Galaga, Centipede, and many more like them all fit the bill.
  • Blast-em-Up ” Straightforward shooters from all walks of life, brought together by their universal lack of “involved” scoring systems ” most any incentive for replay therein is derived from technically-impressive set pieces and multiple difficulty settings. A majority of console-exclusive releases from the 8- and 16-bit eras are “blast-em-ups”: for many longtime fans who experienced the “golden age” of Tecnosoft and Compile firsthand, this subgenre is a heavily nostalgic one. Not particularly “deep” experiences in most respects, but that’s kind of the point ” the ideal choice for those who prefer more “instinctive” or “reactionary” shmup sessions.
  • Cute-em-up ” Occasionally called “shtick-em-ups”, the term refers to any shooter, regardless of play style or structure, whose presentation is composed primarily of cute, silly, and/or humorous subject matter. Though this aesthetic is most frequently tapped for relatively “casual” titles, at times a surprisingly challenging experience awaits beneath the goofy exterior: either way, the light-hearted atmosphere helps to take a good deal of the edge off, and tends to appeal to a more diverse audience than their comparatively “serious” cousins. The cartoony Twinbee and Cotton are obvious candidates, not to mention pie-in-the-face spoofs like Parodius, Star Parodier, and Game Tengoku.
  • Bullet Hell ” Perhaps the most immediately-recognizable breed of shmup, thanks to its signature blanketing of most of the screen with scads of relatively slow-moving, un-aimed bullets: precise impromptu movements and a small hitbox are essential for weaving through the chaos and living to tell the tale. Once a niche-within-a-niche, a decided majority of contemporary shmup releases fit this description: most of Cave’s output certainly qualifies, alongside that of Takumi, Treasure, and a number of others, though many of these owe some measure of debt to late-era Toaplan and Raizing. Those which feature especially dense patterns, like the “Touhou” series, are sometimes given the label of “danmaku” (literally, “bullet curtain”), though the word is sometimes “retconned” to refer to “bullet hell” shooters in general.
  • Oldschool ” In many ways the polar opposites of “bullet hell” shooters, these rough-and-ready stalwarts tend to be, or embody the characteristics of, older (but not proto-) shmups, and demand a completely different play style to attain success. Relatively few enemy shots are sent your way, but they move very quickly, and are almost without exception aimed directly at you ” your ship’s hit area is too large to get away with very many close calls, so you have to almost constantly be on your toes and in motion to avoid getting picked off. If you’re seeking a shooter of this sort to try, one shouldn’t be hard to find if you’re willing to go back a few years, though the most iconic pick of the lot is probably the Raiden series.
  • Memorizer ” Though every shooter requires some degree of rote learning to play properly, memorizers, as the moniker suggests, are shmups which place an especially strong emphasis on very precise actions, executed in a particular order at exact intervals. To put it bluntly, the first time you encounter a major challenge in a memorizer you’re almost certain to fail it, and will continue to fail it until you commit the relevant patterns and other essential actions to memory, then go on to crank them out as required. Definitely best-suited for those with long attention spans, the R-Type series is this subset’s undisputed gold standard.
  • Caravan ” Shooters built around brief, action-packed “score attack” sequences, in which the player is tasked with racking up as many points as possible within a fixed-duration course and/or time limit. Relatively few shmups over the years have devoted themselves exclusively to this compressed, “bite-sized” play style, but a more substantial number have included so-called “caravan” modes as extras to complement a more traditional “main” game. The name is derived from a series of “Caravan Festival” tournaments held by Hudson Soft from 1985 to 1992; the most prominently-featured titles at those events, the Star Soldier games, are appropriately the best-known “caravan” shmups.
  • Euroshmup ” Casually serves as a designation for any shooter created in (duh) Europe, but more specifically references a particular design mentality especially prolific among Commodore-era developers; the connotation is usually negative. While these games’ detailed hand-drawn artwork often elicits praise, other elements have rarely received as much time or attention – weaponry is by turns either over- or underpowered, enemy patterns repeat too frequently, movement is sometimes hobbled by inertia, and damage is frequently unavoidable, prompting many to tack on health/shield meters in a half-hearted attempt to compensate. While not all “Euroshmups” are roundly detested by the fan community (Soldner-X 2’s recent release was pretty well-received), the word tends to set many denizens on edge.
  • Dodge-em-Up ” The rarest and most unusual variation on this list, “dodge-em-ups” are best-described as “shooters” with little to no actual shooting going on: pretty much all gameplay emphasis is placed on the simple but deceptively challenging art of defensive relocation, i.e. staying the heck out of harm’s way. Most “full-fledged” dodge-em-ups are homebrew projects, the best-known of which is almost certainly Omega’s Every Extend (you can and will attack enemies here, though you have to blow yourself up to do it), but a handful of commercial releases feature segments or scoring systems which discourage or outright disable shooting: Treasure’s Ikaruga, for example, recognizes and awards non-aggressive “dot eater” play, and suddenly disengages your weapons during the final boss encounter.
Soldner-X2 (PS3), 2010

Soldner-X2 (PS3), 2010

Borderliners and Offshoots

(Since shmups were the very first type of “shooting” game to come into existence, it could be argued that EVERY “shooter” to follow, including the third- and first-person shooters currently dominating the industry landscape, technically counts as an (again, pardon the pun) “offshoot”, but in the interest of brevity this section will limit itself to the shmup’s closest “traditional” relatives, sometimes referred to as “borderliners”.)

