The Best Shmups to Get Started

beginner-shmups

Presented by BulletMagnet

Note from racketboy: Taking the next step from his comprehensive Shmups 101: A Beginner’s Guide to 2D Shooters,  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!

The scrolling shoot-em-up (or “shmup”) is a hardy, tough-skinned branch of video gamedom dating back to the earliest age of arcades, and in true crocodilian fashion has evolved relatively little over time compared to its fluffier, warm-blooded kin. To the modern observer, it also appears a strange and somewhat conflicted creature: on the one hand, the simple and intuitive actions of moving and shooting comprise a foundation that any prospective player can grasp within seconds. At the same time, the demanding degree of precision and concentration required for success in many shooters harkens back to a far less inclusive era in gaming; the genre has thus come to embody a sometimes-uneasy amalgamation of inviting and intimidating qualities.

Many an unsuspecting interloper has taken up a controller or slid in a token only to find himself blindsided by an unexpectedly stiff challenge; these echoing, primeval roars from a bygone age have sent numerous potential patrons fleeing for the hills, complete with a new-found case of the jitters. A shame, to be sure, for despite its undeniably hard-nosed qualities the “classic” shooter continues to offer one of the purest and most satisfying journeys to be had in all of interactive entertainment, and moreover remains highly accessible at the ground floor to just about any class of participant…just so long, that is, as one becomes sufficiently acquainted with the nature of the beast.

Instillment of this vital awareness, once an instinctive imprint on gamer DNA but largely bred out of the pool over the years, is more or less the driving force behind this article. You might recall this site’s “Shmups 101” segment from a ways back, which includes a few basic “tips and tricks” for general shmupping audiences; the piece you’re reading now aims to expand upon some of those while adding a batch of fresh guidelines specifically aimed at genre newcomers (including, of course, a sampling of suggested titles which might serve as suitable points of entry). As per usual, not every item covered here is destined to prove equally relevant to everyone, but hopefully at least a handful of the following tidbits will be of help down the line in some capacity, no matter what your inherent skill level might be.

Most importantly, of course, I hope you enjoy the read, and have fun playing some great shmups afterwards!

General Advice and Basic Guidelines

Don’t Overthink The Entrance

Just to make extra-sure we’re all on the same page, allow me to repeat that by no means should you consider the suggestions in this guide the be-all, end-all of how to “get into” shmups. These games, lest we forget, have defined and defended their niche the old-fashioned way, via not only the famed quarter-munching appetite we’re aiming to mitigate here, but the much-coveted ability to evoke an immediate, from-the-gut response in passersby: part of a good arcade game’s appeal is the prospective player’s decision to give it a whirl not after spending hours poring over reviews and FAQs, but simply because something about it catches his eye as he walks by the cabinet. This connection is often established in a manner difficult, if not impossible, to adequately quantify.

To take the notion a step further, it wouldn’t be inappropriate to assert that a positive “first impression” of a shooter can serve as a surprisingly potent motivator to keep playing and improving if and when the going gets tricky; if you happen to perceive a certain je ne sais quoi within a game right off the bat it’s more likely to remain enjoyable as you peel away its layers bit by bit, occasional rough edges notwithstanding. There’s nothing at all wrong with this, and no reason not to feel comfortable simply following one’s instincts while looking for a shmup to play; even if it’s not a particularly well-known or highly-regarded title, feel free to sample and discuss it (with an open mind, of course) with the larger shmupping community. Your tastes in these games, as with most anything else, will likely evolve to some degree over time, but don’t be afraid to let it happen naturally, unforced.

While you’re poking around, by all means don’t hesitate to take a nibble at any so-called “borderliners” (i.e. “shooting” games which contain some but not all of the elements generally associated with the “shmup” label) which similarly strike your fancy; some of the more common variants on this theme were discussed near the end of “Shmups 101” if you need a primer. These “hybrid” titles can be especially helpful if you’re new to scrolling shooters but have spent some time within other gaming sectors; if, for instance, you’ve previously enjoyed platformers, then maybe a “run-n-gun” or two would serve as a good introduction to aiming and bullet-dodging while keeping one foot planted firmly within familiar run-n-jump territory. You’re likely to encounter some (occasionally spirited) discussion of what “technically” qualifies as a shmup in conversations with others, but at the end of the day it’s all but completely academic in nature; everyone is always free to play whatever they please, and maybe even discover an all-time favorite that they never knew existed along the way.

Check Out Consoles First

All that being said, just because the genre first sprung to life in the arcades doesn’t necessarily mean you have to leap headlong into its gaping, toothy maw right off the bat. Shooters designed specifically for those glorious monolithic machines of old tend to be the more challenging ones (not exactly surprising, since too many lengthy, low-effort play sessions meant less profit for arcade operators), while their console-based cousins are often, though not always, of a somewhat gentler disposition, or at least offer some means to smoothe over their more uninvitingly jagged personality quirks.

Not only are home-market shmups’ “default” challenge levels usually milder in general terms, but options and settings to tweak to your own preferences (and gradually ramp things up as you get settled in) are often more numerous and easier to access; on a purely practical note, consumer-grade releases (again, with some exceptions) also tend to be more affordable, easier to acquire, and demand less maintenance and/or technical expertise to own outright, especially if you prefer not to emulate. Mind you, there are plenty of great and accessible arcade exclusives out there, but if you’re feeling uncertain about where to begin, check the aforementioned Shmups 101 article for some hints as to which consoles’ shooter libraries might be worth looking into first.

On a related note, when seeking out a “starter” shooter it’s a nice little bonus to snag one which keeps separate scoreboards for each of its available difficulty levels; these allow you to not only start off at any point you feel comfortable with, but accurately chart your progress as you eventually start to dip a toe into more demanding play modes. Many latter-day commercial shmup releases support online leaderboards as well, but require players to compete via some manner of set-in-stone “score attack” mode which is permanently locked to the game’s default challenge settings and limits all play sessions to a single credit at a time; all the more reason to build up a measure of confidence before taking on the world.

Assistance From Without and Within

This one’s a holdover from Shmups 101, but well worth another go: if you look around YouTube and other such destinations a bit you’ll find that quite a few shmup gameplay videos have been uploaded for your perusal, some of which feature so-called “superplayers”, both amateur and professional, showcasing a very high level of skill behind the joystick. Mind you, there’s definitely fulfillment to be found in carving one’s own path from start to finish, and if you prefer to fly solo then by no means let this article dissuade you, but if you’ve been banging your head against a particularly stubborn roadblock for awhile you might want to consider referencing someone else’s footage, if only for a quick hint or two.

In a sense, the exchange of gameplay videos among modern-day shmuppers is the successor to the lines of eager onlookers at the arcades of days gone by, and imparts many of the same benefits; not only will the heady feeling of “oh, so THAT’S the idea” likely come as a considerable relief the next time you sit down to play the game yourself, but other techniques and approaches gleaned along the periphery may well prove just as useful in other shooters you’ve yet to discover. Of course, you should also feel free to make use of the ability to save and share your own replay footage or download others’ for your viewing pleasure, which most recent releases offer out of the box, though some devotees prefer to opt for commercially-packaged or homebrew replay VHSs and DVDs, some of which are quite collectable and include bonus materials.

Of course, there isn’t much purpose in seeking to improve your performance if you’re not aiming to accomplish anything in particular, so the final piece of the puzzle comes down to the question “Why am I still playing this?” Do you just want to cleanse the palate and take in the sights for a while in between other games? Or are you hoping to surpass a particular high score marker? Or claim the coveted one-credit clear (1CC), where you make it straight through a shooter from start to finish on default settings without continuing once? There’s no need to obsess over this sort of thing when you’re just getting started, but if shooters are looking to become a significant part of your gaming diet you might want to make a habit of placing a particular final boss or point total squarely in your crosshairs before moving on. Take as much time to chew and digest as you need: the rest of the community will be happy to see you getting more involved with our favorite games no matter what your pace.

Speaking of which, once you’ve gotten yourself a bit more familiar with the genre, you might want to have a gander at this outside piece, which has become something of a go-to resource/pseudo-credo for dyed-in-the-wool shmuppers.

Know Thy Hardware

Remember that one woebegotten machine at the arcade with the gooped-up buttons and busted joystick, or the three-button cab which had been outfitted, inexplicably, with a four-button game? Just as these all-too-common hardware blasphemies could render a spent credit essentially worthless no matter which game you were trying to play, so an ill-suited control setup can make getting into shooters, which sport pixel-by-pixel precision as a badge of pride, a fair deal harder than it needs to be; while there is solid equipment to be found if you know where to search, these days few major manufacturers are aiming their products at shmuppers straight out of the box, so a little extra time and effort spent on the physical end of the gaming experience is likely to prove worth your while.

While every player’s preferences are different, and a substantial faction swears by a given system’s plain ol’ pack-in controller (or keyboard), a plurality of shmuppers would suggest considering the acquisition of a more optimized apparatus, possibly in the form of at least one decent arcade-style joystick for your system(s) of choice. There are numerous brands and models to choose from, in terms of both pre-built sticks and customizable individual parts, so if you’re determined to find your ideal combination you might want to look up an FAQ or two on modification; many hardware enthusiasts recommend some combination of sticks, buttons, and other parts manufactured by Seimitsu and/or Sanwa, though again your own preferences (and budget) will have to determine which route you take to this end, if any.

If all you’re seeking is a handful of more “general” recommendations for a shmup-friendly interface, however, in most cases it’s strongly suggested that you utilize digital controls (i.e., the input switches will only register as “active” or “not active” instead of analog (varying amounts of input pressure can be detected for varying onscreen results), so as to get a better feel for constant, reliable movement and reaction speeds, though some more recent games are specifically built with the latter in mind. Moreover, if you use a joystick, you should probably choose one with a short “throw” (i.e. the stick doesn’t have to be pushed very far from its “neutral” position to activate), which is conducive to more immediate and accurate evasive maneuvers.

If you’re interested in some “extracurricular” in-depth reading concerning arcade hardware for both shmups and other games, you might want to start by checking this outside link, and this one too.

Recommended Titles

And here we are: the obligatory cross-section of the shooter sphere which newcomers  MIGHT want to put at the top of their “to-do” lists. This particular selection has been sorted into “General” and “Specific” categories, which detail “familial” groups of games and individual releases, respectively, for your consideration. The latter segment is itself split up into “Commercial” and “Homebrew” portions for those who might prefer to focus their efforts within either area; while arcades and home consoles boast many of the higher-profile shooters featured here, even those who game exclusively on the PC have plenty to choose from, especially on the homebrew and freeware fronts. Thanks be to the gaming gods that such bountiful opportunities exist for adventurous players to laugh in the faces of tight budgets and/or hardware format limitations!

Once again, do not by any means consider this a “definitive” or “must-play” list, but in terms of titles and categories which aren’t likely to strain new players TOO terribly, these are, at the very least, some of the first names likely to come up if you take a survey of the shmup community. Let’s start things off with the broader view:

“General” Recommendations

Compile shooters

Zanac-X-ZanacYou might remember Compile as one of our chosen “developers of note” in Shmups 101, and with good reason, since their name is one of the most fondly-remembered within the fandom, though their Puyo-Puyo puzzle games (which continue to live on, albeit intermittently, through Sega) are probably their most deeply-embedded contribution to the larger gaming consciousness. Countless lifelong shooter fans began their journeys by sampling Compile’s sizable library, including iconic series like Zanac and Aleste – which, somewhat unusually for their time, were squarely aimed not at arcade-goers but the home console audience, offering the latter a once-elusive doorway into the exciting world of baddie-blasting and bullet-dodging, right in their own living rooms.

Taking one crucial cue from their coin-operated ancestors, Compile’s shooters were founded upon catching and keeping the attention of the shmup-curious; first and foremost, these games typically boast an appealing and generous list of weapons to try, whose variety and potency ensures that just about anyone can zero in on their personal favorites while also learning which alternatives to seek out for tackling more specialized challenges. Moreover, despite having to regularly tangle with crowded screens full of hazards, gamers can take advantage of numerous pockets of wiggle room as they feel their way around, in the form of forgiving survival mechanics: items offering momentary invincibility upon collection, powered-up players being able to take an extra hit before losing a life, and a generous extend (score-based 1-up) rate are frequently there to help you pull through.

If you care to venture a bit deeper into their technical aspects, some of Compile’s titles are also a good introduction to the concept of “rank”, or a game’s ability to automatically adjust its difficulty as a direct reaction to player performance: Zanac is particularly famous for this, as the computer sends different enemy types and formations out to meet you depending upon the weapon you’ve decided to equip at a given point. As such, not only is every run-through likely to play out a bit differently, but shrewd players can learn to think counter-intuitively to bend certain segments of the game more to their liking; here it’s more of a preferential tweak, but in certain other, more difficult shooters it can and will exhibit itself as an essential skill.

Shortlist

  • Zanac X Zanac (PS1, PSN) (Amazon/eBay)
  • M.U.S.H.A./Musha Aleste  (GEN/MD, WVC) (Amazon/eBay)
  • Space Megaforce/Super Aleste (SNES/SFC) (Amazon/eBay)

Tecno Soft shooters

lightening-forceIf you get the chance, ask any shmup fan who grew up with a Genesis/Mega Drive in the house what his favorite games were (and possibly still are): you’d be hard-pressed to find too many such folks who wouldn’t include Thunder Force III and/or IV somewhere in their list of personal classics, a testament to just how far a bit of good old-fashioned 16-bit thrill-seeking can carry you. Though the developer (whose name was tweaked to “Technosoft” in the West), like Compile, focused most of its attention on home consoles, it maintained a somewhat closer bond to the genre’s deeply-ingrained arcade mentality, and by extension an unmistakably different, raw brand of appeal to gamers with itchy trigger fingers.

While Compile’s shooters tend to be billed as somewhat lengthy affairs (for the genre, at least), usually requiring a good hour or so for an uninterrupted run-through, Tecno Soft’s output is all about speed: players’ epic battles against evil alien empires and such are not only more immediate and condensed, but defined by blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cascades of enemies, obstacles, and Big Fat Greek Lasers whose assaults rarely leave much room for downtime. As a result, most of the company’s celebrated 16-bit productions appeared on Sega’s flagship system, whose fleeter processor allowed everything to blaze on through with less slowdown than its competition afforded.

While this adrenaline-fueled state of affairs might not sound particularly beginner-friendly, the developers took care to pack in plentiful concessions to the uninitiated; not only are precious extra lives fairly easy to acquire and stockpile, but stages can often be tackled partially in the order of the player’s choosing, in case you need to bulk up some before taking on an area that’s making a nuisance of itself. Five different weapons can be collected, stashed and switched between at will, allowing for a greater degree of flexibility (and rock-synth-accompanied mass destruction) than most any other digital destination of the era. While Thunder Force is easily Tecno Soft’s marquee series, by all means check out some of their more obscure output too, if you get the chance.

Shortlist

  • Thunder Force III (GEN/MD, SAT) (Amazon/eBay)
  • Lightening Force/Thunder Force IV (GEN/MD, SAT) (Amazon/eBay)
  • Elemental Master (GEN/MD) (Amazon/eBay)

 

Cave X360 “Novice” modes

akai-katana-shin-xbox-360-001Revisiting the classics is all well and good, but say you feel a hankering for something a little more contemporary to spice up your introductory tour of Shmupsville. At first glance the pickings might appear relatively slim: as mainstream interest in 2D shooters has waned, the handful of companies still releasing them have been forced to cater to an increasingly niche, demanding, and experienced audience, resulting in the latter-day dominance of so-called “bullet hell” releases whose screenfuls of glowing neon death aren’t exactly custom-built to inspire confidence.

Enter Cave, perhaps the most prominent latter-day shooter developer, and one with deep roots in the arcades, though more and more of their work has wended its way to store shelves and download services over the years; as it happens, their most recent platform of choice has been the Xbox 360, a notable bright spot amidst the console’s well-documented struggles in Japan. Of course, to make inroads into the home market some necessary compromises have been made with the non-hardcore in mind, and Cave’s primary vehicle to this end has been the inclusion of stand-alone “Novice” modes in almost all of their “eighth-generation” releases. Though their play mechanics and scoring systems are pretty much identical to the “standard” games, enemy attacks are considerably more manageable, and some manner of “auto-bomb” is on call to save your bacon if you don’t spot an oncoming threat in time (though its reduced power still encourages learning proper manual activation).

Though these “practice dojos” aren’t usually placed in the same competitive category as their counterparts, they’re a great way for new players to ease themselves into the controlled chaos of the “bullet hell” subgenre and experiment with boosting their scores bit by bit as they progress; more experienced challengers can also stop in for a preview of later levels they’re striving to reach in the “default” game. On that note, many Cave titles also contain at least one remixed “Arrange” mode of some sort, which might also suit neophytes better, at least at first, so feel free to tool around with those too. Two important things you’ll want to look into before importing any unlocalized 360 release from Cave: first, of course, check which modes your game of choice includes, and second, see if the title you’re interested in is region-free, as some of Cave’s shmups will play on any Xbox 360, but others will only work on a Japanese system.

As an aside, while many of Cave’s older shooters were unfortunately never ported to consoles in real time, the popular DoDonPachi stands as one of the exceptions, and its Saturn edition contains an aptly-dubbed “Saturn Mode” which happens to be a great fit for newcomers. Though it doesn’t tone things down quite as much as the aforementioned Novice modes do, its default challenge level is noticeably lower than its arcade counterpart, and it even allows you to have a whack at the true final boss without having to conquer the game twice in a row; more than that, there’s a new area at the very beginning which helps you power up a bit quicker, and a bunch of extra menu options and tweaks to mess with should you feel the need. It’s a nice look at Cave truly coming into its own, and might even help you to do the same.

Shortlist:

 

Caravan shooters

reccaIf you can say one thing for sure about the shmup through the ages, it’s very rarely been accused of overstaying its welcome; to the contrary, much of the criticism leveled its way in recent years has emanated from reviewers who apparently consider a game completely and utterly “finished” for all time, with nothing else to offer, as soon as you’ve seen the end credits roll once (notwithstanding the fact that you had to cough up eighty-seven continues on Easy mode to get there). Regardless, in this age of five-minute smartphone gaming breaks and ever-expanding digital libraries it can be tougher then ever to spend too much time in one place no matter what you’re into; sometimes you just need a truly “bite-sized” shmup serving, and so-called “Caravan” shooters are precisely the ticket to satisfy this particular craving.

Deriving their name from a series of short, bonus-packed shmups created specifically for competitive purposes in the late 80’s and early 90’s, “caravan” shooters drop the player into brief, fixed courses filled to the brim with point-rich targets and scoring mini-challenges to take on, saddled with a time limit no more than a few minutes in length; generally there is no true “end” to the game otherwise, so the farther you get and the more you blow up along the way, the higher you’ll score, and that’s the only goal you have, or need. This keeps the pressure on, which might not sound ideal for newbies, but in exchange most caravan shooters grant players infinite lives to exploit until time runs out, so no worries about being kicked out prematurely while still getting your feet wet.

As such, “caravan” shooters (or separate/hidden modes to that end, included as a side dish to more “traditional” shooter output) are perfect for shmup fans who don’t have a lot of room in their schedules for practicing and drilling in pursuit of a tricky single-credit trophy; just fire the bugger up when you have a couple of spare minutes and could use a bit of interstellar stress relief, then see if you can squeeze a few more points out of it than you could last time around…and if the carpool isn’t honking its horn yet when you’re done, just press start again. Simply put, the timeless, no-frills appeal of shooters and other classics of years gone by doesn’t get more compressed, distilled, or endearingly in-your-face than it does when you hop aboard the caravan.

Shortlist:

  • Soldier Blade (TG16/PCE, PSP, WVC, PSN, iOS) (Amazon/eBay)
  • Recca (NES/FC, 3DS)
  • Soldier Force (PC)

 

Specific Suggestions (Commercial)

Deathsmiles

(Cave, 2007 – ARC/X360/iOS/AND – JP/US/PAL)

deathsmilesYou’d be hard-pressed to encounter a more straightforward instance of a shooter aiming for a new audience; according to the developers themselves this was the project’s inspiration, long before anyone had much idea what the thing would look or play like. Anyway, Deathsmiles not only serves as a pivot point for Cave’s gradual shift away from wartime/mechanical-themed settings to more character-oriented narratives, but more importantly remains their most beginner-friendly release down to this day. It doesn’t contain a “Novice” mode like many of its younger cousins do, but it doesn’t need one: during “normal” play, you’re free to adjust each individual level’s overall toughness before diving in, and as you become brave enough to take on stiffer opposition your potential in-game rewards will grow proportionally right alongside your skills.

Threats can and will emerge from all edges of the screen, but quick visual warnings are given before they arrive on the scene, and you can freely fire your “normal” shots to both the left and right or utilize a short-range special attack to target enemies from any angle and fend stray nasties off. Moreover, colliding with a baddie (as opposed to a bullet) isn’t an instant kill, your weapon level doesn’t decrease when you do lose a life, and both smart bombs and a temporary “power up” mode can help you to blast past extra-sticky situations; as you get more used to the game, you’ll learn how discriminate use of the latter can amp up your score and tack on a couple of extra lives to bring you within striking distance of the coveted no-continue clear.

While the original arcade game would eventually lock players out of the milder difficulty levels as they progressed, the Xbox 360 port (which was released in all regions) includes a revamped “360 Mode” which not only pretties up the graphics for HDTVs but removes that restriction; older hands looking for a more involved challenge can also give the “Black Label” and “Version 1.1” modes a try. Finally, the game’s latter-day mobile release not only tweaks the existing arcade game a bit further but tacks on an exclusive “smartphone” mode, which features a new character and lots of item collection and stat-building to ease the RPG set into the fold (just make sure it works on your device’s firmware). If you don’t mind replacing the usual squadron of fighter jets with frilly, fireball-flinging frauleins, by all means let Deathsmiles spirit you around town.

Shop for Deathsmiles on eBay
Shop for Deathsmiles on Amazon.com

Suggested Followup:
In the event that you find yourself deep into Deathsmiles and eager to sample more games like it, vertical-scroller Espgaluda, also by Cave, might be a good next stop to pencil into your itinerary. While there’s no mid-game difficulty adjuster here, your opposition is still relatively tame by danmaku standards, and once again you have both bombs and a special technique (which can both slow down and clear out enemy bullets) to help turn the tide; as in Deathsmiles players can also utilize the latter in a more aggressive fashion to pump up their score counters. It’ll probably take a bit longer to wrap your head around how everything works here (the title’s pronunciation included), but beginning players should still be able to make steady progress with relatively light practice. One catch: the only home port the game received was to the Japanese PS2, so it’s somewhat tougher to access domestically unless you emulate (on the bright side, there’s a freeware PC title called Leiria Stargazer which plays a lot like Espgaluda and is at least as welcoming to newcomers).

Shop for Espgaluda on eBay
Shop for Espgaluda on Amazon.com

Battle Bakraid

(8ing – 1999 – ARC – JP)
Battle-Bakraid8ing, surviving sibling of the famed but now-defunct Raizing, is not exactly known for its newbie-friendliness, at least on the shooter front; Battle Garegga, one of this game’s genre-defining forebears, is notorious for requiring considerable study just to fully understand how its dynamic-difficulty rank system works. Bakraid, however, is different; while it may not immediately stand out from the dozens upon dozens of other military-themed airplane shmups out there, a few minutes at the cabinet will put apprehensive players at ease. For starters, especially if you’re playing the tweaked “Unlimited” version, take a gander at the plane select screen; there are no fewer than nine unique fighters to choose from, and you’re certain to find one that suits your style somewhere inside the hangar. From there, have a quick look around the ‘net for a bevy of codes to custom-tailor the game even further to your liking, from extra-detailed score displays to stylish enemy bullet colors.

Then, of course, there are the quartet of play modes, seemingly constructed to chart an easy-to-follow course straight up from greenhorn to veteran: an abbreviated “Training” segment with auto-bombs, the standard but not too difficult “Normal”, the lengthier, beefier “Advanced”, and even a quick-shot “Boss Rush” to test your mettle versus the big baddies if you don’t feel like a full run-through. No matter how you choose to play power-ups are plentiful, bombs are both powerful and protective (though they require a little practice to aim for maximum damage), and your plane’s hitbox is generous enough to see you through pretty much anything thrown your way.

While you’re not really required to mess around with the game’s scoring system if you’re just looking to reach the end, ignoring it would be missing out on a perfect opportunity to slowly but surely push your limits a bit further. In a nutshell, big points in Bakraid require players to “chain” mid-to-large enemy kills together in quick succession for as long as possible; you can put together a few short chains just by memorizing where groups of exploitable baddies appear and firing away, but to truly impress the shmup gods you’ll have to take advantage of two methods to extend the chain timer. One is by releasing a bomb, which will leave you with a bit less of a safety net for later, and the other, believe it or not, is to “suicide” into a hazard and sacrifice a life on the spot; it sounds a bit nuts, but if you can put together a good-sized chain you can easily earn back the life you lost, plus interest. No rush, though: simply expend whatever you feel comfortable with and see where it takes you, or go ahead and enjoy the game without any of the funky stuff for as long as you please.

Suggested Followup:
Liking what you see of Raizing’s style but aren’t quite ready to tackle the likes of Battle Garegga or Dimahoo just yet? May I suggest a detour to the wild and secret-rich “Violent City” of Armed Police Batrider: it’s a bit less forgiving in nature than Bakraid, but still showcases a boatload of courses, options, codes, secret challenges, and (believe it or not) an even larger playable roster, assuming you’ve enabled them all (again, check online for the appropriate prompts). Scoring is also considerably simpler, since aside from filling targets with hot lead the only noteworthy thing to worry about is collecting any score medals you come across without letting them drop offscreen; the required technique to succeed at this is a useful one to practice (and is present in Bakraid too), so keep at it. Unfortunately, neither Batrider nor Bakraid ever saw daylight outside of Japanese arcades, so if you’re not in the market to acquire the original PCBs you’ll have to emulate to play either game.

Shop for Battle Bakraid on eBay

Batsugun Special Version

(Toaplan – 1993 – ARC/SAT – JP)
Batsugun Special VersionSome readers of the “Shmups 101” article have argued, not without merit, that Batsugun got a bit of a short shrift in that piece, considering that it almost single-handedly bridged the gap between “classical” shmups and their “bullet hell” descendants, and thus deserved more than a side note next to the other selections. Well, consider this a bit of overdue compensation, for not only did Toaplan’s swan song turn out to be quite the influential trend-setter, but its revised “Special Version” happens to contain some excellent adjustments which render it all the more approachable and appealing to all sorts of players, newcomers in particular.

If you’ve never played Batsugun before, it’s a pretty straightforward shooter in most respects, though the seizure-riffic firepower that both players and their enemies volley back and forth was cranked up several notches beyond any of its real-time competition, and remains a sight to behold even today; surprisingly, though, the commensurate power-up system is quite nicely balanced, combining traditional “P” items (which are lost upon death) with an “experience” level (which rises along with your kill count and never decreases), ensuring that you won’t be left completely defenseless after a mistake. On top of all that, “Special” shrinks the player’s hitbox considerably, making it easier to weave through thick patterns intact, and also juices up bombs to fill the screen and provide a more potent ace in the hole when those crazy guns of yours still don’t quite finish the job. Finally, every time you “level up” your craft is awarded a one-hit shield for a layer of extra protection, making a single trip through all five stages achievable for most anyone willing to put a little time into it.

Look out, though: Special has one last addendum on offer, in the form of several post-game “loops” which allow players to re-tackle the game’s levels with added hazards, including enemies that release so-called “suicide bullets” upon being shot down, more than making up for your by-now-boosted weaponry. More seasoned players are obviously the ones likely to get the most out of this addition (along with the bizarre scoring system, which I’ll leave to an outside FAQ or tutorial to explain), but I still recommend putting forth an earnest effort to see how much more you’ve got left in the tank if you can make it that far; there’s a good chance that you’ll surprise yourself. One final note: the Japan-only Saturn port of Batsugun contains both the “normal” and “special” versions of the game, as well as a handy autofire button, and comes recommended, but beware that it has less slowdown than the arcade original on the later loops, if you can get there!

Shop for Batsugun Special Version on eBay

Suggested Followup:
Honestly, when a bona fide genre “bridge” like Batsugun serves as your starting point it’s possible to branch out in several different directions without straining too much: one slightly-too-obvious possibility is the game’s aforementioned “regular” version, which plays similarly but removes some of Special’s above-listed amenities for a more “vintage” brand of challenge. One could also opt to take on some other graduates of Toaplan’s “old-school” era, though you might want to approach their more famously challenging titles with caution; Fire Shark (aka Same! Same! Same!) often comes recommended as one of their friendlier offerings (just make sure you’re not playing the Japanese 1P-only version, that one’s a toughie). Finally, there’s the option of getting to know Batsugun’s “bullet hell” successors, starting with its most immediate descendent, DonPachi, which is a bit more restrained than the sequels that followed; from there on out, the sky’s pretty much the limit.

Sonic Wings Series

(Video System – 1992-1996 – ARC/SNES/NG/SAT/PS1/PS2  – JP/US/PAL)
sonic-wingsHere’s our first opportunity to recommend a series rather than an individual game, and with ample reason: while later Sonic Wings (aka Aero Fighters) entries stretched their proverbial legs a bit more than their ancestors, for the most part all of the games play alike, and more importantly are well-tailored for somewhat more “casual” shmup fans. At first blush, frankly, it can be tough to distinguish any particular entry from the rest, or even from other, unrelated shooters of the day, as the playable airplanes and backdrops on offer here don’t stray too far from well-established, comfort-zone genre convention…well, at least until the ninja pilot shows up. With a talking dolphin on the Player 2 side. And they proceed to do battle with the Statue of Liberty.

So, yeah, while Sonic Wings takes place in some iteration of “our world” and wears something of a pedestrian veneer, it won’t be long before you’re wondering just who allowed a pop idol, diaper-clad baby, or horn-helm’d Viking (among many, many others) near the controls of advanced fighter jets, or, for that matter, what manner of world domination plan involves spot-welding a butt-load of guns onto an old Mayan ziggurat. Once you’ve adjusted to the designers’ surreal sense of humor, you’ll find yourself largely at ease with the game’s fairly relaxed challenge level and easy-to-grasp mechanics: pretty much the only things to note aside from “shoot/bomb stuff and don’t die” are 1) Collecting score items near the top of the screen makes them worth more, and 2) At max strength your shots will automatically “power down” one notch after a short time, but recharges are plentiful so it’s not a huge deal. Oh, and some stages offer branching paths, too, so try them all out if you can.