  • On-Rails Shooters ” “Rail shooters” for short, the phrase is actually something of a misnomer: technically, this designation best fits “light gun” shooters like Time Crisis and House of the Dead, which force the player along a very strict linear path, allowing little to no independent motion outside of aiming. The games we’re talking about here, however, like shmups, generally implement full-screen 2-D freedom of movement but shift the third-person camera to your character’s back, instead scrolling the screen “inward” towards a distant horizon from which enemies emerge and must be picked off. Occasional, limited use of the z-axis is perhaps the only dynamic definitively separating them from the rest of shmupdom: one early “shooting gallery” ancestor, Star Fire, is actually credited as the first video game to implement both full-featured high score tables and dynamic “rank” difficulty adjustment, while another, Starship 1, had limited-use “smart bombs” several years before Defender. Sega in particular has wielded a great deal of additional influence in this area, as its Space Harrier and Panzer Dragoon traditionally carry the banner for the group, alongside Nintendo’s Star Fox.
  • Run-n-Guns ” Basically a crossbreed (see following subheading) of shmups and side-scrolling platformers, players traditionally control a humanoid character who uses projectile weapons (“guns”, to normal people) to fight enemies, but cannot fly freely around the screen ” bound to terra firma by gravity, he/she/it must complement shooting and dodging fundamentals with skillfully-applied “jump n’ run” techniques. The Contra and Metal Slug series are undoubtedly the most famous “certified” run-n-guns, though the more “mainstream” likes of Mega Man and even Metroid sometimes find themselves invited to family reunions.
  • Arena Shooters ” Usually viewed from an overhead “bird’s eye” perspective, your character is trapped within an enclosed area, and must fend off waves of enemies streaming in from all sides to earn access to the exit door ” many times a “twin-stick” control scheme (one joystick to move, one to aim and/or shoot) is implemented in lieu of individual button commands to make on-the-fly adjustments easier. Robotron 2064 and Smash T.V. are the ones that most gamers remember best, though a surprisingly robust shot of new blood has been added to the scene in recent years, especially by downloadable developers.
  • Tube Shooters ” Most closely akin to the “rail” shooter, “tube” shooters adopt the same behind-the-back “shoot into the screen” viewpoint but limit the player’s movement area to a single line, a la Space Invaders ” in this case, however, this line snakes roughly along all edges of the screen, allowing for full rotation in a circular pattern. Gyruss stands as this segment’s “main event”, though some more recent offerings like Torus Trooper have carved out a spot for themselves; certain “vector shooters” like Tempest are sometimes lumped in here too.
  • “Thrust Shooters” – As the name suggests, these are games in which player movement is controlled primarily via some sort of manual “thrust” button which propels your craft/character forward and/or upwards: the very first shooting game, Spacewar!, is one of these, so it’s not inaccurate to state that everything truly started here. Though Asteroids is almost certainly the most famous, long-time gamers in particular may recall gravity-based “jetpack shooters” like Solar Jetman and Baraduke, though a few more recent up-and-comers like Bangai-O do exist. This category tends to cross paths with the “run-n-gun” rather frequently, thanks to “semi-floor-bound” curiosities like Atomic Robo-Kid and Act-Fancer.
Twinkle Star Sprites (Neo-Geo), 1996

Twinkle Star Sprites (Neo-Geo), 1996

Crossbreeds and Crossovers

Despite their not-entirely-undeserved reputation as an “exclusive” genre, over their long lifespan shmups have mixed and mingled with the rest of the gaming spectrum on an unparalleled scale ” shooting-tinged “crossbreeds” litter the shelves, as do countless references and tributes to the medium’s venerable forefathers. Here are some of the more notable cross-pollinations out there, including a few combinations you probably weren’t expecting to see.