Another thing to like about the Sonic Wings series is that it’s a particularly fun romp for two players: not only does a wingman’s extra set of guns come in handy when things start to heat up, but between levels the two characters you’ve chosen will engage in a bit of unique (not to mention often-bizarre and/or Engrishy) dialogue, adding a dash of extra motivation to sample a variety of teams and get as far as you can with each, just to see what manner of entertaining inanity they might spout next. It would appear that the designers embraced this particular feature as something of a communal tradition amongst themselves, and continued to implement it even under a different company banner (to be elaborated upon a bit below). If you want the “biggest” entries in the series then Sonic Wings Limited (Arcade) or Sonic Wings Special (Saturn/PS1) are probably your best bets, but again, just about any such release you happen across ought to be worth a go.

Suggested Followup:
After Video System folded, many of its employees regrouped under the Psikyo label, and produced quite a few more shooters from there: one popular point of entry for Sonic Wings fans is the Strikers 1945 trilogy, which isn’t quite as cartoonish in terms of story but does feature WWII aircraft duking it out with giant transforming mecha. There’s also the fantasy-themed Gunbird, which pits a young witch, a robot, an old guy on a flying bicycle and others against a goofy band of pirates in a race for wish-granting treasure. Gameplay is quite similar to that of Sonic Wings, right down to the auto-power down, special multiplayer dialogue and slow-but-powerful charge shots, but to shake things up the first few levels are now tackled in random order (so keep on your toes, as a particular locale might be a cake walk as Stage 1 but a real bear as Stage 4), and each character has two available endings even when playing alone. The later entries of both Strikers and Gunbird implement deeper mechanics but are also considerably more challenging than their ancestors, so be ready for a sweatier workout when taking those on.

Shop for Sonic Wings Series on eBay
Shop for Sonic Wings on Amazon.com

Sengoku Blade

(Psikyo – 1996 – ARC/SAT/PS2/iOS? – JP/PAL)
Sengoku BladeYou know what? So long as we’re on the subject of Psikyo let’s take a side trip to one of their projects from a little bit later on. Sengoku Blade is actually a direct followup to the company’s very first shooter, Sengoku Ace, but unlike that game (and most of the Psikyo catalog) it adopts a side-scrolling, horizontal perspective. The sequel does retain, however, its precursor’s well-realized feudal Japanese aesthetic, and applies a spit-shine to this striking visual motif: character portraits, backdrops, and in-game sprites nearly across the board have been prettied up to impart an even more appealing and detailed look than before, and work in tandem with an appropriately atmospheric soundtrack to form, for starters, one of Psikyo’s most attractive productions.

Once you’ve been lured in by the eye candy (no jokes about the not-so-historically-accurate attire of the lead character, please!), you’ll find plentiful other reasons to stick around for awhile; by now Psikyo had abandoned the “auto power-down” mechanic of its older work, so there’s no more worrying about suddenly dropping a level at an inopportune time, but you’ll be happy to know that the wide array of wacky two-player dialogue, multiple endings, and ample doses of silliness (how does the phrase “fire-breathing chain-smoking lemur” tickle you?) are all here to stay. The character variety has also improved, and while everyone’s basics are a cinch to learn the playable crew packs in a nice selection of attack styles: Katana’s short-range but devastatingly powerful spears are particular favorites (and Marion from Gunbird makes a bonus cameo in the Saturn port). A quick hint to make survival a bit easier: most characters’ hitboxes are centered on their upper bodies, so don’t worry too much about your legs as you weave for dear life.

One other enhancement is also worth looking into, especially for newer arrivals: a simple timing-based scoring mechanism. Many enemies drop coins upon being shot down, which slowly spin on their vertical axis until they fall offscreen. As you swoop in to collect them and beef up your point total, take note not only of safe pickup opportunities but the rotation cycle of your prizes: when the coins’ flat surfaces are facing the player they’ll momentarily flash, and are worth the most points if you can time your collection just right. It’s honestly tougher to explain here than it is to see in action, but also tricky to master in the middle of a firefight, so as you become more adept at weathering the enemy onslaught try to “flash grab” as many coins as you can for maximum rewards; not only is this another skill that will come in handy in various other shooters, but means that precious point-based extra life award is coming sooner, too!

Shop for Sengoku Blade on eBay
Shop for Sengoku Blade on Amazon.com

Suggested Followups:
So, you enjoyed Sengoku Blade’s “snag the items at just the right moment” scoring mechanic, and want to try taking it to the next level? Have a crack at Raiden DX, a sorta-remake, sorta-sequel to Raiden II, which welds a whole bunch of new stuff onto the series’ successful framework, including its own “timed collection” variation. After you reveal a “medal” item, if you don’t pick it up it will soon begin to flash – and its value will be quickly reduced – until it finally turns gray and is worth next to nothing. Watch closely, though: after a moment or two the “dormant” pickup will flicker one last time, for a split second, and if you can move in at precisely the right moment you’ll be rewarded with a bonus several times the item’s original value. So, do you prefer to play it safe and snap up everything quick as you can, or would you rather exercise patience and test your timing in pursuit of the big jackpot? Play the game and find out – and keep your eyes open for a whole bunch of other hidden scoring opportunities too! A bit of additional info can be found here

Shienryu Explosion

Shienryu Explosion(Warashi – 2003 – PS2 – JP/PAL)
While most of the games we’ve covered here so far can claim at least a nominal amount of genre recognition or name-drop a storied developer on their resumes, this rather anonymous title has slipped past many players’ radars despite debuting not too terribly long ago. While it was marketed as a sequel to Shienryu, Warashi’s most famous-ish shooter (well, either that or Trigger Heart Exelica), Explosion plays almost nothing like it; rumor has it that the game is actually the reincarnation of a canceled Dreamcast project which was eventually shunted over to the PS2. Warashi has unfortunately faded into the ether by now, so we may never know exactly how this one came into existence, but whatever its origins Shienryu Explosion remains just as welcoming a destination for less-experienced players as it ever was.

After choosing your craft (which influences your primary weapon) and its pilot (which determines what manner of smart bomb you drop), you’re ready to wreak some havoc. You only have a single gun at your disposal, but its power and spread vary depending on how hard you press the “shot” key (yup, this is one of the few games to utilize the PS2’s oft-ignored analog face buttons); fortunately, if you’d rather not bother with that particular evolutionary dead end you can map separate “light”, “medium” and “hard” shots to their own unique triggers instead. Once you’ve gotten used to how your ship handles it’s time to start digging into the scoring system: destroyed enemies drop stars that can be collected for points. And that’s it. Almost. Look closely at their onscreen multiplier indicators: baddies dispatched with “heavier” shots (which reduce your movement speed when active) surrender more points, but the sparkly loot they leave behind is worth more if you’re using a “light” shot (or no shot at all) when you pick it up.

It takes a little getting used to, but constantly switching back and forth between your slow, powerful big guns and lighter, speedier spreads as you pivot around the screen to destroy/collect all you can (without getting killed, of course) is more than enough to keep things engaging to the end, and the game’s small hitbox, generous extend rate and relatively manageable enemy and bullet patterns ensure that you’re granted ample opportunity to get your sea (er, sky) legs. All in all, a very good way to learn to play shooters for more than just survival; just be aware, it’s recommended that you import the Japanese version if you have a system that can play it, for not only is it better-optimized than the PAL release (“Steel Dragon EX”), but it’s budget-priced and comes packaged with its “prequel” as well.

Suggested Followup:
Yea, verily, the atmosphere is indeed ripe for another timely appearance by the illustrious Captain Obvious: if you’re in the mood for an older-style shooter in the same essential mold as the prolific (and also recently-referenced) Raiden series, the “original” Shienryu is another workable choice for beginners, thanks in large part to its more dodge-friendly hit area and easier-to-see enemy bullets. If you snag the widely-available PS1 port (“Geki-Oh Shooting King”) you lose the arcade’s vertical screen option (which is kept on the PS2 and Saturn editions) but gain a bunch of extra play modes: some are just silly reskins, but a handful of them mix things up enough to be worth a bit of genuine attention. While not directly aimed at beginners it’s still a bit more manageable than the Raidens in several respects, making it a particularly worthwhile opt-in for new players wary of the “bullet hell” realm.

Shop for Shienryu Explosion on eBay 

Space Invaders Extreme Series

(Taito – 2007-2009 – PSP/DS/XBLA – JP/US/PAL)
Space Invaders ExtremeNow here’s a name that even most non-gamers have come to recognize: those little pixelly space critters and their ever-descending formations of doom have been laying siege to the pop culture landscape for decades now, and continue to make regular appearances in all manner of unexpected places. In this day and age it can feel like an anomaly when they regroup to set their sights back on their original target, namely the interactive entertainment sphere we hold so dear: of course, it can also bring up embarrassing, Futurama-esque recollections of failing miserably to bump off that last extra-speedy alien. Fear not, though: as the years have progressed, fictional extraterrestrial-repulsion technology has made impressive leaps forward, and the upshot is a succession of increasingly fun and forgiving Space Invaders titles, culminating with the two-game (so far) “Extreme” series.

Things look familiar  enough at the outset: the destructible shields between you and your targets are gone, but your trusty tank is still limited to horizontal maneuvers and each stage is conquered only when every last pesky invader has been zapped. Your cannon’s firing speed, however, has been upgraded, leaving you less vulnerable after a missed shot, and can be powered up further as you go. There are also several temporary special weapons to lock and load, from splash-damaging bombs to column-frying lasers, and a metric ton of bonuses to sniff out; destroying various sequences of alien types, colors, and/or formations in a specific manner can grant you anything from a side trip to a timed bonus round to a valuable 1-up. Best of all, players can focus on tackling whichever challenges they’re most comfortable with at any given stage of expertise, while simultaneously making steady progress through the game’s series of condensed, rapid-fire battles.

Last but not least, as you become more adept at getting the most out of the initial levels you’ll open up access to branching stage paths, all of which can be practiced any time after having been cleared once: sure, you might be able to pass the “A” group without too much trouble, but once you’re good enough to take a crack at the “D” route your fingers will be getting a more substantial workout. However you choose to approach the game, you’re likely to enjoy its slick (if somewhat trippy) presentation, which blends the simple sprites of old with abstract backgrounds and fast-paced electronic music (which reacts to certain onscreen stimuli, giving it a bit of kinship with Rez). You do have to hand it to the buggers: even after all these years and all the enhancements (not to mention Square-Enix’s acquisition of original developer Taito), Space Invaders still succeeds at remaining true to its roots while feeling fresh and friendly to newcomers. Hats off, you incorrigible little menaces from beyond the stars, you.

Suggested Followup:
Has your space still not been invaded to satisfaction? Take heart, for while they’re nowhere near as iconic as their great-grandaddy, numerous additional means are available to pick off any screen-dwelling interplanetary threats in your neighborhood. Majestic Twelve (aka Super Space Invaders ’91) stands as one of the first Invaders titles to truly feel like an evolution, introducing new powerups and enemy types (and beefing up existing ones), branching stages with unique hazards, and even a bonus level which tasks you with thwarting an impending bovine abduction (does any more honorable calling exist?).

Akkanvader (aka Space Invaders ’95: Attack of the Lunar Loonies), on the other hand, not only takes the series in a delightfully kooky “cute-em-up” direction and tosses in cameos from other Taito shooters (hi, Pocky!), but grants players a charge attack handy for knocking out entire segments of ever-more-esoteric baddies (seems the Invaders have embraced a “big tent” recruitment strategy); there’s also a simple but challenging scoring system on tap, since destroying successive targets without “whiffing” a shot steadily increases their value. Saddle up your flying bento lunchbox and blast something silly today!

Shop for Space Invaders Extreme Series on eBay
Shop for Space Invaders Extreme Series on Amazon.com 

Bullet Soul

(5pb/Tachyon – 2011/2014 – X360 – JP)
Bullet SoulIf you’ve heard of publisher/developer 5pb, you’re probably either a devotee of the visual novel genre (more specifically Steins;Gate, their best-known hit) or happened to catch the company’s anime-ized guest appearance in the Hyperdimension Neptunia fan-service RPG series. In recent years the outfit has also taken occasional sojourns into the shooter realm, with decidedly mixed results, but in the case of Bullet Soul the company had a clear sense of which demographic it was aiming for…and, well, hopefully at this point in the article I don’t have to spell out just who that lucky subset might be. Happily, unlike some of its fellow Japanese exclusives, both Bullet Soul revisions were granted region-free releases, meaning they will play on any 360 system, so if you find yourself interested in giving either one a try there’s not a whole heckuva lot to stop you from importing.

At a glance this “series” doesn’t present much to separate itself from the pack: sure, the superficial stuff is generally appealing (especially the uber-cheesy butt-rock soundtrack, which pairs well with the copious onscreen mayhem), and the three (or four) selectable characters all pack suitably ‘roided up weaponry to atomize anything and everything they come across, but take another quick look. You might have seen or played other shooters in which destroying certain “special” enemies instantly cancels out any bullets they’ve fired, a helpful perk for keeping the screen manageable…well, guess what? In this game, EVERY enemy is special. Sure, they all send scads of not-so-friendly fire in your direction, but if you can keep yourself safe long enough to bring them down before they get you, all of their remaining onscreen hazards fizzle away into the harmless, puffy “souls” of the title.

So, if you’re the sort of player who prefers to hang back and take on threats from a safe distance, chances are you’ll find yourself making progress a lot more quickly here than you’re used to, so long as you’re able to prioritize all the madness assaulting your eyeballs. This, however, is only half the story, since mastering the game’s primary scoring gimmick demands that players waltz right up into their targets’ faces before blowing them away; if you want to earn better level rankings (not to mention see the true ending) you’ll have to master your enemies’ attack patterns and grow bold enough to take advantage of every opening you’re given to get up close and personal. Again, though, you’re free to transition into this more reckless play style at your own pace, and keep an eye out for plenty of other bonuses (from “eliminate this formation once it lines up”” to “use the environment to destroy that enemy”) as you go; “Infinite Burst” is something of a “remix” of the original Bullet Soul, with a couple of extra amenities added, so you might want to go with that one first, despite a somewhat stiffer challenge level overall.

Suggested Followup:
While it’s not quite so exclusively focused on “bullet-canceling” enemies, Cave’s Mushihime-sama Futari still has plenty of them to blow away for a needed bit of breathing room, and spreads them across three different modes right out of the box – “Original” is the simplest and probably the best choice for beginners, “Maniac” kicks things up a notch and adopts a more free-form scoring system, and “Ultra” is for crazy people. If the “main” game (which, I should add, can be imported region-free, and got a cheaper “Platinum” reprint too) is still a notch too demanding for you, there’s a console-exclusive “Arrange” mode in which you switch back and forth between two characters, and whichever one you’re not using can help out by shielding you from some enemy attacks. Also consider downloading the “Black Label” expansion (which can even be obtained right on the US Marketplace, though the listing is misspelled…try searching for “Hutari”), based on a limited-edition arcade revision: the basic idea is the same, but your characters’ firepower has been juiced up considerably, making for an easier path overall to single-credit completion, especially on Original.

Shop for Bullet Soul on eBay
Shop for Bullet Soul on Amazon.com

Eschatos

(Qute – 2011 – X360 – JP)
Eschatos-1Up for one more dose of region-free shooting satisfaction on the ol’ 360? Let’s shake things up just a little bit extra this time around: while Bullet Soul and Mushi Futari easily identify with the “bullet hell” subgenre, Eschatos (whose name is Greek for “the last,” and was developed in part by M-Kai, the famed homebrew developer whose Wonderswan project, Judgment Silversword, was picked up for commercial distribution in Japan) tends to march to the beat of its own drummer. No worries, though: publisher Qute is just as eager to meet new people as its more “mainstream” equivalents (if it’s even possible to attach that term to a shmup outfit these days), and there’s more than enough material packed onto this disc to please just about any fan of bullets, bombs and blowing stuff up.

As its illustrious Wonderswan ancestors were, the player craft is equipped with a powerful straight-ahead shot, a wider-covering spread gun, and a frontal shield: you’re free to utilize all three (plus a “speed adjust” button) throughout the entire game, but can only deploy one of them at any given time. As in Futari you’ve got three play modes to choose from, and each of these can be attempted at one of four difficulty levels: “Original” is once again the easiest to learn, as it keeps your weapon power constant and awards extra points for both defeating enemies quickly and not letting any escape. “Advanced” not only cranks up the enemy bullet count but stirs in weapon power-ups which will strengthen your guns but weaken your shield, a factor which will inspire some score-based chin-stroking since offensive shield use is key to increasing your multiplier. Finally there’s “Time Attack”, in which your lives are unlimited but every mistake costs seconds from a constantly-depleting “Game Over” timer.

No matter which path you take, the game’s central mechanics serve up a well-balanced blend of old and new sensibilities, and should appeal on some level to most any shooter fan who can overcome the somewhat workmanlike visuals: moreover, several budget reprints (including a “Wonder Pack” which tosses in spiritual successor Ginga Force, detailed below) make the game fairly easy to find, though you’ll score a music CD for your troubles if you can track a first-print copy down. The cherry on top? All versions also contain bonus ports of the aforementioned Judgment Silversword and its sequel, Cardinal Sins, and the pair play just as well on a larger screen. The whipped cream and sprinkles to go with that cherry? As noted up top, Eschatos was released region-free, so it’ll play on non-Japanese systems with no issues. As of this writing Qute had recently signed up as a developer for the Xbox One and revealed a new title in the works, so here’s hoping we get to see more of them in the next home console generation and beyond.

Suggested Followup:
While Qute took something of a look back in time to lay the foundation for Eschatos, its followup project, Ginga Force (also for the 360, and happily once again region-free to import) takes a more contemporary approach in its mission to widen its player base, sprinkling a smattering of modern gaming amenities on top of a decidedly old-school core to make the crossing easier for latecomers.

In addition to a heavier focus on story and characters than you usually see in a shmup (all in Japanese, of course, so you’ll probably have to look up a translation if you’re interested in that part), there’s plenty of customization to be done, from your craft’s weapons to its speed settings to its shield to an eclectic batch of special abilities and bonuses you can purchase (with in-game currency, don’t worry) and use to construct your ideal star fighter piece by piece, though you’ve got to knuckle down and conquer various courses and difficulties to gain initial access to them all. If you have trouble with a particular level you’ll have the option of increasing your life count, though this will negatively affect your score; for purists, fixed “score attack” challenges built around a handful of prefabricated ship types are included to level the playing field. To be clear, this game isn’t a cakewalk, but perseverance is almost sure to pay off, which is always nice to know after a particularly demoralizing screw-up.

Shop for Eschatos on eBay
Shop for Eschatos on Amazon.com

Harmful Park

(Sky Think System – 1997 – PS1/PSN – JP)
harmful-parkI had to stop for a second when I was first typing up this paragraph, just to let it register that it had taken this long to give a bona fide “cute-em-up” a full-fledged entry on the list; heck, you’d expect this particular article to be chock full of them, seeing as the whole idea behind their cute and/or comedic schtick is to put players at ease who might be intimidated by cold steel and fiery death. Strangely enough, while few “cute-em-ups” moonlight as joystick-snapping  “hardcore” challenges, for whatever reason equally few have ever been conceptualized as truly “teachable” shooters. That being what it is, guess who’s swooping in to save the day one more time? Yup, it’s perennial Racketboy favorite Harmful Park, which seems to always have something fun on hand at just the right time, no matter the player or situation.

To help you traverse the six attractions of the game’s screwball amusement park you’ve got four always-available weapons to cycle through, and only the one you’re currently using is powered down if you eat an unfriendly projectile. Once you’re accustomed to balancing out the whole set for survival purposes, start looking for opportunities to bring down a whole bunch of enemies in one shot for bonus points: the ice cream laser is ideal for horizontal lines of targets, for instance, while the splash-damaging pie grenades are great with close-knit groups (your bomb stock can contribute too, if you’re willing to spend it). While you’re at it, make sure to pick up as many point-rich green gems as you can (the more you can gather without missing any, the more valuable they get…sound familiar?), keep an eye out for invisible collectables which can be revealed with a bit of focused firepower, and bring down as many targets as you can for a nice stage-end bonus. Oh, and prepare yourself for more visual puns and other general nonsense than should be allowed on a single 32-bit CD.

If you take a quick trip into the Options menu you’ll notice that the game defaults to “Easy” mode, and offers a fairly relaxed degree of opposition; “Normal” isn’t too bad either, with a bit of practice. Don’t get cocky, though, as “Hard” and “Very Hard” both live up to their names, and the separate “Score Attack” course, a point-rich caravan mode, is also quite tricky just to survive, let alone escape from with an impressive score (but it can be done!). If you ever need a break, the developers threw in a trio of multi-player minigames (basically variations on Pong, Combat, and Sonic 2’s split-screen racecourses) to relax with while you get your bearings back. The one major Achilles’ heel that holds Harmful Park back is its aftermarket elusiveness; the game only ever released on the Japanese PS1 and frequently commands triple-digit prices if you want a physical copy nowadays. It is also available on the Japanese PSN for much cheaper, but you’ll need an account and currency from that region to access it.

Shop for Harmful Park on eBay
Shop for Harmful Park on Amazon.com

Suggested Followup:
On a related note, ever play one of those games that kicks your kiester six ways from Sunday, but somehow you find it impossible to get too frustrated or mad at it, just because it’s so darn likeable? If you’re the sort of player attracted to stuff that doesn’t take itself too seriously, you’ll definitely want to get acquainted with the Parodius games, which, as their name suggests, are in-house spoofs of Konami’s iconic Gradius series (which you’ll be hearing from again before we’re done here). It plays, in most respects, identically to its inspiration, with a handful of elements from Twinbee and other Konami properties tossed in, but wraps the whole thing in a layer of irresistably cheery insanity: not only do pigs literally fly (and pack a mean wave beam), but pirate ships come equipped with giant kitty-cat heads and a colossal corn-on-the-cob shows up as a first-stage boss fight, because why the heck not?

By and large the games aren’t a heckuva lot easier to conquer than their “normal” counterparts (if you consider Froot Loop-spitting Easter Island heads normal, I suppose), but it’s tough to get too bent out of shape when the official cause of your demise is “William Tell Overture-Accompanied Chicken Stampede”: that said, the console-exclusive Jikkyo Oshaberi Parodius is probably the least taxing of the bunch challenge-wise, though Gokujyo Parodius and Sexy Parodius (which isn’t R-rated, but does crank up the cartoon cheesecake factor considerably) are generally considered the most memorable in terms of pure comedy.

Shop for Parodius Series on eBay
Shop for Parodius Series on Amazon.com

 

Astro Warrior

(Sega – 1986 – SMS/iOS – JP/US/PAL/BR)
astro-warriorBefore they hit the big time with the Genesis/Mega Drive, Sega, like pretty much everyone else making video games at the time, spent much of its early years in the imposing shadow of Nintendo, as Alex Kidd and the rest of the Master System crew failed to make much of a dent in Mario’s seemingly-impenetrable NES/Famicom armor; the latter’s library ballooned far beyond that of its competitors in most every category, shooters included. At least one of Sega’s scant handful of exclusives, however, can still claim fans who recall it fondly, and moreover stands the test of time as a surprisingly effective introduction to the genre’s bare essentials: if you’ve still got a Master System around and have a shmup-curious compatriot drop in, by all means dust off a copy of Astro Warrior.

At its core the game is probably best described as a simplified Star Soldier, which it beat to market by a year or two: both airborne enemies and stationary, non-aggressive ground targets are ripe for blasting, and a small selection of powerups (shot enhancers, laser and speed upgrades, Gradius-esque follower options) regularly pop up to make your job a touch easier. There aren’t any bonus scoring tricks to concern yourself with, and moreover the game is only three stages long (one run-through of them will take less than ten minutes if you can make it without dying), but several additional props are waiting in the wings, and transform this otherwise simple game into a well-suited crash course for learners.

For instance, when you beat a stage’s boss you receive the somewhat awkward message that he will “surely revive” – that’s because once you “finish” the game it starts up again, and you get to play the stages one more time, but with more aggressive opposition and a significantly higher challenge level, a concept you already read about with Batsugun Special and will see revisited many times more elsewhere. The enemy roster also forces you to approach each conflict differently (some are temporarily invulnerable, others change their movements when hit), and the presence of indestructible cover challenges your maneuverability as you do your best to pick the unfriendly hordes off. That’s a pretty solid intro course for something that’ll only take up a half-hour or less of your time in its entirety; moreover, while the game was exclusive to the Master System until a recent iOS port appeared (there is an arcade game called “Astro Warrior”, but it’s unrelated), it’s also one of a relative few to secure an official Brazilian release under the considerably-harder-to-commit-to-memory name “Sapo Xule: S.O.S. Lagoa Poluida”.

Shop for Astro Warrior on eBay
Shop for Astro Warrior on Amazon.com

Suggested Followup:
Another system not exactly known for its shooter library is the MSX computer, though it does harbor a handful of standouts: you might have read about Konami’s Space Manbow in the “Hidden Shooter Gems” article, and another one from the same company that’s worth trying out (and received an “honorable mention” back there) is Knightmare, aka Majou Densetsu (there’s another arcade game called Knightmare, too, but it’s also unrelated). As the name suggests you control a little cartoon knight by the name of Popolon (who later makes a playable appearance in the very first Parodius, also for the MSX) and aim his arrows, boomerangs, and whatever other armaments he finds at the evil creatures blocking his way: as expected, background scrolling is choppy, but it doesn’t affect the experience here as much as in most other games, so once you’re used to the somewhat slow movement speed you’ll be able to bring down most anything with a little practice, and can thus concentrate on seeking out all of the hidden question mark boxes scattered throughout the kingdom. Unlike Space Manbow, Knightmare made it onto the Konami MSX compilations released for the Saturn and PS1, making it easier to play without actually owning or emulating MSX hardware.

 

Twin Cobra

(Toaplan – 1987 – ARC/NES/GEN/TG16/PS1/etc. – JP/US)
twin-cobraIn case Astro Warrior wasn’t quite enough by itself to satisfy your old-school cravings, fast-forward a year or so to the early days of storied developer Toaplan, when relatively spartan military-themed shmups were its bread and butter. The company’s first “proper” scrolling shooter, Tiger Heli, predictably featured a helicopter as the player’s avatar; a sequel, Kyukyoku Tiger, arrived a bit later on (a third title, Kyukyoku Tiger II, was actually developed after Toaplan had gone out of business, by one of its offshoots). In the West Kyukyoku Tiger was brought to market under the name “Twin Cobra” (a reference to the real-life AH-1 series of military helicopters), and was subject to a handful of adjustments which not only tip the scales in favor of novice players, but actually earned the praise of more than a few veterans over its elder incarnation, an especially rare honor within a shmup fandom notoriously suspicious of “improved” localizations.

In many respects Twin Cobra embodies shooter simplicity to a tee, and is super-easy to figure out with even minimal genre knowledge: you can collect and power up four different weapons, drop bullet-eating area-effect bombs to escape when things get too crowded for comfort, and snap up shiny star icons for a few bonus points. Things are definitely improved all around over Tiger Heli: player movement is smoother, stocked bombs can’t be nicked off your sides by enemy fire, your ‘copter’s weaponry is more varied and effective, and the presentation has been stepped up considerably, so if “no-frills” shooting is up your alley the game is a good choice for most any skill level.

Beyond those bullet points (no pun intended), the “Twin Cobra” variation is probably the place newer players ought to look first, for a few reasons. For one thing this is the only version which allows for simultaneous 2-player (a boon for both “teacher/student” and “neither of us know what we’re doing but what the heck” pairs alike); for another, Twin Cobra allows you to respawn right where you left off after dying, while Kyukyoku Tiger sends the recently-deceased back to a checkpoint (it should also be noted that your movement speed is a bit faster in Twin Cobra, though the fire rate is a bit slower in exchange). Finally, while the game’s various ports all have their own handfuls of issues, all play pretty faithfully to the original considering their limitations, so no matter what format you game on there’s likely some means for you to strap in and spin those rotors like they used to back in the good old days.

Shop for Twin Cobra on eBay
Shop for Twin Cobra on Amazon.com

Suggested Followup:
Once you’re ready to expand outward a bit from Twin Cobra there are plenty of options to keep you entertained: right in Toaplan’s own backyard there’s the aforementioned Fire Shark, itself an improved sequel to an older shooter, Flying Shark, which keeps Cobra’s military setting but replaces the helicopter with the ever-reliable (if equally vulnerable) propeller plane. The game got a solid (and localized) port to the Genesis, too, so it’s not too tough to procure for your retro collection. If you’d prefer to get back to tha choppa, Psikyo’s Zero Gunner 2 distinguishes itself as one of the company’s more approachable releases, and features the ability to rotate, lock and fire in any direction. G. Rev’s Under Defeat plays more traditionally but features some lovely explosions (and was localized on the 360 and PS3), while doujin freeware offering Demolition Gunner (by Astro Port, who you’ll also be seeing again) packs loads of bullets onto the screen but is equally generous with strong weaponry and collectable shields to help you pull through.

Shop for Fire Shark on eBay
Shop for Fire Shark on Amazon.com

Shop for Zero Gunner 2 on eBay
Shop for Zero Gunner 2 on Amazon.com

Gradius Gaiden

(Konami – 1997 – PS1/PSP – JP/US/PAL)
gradiusgaiden17Few names resonate amidst the shooter faithful like Konami’s groundbreaking Gradius series does; heck, the sheer tonnage of cameos that the iconic Vic Viper ship and its kooky Moai antagonists, among others, have made across the company’s various properties over the years speaks to just how important they are to Konami’s identity, even if it has been too long since a proper new series entry was headed our way (hint, hint). Of course, these games aren’t exactly known for babying their players (the arcade version of Gradius III is particularly revered/feared as a trial for the ages), but thankfully new players don’t have to treat the series as an untouchable museum exhibit; take a brief detour back to the PS1 era and you’ll find Gaiden (“side story”) waiting for you, designed with someone just like yourself in mind.

One of the relatively few Gradius titles developed exclusively for home consoles, pretty much everything that made the arcade entries great is still here, along with a handful of appealing additions and adjustments. While the popular “weapon edit” function from III has been scaled back to a fixed roster of four color-coded ships to pilot, in exchange you now also have four different kinds of shields to choose from, can juice up your Double, Missile and Laser weapons an extra level, and most importantly can freely rearrange the order of the power-up bar to your liking. Want to get your Options deployed quicker and save missiles for later? Go right ahead and switch ’em around, and while you’re at it shuffle whatever else you’d like to prioritize over to the left: if you’ve developed a visible twitch whilst waiting (and waiting, and waiting) for an elusive opportunity to move the bar over that ONE vital space you need, rejoice, for your prayers (and blood pressure readings) have been answered.