  • Platformer ” The well-known “run-n-gun” fusion has already been covered above, but developers have combined shooting and platforming in less-orthodox ways on several occasions: both Jaleco’s Formation Z and Game Arts’ Thexder, for example, give the player control of a robot that can switch between “humanoid” and “jet” forms at will, though the former pits you against straightforward side-scrolling levels while the latter prefers the confines of free-roaming maze-like caverns. Then there’s Capcom’s Legendary Wings, which routinely changes up the action from Xevious-style shooting and bombing to simplified run-n-gun interior segments and back again.
  • Adventure ” Boomerangs and arrows have always been part of The Legend of Zelda and its many imitators (doujin developer Murasame’s Engage to Jabberwock plays like a “bullet hell” riff on an overhead Zelda dungeon), but Compile’s Guardian Legend, a comparatively obscure NES gem, exchanges the usual sword-wielding fantasy hero for Alyssa, a girl who just so happens to be able to transform into a space fighter (seriously, how huge a turn-on is that?). Your journey is thus split between overhead exploration segments and vertically-scrolling shmup stages, complete with boss fights. Many years later WayForward’s Sigma Star Saga took a similar tack on the GBA, though this time the shoot-em-up portions occur as “random encounters” – as you walk around various areas, occasionally you’re beamed up to a waiting vessel in the atmosphere for a quick blast.
  • Puzzle ” A number of puzzlers (Bust-a-Move being the most successful example) have utilized a “shooting” mechanic of some sort to send pieces where you want them, but the most “egalitarian” mix of the two sensibilities is probably Konami’s Quarth ” your little ship is armed with blocks instead of bullets, and must use them to fill gaps in approaching obstacles, clearing them away Tetris-style and averting a game-ending crash. PS1 obscurity Calcolo stand as another intriguing amalgamation. Various pieces fall from above and as usual it’s your job to match them up, but instead of moving the stuff around directly you command a flying character, firing shots in all directions to manipulate the field: Omega’s bite-sized Dan! Da! Dan!, on the other hand, is all about time management and seeking the most profitable groups of blocks to blast. Off to the side, many “ball-and-paddle” games (a la Arkanoid) also feature a “shot” power-up, to help players vaporize those colored bricks the old-fashioned way.
  • Fighting ” This similarly-resurgent arcade archetype shares even more in common with the shoot-em-up than most people realize: sure, projectile-happy doujin fighters like Immaterial and Missing Power take a step or two beyond the more “grounded” (to use the term loosely) laser-happy antics of Marvel vs. Capcom, and “hybrid” variations like Senko no Ronde and their doujin cousins, the Suguri series, blur the boundary even further, but to truly satisfy a shmupper’s bloodlust you’ll need to crack open an all-out “versus shooter” like Change Air Blade or cult hit Twinkle Star Sprites. Believe it or not, a small group of “traditional” shooters, Ai Cho Aniki and Cotton 2 among them, even allow players to utilize “quarter-circle” motions and other traditional fighting game macros to perform “special moves” during gameplay.
  • Beat-em-Up ” Like their “tourney fighter” step-siblings, scrolling beat-em-ups usually like to keep things up close and personal, but some don’t hesitate to bring a gun to a fist fight: it can be tough to draw an uncrossable line between these outliers and straight-up run-n-guns, but Archangel Studios’ The Red Star, based on the comic book of the same name, straddles this border capably. While there’s plenty of emphasis on melee combat, each character also packs a projectile weapon with unlimited ammo, though it does require some recharge time after heavy use: certain bosses also assault the player with decidedly “twitchy” attack patterns. Psikyo’s Cannon Spike embodies a similar blend, though a number of more conventional beat-em-ups include items (and in cases like Capcom’s King of the Dragons, selectable characters) created for non-melee combat.
  • Racing ” Racers are certainly no strangers to shooting elements, as legions of Mario Kart and Wipeout players can tell you, and shooters, for their part, occasionally encompass pseudo-racetrack themes (Nichibutsu’s Seicross being an early example) and/or rapid-scrolling “speed rounds” as additional tests of players’ reaction times. Rarely, however, do you encounter such an odd duck as Raizing’s Kingdom Grand Prix: dodging bullets and blasting stuff is still part and parcel, but you can also control how fast the background of each stage/course passes beneath you, and must reach the end fast enough to beat your (near-invincible) CPU competitors to earn a good score (easier said than done, I should warn). Data East’s Kuuga series (Vapor Trail and its sequels), though not explicitly set against a “racing” backdrop, feature their own speed-adjusting “throttle” gimmick and recall a decidedly kindred spirit.
  • Rhythm ” Another high-flying genre that’s recently fallen on hard times, music- and rhythm-based games are making their own once-unthinkable transition back into “niche” territory: shmups, of course, are right there waiting for them, with a pitch for a crossover album in hand. Professional studios tend to make only ancillary gestures in this direction, with Space Invaders Extreme and borderliner Rez loosely tying the player’s actions to the soundtrack, but indie developers sometimes go bolder: PriZhm, Zillion Beatz, ShmusicUp and Shield the Beat directly synch enemy bullet patterns to the music, while BIT.TRIP FATE limits movement to a single linear path, forcing players to follow the rhythm to maneuver safely and effectively. Harmonix’s original icebreakers, FreQuency and Amplitude, share a bit of finger-twitching common ground with shooters too.
  • Role-Playing ” Though the pair might seem pretty incompatible off the cuff, adrenaline-driven shooters have even managed to find their way into the often slow-paced and cinema-heavy role-playing realm: one (recently-departed, unfortunately) example was Korean “massively multiplayer shmup” Valkyrie Sky, which gave players the usual MMO selection of classes/parties/guilds/etc., but whose “missions” consisted of vertically-scrolling shooter challenges. A couple of enterprising developers have also combined elements of “Roguelike” dungeon crawlers and shmups in titles like Asceai’s Meritous, though you’ll occasionally see “experience points” and other RPG elements snuck into commercial releases like Radiant Silvergun ” shooting minigames have also popped up in Half-Minute Hero and a number of other role-playing entries.
  • Strategy ” First and foremost we much make mention of Tecnosoft’s groundbreaking Herzog and its more popular Genesis sequel, Herzog Zwei, which introduced many of the conventions now taken for granted by RTS players and combined them with overhead mecha-blasting action. Sting’s Knights in the Nightmare is a more recent and unusual strategic half-breed: while you place troops on a grid and issue commands, most of the time enemies can’t attack these pawns directly. Instead, they aim directly for your “wisp” cursor, spewing forth all manner of projectiles to prevent the necessary icons from being clicked; it’s your responsibility to weave safely through the lot of them. Along the borders there’s recent “tower defense” hybrid Who’s That Flying?, not to mention a few higher-profile shooters whose set pieces have actually been grafted onto “traditional” strategy games ” Gradius and Parodius inspired Cosmic Wars and Paro Wars in Japan, while R-Type Command has expanded into an international theater of operations.
  • Game Maker ” Some of the more expansive “do-it-yourself” releases of recent years, like LittleBigPlanet, pack enough tools under the hood to allow players to cook up a shooter-ish end product, but the user-creative spirit has actually been a legitimate part of the genre since the 8-bit era, courtesy of Athena’s Dezaemon series, basically the shmup equivalent of Fighter Maker or RPG Maker. One of its PS1 iterations, Dezaemon Kids, actually packed dozens of playable fan-submitted projects and design documents onto the disc, to allow the community to sample each others’ work ” while the underlying nuts and bolts are somewhat rudimentary, it’s still neat to peruse the wildly different packaging on exhibit. Blast Works on the Wii is about as close to an “official” modern equivalent as we’ve received so far, though fan-made programs like STG Maker are no pushovers themselves: unbeknownst to some, famed fighting game creation engine M.U.G.E.N. was originally conceived as a “create-a-shmup” project.
  • Mini-Games/Cameos ” The suddenly-ubiquitous “mini-game collection” group often throws in a slapped-together shooting segment or two to pad itself out, but perhaps the only such compilation devoted exclusively to “miniaturized” shoot-em-ups  is obscure Namco arcade board Tenkomori Shooting. Even when they’re not in the limelight, though, shmups have an impeccable knack for stealing a bit of onscreen time, occasionally sharing the stage with some surprisingly big names: Mario himself has gone a-shmupping on more than one occasion (most famously in the “Sky Pop” propeller plane sequence of Super Mario Land), as has fellow Nintendo icon Kirby. Konami is notoriously fond of sprinkling Gradius references liberally throughout its catalog, not to mention smuggling mini-shooters into everything from Tokimeki Memorial to Goemon.
  • Speaking of which, “borderliners” like Turrican and Gunstar Heroes are especially likely to include at least one “true” shmup level as a side attraction, though they’re far from alone in their reverence. Sega’s choice to showcase a side-view shooter as the unforgettable conclusion to its fan love letter SeGaGaGa is one of the higher-profile industry tributes, but then, of course, there are the legions of others you might not have heard of: from Kid Icarus to Katamari Damacy, from Tales of Phantasia to No More Heroes, Wonder Boy to Viewtiful Joe, Ape Escape to Jade Empire, Okamiden to Grand Theft Auto and many, many more, shoot-em-ups have left their mark in all manner of unlikely places, and you can bet that they won’t be stopping anytime soon.
Ikaruga (Dreamcast), 2001

Ikaruga (Dreamcast), 2001

Essential Home Systems

While the “gold standard” hardware format for many shooting game fans remains the arcade PCB (or at least some form of emulation on the PC, which also gives you access to its ever-expanding “doujin” library), most shmuppers, as you might expect, indulge their hobby primarily on home consoles. The question is, which systems are considered the best choices for this specific purpose, in terms of software selection, hardware suitability, and ease of import play? The following segment offers a brief, rough synopsis of gaming’s console “generations” over the years, highlighting the (arguably) most desirable acquisitions for shmup fans along the way: as always, of course, individual mileage may vary, so consider this more of a “starter guide” than a be-all, end-all manifesto.