Speaking in more general terms, Gaiden is also one of the more approachable series entries in terms of “overall” difficulty: as per usual every area you enter has its own hand-picked selection of hazards to trip you up, but nothing here is likely to vex you to the same extent as, say, the ice field of Gradius II or the bubble level from III. Moreover, Gaiden adopts another feature rarely seen elsewhere in the series: simultaneous 2-player co-op, which makes it easier than ever to get a willing pal in on the action (and also happens to negate the semi-annoyance of being sent back to a checkpoint after losing a ship). So if you’ve ever wanted to join the glorious struggle against the Bacterion threat but weren’t sure you’d get past that mean-looking drill sergeant, climb on board with Gaiden and get a load of what you’ve been missing.

Shop for Gradius Gaiden on eBay
Shop for Gradius Gaiden on Amazon.com

 

Suggested Followup:
Gaiden is a near-foolproof first choice for prospective Vic Viper pilots, but while they’re getting familiar with the series canon they might want to keep an eye out for a few others; one of them is actually the very first Gradius, which hit the arcades in 1985. While it’s missing some of the features we’ve since come to take for granted (most notably any sort of weapon edit), it’s also several degrees more “straightforward” than its descendents, and thus tends to offer players a more intuitive (though still challenging) path to victory. Additional options (no pun intended) on the home front include the similarly-simple second entry on the black-and-white Game Boy (released in the USA as “The Interstellar Assault”) and Gradius III’s port to the SNES/SFC, which is MUCH easier to finish than its infamous arcade sibling thanks to both rearranged level layouts and the abundance of slowdown endemic to the system; while more experienced shmuppers tend to regard it as too easy for their tastes, it’s a good jumping-on point for those who just want to get used to how things work in the Gradius universe.

Shop for Gradius Series on eBay
Shop for Gradius Series on Amazon.com

Dragon Spirit: The New Legend

(Namco – 1989 – NES – JP/US)
dragon-spiritIf there’s a single company which might be credited with inventing the shmup “as we know it,” Namco would be the one, thanks to a little number known as Xevious, perhaps the first video game immediately recognizable as a bona fide scrolling shooter as we’ve come to love (and occasionally curse at) them. Naturally, Pac-Man’s posse wasn’t going to allow such an influential and commercial success to occupy arcade space (and an ever-lengthening list of home ports) all on its own, so for some years afterwards they continued to tweak and expand upon their groundbreaking formula…as it turns out, though, none of the resulting refinements ever achieved the same level of fame or influence as their overachieving elder brother. Dragon Spirit, released to arcades a full five years after Xevious, is one of these red-headed (and fire-breathing) step-children.

Leaving behind its spiritual predecessor’s somewhat nondescript setting, Dragon Spirit gives players control of a flying, scaly denizen of myth and legend (well, technically a dude who can transform into one, but who’s keeping track?), whose power-ups grant him additional serpentine heads to better blast baddies with, not to mention bomb ground targets much like its classic forebear. It’s something of a minor gem in its own right, but like Xevious (and most of its arcade kin) it’s not exactly aimed at newer players; fortunately for them, a consumer version would soon appear on the NES, Bandai would localize it in the USA, and it would be a lot more manageable for those not born with a silver tournament-edition joystick in their hands.

While it’s obviously not as striking as its board-powered progenitor in terms of presentation, “The New Legend” does impress in its ability to play pretty faithfully to it; you still blast targets on two planes, can take a hit or two before losing a life, and bring down bosses lickety-split if you’ve managed to hang onto your enhancements. In addition, the stages have been given a once-over to make them a bit less nasty, items are more plentiful and easier to collect, your dragon isn’t quite so massive a moving target, and one or two new power-ups have been added to place one last thumb on the scale. There’s even a semi-hidden “easy mode” – if you lose the game’s first introductory boss battle, you’ll play as a powered-up dragon through a shorter stage progression to get yourself ready for the “normal” game. If you like what you see in the NES version, feel free to give the original a try somewhere down the line, or better yet sniff out its further-improved sequel, Dragon Saber.

Shop for Dragon Spirit: The New Legend on eBay
Shop for Dragon Spirit: The New Legend on Amazon.com

Suggested Followup:
The NES hardly wanted for arcade ports scaled down to fit its hardware, and while many were little more than markedly inferior riffs on the originals, the best-remembered, like Dragon Spirit, brought something more unique to the table, an experience deliberately tailored to the home console environment. Konami’s Life Force is another one of these: while this offshoot of the famous Gradius series sticks close to its progenitor in many respects, it also slows things down a bit to make survival more manageable, and even dollops a couple of new stages and enemies into the mix to spice things up. Two players can also join forces to increase their odds of success, though if you’re still having trouble the good ol’ Konami code is here to lend a hand as you train for a “legitimate” clear of the game. The original Gradius also got a good NES port which might be worth checking out, especially since one uninterrupted loop doesn’t take more than 20 minutes to complete.

Shop for Life Force on eBay
Shop for Life Force on Amazon.com

DoDonPachi Maximum

(Cave – 2012 – iOS/WINM – JP/US)
DodonpachiMaxIpadThough Cave have by now taken an unfortunate rain check on operations in our hemisphere, it must be said that they did give it the old college try before bowing out: not only were a decent handful of their Xbox 360 console ports, both physical and digital, localized in an era of declining genre interest, but an even more determined push was made to invite the explosively expansive cadre of smartphone gamers into the fold. A majority of Cave’s app-store offerings are also built around conversions (albeit solid ones, for the most part) of their arcade hits, but a couple of brand-new, mobile-exclusive releases also managed to break into the burgeoning touchscreen realm; DoDonPachi Maximum is perhaps the best-suited name for curious finger-tapping types to enter into the search bar.

Something of a side story to Cave’s longtime flagship franchise, Maximum drops you into the scary-sounding “Maximum Bullet Simulator”, which sends you and your fighter craft of choice up against reincarnations of enemies you thought you’d blasted to smithereens several games ago, plus some new “pals” with predictably itchy trigger fingers. Don’t be afraid, though, since right from the get-go the game gives you the option to play in a tamer “easy mode” and/or turn on the “auto-bomb” feature, which will save you from death if a stray bullet nicks you, assuming you’ve got a spare bomb in stock (manual activation can be either a two-finger tap or a double-tap, based on your stated preference). There’s also a practice menu to help hone your routes through individual stages, and a “how to play” crash course available from the pause menu whenever you might need a minute to refresh your memory on something.

Of course, the main draw for many in the phone-gaming camp will be the intuitive touch-based controls: just slide your fingertip anyplace on the screen and your craft will move relative to it, allowing you to transition from precision bullet-weaving to “holy crap get me out of here” speed in the blink of an eye (not to mention pop in close to baddies when you can, which nets you more points). Doing well on a stage will make the next one both tougher and more lucrative, but your life stock is always reset to a full three tries every level, so there’s no reason to play too scared. Shots are automatically fired as you go (the series’ ever-present “chaining” mechanic has been tweaked to accommodate), and there’s no switching in and out of “laser mode” to worry about (each selectable craft utilizes a different singular damage-dealer instead), so if you’ve ever stood in awe of a modern shooter’s crazy pyrotechnics but wished you could get a foot in the proverbial door on a format you’re already used to, Maximum might be just what the doctor ordered…oh, and no in-app transactions to gripe about either, just in case you were wondering.

 

Suggested Followup:
If you like what you saw of the “DonPachi” series on your smartphone, you definitely ought to give the rest of the series a go. Since every entry varies in its approach a bit, here’s a (very) quick summary: the original DonPachi, Cave’s first release, is a bit more “old-school” than the rest, so if you prefer your screen not quite so clogged with bullets it might be up your alley. Its sequel, DoDonPachi (DDP for short), endures as something of a standard-setter for “bullet hell” games and offers a nice, balanced challenge, while the next one, DDP Dai-Ou-Jou, is still fair but significantly harder and deeper. The fourth game, DDP Dai-Fukkatsu (localized in Europe as “Resurrection”), tones the overall challenge down some (mostly thanks to an auto-bomb) but adds extra mechanics that take some additional time to learn, whereas the final entry, DDP Sai-DaiOuJou, blends together many of the previous games’ best features but stands as possibly the toughest nut to crack of the bunch. Off to the side is DDP 2: Bee Storm, which was created by a separate developer and thus feels considerably different from the rest, but is still worth a try on its own terms.

Shop for DoDonPachi on eBay
Shop for DoDonPachi on Amazon.com

Shooting Skill Test

(Triangle Service – 2009/2014 – X360 – JP/US/PAL)
hqdefaultTriangle Service, a (very) small team of expatriates from other, bygone shooting developers, have had to plow through some rough spots in today’s STG-resistant market, but their obvious passion for the genre has endeared them to the faithful and cobbled together enough support to keep the outfit going today (and they’re on the Xbox One’s developer roster too). Nowhere is their affection for old-fashioned shmupping more evident than their aptly-named “Shooting Love” and “Game Center Love” compilations for the 360, which feature various home-grown tributes to the PCB-based watering holes of days gone by, the highlight of which is a quick-fire series of challenges known as the “Shooter Skill Test”. Something of a good-natured riff on the various “brain training” games that once flourished on the Nintendo DS in particular, Skill Test adds an endearingly arcadey twist to the now-cliche “improve your XYZ in just a few minutes” product pitch.

At first, the only play option open to you is a random sampling of the Test’s several dozen shooting minigames: some are fairly rudimentary in nature (blast as many unfriendly tanks as you can without getting plugged, dodge the boss’s bullet patterns for as long as possible) while others lean in a more “technical” direction (only shoot targets of a certain color, mash the buttons for a high-enough fire rate to finish a baddie before it flees), and the rest delve into particularly genre-specific skills (don’t release a smart bomb until just before an attack hits you, catch the highest-value medals you can) or the just plain weird (save the earth!…by using bullets to juggle empty drink cans into a floating recycling bin). Once you’ve taken your best crack at each of the activities thrown your way, the game grades your overall performance, even assigning you a “shooting age” before challenging you to aim higher (er, lower).

Once any particular minigame has popped up in the rotation it becomes available to play anytime on its own or to be included in a player-constructed challenge sequence, so you’re free to choose your own focus, or perhaps create a custom-tailored training routine for a fellow gamer: speaking of which, a number of the skill tests can be tackled by two players, so if you’ve got a like-minded buddy around you can help each other out and/or compete fiercely for the best score. I guess at this point it’d be a bit redundant to state what a nifty offering this varied, charming and time-efficient package is for both new and old shooter fans alike (though I guess I just did);  Shooting Love 200X was recently localized and released on XBLA and “Gesen Love” will play on any 360.

Suggested Followup:
So long as you’ve got one of the discs in the tray, why not try out the other shooter-y stuff Triangle Service has seen fit to toss in? On “Shooting Love 200X” you’ve got Trizeal (specifically, a slightly “remixed” version from the original arcade/Dreamcast/PS2 edition), probably their best-known and most traditional release. You’re given three weapons to power up and switch between, a stock of smart bombs for emergencies, and plenty of medals to collect in succession for score; it’s nothing too unfamiliar nor prohibitively difficult, and like Skill Test includes numerous references and shout-outs to other, better-known shmups both past and present.

Exzeal, for its part, might look similar at a glance, but its four selectable ships require different strategies (rapidly moving the joystick back and forth to charge a power shot, close-range kills, etc.) to bring down foes in optimal fashion and rack up the big points. Minus Zero is a minimalist tribute to Taito’s “Layer Section” series, in which your only weapon against the endless hordes is a targeting marker that floats a fixed distance in front of you and must be passed over enemies to “lock on” to them; from there you just need to press a button to release a potent homing weapon, but the more you can zap at once the higher your score, so steel yourself to eradicate whole screenfuls in one fell swoop if you want to excel. “Game Center Love” features a sequel of sorts to Skill Test known as CombatZeal; its setup is a bit more elaborate than its predecessor’s, but it’s an even more entertaining experience if you can gather some friends and get up to four players involved.

 

Specific Suggestions (Homebrew)

“Touhou” Series

(ZUN – 1997-present – PC-98/PC – JP)
TouhouEven if you have yet to be assimilated (and you WILL be assimilated) when it comes to the “doujin” shooting scene, if you’ve spent much time within earshot of our little sector of the internet you’ve likely stumbled onto some vestige of the long-running “Touhou” (literally “of the East”) series, brainchild of a singular figure known as ZUN, officially operating as “Team Shanghai Alice“. You might have also heard, or experienced firsthand in some form or another, that this particular fandom’s fringe has gone rather off the rails; while it is true that the games’ casts are composed entirely of young girls with magic powers, and that some unaffiliated content creators have done various regrettable things to them over the years, rest easy. The original games themselves are completely inoffensive, content-wise, and more importantly stand out as icons of the so-called “bullet curtain” shooting style; moreover, their continued success can be attributed, in no small part, to how effortlessly less-experienced players can wander on in and make themselves at home.

Even if you don’t count collaborations and side projects, the “main” series is currently well over a dozen games strong; the first few titles were programmed for the Japan-only PC-98, but their descendants for Windows computers, starting with 2002’s “Embodiment of Scarlet Devil,” are the ones that garnered worldwide fame, not to mention a slew of admirers and imitators. While every entry’s rule set and character roster is different, they all have a similar “feel” to tie them together; while the cutesy cast has received the highest-profile attention, the real stars of the show for those in the know are the elaborate, colorful, and screen-filling bullet patterns you’re required to dodge, especially the extra-flashy “spell card” attacks bosses are packing. Rarely are there any obvious “safe spots” which allow you to stay completely out of their way, so you’ve just got to learn how to weave safely through to the other side; thankfully, your character’s central hitbox can be rendered visible and your movement speed slowed with the press of a button, so from there it’s just about feeling your way around the chaos. Once you’ve gotten comfy you’ll also want to exploit the “point of collection”, an invisible line near the top of the playfield which conveniently vacuums up every item onscreen whenever you can poke your nose up past it.

Once this knowledge is under your belt, working your way up the skill ladder is a smoother process than you’re likely to have experienced elsewhere: all of the Touhou games feature four difficulty levels (“Easy” through “Lunatic,” plus an unlockable bonus challenge area), numerous characters and variations to try out, replay recording, a “spell card” practice mode, and even the “Border of Life and Death” perk, which allows you to activate a life-saving bomb a split second after taking a hit and still survive. Scoring systems between titles vary widely, so a look at the Touhou Wiki might be a good idea before tackling any particular game in earnest; happily, every “main” entry in the series also has a free demo you can download (despite what you may have heard, the full games are NOT freeware), and most of them let you play through nearly half the game with few restrictions, so there’s no reason not to find out firsthand if a particular Touhou title is a good fit for you. Just make sure to look up a quick FAQ on how to run Japanese software on non-native operating systems, it’s not too hard to do.

Suggested Followup:
Honestly, since the Touhou series has spread so far beyond its native boundaries you don’t have to look very far to find something interesting to expand your experience. Right within the “canon” release sequence, for example, are two Twinkle Star Sprites-esque “versus” shooters (Phantasmagoria of Diminished Dream, Phantasmagoria of Flower View), three fighting games with heavy shooting elements (Immaterial and Missing Power, Scarlet Weather Rhapsody, Hopeless Masquerade), two unusual boss-rush titles in which you “shoot” your adversaries with a camera to get reference photos of their crazy attack patterns (Shoot the Bullet, Double Spoiler), and even a riff on Breakout (Highly Responsive to Prayers). Venture out into the fan-work realm and you’ll find everything from action platformers (Koumajou Densetsu) to rail shooters (Master Burner) to puzzle games (Touhou Sahouroku) and everything in between, so if you’re the type who can’t have too much Touhou…well, you probably never will!

“Blue Wish” series

(x.x gameroom – 2005-2008 – PC – JP)
Blue_Wish_Resurection_plus_01In case you hadn’t already figured as much, Touhou creator ZUN names Cave’s particular brand of “bullet hell” as the primary inspiration for his own projects; of course, he’s hardly the only one, and if anything our next entry hews even closer to the core formula that the company popularized and refined. For his “Blue Wish” games, x.x (another solo creator) eschews Touhou’s character-centric exterior in favor of something closer to the above-mentioned DonPachi series, with its neon-colored bullets, loads of shiny score items, and scads of bad-tempered tanks and planes just begging to be blown to smithereens. More than that, when it comes to accessibility x.x can claim one major step up on ZUN’s more popular creations: while obtaining a legitimate copy of a Touhou game will hardly break the bank, x.x’s minor masterpieces are entirely free to download and play, and can thus be enjoyed in full by anyone with a little bit of time and hard drive space to spare.

Shooting, dodging, bombing and “focusing” your firepower are all fairly standard-issue but well done, though the scoring system is where things get considerably more involved. Utilizing a “proximity” mechanic similar to that of Omega Fighter (which you can read more about here), when enemies are shot down they leave behind score cubes which are automatically collected; the farther away you are from where they spawn, though, the less they’re worth, so you’re encouraged to sneak in close to your targets when it’s safe(-ish). In a show of kindness on the developer’s part, though, there is a slight but noticeable delay between the items’ appearance and when they can be picked up, so even if you’re not dangerously close to a target the moment you bring it down you can still make a dash towards the spot immediately afterward and reap most or all of the potential rewards if you’re careful.

All three games in the series play largely the same, with at least two or three craft to suit your playstyle and a well-stocked Options menu to adjust the difficulty level, autobomb settings, hitbox visibility, bullet color and numerous other things, but the first sequel, Blue Wish Resurrection, improves the presentation, smoothes out the frame rate, and adds in bonus treasure chests which can be revealed by flying over their hiding places, an extra incentive to fully explore each area even while under heavy fire. The third and for-now-final entry, Resurrection Plus, remixes the visuals and music while adding in a handful of additional options and other extras. Even as paid releases these games would have found a place within the fandom, but as freebies there’s pretty much zero excuse for anyone interested enough to read this to hesitate jumping on board.

Suggested Followup:
x.x games has produced a total of six shooters so far (though as of this writing there’s another on the way): three of them are the “Blue Wish” variations covered above, but the remaining trio is very much worth a go as well, if you don’t mind slightly more complicated game mechanics. Green Wind (another early creation, second in seniority only to the first Blue Wish) gives you a powerful short-range slash attack which can be used not only for extra damage but to siphon more valuable coins from downed enemies; Eden’s Edge simplifies the interface a bit and adds in an “item chaining” system along the lines of Mars Matrix, whilst also sprucing up the visuals considerably. Finally, Eden’s Aegis mixes elements from the previous two, as both special weapon usage and timely item collection will net you the highest scores; they’re just as free as the Blue Wish trilogy, so make sure to queue up that download list, stat.

Cho Ren Sha 68k

(Famibe no Yosshin – 2001 – X68000/PC – JP)
Cho Ren Sha 68kHave you ever had the good fortune to, completely by accident, discover a game that, for lack of a better term, just “works”? Sure, you may have encountered the name here and there in your travels, but were never curious enough to inquire further, until one day you meandered face-first into a download link and said “eh, what the heck.” Once the sucker is finally up and running, you figure “not bad, I’ll keep going for a couple more minutes”…and the next time you glance up, hours have passed. This special, serendipitous sequence of events, repeated many times over, is the stuff that cult classics are made on, and the humble Cho Ren Sha is second to none as its conduit; many a devoted shmupper was first ushered into the fold, and its PC sector in particular, by this little freeware gem, and it’s a safe bet that more than one or two readers will soon be following in its hallowed vapor trail.

As its name suggests, the game debuted as a homebrew release for the Japan-only Sharp X68000 computer before being ported to Windows some time later. The basic idea doesn’t get much more straightforward: you shoot stuff to get points, steer clear of anything glowy and/or crash-y, drop the occasional-ish bomb to erase your errors, and see if you can make it all the way to the end before your lives run out. Certain enemies drop unusual triangular items with three different power-ups attached to each corner: you can normally choose between increased weapon power, an extra bomb, or a one-hit shield while the others disappear. Canny players soon discovered, however, that if you can sneak into the center of the triangle without collecting anything and hover there for a few moments, you’ll be rewarded with all three bonuses at once: easier said than done when baddies are peppering you with bullets, but it’s definitely a technique worth mastering.

This charming simplicity with just a hint of depth has been honed to a razor’s edge, and while the repetitive background graphics in particular aren’t likely to occupy museum walls anytime soon, the chunky, booming explosions are as satisfying as most anything you’ll encounter from a professional shooter studio, and there’s hardly a break in their crackling symphony of destruction from start to finish. More than that, with a bit of persistence a visit to the final boss shouldn’t be too far away…and if you can manage to best him a second trip through the game’s tougher “loop” begins, and things really start to get interesting. It should also be noted that, while 1-ups aren’t overly difficult to come by, there are no continues to speak of here, so it’s either a one-credit run or bust, the way it should be.

(BONUS: Thanks to shmups.com forum member blackoak, an English translation of a Japanese magazine interview with Cho Ren Sha’s creator is available to read at his site (which you might have already seen linked a little ways up), and is definitely worth a read.)

Suggested Followup:
So, yeah, that bit of effusive praise to Cho Ren Sha’s screen-filling explosions. You want more of that, right? ‘Course ya do! My friend, look no further than Crimzon Clover, developed by an independent outfit known as Yotsubane (speculation has it that famed shmup “superplayer” CLOVER-TAC is involved, though hard evidence remains elusive). In addition to your main guns you’re given unlimited access to a potent “lock-on” weapon which covers a large portion of the screen with homing lasers, as well as a “bomb meter” which limits the amount of times you can save yourself in quick succession but can be refilled regularly for a steady supply of “Plan B” as you progress.

There are a couple of play modes to try, and their rules very to some degree, but no matter how you roll you’ll be covering the screen with scads of earth-quaking blasts and shimmery bonus stars in no time at all; moreover, as you snag more and more of those stars you can use them to buy all manner of stuff in the shop (which, by the by, is entirely in English). It’s not as beginner-centric as some of its kin, but Crimzon Clover is widely regarded as one of the best homebrew shooters ever released, so you WILL want to at the very least demo it someday, the sooner the better! Oh, and before I forget…an upgraded/remixed version was released for the Nesica digital arcade format in Japan, and this “World Ignition” edition recently arrived in the West via both Steam and GOG, so, well, what in heaven’s name are you waiting for?

 

rRootage

(Kenta Cho – 2003 – PC/iOS/Wii – JP/US/PAL)
rRootageWhile few individual homebrew developers can stand toe-to-toe with the likes of ZUN when it comes to sheer name recognition or output volume, one talented fellow by the name of Kenta Cho (who releases his work under the “ABA Games” label) is definitely in the same ballpark, despite building his brand around games featuring a much more abstract visual style (which doesn’t have the advantage of defined, marketable characters or settings), not to mention gifting us the whole enchilada as freeware. Believe it or not, many Western Gamestop-goers have likely found themselves within inches of a Kenta Cho product without knowing it: “Blast Works: Build, Trade, Destroy”, a side-scrolling shooter released for the Wii in 2008, is actually a reworked version of ABA’s Tumiki Fighters, and includes several of his weird and wonderful freeware originals as unlockables on the disc. One of these, rRootage, is this section’s focus, and it’s an especially dandy pick for newcomers to set their sights on if they’re seeking to expand their repertoire.

Basically, what you’ve got here is a healthy selection of one-on-one “boss rush” battles, all of which can be tackled in four different “styles”; the basic idea throughout, as embodied in the default “Normal” mode, is pretty simple, as you just dodge the enemy’s patterns while keeping your laser trained on him until he drops, but if you want a high score you’ll have to move in close, which means higher damage and better time bonuses. You’re free to play any level you like right at the start, though the challenges listed nearer the bottom are the tougher ones, so you might want to warm up with some less-sadistic stages first. Both your own (generous) hitbox and those of every bullet fired at you are clearly visible, so you’ll never have to guess when wending your way through a dense cloud of pain.

While “Normal” mode gives players a standard supply of bombs to make life a bit easier, once you tiptoe outside that particular comfort zone you’ll find three other variations that really make rRootage a savory shmupping treat. First is “Psy” mode, based on the Korean-developed Psyvariar series, which rewards players with brief bursts of invincibility for “grazing” the enemy’s shots without getting hit. Next is “Ika”, which mimics Ikaruga’s two-toned bullets and its switchable ship’s ability to absorb unfriendly fire of the same color. Finally there’s “GW” mode, a reference to Takumi’s Giga Wing and its rechargeable “reflect force” mechanic, which allows you to send the boss’s attacks right back at him in rechargeable bursts. It’s a generous, made-with-love sampling of the “modern” shooting scene, and it won’t cost you a dime; an ad-supported “online” edition for iOS is also free to download, though you can (and should) toss Kenta Cho a dollar to ditch the ads and support his ongoing work.

Suggested Followups:
At the risk of becoming too predictable, I’ll take this opportunity to recommend some of Kenta Cho’s other projects, since they’re just too neat (and, may I repeat, free) to miss: aside from the aforementioned Tumiki Fighters, you might consider Titanion (a tribute to Galaga, with three different modes to affect how “classic” or “modern” the game feels), Parsec47 (an homage to Cave’s Dangun Feveron, featuring zippy ship speed and lots of pickups to collect before they slip offscreen), Torus Trooper (a Gyruss-style “tube shooter”, where the goal is to keep your speed up and earn time extensions to get further), and numerous others, so make haste to his site and get downloading, on the double! You might also want a look at Z-Lock, which wasn’t developed by Kenta Cho but utilizes a similar visual style, and features enemies which all “lock on” to the player before opening fire (fortunately for you this also boosts your own power level). Oh, and of course that one’s a freebie too.

Satazius

(Astro Port – 2011 – PC – US/JP/PAL)
SATAZIUS_2011-11-06_21-30-32-03Sure, rRootage is a wonderful introduction to contemporary shooter conventions, but does a worthwhile equivalent for “old-school” shmups exist? Moreover, in keeping with the theme, might it take the form of a more “traditional” release which doesn’t cordon off its disparate elements into isolated sections, but gleefully melds them together and allows the entire concoction to explode forth at once? As you were probably expecting thanks to some painfully predictable foreshadowing, Astro Port‘s Satazius does just that, and with considerable aplomb: genre veterans will find themselves awash in nostalgia pretty much from the word “go”, but even the not-so-battle-tested ought to be in for a good time when they double-click its desktop icon.

Once again, the meat and potatoes aren’t likely to confuse too many players; all you need are three buttons, for “fire”, “change subweapon”, and “special weapon”. Before taking off you select your primary shot, two secondary shots which can be switched between, and – you’ll never guess! – a powerful special weapon which needs to recharge between uses. Once you’re off and razing the landscape you can (surprise, again!) collect various power-ups to enhance all three armaments a bit at a time (and switch out your arsenal between levels, if you like), raise or lower your speed, and activate the occasional one-hit shield or score bonus for good measure: okay, now kill stuff and don’t die! The atmosphere is decidedly old-fashioned and will almost certainly blindside you on occasion, but in exchange the game offers myriad concessions that its many inspirations didn’t: your hitbox is smaller, partial power is retained after death, and in general your default loadout (particularly the special weapon, which can do a number on bosses) is much more likely to see you through a rough spot than those of most “classic” shooters from back in the old days.

If you’re new to the scene and are curious to know what was going through the creators’ heads when they were making this thing, have a shooter veteran sit in on your session, and take a listen to his commentary: “That weapon select screen? Right out of Gradius.” “Oh, the semi-circular enemy chain there, they got it from R-Type.” “See that shield you just got? Looks exactly like the one in the Darius games.” “Try the homing weapon, it’s basically the Hunter from Thunder Force.” For someone well-acquainted with the genre a veritable boatload of wide-eyed backward glances await…just don’t let the “oh, oh, I recognize that!” factor distract you from your mission too much! Satazius is available both DRM-free and on Steam for less than ten bucks, and there’s a demo too, so show some respect for your elders and try your hand at a game made (more or less) the way they used to be.

Suggested Followups:
If you’re at least a little bit up on the indie gaming scene, you might have heard of a Spanish developer who calls himself Locomalito: for some time now he’s been crafting winning digital tributes to his favorite video games of old, and uploading them free of charge for his fellow retro fans to enjoy. The production most likely to interest shooterphiles is Hydorah, a side-scroller that could just about qualify as a long-lost Gradius offshoot, though like Satazius it draws inspiration from many other sources too; in turn, many of the same gameplay elements make an appearance here, from incremental weapon power-ups to new toys earned after every stage, from powerful limited-use special weapons to single-hit barriers. While Hydorah is a fair challenge (and you can’t argue with the price), be advised that it’s not aimed quite so squarely at new players: this one’s more for those who not only remember but relish the struggle for dominance embodied by the venerable shmups of days gone by.

Genetos

(Tatsuya Koyama – 2009 – PC – JP)
GenetosHope you have room for one more “shooters in a nutshell”-style outing, because we’ve saved perhaps the most exhaustive such entry for last. Satazius and rRootage both excel at showcasing era-specific shooter mechanics and are well worth exploring, but let’s say you’re gunning for nothing less than a one-shot light-speed trip straight through practically the entire history of the shmup, from soup to nuts. That means it’s time to set your course for Genetos, which, you’ll be happy to hear, is also completely free to download and play; the game’s title-to-credits running time is considerably short even for the genre, but as a low-pressure, high-replayability look at where the scrolling shooter has been (and perhaps where it’s going) you’d be hard-pressed to nominate a more eloquent and energetic baton twirler to lead the proverbial parade.

The game kicks things off, rather appropriately, with a faux-Space Invaders, and the requisite rows of cute li’l aliens to pick off. Unlike their inspiration, though, every vanquished enemy leaves behind strange collectible green items; an oversized (and anachronistic) boss crashes the party before long, and moreover doesn’t seem particularly fazed by your primitive pea shooter. He and his helpers keep dropping the green stuff, though, and if you watch carefully you’ll notice that each pickup is slowly filling a HUD meter; bring it all the way to the top, and in a flash you “evolve” into the next “generation” of shooter craft, and now pilot a starship more akin to what you’d see in Galaga or its ilk. Cooler than that, you’re also packing a significantly more potent gun, a limited degree of vertical movement, and the wherewithal to finish off the now-last-gen boss lickety-split: onward to the next level, which in turn features Star Soldier-esque challenges, and the next shmupping evolution beyond that!

And so your journey continues, as you encounter ever more bullet-happy foes and rise to meet them with your rapidly-expanding bag of tricks (and a generous stock of lives and bombs) from all corners of scrolling shooter history: some of your later evolutions can actually vary depending on your in-game actions, so one play-through you might equip a Rayforce-style homing laser, on another you’ll brandish powerful energy blades a la Radiant Silvergun, and yet another time a bullet-reflecting shield right out of Giga Wing will wind up at your disposal. The journey’s not likely to take more than 20 minutes or so to complete once, though you’ll definitely want to strap yourself in for another assault, not only to seek out the various evolutionary paths but to take on tougher difficulties and master every tool you’re given to achieve higher scores; to put a slightly-too-dramatic point on it, as the game evolves, so do you.