  • First/Second-Gen: At this early juncture the shmup hadn’t really come into its own yet, so if you dust off equipment from this period when you feel like a shooter you’ll obviously be in for a bucketload of “proto-shmups”. A ridiculous number of budding consoles hit shelves during the period, most of them destined for only a brief stay (if any) in the limelight, but once the dust cleared theAtari 2600rose above the madding crowd, and played host to a smorgasbord of old-time shooters as a result ” if the arcades had it, the 2600 would probably get it soon afterwards, though many of the ports were noticeably downgraded from even the modest capabilities of arcade machines at the time. In terms of possible alternatives, the Intellivision and ColecoVision are probably your best bets overall, though most will probably prefer to stick to the 2600, warts and all: they’ll also, however, probably want to invest in a couple of accessories, like a trak-ball or “paddle” controller, to truly replicate the spirit of the era.
  • Third-Gen: It’s pretty common knowledge that, after the Atari’s heyday had concluded, Nintendo’s Famicom (NES) reigned supreme in its place as the industry recovered from the “video game crash” of the early 80’s; the axiom also holds true when it comes to this generation’s shooters (and nearly everything else, thanks to Nintendo’s merciless stranglehold on the market at the time). Though arcade accuracy was obviously still a ways off in terms of ports (most tend to be less challenging than their ancestors), and some games pushed the hardware a bit beyond its limits (beware of sprite flickering), there are still some downright impressive specimens worth checking out even if you’re not particularly into the “old-school” spirit. The closest thing to a true competitor that the NES ever had was Sega’s Master System ” despite a degree of market success, particularly in PAL territories, not to mention superior technical specs in some areas, shmup-wise the MS’s pickings are rather slim in comparison, though a few notable gems do exist.
  • Fourth-Gen: Ah, the heady days when the much-ballyhooed “console wars” truly erupted in earnest: while Sega and Nintendo got all the attention, the fiercest battle for shmuppers’ dollars was actually taking place between the former’s Mega Drive (Genesis) and “third rail  “NEC’s PC Engine (TurboGrafx 16). Though the Super Famicom/SNES has some quality shooters in its library, the system’s comparatively-sluggish processor makes it difficult to run many of them without a sizable chunk of slowdown; SNK’s high-end Neo Geo boasts a couple of noteworthy titles as well, though probably not enough to make it worth the asking price for most. That said, true believers might want to invest in the CD add-ons for both the “Drive and the “Engine, as each features an additional selection of shmups, many of which have yet to experience life beyond their system of origin. While the equipment still wasn’t quite powerful enough to reproduce the arcade experience, some home versions come surprisingly close, though the best-remembered titles of the era tend to be “side-scrollers” created specifically for the consumer market: bypassing region protection, thankfully, was also still pretty simple at this point in time, so sampling a whole bunch shouldn’t be beyond your reach.
  • Fifth-Gen: As with the 16-bit systems, the 32-bit era was a two-horse race for shooter fans: Sega once again found itself in the middle of the fray with the Saturn, though it now faced a surprisingly formidable new opponent in Sony and its upstartPlaystation. Both machines have plenty of shooters to choose from, many of which are available to owners of either system: despite the welcome introductions of arcade-perfect ports and “tate” mode during this span, however, individual performance is all over the map. Some games perform better on theSaturnwhile others are superior on the PS (a couple are a wash, but not mant), so be sure to check the Racketboy PS1 Shmups and Saturn Shmups guides for more specific info. Playing most titles from outside regions isn’t overly difficult on either system (which is fortunate, as many of the best never left Japan), but it’s worth noting that the vast majority of the Saturn’s shooters are direct arcade conversions, while the Playstation features a more eclectic mix of original and repurposed shooters. The Nintendo 64, in case you were wondering, is basically a non-contender, and hopefully you didn’t intend to ask about the Jaguar, 3DO, or other such lightweights.
  • Sixth-Gen: Much like its elder sibling, the Playstation 2 solicited mass third-party support across its lengthy lifespan, and this time around was able to decisively leave its remaining competition in the dust when it came to shoot-em-ups: even if you don’t count its backwards compatibility with the already-impressive PS1 library, neither the Gamecube nor the XBox (at least if you don’t emulate MAME on the latter) ever came close to touching it. From arcade adaptations to classic compilations to all-new exclusives, the PS2 is the easy shmupping choice for this generation, though import-enabling can be a bit tricky compared to the PS1: the only possible threat to its veritable monopoly, appropriately enough, is Sega’s last stand, the Dreamcast. While the Dreamcast’s shooter selectionis nowhere near as robust, several of its arcade shooters were never ported elsewhere, while others (specifically those which originally ran on Naomi hardware) are still considered the most faithful versions released: the Dreamcast is also easier to boot imports on, so it plays a solid, if distant, second fiddle to the system that killed it.
  • Seventh-Gen: As of this writing, in a startling turnaround, theXBox 360is the undisputed (and unlikely) home for modern shmup fans: though the PS3 (with its universally region-free software) and Wii (with its simpler hardware and lower development costs) seemed more fitting destinations for the genre out of the gate, Microsoft’s superior Leaderboard structure coupled with its gradual (and somewhat indiscriminate) wooing of niche developers and consumers as part of its uphill struggle to gain Japanese market share have built up a seemingly-insurmountable lead over its rivals on the retail shmup front. Even factoring in digital content leaves the 360 with an edge, though not a runaway victory: the Virtual Console and Playstation Store both offer more in terms of “classic” shooter downloads, but XBox Live Arcade features the most vibrant roster of all-new and “indie” offerings. Many of the 360’s biggest “STGs”, unfortunately, are Japan-exclusive, and hacking the system can get you banned from Live, so acquiring an import console might be in the cards for devoted players. Then, of course, there’s that default d-pad”
  • Portable / Miscellaneous Notes: Precise bullet-dodging can be tough to execute on small screens, so the portable market has always been something of a fifth wheel for a majority of shmuppers: while almost every handheld format can claim at least one or two well-made shooters worth trying out, few, if any, are bullish enough on the genre to really be considered “essential” (though the region-free setup on most of them stands as a point in their favor). That said, the recent meteoric rise of the iPhone and similar handheld computing devices has attracted a lot of attention from various developers, shmup-centric ones included, so the small-screen situation might be in for a shake-up as time goes on.  For those interested, here is the Racketboy guide to Game Boy Advance Shmups
  • Personal Computers:As far as home computers go, Windows-based PCs, as referenced in the introduction, are obviously king, but a cadre of devotees still swear by their Amiga or Commodore 64 (or, in rarer cases, their Spectrum or Atari ST): be advised, however, that the particular abundance of “Euroshmups” on many of these systems isn’t to everyone’s liking. An even more selective subset prefers Japanese computers like the X68000 or MSX (though the latter’s choppy scrolling doesn’t do it many favors) ” generally speaking, these sorts of vintage machines, despite their good points, are better recommended to hardware connoisseurs than general shmupping audiences.
Strikers 1945 II (Arcade), 1995

Strikers 1945 II (Arcade), 1995

Developers of Note

While by no means an exhaustive list, the following are the companies which have historically been the most prolific and/or influential in terms of shoot-em-up development. Be sure to scan their catalogs if you’re looking for something interesting to play, but definitely don’t hesitate to check into others too: snoop around a bit and you might be surprised at how many different gaming outfits have contributed to the genre at some point.

  • Capcom – The esteemed creators of Mega Man, Street Fighter, and Resident Evil need no introduction, but many of even their devoted fans are unaware of how much shmupping history Capcom has to its name. Their very first product, in fact, was a simple vertical shooter called Vulgus: its pesky “Yashichi” pinwheel enemies have made a number of cameo appearances since, usually as bonus icons. Though the WWII-themed 1942 and its sequels have garnered the biggest following of the lot, Area 88, Side Arms, and even the fan-designed Eco Fighters also stand out amidst a substantial shooter resume. In the early 2000’s Capcom collaborated with Cave, Raizing, Takumi and Psikyo on the publishing end of things, though precious little of note to shmuppers has been heard from them since.
  • Cave – The standard-setter for “bullet hell” shooters and the predominant genre developer within the industry today, Cave continues to steadily support both arcade and console devotees, though it’s also branched out into mobile gaming and myriad other spheres in recent years. While successful “spaceship shooters” like the DonPachi series got them started, “character-centric” titles like Mushihime-sama and Ibara have proved invaluable for drawing in a new generation of customers ” historically focused on vertical-scrollers, Cave has recently begun tinkering more frequently with home consumer-friendly side-view releases like Deathsmiles and Akai Katana. Though some of its unrelated (and increasingly profitable) side ventures have taken on a bit too much precedence for shmuppers’ liking at times, Cave is still well worth watching closely.
  • Compile – Perhaps best-remembered within gamedom as creators of the Puyo-Puyo puzzle franchise, during the 8- and 16-bit eras Compile’s claim to fame, above all else, was as a top competitor in the then-crowded shooter arena: focusing its efforts almost exclusively on home consoles, the Zanac and Aleste series are its most prolific, though certain stand-alones like GunHed and Spriggan are also specially revered by the PC Engine faithful. Oft-praised for their expansive weapon variety and masterful hardware utilization, Compile’s shmups tend to be relatively lax in terms of challenge but still fun to play if you’re in the mood for a less-aggressive breed of alien to blast. After founder Masamitsu “Moo” Niitani’s follow-up outfit Aiky failed to get off the ground, some of the company’s alumni crash-landed at Idea Factory subsidiary Compile Heart, but despite the name don’t seem likely to revisit their roots anytime soon; a few others, thankfully, are now working for Milestone, whose shooters are easily the highlight of their output.
  • Irem – A longtime video game presence with an infamously troubled financial history (and an equally-infamous series of April Fool’s gags via their website), Irem’s most recognizable products by far (if you don’t count stuff by Nazca, a group of cast-off employees who went on to create the Metal Slug run-n-guns for SNK) are the R-Type shooters: their landmark implementation of a detachable, invincible and indispensable ship accessory, the “Force” device, has been imitated ad nauseam but never surpassed. Though similarly grounded in memory-based progression, none of Irem’s other shmupping forays, like Image Fight, Gallop, or X-Multiply, ever made as significant an impression on players. Some of these, however, were eventually granted “guest spots” within the massive hangar of R-Type Final on the PS2: as its title suggests the “main” series is more or less defunct at this point, though its memory lives on (for now, at least) in the R-Type Command strategy games.
  • Konami – Most of this venerable company’s attention in recent years has shifted towards the Metal Gear, Silent Hill, and Bemani rhythm series in particular, even as classics like Castlevania find themselves repeatedly farmed out, if they’re lucky; back in the day, though, as long-time fans will attest, few companies could begin to compete with Konami when it came to in-house productions, especially shooters. The impact of legendary space-based side-scroller series Gradius is hard to overstate, much as the chirpy, pastel-colored Twinbee set the stage for countless “cute-em-ups” to follow, and Contra contributed in similar capacity to “run-n-gun” borderliners. Recently the developer has, to its credit, dipped its toe into a handful of “reboots” for some of its older properties, but has also, unfortunately, cancelled an all-new Gradius once planned for the PS3 (in favor of a themed slot machine, no less): it would seem that the non-“retro” gaming market in this area hasn’t instilled much confidence of late.
  • Psikyo – Its roots firmly planted in the simple but endearing Aero Fighters series, the programmers who eventually reformed as Psikyo moved on to greater success with the similarly-structured Gunbird, Strikers 1945, and Sengoku Ace, among others. Characterized by random-ordered stage progression and silly cross-talk between characters in two-player mode, their games routinely toe the line between “classic” (speedy bullets, large hitboxes, simple scoring systems) and “modern” (brisk pacing, intricate enemy patterns) shooter design sensibilities. In 2002 the company’s personnel was redistributed within X-nauts, and has yet to recapture its mojo; those seeking a fuller history of the company might also look into the “ecchi”-flavored Taisen Hot Gimmick mahjongg series, not to mention the unique “ball-and-paddle” game Gunbarich, which guests stars Marion, Gunbird’s main character.