Suggested Followups:
Think you’re getting hungry enough to take your skills to the next level? Download the demo for semi-abstract shooter ring^-27 (yes, that’s its actual name) and see if it’s worth the couple of bucks for the full download: if you’re ready for a bit of digital boot camp you’ll certainly get your money’s worth. You’ve only got a basic shot and a special attack (two are selectable at the outset, though more can be unlocked) to worry about on your end, but from there things get a lot more involved: those aforementioned special abilities are used to “link” with enemies, in the name of siphoning extra firepower (and points) for yourself.

You can exploit this advantage pretty much as often as you like, but doing so drains your supply of blue gems (acquired by downing targets with your default weapon), and using special attacks with an empty gem stock quickly raises the difficulty level, so balance and restraint are both essential. The game is certainly no cake walk, but it does feature a unique training tool: most enemy bullets are bright blue, but when one is on a collision course with the player it turns red, which makes prioritization and focus considerably more intuitive when you’ve got a screen full of unpleasantness bearing down on you. So listen well, grasshopper: once you have amassed some measure of confidence, seek the ring.

Trouble Witches Neo

(Studio SiestA – 2011 – XBLA – JP/US/PAL)
Trouble Witches NeoIndependent game makers, by their very nature, tend to deeply value the developmental and creative freedom their status affords, but a part of them must wonder what it’s like to expand one’s audience beyond the usual niche of devoted enthusiasts. Every once in a great while just such an opportunity presents itself, and once in an even greater while (as with the above-referenced Crimzon Clover) it happens to a shmup: Studio SiestA’s well-received 2007 side-scrolling cute-em-up Trouble Witches raked in enough positive attention to earn both an enhanced trip to arcades (as “Trouble Witches AC”) and a further revision which debuted digitally on Xbox Live Arcade (“Trouble Witches Neo“). The latter was not only picked up for a well-deserved Western release, but includes both the “AC” and “Neo” editions and will only set you back ten bucks at the time of this writing; sounds like enough to merit a look-see, wouldn’t you say?

Trouble Witches, to absolutely no one’s surprise, parades out a set of spell-slinging witch girls to assume the roles of both playable characters and bosses. Each one boasts different movement speeds, weapons, and a unique helper critter that floats around and provides supporting fire a la Deathsmiles; most crucially, your familiar can make limited use of a protective magic circle, which slows down enemy bullets it catches. If you destroy the offending baddie before your magic power runs out (or it leaves the screen) its “captured” shots are turned into coins, which can be spent, Fantasy Zone-style, at mid-level shops, which carry not only extra lives and magic meter but single-use special weapons which basically act as your bombs. Blast an enemy with one of those and you’ll score special “star” coins, which are the key to keeping the score tally climbing.

The flow of amassing spendable cash and exchanging it for both increased firepower and heightened scoring potential is addictive once you’ve gotten the hang of it, and is deeper than it might seem at a glance; you can expand your circle to capture more bullets, but this drains your magic power faster, and any captured shots you don’t destroy will make a direct beeline for you. While you’re still getting used to things, though, you’re free to use both your magic circle and special weapons purely defensively, and as time goes on the transition to more profitable play will come naturally. The “Neo” version of the game improves the graphics, adds extra characters (only one of which is paid DLC), and tweaks the aspect ratio to fill up widescreen displays, not to mention tacks on a few extra modes and local co-op (oh, and some hilariously awful English voice acting too, though you can switch to the original Japanese if/when it becomes too much). If you’ve got a bit of extra cheddar sitting around in your Live account and are hankering for a slightly more offbeat shooter to try out, give the demo a whirl and see if a spot of Trouble might be headed your way.

Suggested Followup:
Yet another doujin developer whose name shooting fans ought to know is a guy who goes by the moniker “Murasame” and releases his games through studio “Platine Dispotif“. His most famous creations are the side-scrolling Gundemonium (which was eventually remade as “Gundemonium Recollection”) and its sequel, Gundeadligne; neither are particularly aimed at newbies, but both have a lot to mess around with, from customizable weapon loadouts to special “mana drive” attacks to bullet grazing to risk-reward rank control…and lots and lots of ludicrous bullet patterns. Both come recommended, though Gundeadligne adds in Deathsmiles-esque back-and-front shooting and a two-player mode; both titles were localized by publisher Rockin’ Android and can be purchased separately or as a trio along with their cousin, Hitogata Happa (which is also good, but even tougher for newcomers to wrap their heads around, especially considering it requires tactical suicides just to get past the intro level).

Multiplayer Recommendations

Now here’s a sector of shmupping that’s been sorely, and unfortunately, neglected in recent years. As a growing number of longtime shooter players have placed ever-greater focus on personal achievement, developers have followed their lead, churning out game after game aimed squarely at solo score attackers; nothing “wrong” with that, certainly, but what if some of your fondest gaming memories involve teaming up with a friend to get farther than you could on your own? Sure, plenty of shooters still tack on some cursory two- (or occasionally more) player option, but few are truly developed with social gamers (in the purest sense of the term) in mind; they ARE still out there, though, and below are a couple of promising titles that you and your compadres may not have encountered yet.

Twinkle Star Sprites series

(ADK/SNK-Playmore – 1996-2004 – ARC/SAT/DC/PS2 – JP)
Twinkle Star SpritesYup, we’ve arrived at another name you might recognize from elsewhere on Racketboy, but you can stand assured that there’s no more appropriate – perhaps destined – place for it than right here: if there’s a single factor which truly renders Twinkle Star Sprites an icon among shmuppers, it’s the game’s groundbreaking and endlessly appealing competitive multiplayer. While most of its scrolling shooter cousins, almost without exception, compel teamed-up challengers to unite their efforts against the tireless, unfeeling scourge that is the CPU, Sprites’ split-screen structure is all about mano-a-mano versus play and the eternal struggle to evade at least one more candy-colored hazard than your opponent.

Each player’s side of the screen is besieged by identical formations of baddies, but instead of simply blasting away at them haphazardly your goal is to concentrate on one or two strategically-placed targets and let chain explosions do the rest; success sends fireballs and other nuisances (including an oversized boss enemy if you can cobble together a particularly impressive combo) to the other side, though keep an eye on your opponent’s energy meter, as many assaults can be quickly reversed with a well-placed charge shot. From here on in it’s all about managing your own energy, smart bombs and the scads of bright, fluffy nonsense swirling around your home turf whilst doing your best to keep your whiskers un-singed.

One might protest that sticking to cooperative ventures would be the best way to get a curious friend involved in a game he’s not familiar with, and there’s some truth to that, but Twinkle Star Sprites’ shamelessly cute and silly style, driven home by an abundance of decidedly non-threatening selectable characters (feel free to let your friends pick the bosses if they need a handicap), will likely prove hard to resist for all but the most stone-faced gamers, and the simple controls – two buttons are all you need – are considerably easier to wrap one’s head around than, say, the typical tourney fighter. The original game and its PS2-exclusive sequel can claim a few differences between them but play near-identically in most respects, so feel free to grab whichever suits your circumstances and proceed to eviscerate your pals in the most tooth-rottingly sugary manner possible.

Suggested Followup: Though Twinkle Star Sprites has always been regarded fondly, the “versus” shooter subgenre it headlines has seldom been revisited since, though there are a couple of long-lost relatives floating around town. Sammy’s Change Air Blade, which earned itself a nod in the “Hidden Gems” shooter article, followed after Sprites in the arcades, and its fairly everyday aesthetics are more than made up for by its two-tiered battles, fought between a “player” and a “boss” which can and will transform into the screen-filling menace we love to dread. On the doujin front, ZUN’s pair of “Phantasmagoria” entries in the Touhou lineup were directly inspired by Sprites and play much closer to them, though of course players should be prepared for the series’ ever-present fireworks display of bullets as they pick off targets and FedEx the resulting garbage their opponents’ way. Finally, G. Rev’s two Senko no Ronde titles (the first of which was localized as “WarTech”) are somewhat more technical affairs, as they lean closer to versus fighting games than the others, but those who take the time to learn their ins and outs frequently speak highly of them.

Shop for Twinkle Star Sprites on eBay
Shop for Twinkle Star Sprites on Amazon.com

Raiden series

(Seibu Kaihatsu, 1990-present – ARC/GEN/SNES/PC/PS1/PS2/X360/etc. – JP/US/PAL)
raiden-iv2The venerable Raiden DX can wear its “followup” designation from earlier in the article with pride, but the long-running series it hails from deserves an additional tip of the hat as one of the paths of least resistance to take when it comes to genre introductions, especially if you’ve got friends whose tastes lean in a more traditional, old-school direction. Even putting aside higher-than-average name recognition (“oh yeah, I think they had one of those machines over at the old bowling alley”) and an easy-to-swallow theme for the self-conscious and/or skittish (nothing too offbeat, lots of planes and tanks and whatnot), these are games obviously developed by folks with a yen for good, straightforward onscreen teamwork.

Right off the bat, the complementary pairs of primary and secondary weapons are seemingly custom-tailored for multi-player cooperation (“okay, I’ll take the spread shot and straight missiles, you take the straight shot and homing missiles…if the ‘toothpaste laser’ shows up, all bets are off”), as do each player’s default smart bombs (one does more damage, while the other activates faster and is better for defense); observe closely and you’ll even notice that the two ships move slightly differently (the red 1P plane is a bit quicker vertically, while the blue 2P equivalent has a horizontal speed advantage). While every game in the series can be one-credit cleared by a lone wolf, having a pal along means you don’t need to compensate for any offensive setup’s inherent weaknesses; moreover, while dying typically sends solo shmuppers back to a checkpoint, if a wingman is covering your six you’re allowed to pick up right where you left off.

Last but not least, there’s a semi-secret technique to keep in your back pocket whenever you’re tackling a Raiden game as a team: if the two of you fly very close together, you’ll combine your powers and fire off a random but powerful volley of starbursts in all directions. While this special attack’s unpredictability renders it impractical as an all-around weapon, it can be devastating when unleashed at close range against bosses and other large targets; thus you and your co-pilot will have to work together to make the most of every opportunity to unleash it (“right, stay back, dodge this…watch for the next one…OKAY, GO, GET IN, QUICK!”), and will have many high-fives to exchange once all the pieces slide into place. On a final note, ambidextrous and/or showboating types should seek out the home editions of Raiden III and IV, whose unique “double play” modes allow one brave and/or disturbed gamer to control two ships with a single controller…and everybody should keep their ears to the ground in anticipation of Raiden V.

Suggested Followup: Though few other shooters have covered quite so many bases when it comes to multiplayer, Raiden’s enduring popularity has allowed it to leave plenty of marks elsewhere: Warashi’s Shienryu, which you might remember from father up this page, is one well-regarded imitator, and Irem’s Fire Barrel is another. Its weapon system is quite similar to Raiden’s, as is its aesthetic, though the art style is just a bit more on the cartoony side (hence the company’s ties to Nazca, of Metal Slug fame); at the very least it’s no less approachable than its inspiration, and after a years-long wait can finally be emulated properly, so if you and your comrades-in-arms enjoy Raiden you’re likely to dig this one too. On a related note, if the “main” Raidens are a bit too methodical for your liking give the three Raiden Fighters spinoffs a go instead: their more frenetic pace and scoring systems are sure to get your blood pumping. If you have an XBox 360 definitely pick up the “Raiden Fighters Aces” compilation if you can; assuming the game is available in your region, it’s nothing short of a necessity for any self-respecting shmup collection.

Shop for Raiden series on eBay
Shop for Raiden series on Amazon.com

Giga Wing series

(Takumi, 1999-2006 – ARC/DC/PS2 – JP/US/PAL)
Giga WingReaders who already possess some familiarity with these titles might think I’ve finally gone off the deep end by allowing them within a mile of a “beginner” article; heck, their infamous screen-swamping scads of one-hit-kill gunfire (and how badly they scared the bejeezus out of unsuspecting Dreamcast-era gamers) are prominently featured right there in the “defining” write-up. It’s certainly true that none of the Giga Wings (and even moreso their cousin, Mars Matrix) are walks in the park, but neither do they deserve the dismissive “impossible” label they’ve been unfairly saddled with: half the battle here is simply learning not to be intimidated by enemies’ over-the-top assaults, because you’ve got everything you need to overcome them. That all being said, a little pick-me-up from a chum certainly couldn’t hurt either.

Though all of the selectable aircraft from across the series sport some satisfying guns, your most potent weapon is always the standard-issue “reflect force”, which as its name suggests creates a temporary barrier around your ship to send unfriendly shots right back where they came from. You can invoke this ability as many times as you want, but have to give it a split second to activate and a few seconds more to recharge between uses; that might not sound like much of a handicap, but when your opposition is this aggressive you quickly gain a very different perspective on those few vulnerable moments. You are allowed some powerful smart bombs to force your way through parts you can’t dodge your way out of, but nothing is nearly as effective an edge as a second player; if the two of you work together you can ensure that somebody always has a vital shield charge ready in a pinch, and that a partner will remain ever at the ready to C.Y.A. until you’re ready to return the favor.

Of course, it won’t take you long to notice that reflected bullets turn into valuable score medals when they strike a target on the return trip; while you don’t have to worry about high scores to earn extra lives here, it’s still a lot of fun for the two of you to gradually grow brave enough to utilize your shields offensively and skyrocket your scores, instead of saving them only for near-immediate threats. Giga Wing 2 also offers a newbie-centric “reflect laser” (which isn’t as powerful as the “force” but ensures that every bullet you cancel strikes an enemy) and a simultaneous 4-player mode, which is pretty much a processor-melting exercise in slowdown-ridden madness but definitely worth at least one “for the lulz” go if you manage to get a big-enough group of shmuppers together in one room.

Suggested Followup: If the “okay, cover me, I’ll shield you next” give-and-take two-step of Giga Wing rubs you the right way, you’ll definitely want to make room for Treasure’s Ikaruga, one of the few shmups able to claim some measure of “mainstream” name recognition within the Western gaming scene since heaven only knows when. Easily recognized thanks to the player’s ability to switch their ship’s color from black to white and back again on the fly (all the better to absorb the enemy’s corresponding-colored attacks, and to inflict extra damage to targets of the opposite hue), two players can take even greater advantage of this setup to simultaneously render dangerous bullets harmless and bring down baddies in short order. Look around a bit online and you’ll find a famous (and possibly inhuman) <a href=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vf1-NpHlXiU”>”double play”</a> of the game in which a single player uses two joysticks to complete the game on two-player mode all by himself: if that’s possible, imagine what a pair of challengers working in tandem can do.

Shop for Giga Wing series on eBay
Shop for Giga Wing series on Amazon.com 

Dogyuun

(Toaplan – 1992 – ARC – JP)
DogyuunMinus the oddball name, this rather obscure arcade-only shooter by Toaplan (the same guys who did Batsugun, covered earlier) might not seem particularly concerned with standing out from the pack; sure, the company’s signature sprite stylings still hold up nicely after all these years and everything plays just fine, but the core game’s rather generic nuts and bolts, effortless to grasp as they are, might cross the line into “just a bit too meat-and-potatoes” territory for some. You can capture smaller enemies and attach them to your back end to guard from sneak attacks, but there’s really not much to the mechanics beyond that; heck, there are four weapons to collect, but none of them can be powered up in any “traditional” fashion…if you’ve been paying attention, that’s your hint that things change significantly if you’ve got a second player in the vicinity.