  • Raizing – One of the most boldly unconventional outfits ever to grace the scene, Raizing’s shooters are uniformly famous for their demanding difficulty, but further distinguish themselves in the unique routes they take to challenge players. Though most shmups encourage you to simply act on instinct, blasting every target and grabbing every power-up you see, Raizing insists you think before you act: in Battle Garegga, Great Mahou Daisakusen and most of their kin, hoarding bombs and lives will aggravate the innate difficulty “rank” to the point that occasionally killing oneself on purpose is a viable, and sometimes necessary, means to eventually obtain a one-credit clear and/or high score. While walking this razor’s edge takes getting used to, the games also boast loads of secrets and polished presentations to keep you coming back: the developer was eventually folded into its sister company, 8ing, which has not produced a shooter since, but on the bright side one of its lead programmers, Shinobu Yagawa, has set up shop at Cave and infused Raizing’s essence into several projects.
  • Seibu Kaihatsu – Few gamers recognize the company name (which roughly translates to “Western Development”) offhand, but mention Raiden and you can almost hear the proverbial light bulbs switching on. Though sometimes criticized, not entirely unfairly, for their open embrace of “generic shooter” ambience, that’s part of the charm: it’s just you and your little red jet plane versus an endless army of sneaky “sniper tanks” which just love to pick you off during that one crucial second of inattention. Detailed visuals have always been a series trademark, but by the time Raiden DX rolled around the designers were also packing in scads of scoring tricks to deepen the experience: the faster-paced Raiden Fighters offshoots, and to a lesser extent the polygonal Raidens developed under the MOSS label, have kept the rhythm going. Other noteworthy releases include Stinger, one of the few horizontally-scrolling shmups created for a vertical display, and obscure ochi puzzler Senkyu, a demo of which was included with the PS1 port of Raiden DX.
  • Taito – One of the most important and accomplished presences in gaming history, with brands as diverse as Bubble Bobble, Arkanoid, Qix, Rastan Saga, and Lufia to its name, at the end of the day Taito’s single most valuable and popular contribution of all remains a humble shooter known as Space Invaders. That said, the company is certainly no one-trick pony when it comes to shoot-em-ups: Darius and its crazy evil robotic fish are certainly tough to overlook, as is the atmospheric Layer Section and its influential “lock-on” mechanic. Even Taito’s more obscure productions, like Gun Frontier and Metal Black, are frequently invoked by other developers as direct inspirations for their own work. After being acquired by Square Enix in 2005 the company has revamped and remixed its most marketable shooter properties on several occasions to generally-positive reception, though it’s been awhile since anything totally new from them has seen daylight.
  • Team Shanghai Alice - Despite the “team” in the name, this is a largely one-man operation, specifically a lone “doujin” developer known as ZUN ” after cutting his teeth on the PC-98, he carried over his “Touhou” (literally “of the East”) series of shooter-centric games to Windows computers, where it has blossomed into perhaps the most successful homebrew project ever launched (seriously, it’s even in the Guinness Book of World Records). Defined by their large recurring cast of super-powered (and mostly non-sexualized, thankfully) young girls, complex scoring mechanics, and ornate, “fireworks display” bullet patterns, these from-scratch shmups have spawned countless fan projects of their own, from tribute games to animations to comics to remixed soundtracks, plus heaven only knows what else. Its sometimes-overbearing fan base has spawned a measure of backlash from certain sectors, but most are content to just stick to the games themselves and leave it at that.
  • Tecnosoft – Alternately rendered as “Techno Soft”, their catalog spans ground from 3D fighters to digital pinball tables, but everything else takes second place to the company’s true calling card, Thunder Force. From modest beginnings on Japan-only computer systems, the series found stardom on the Mega Drive/Genesis, where the impressive visuals and fast-paced synth-rock soundtracks of the third and fourth entries set several technical benchmarks. The brand fizzled with the onset of the 32-bit era, but those who enjoy its approach have a number of similar options to explore (Elemental Master, Blast Wind and Hyper Duel to name a few). Tecnosoft’s current status remains frustratingly fuzzy: while an “official” website is still up and Sega recently acquired the rights to put out the somewhat-middling Thunder Force VI, concrete information regarding the company’s present direction (if there is one) is very scarce.
  • Toaplan – A driving force of the mid-80’s-to-mid-90’s arcade scene, Toaplan dabbled in a wide variety of game types over its lifetime, but its scrolling shooters are the ones that have best stood the test of time ” the most enduring one of all, naturally, is Zero Wing, whose Engrishy Mega Drive port birthed the “all your base” meme. While early releases with “real world” settings like Tiger Heli and Flying Shark stood apart from the competition mostly in terms of visual aplomb, the team’s raison d’etre truly burst forth once they ventured into more colorful “outer space” themes with Tatsujin, Outzone, and V-V. Toaplan’s stylistic influence is still strongly felt today, as its final shooter, Batsugun, pre-empted the “bullet hell” style which would soon settle into a state of comfortable genre dominance: the company shut down soon after, but much of its personnel found sanctuary at Cave, Raizing, Takumi, and the short-lived Gazelle.
Bangai-O HD: Missle Fury (Xbox 360), 2011

Bangai-O HD: Missle Fury (Xbox 360), 2011

“Minor” Notables

  • G. Rev – A small, relatively young group composed primarily of former Taito alumni, G. Revolution, or G. Rev for short, has produced only a modest catalog of shmups so far, but these have succeeded in capturing the attention of a famously grizzled fan base. Border Down and Under Defeat are two of the most sought-after “post-mortem” Dreamcast acquisitions, while “versus” shooter hybrid Senko no Ronde and manual-scrolling cute-em-up Mamoru-kun is Cursed! take things down decidedly less-traveled pathways. Unbeknownst to some, G. Rev also provided support to Treasure on the acclaimed Ikaruga and Gradius V.
  • Hudson  – Recently bought out by none other than Konami, Hudson hasn’t maintained much of a presence on the shooting front for some time now, but it’s still right up there with Compile when it comes to invoking PC Engine-era nostalgia. Their successful Star Soldier games, complete with “caravan” score-attack modes, worked alongside company pseudo-mascot Bomberman to establish a competitive spirit which would come to define the medium’s multiplayer experience for a generation, whilst simultaneously providing a “core” game that could be enjoyed casually by everyone else.
  • Milestone – If any single developer could truly be called a “successor” to Compile, this is the one ” though a few other mostly-forgettable odds and ends have made it out their front door, shooters are obviously this bunch’s specialty. Though Milestone’s first production, Chaos Field, was primarily a mish-mash of other developers’ ideas from years past, with Radirgy a more cohesive, aggressive, cel-shaded style began to emerge, and would be refined further in Karous and Illvelo. These games are, as their wonky portmanteau titles suggest, not your everyday blast-em-ups, but if you yearn for something unafraid to explore beyond the tried-and-true you definitely ought to check them out.
  • Namco – Another “no duh” delegate in attendance at pretty much ANY “Genre 101″ write-up, Namco has steadily run the gaming gamut from Pac-Man right on through to Soul Calibur – though largely absent from the contemporary shooter realm save a handful of Galaga remakes and remixes, this long-time industry force’s early contributions to the fledgling genre, especially Xevious and the aforementioned Galaga, can’t be left unrecognized. Elsewhere within its increasingly-dusty shmup catalog is “hidden gem” cute-em-up Ordyne as well as Sky Kid, an unusual specimen whose action progresses from right to left, in direct opposition to nearly all its side-scrolling kin.
  • Takumi – Despite an unfortunately brief period of solvency, Takumi left a lasting impression on shooter fans, primarily thanks to Giga Wing and its pre-rendered cousin, Mars Matrix, both of which were granted worldwide release on the similarly ill-fated Dreamcast. Like most Takumi shooters to follow, these utilize a “reflector” mechanic to help players make it through seemingly-impossible situations (of which there are many) as well as accumulate huge points through spawned medals – though largely spurned by uninitiated critics at the time, these “stimulatory overload” shmups remain favorites among quite a few, though markedly less love is reserved for the likes of Kyuukyoku Tiger 2 and the downright bizarre Night Raid.
  • Treasure – Konami’s most famous splinter group has never been afraid to share its love of big, fiery explosions with fans, so naturally it’s got some shooter blood in its veins – oddly enough, despite a healthy roster of “borderliners” like Gunstar Heroes, Silhouette Mirage and Bangai-O under its belt, to date Treasure has only two “certifiable” shmups to its name. Both, however, are big ones, namely the pretentiously expansive Radiant Silvergun and the pretentiously concise Ikaruga: though a bit too “inwardly-focused” for some, the pair truly possess a vibe all their own, and have had a pronounced effect on a number of other developers, particularly homebrewers. If you’d prefer something a bit more traditional, try Gradius V, which saw the group temporarily reunited with Konami.

Special Notes:Thanks as always to the ever-knowledgeable folks at the shmups.com forum, who contributed a treasure trove of interesting information to this article. If you’re ever in the neighborhood, stop by the ongoing Unofficial Shmup Glossary project, to familiarize yourself with some of the wacky lingo we tend to use when talking about our favorite genre. Also, thanks to Hardcore Gaming 101for providing many of the screenshots featured in this guide.

24 Comments

  1. Dr_Subtitles says:

    Great Article thingy. my favorite genre.

  2. nick says:

    holy crap, i didnt read this yet because i need to find the time to…looks very, very in depth. awesome!

  3. Tom says:

    Excellent article, a small suggestion would be to use more flattering pictures of these games. Many of the newer ones as you know can be quite good looking when viewed farther away. Regardless, you wrote a very good article for beginners, great work.

  4. Marurun says:

    Holy F@#$(*&^ S@#*$&^!!! This article is awesome. Let me count the ways… The structure is excellent, really carrying the article along nicely to its logical conclusion. The writing is also top notch, the best on the site to date. It covers some niche titles and companies as well as the major players. Either it had excellent editing or it was just that awesome and didn’t need much editing.

    The only “problem” with this article is the length. It could easily have been chopped into 3 or 4 shorter articles with a little bit of recap/transitional copy and therefore carried the site for a good month at one article release a week.

    Keep this BulletMagnet guy around. He seems like good news…

  5. Dup says:

    That was just the “beginners” guide? Good god.

  6. Ivo says:

    Massive quality title. Very complete. I think there is a sub-type that is important enough to mention: the gravity shooter (Thrust, Solar Jetman, and versus games with gravity like Gravity Force).

    They often have less shooting and a lot more exploration, but I think it is a more direct “variant” than other sub-types you have covered.

    Pretty minor omission given the quality you’ve put into the article.

    Ivo.

  7. Nathaniel D says:

    Interesting article!

    It’s obvious that a lot of work went into this. The writer(s) have a lot of talent and potential so it seems like a good opportunity for constructive criticism. Don’t worry, words of high praise will follow! :)

    A typo: “…are a wash, but not mant)”. And then in the Essential Home Systems it said that the most desirable acquisitions would be highlighted. I didn’t think that was touched on in that section.

    This is more like the history of shooters, not really a “guide” like I was expecting. It reads verbose relative to similar articles and I wasn’t really sure what the intended purpose was. To simply inform or actually guide “beginners” interested in the genre?

    I am a casual fan of shooters, sticking to mainstream console releases with some of the more obscure titles here and there (on NES and SNES). I would like to find a more modern, fun, engaging game that isn’t too difficult but I still don’t really know where to begin. I would’ve liked to see more subjective opinions on the pros and cons of some of the stand-out games.

    All that said, it was a really good piece and I picked up a lot of little nuggets of information. I’d definitely enjoy reading similar things for other genres as well!

  8. I don’t need to read this to know that I have to recommend it to everyone I know.

  9. BulletMagnet says:

    Hello all, and thanks for reading – as the very end of the article says, a good deal of the credit goes to my fellow denizens of the shmups.com forums, so be sure to pass along your thoughts if you ever swing in there! Anyway, I’ll take a moment here to address some of the comments left so far:

    – As far as the images are concerned, I only whipped up the text (same goes for most of the other write-ups I’ve done here), so suggestions in that area should go straight to RB himself. :)

    – Yeah, this is a long one (though not the longest I’ve submitted!), but I (and RB) wanted to make sure the major areas of interest were covered, especially since so many gamers have been out of the loop for so long when it comes to shmups: splitting it up might have been doable, but since the other “Genre 101″ articles here are all “one-shots” it wouldn’t have been good for “continuity” or what have you.