On the surface, again, nothing seems too different; you fly, you shoot, you make stuff explode in pleasing ways, you (not-so-)occasionally die. Tinker around a little more, though, and you’ll discover the game’s “trump card”, the singular out-of-left-field idea which earns it a place on this list: have one player use the aforementioned “capture” ability on his partner instead of an enemy, and both ships will combine into a beefy mega-fighter, complete with redoubled offensive output for all weapons. The “capturing” player has sole control until the “captured” player decides to disengage – you’ll stay joined up otherwise, even if you die – so in many cases solo flyers will spend two credits from the get-go to give themselves an advantage, but this system is also a perfect fit for a more experienced player showing a newbie the ropes, as the former is free to take over and usher his ward past certain tough parts and let the latter fly free when things calm down a bit.

As it turns out, there’s a bit of additional “conditioning” for newer shmuppers here, as Dogyuun sneaks in a few other concepts seldom found within its contemporaries; to wit, aside from your main weapons there are two different upgrade “modules” you can pick up. One of these awards a single-use bomb, while the other grants a speed burst ability; you can only hold one at a time, so you have to consider which one best complements both the area you’re in and your current weapon of choice. On that note, the “blue laser” does the most raw damage, but loses charge when the button is held down too long, and thus requires some endurance to wield effectively. A later boss spawns enemies with wide-spread “wings” to clog up the area, but also packs a screen-covering blast which can only be avoided if you leave at least one winged baddie alive to hide behind. There’s even a bonus-loaded “speed level” to test your reflexes (and greed). If you know where to look, Dogyuun serves up quite a few intriguing departures from the ordinary that up-and-comers (and veterans too) would do well to seek out.

Suggested Followup: One of the few shooters (perhaps the only one?) to well and truly replicate Dogyuun’s “combine and conquer” gimmick is Allumer/Yang Cheng’s highly obscure War of Aero, though that one’s a steep hill to climb for newcomers, since it takes more than a few additional cues from Irem’s infamously difficult Image Fight. Konami’s Trigon (aka Lightning Fighters) adopts another unusual cooperative approach, in the form of a special 2P weapon pickup which “links” your two aircraft together with an extra gun in the middle: both of you retain full freedom of movement, but must work in tandem to aim the “linked” gun at targets and take full advantage of the bonus firepower. If you were hoping for something a bit more traditional in the multiplayer department, keep reading, as we’re not quite through with Toaplan yet.

If you perused the “Hidden Gems” article you’ve already heard of V-V, a vertical offering with a Gradius-style power-up system, and its more standardized “what it says on the tin” twin, Grind Stormer: whichever setup you and your partner in crime might prefer, this duo has you covered (and the Mega Drive port includes both). If you’re in the mood for something a little more off the beaten path then perhaps the arcade-exclusive Outzone and its improved sequel Fixeight will be good for a couple of credits: for the most part they play like the Toaplan shooters you know and love, but the screen doesn’t automatically scroll so you’ll have to advance manually, which means sticking together and watching each others’ backs. The two of you will have to master the eight-way aiming controls to blast your way out of the games’ many dangerous corridors alive, so feel free to don some tattered 80’s-action-movie bandannas to get yourselves in the right frame of mind.

Twinbee series


Twinbee
(Konami  1985-1995 – ARC/NES/GB/PCE/SNES/Saturn/PS1/PSP/etc. – JP/US/PAL
Not only is Konami’s too-long-dormant Twinbee series one of the most influential and celebrated “cute-em-ups” in the (sub)genre’s storied history, but it’s got “twin” right there in the name, so you know it’s primed and ready for some two-player action. Right from the very first entry players are encouraged to join forces and gain access to a basketful of special team-up techniques: if your semi-sentient ship characters nuzzle in close and hold hands (d’awww) they can fire a powerful combined shot, but even if you’re feeling a bit more antagonistic and nudge your partner roughly they’ll spin around and release a spread array that can thin out swarms of pests.

The second game in the series, “Moero! Twinbee”, which arrived on the NES a year or so later, wasn’t afraid to venture out into largely uncharted territory for the time, enabling three-player simultaneous co-op with the aid of a multi-tap; unfortunately, this feature was removed from the US release (renamed “Stinger”). Once the brand hit the SNES with “Pop’n Twinbee” in 1993, not only were the onscreen shenanigans suitably jazzed up (colliding with your fellow player now sends him careening unstoppably around the playfield, knocking out enemies in his path), but a nifty why-didn’t-anyone-else-think-of-that “couple mode” option has been added, which causes enemies to focus most of their attacks on Player 1; if you know a friend who’s curious but apprehensive about stepping into the shmup arena, sign ’em up as Player 2 and do the heavy lifting until they’re more at ease.

While most of these not-remotely-XTREME-enough-for-our-target-demographic games never snuck past the West’s marketing gatekeepers, there is a PSP compilation which collects several of the highlights onto a single UMD (and is, of course, region-free to import), so catching up after all these years isn’t too terribly daunting a prospect even if you’d prefer not to emulate. If a particular pal of yours isn’t really big on shooters but does enjoy the cute and comedic bits that Twinbee flaunts so proudly, perhaps an introduction to the world and characters via Rainbow Bell Adventure (an SNES platformer) or Twinbee Taisen Puzzle Dama (a PS1 puzzler) would be just the catalyst you need to break the ice, though both of those are also Japanese exclusives.

Suggested Followup: If your appetite for gregarious goofiness is still not sated, then it’s time to GO TO STAR and launch Psikyo’s arcade-only Space Bomber. When push comes to shove you’re looking at a spoof of Space Invaders, what with its single-screen backdrops and pre-set target formations, though you might not remember hard-hatted construction worker aliens, bone-tossing dog heads and Trash Cans of Doom from the 1970’s arcade scene, not to mention a drivel-licious story and visual motif lifted straight out of a cheesy old drive-in picture. More importantly, while you can always gun down your targets, you’re better served making frequent use of your little ship’s handy-dandy grabber arm: if you snag a (non-boss) alien you instantly capture it, and can then either deploy it as a temporary ally or launch it as a makeshift missile, hopefully setting off a nice big chain explosion and raking in the bonus points in the process. This being a Psikyo production there are definitely trickier patterns here than Taito’s denizens of doom ever sent your way, but the journey is short, fun, and briskly paced, so improving one’s game shouldn’t be too terribly taxing for less-confident players. Oh, and there’s two-player co-op too, of course.

Shop for Twinbee series on eBay

Jamestown

(Final Form Games – 2011 – PC/MAC/LNX/PS4 – US)
JamestownScreenshot05Most of the multiplayer-friendly material we’ve covered so far hit the scene a good ten years or more ago, placing it squarely within, or at least fairly close to, the genre’s halcyon days…which might prompt the question, “is anybody still making stuff like this?” Well, as we begin to wind down this discussion we’ve finally got a couple of bona fide spring chickens to show off, with Jamestown up first: like many of its kin the story is set in space (Mars, to be exact), though in this particular case you get to relive the well-documented British colonization of the red planet in the 1600’s, taking up the mantles of Walter Raleigh, John Smith, and other painstakingly-rendered figures from the era, recreating their historic astro-dogfights against the Spanish conquistadors and their Martian allies. So who says video games can’t be educational?

Once you’ve absorbed enough historical enrichment you’ll find a shooter unabashedly constructed around gaming with friends, though unfortunately only local co-op is supported; before long you’ll have unlocked four playable ships, all of which perform quite differently, with strengths and weaknesses designed to be balanced out by the others, to the point that playing by oneself can sometimes feel a bit overwhelming (though not impossible to adjust to, certainly). There are five difficulty levels and a bunch of challenging side missions to tackle, all viable for teams of any size; if Britannia still hasn’t done quite enough ruling you can spring for the “Gunpowder, Treason and Plot” DLC, which just about doubles the playable roster for a few dollars extra.

Once you’re into the nitty-gritty it shouldn’t take too long to find your groove, as each ship has a standard shot, a special ability, and a temporary shield/weapon power-up called the “vaunt”, which can be activated after picking up some gold from defeated enemies. More than that, activating a vaunt also starts a bonus meter ticking, which can be extended (across entire levels, if you’re good) by continually collecting gold; of course, if you get into trouble along the way you can hit the “vaunt” button again to cancel the bonus but activate another shield to save your rear from an untimely end. The creators have packed it all together with a training mode, controller/keyboard/mouse support, and some well-executed sprite-wrangling to create a shooter well worth taking for a spin, either on Steam or DRM-free…oh, and just before this article was submitted a beefed-up “Plus” edition of the game docked on the PS4, so keep a spyglass on that horizon, too!

Suggested Followup: Just below here you’ll encounter an entry by indie studio Xona games, which just so happens to specialize in multiplayer shooters: before jumping in let’s warm up with another one (or three, actually) by those guys. At first blush their trio of “Decimation X” titles (all available on XBLIG, and the middle entry on Windows phones, with a fourth currently in the oven) immediately register as fan-made tributes to Space Invaders, and they pretty much are, though I suspect that the game’s original designers and programmers would have snapped into foaming conniptions if they’d seen these suckers up and running during Taito’s early arcade days.

The staging is exactly the same as three or more decades ago (move back and forth, aliens descend, shoot them, don’t get shot yourself), but with every single dial, knob and switch set to “illogical conclusion”: hoard enough powerups and your guns will rip through the enemy ranks (and those puny floating shields) like a hot knife through butter, but the merciless scads of bullets the descending hordes volley back will demand very precise dodging to weather on your end. Up to four people (assuming none of you have heart conditions) can get in on the madness, and you only need a buck to get past the velvet rope out front…though said rope should probably have a “you must be THIS insane to ride” sign on it.

Score Rush

(Xona Games – 2010 – XBLA – US)
Score RushThe ongoing debate as to whether “twin-stick” shooters (a la Robotron) are “technically” shmups is unlikely to abate anytime soon, but either way, while we were all squabbling about it Bizarre Creations’ surprisingly successful minigame Geometry Wars almost single-handedly revitalized the subgenre and got a whole new audience interested in the timeless battle between glowy abstract shapes. Thanks to this bit of developmental audacity there are countless variations on the theme to choose from nowadays, most coming courtesy of small independent outfits, but the XBLA-exclusive Score Rush manages to clamber above the rest (and onto the tail end of this list) for a couple of reasons, not least because it serves as a particularly finely-tuned “middle ground” between twin-stick and “traditional” scrolling shooters.

For starters, it’s a snap to get oneself (and one’s pals) right into the thick of it: aside from the requisite pair of sticks for moving and aiming/shooting, you need one measly additional button for last-ditch nukes, and the only pickups are standard-issue lives, bombs, shot upgrades and “option” helpers to give your attacks a bit more “oomph”, so everyone can instinctively grab whatever’s within their reach and stay focused on the fight at hand. There are several distinct levels of challenge to test your mettle, and things can get plenty hectic as you push father in, with enough pyrotechnics present that your eyes may need a little time to adjust, but enemy bullets are mercifully easier to distinguish here than in many similar shooters, and daring to get in close to the game’s well-armored bosses allows your full spread to sink in and bring the beasts down more quickly.

Once you’ve got a second player (and possibly a third and fourth) involved the game doles out color-coded pickups for each of you, so one person can’t accidentally (or “accidentally”) hoard them all for himself. While individual scores for all players are tallied separately, the “main” point total recorded at the end is everyone’s combined take, so the emphasis is definitely on working in tandem towards a shared, brag-worthy goal. When one of you dies that section of the screen is temporarily cleared out, so while more confident teams can split up to draw enemy fire newbies can stick close to a “mentor” and know they’ve got a way out even if sensei loses a step. The game can be played for free in your internet browser or bought for a dollar on XBLA’s Indie store, so there’s not much reason to delay finding out just how much of it you and your compadres can handle.

Suggested Followup: I almost – almost! – made it to the end of the list without “cheating” too badly when it comes to each section’s declared theme, but while this last game unfortunately doesn’t feature a two-player mode, it’s still an iconic PC shoot-em-up that newcomers ought to try, and I just couldn’t find anyplace else to sneak it in. It’s called Warning Forever, and was developed by yet another talented individual, Hikoza Ohkubo (or “Hikware”, as the title screen would have it). Basically an infinite boss rush, your fighter craft, carrying only a basic spread shot that can be fired in any direction, goes up against a multi-sectioned boss in a closed arena, and every time the big guy bites the dust he quickly reappears packing more firepower than before, specifically equipped to make it tougher to attack him the same way twice; you don’t have a life stock to worry about, but are limited by a timer, which will increase as you win battles but ticks down faster if you get plugged.

The farther you get before time inevitably runs out the higher your score will be (you can also go for some bonus points by aiming straight for the center instead of picking off all the guns first), and yes, this one’s freeware as well, so if it sounds up your alley by all means get downloading, posthaste. Western indie developer Milkstone also created a tribute game with 3D graphics, titled Infinity Danger; this one will cost you a few bucks, but it adds online leaderboards and twin-stick controls to the mix.

——-

Many thanks once again to Racketboy for his patience and support (especially the patience!), and to the shmups.com forum community for everyone’s invaluable advice, suggestions and corrections all along the way (and more to come, I’m sure). See you all next mission!

7 Comments

  1. Scott says:

    Great read. Thanks for including Knightmare. I loved that game when I was a kid. Konami’s MSX output was a golden age, with Knightmare easily in my top 3.

  2. samsonlonghair says:

    Great write up, Bulletmagnet. I’m sure I will refer back to this guide on more than one occasion.

  3. Alexei says:

    Awesome article…. I’ll start seeking some of them right now… but… I missed some Cave hits since their shooters are the best.

    Donpachi, Dodonpachi (ARC), Dodonpachi daioujou X360, EspGaluda, Kaizen, EspDaRe.

  4. ejamer says:

    Great timing – had recently passed up on a copy of Space Invaders Extreme 2 because I was unsure how good (or bad) it might be. Reading this convinced me to rethink and grab the game. Having only played for a short time, I feel comfortable saying that it’s all kinds of awesome.

    Also loved seeing Blast Works: Build Trade Destroy (Wii) mentioned in the article. I consider it a widely overlooked Wii gem, and found Blast Works very approachable and easy to play. The fact that it includes a bevy of unlockable Kenta Cho goodness and a full content editing tool for the main game adds tremendous value for a console game that can often be found for $5-10…

  5. BulletMagnet says:

    @Scott – You might already know this, but a little bit back a freeware remake of Knightmare was released, it’s at the following link:

    http://demonvideogames.blogspot.com/

    Glad folks are enjoying the article so far. 🙂

  6. Kishoro Guy says:

    Really kickass article. This has definitely gotten me more interested in Shmups in general. Mainly Bullet Soul, Dogyuun, Giga Wings, Compile Shooters, Mushihime-sama Futari, Espgaluda II and Sengoku Blade. I’m not sure if this was in the runnings for being on this article, but Blast Works (which I would also put in as atleast an honorable mention in the Wii Hidden Gems article, whenever that will be finished) was pretty good. Again, I’m sort of new to the shoot’em up genre. So I’m not sure if it’s good compared to others in said genre. But still an awesome read nevertheless.

  7. Nyukki says:

    Only skimmed through the article but looks great. Will definitely give it a proper read-through at some point and hopefully try out some of the games I’d never heard of before. Thanks!