    – Now that you mention it, “thrust” shooters probably could have qualified for a specific bit here, at least in the “borderliners” section…if the boss is up for it I might be able to conjure up something. I’d probably have to bring it to the forum first, though…i.e. does something like Asteroids belong in this category (not “gravity” per se, but you’ve still got a manual booster to mind)?

    – In my original text I actually did put the “featured” systems in boldface, but that “feature” was eventually edited out: maybe a wording correction for that intro is in order.

    – The “beginner guide” label is a tad misleading considering how much info is packed in here, but I wouldn’t say that the original purpose for the article was, as you mention, so much to “guide” as it was to inform: for info on specific games you’d probably be better-served checking out the system-centric genre listings (such as those linked in the intro), as I point people looking for recommendations there frequently. RB, of course, also has a handful of “defining games” and “hidden gems” articles floating around here, though none for shmups…yet. ;)

    Thanks again for reading!

  10. racketboy says:

    Yeah, sorry for overlooking some of the bold text — it doesn’t carry over when I bring the text in.
    I added the bold for the home systems section. Bringing over all the italicized titles BulletMagnet put in will take me an hour at least — I might have to revisit that later.

    I’ll work on getting some more images in as well. As for the “flattering” images — it’s a challenge for me to get good ones in the format for vertical shmups. Also finding high-res ones with interesting action is a chore too :)

  11. TrevHead says:

    Its good to finally see this published BM! As a fellow fan who is knows there is a lack of any comprehensive info on the interwebs for the genre its good to have this here to use as a link for STG noobs. Thanks for all the work you put into this as its something im sadly too lazy to do myself.

    I think the best part of the article is that as well as informing younger gamers about the genre it also points out to older gamers who might have played Gradius or Raiden back in the day that the genre has evolved, it isnt the old simple blast em up that they remember, instead modern shmups are very deep and challenging not just in survival play but also in the complex scoring mechanics which have top notch balancing that puts most other games to shame.

  12. TrevHead says:

    About the pictures, it seems that you want to include zoomed in pics to show off the pixel artwork as well as zoomed out in all their spendor. Personally I would of included a few high res pics like those from mushihimsama futari, DFK or Akia Katana as well as other cave STGs (maybe include neogeo and DC STGs) for the zoomed in ones and use older games as the zoomed out

  13. Belisarius says:

    Great article. Brought all those good memories from the past.

  14. Eskil says:

    Thanks for this article, I found it very informative and a pleasure to read. I’ve only just gotten into shmups, thanks in no small part to this site. Keep up the good work, I love these 101s!

  15. Tim says:

    Amazing article. Easily my most beloved video game genre, and it means a lot to see it get the respect it deserves here.

    Speaking of the shmup resurgence, I highly recommend checking out Jamestown. American made with a Japanese heart. Windows only, which I feel adds to its quirky charms. http://www.finalformgames.com/jamestown/

  16. Sensi says:

    Absolutely great article, one of the best ever here (and I have pretty much enjoyed most of them). SHMUPS are my fav genre, this article is like the Bible of SHMUPS :-)

    Thanks!

  17. monkeypox says:

    great article, but did anyone else have issues with the character encoding? the quotes and apostrophes are displaying weird characters. I made sure I was on UTF-8 as the html specifies in the header, but on firefox and chrome for mac, firefox and IE7 on pc it was all funky.

  18. Moxie says:

    Mee too :-) Great article, but there is something very wrong with the encoding.

  19. racketboy says:

    Yeah, something must have messed up all the apostrophes and quotation marks. I think I fixed them all, but there might be some random characters messed still – lemme know if you spot them.

  20. Tom. says:

    “History of the Shmoup”?

  21. Daniel says:

    Thanks for yet another fantastic article.

  22. ORDLJU says:

    Awesome article, and right on time…

    Growing up, I was always one of those people who sucked at video games. Like “couldn’t beat Super Mario Bros. 2 without an emulator” sucked. That meant shoot ‘em ups were no go. Wouldn’t even try. Give up after the first bullet takes you out (one hit?!?!? that’s it).

    Then about a month ago, a love of retro gaming and all things obscure, fond memories of how cool Bonk looked in the commercials, and a lack of decent NES titles led me to get Magic Engine. It was love at first sight. The colors, the speed, the sprites… Unfortunately, for someone who sucks at video games a love affair with the shooter-heavy PC Engine is bound to be short lived. But I wasn’t going out like that; i learned to love shoot ‘em ups, and now I’m absolutely addicted. I’ve since bought a Dreamcast and PSX, and I have a Saturn on the way…

    Seriously, what’s not to like? Gaming at its most pure and technical, the unbroken play of theme with variations since 1979, the superior imagination of Japanese designers given free reign, the way you can see those pink Cave bullets when you close your eyes for like an hour after you’re done playing… And Cotton, god that’s a beautiful game.

    Awesome article. Would expect nothing less from Racketboy.

    Oh, I can now get through the first two levels of DonPachi without getting hit. Yay.

  23. jigenbakuda says:

    I made a visual companion guide of shoot em ups using this guide. If you are interested please check it out.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IlSjcjSnipg&list=PL8NvwqPJp_zI5o9VTzBU98R5aM1eYifKb&index=1

  24. MCP says:

    Having tried and loved many shooters from everywhere (Europe, Japan, USA, not to forget Australia) on many, many different systems from the earkly 80s, I obviously don’t share the reported negative views toward so called “Euroshooters” and frankly cannot understand why they elicit this kind of bias.

    That’s to say, IF the negative opinion is really widespread on a serious critical basis and not simply the result of strictly-minded gamers that refuse to aknowledge that there existed other platforms (oh my) in other parts of the world, sometimes with different gameplay mechanics and with a list of (very) good and (very) bad games alike. And cannot properly set up an emulator to go and see by themselves some good-to-wonderful shooters such as Armalyte, Enforcer, Menace, Xenon2, Project-X, Z-Out, Super Stardust, Banshee. Difficult, oh yeah. Punishing, frustrating at times. As difficult, punishing and frustrating (but enjoyable nonetheless) were many of their cousins from Japan and USA.

    Anyway, great article: one of the best lectures I’ve ever read, together with the other guides you wrote on the subject.