It's likely you've played a shmup in your lifetime. Shoot 'em up (also shooting game (“STG”), or “shmup”) is a very loose term that encompasses many different subgenres such as run and guns (Contra, Metal Slug), fixed or arena shooters (Space Invaders, Geometry Wars) and rail shooters (Star Fox, Panzer Dragoon). Shmups originated on the arcade with the explosive success of Space Invaders and have since manifested in many different ways. When people talk about shoot 'em ups in this day and age though they're probably speaking of scrolling shooters. These types of games have a very basic premise: you scroll vertically/horizontally, shoot and kill a few things, then die. Without understanding the essence of arcade shooting this deceptively simple concept will seem like hollow enjoyment, but with quintessential rules and the very nature of the arcade business model the genre transcends the mundane and becomes immeasurably more engrossing.
Arcades are dead. If you grew up in the '80s or '90s this may be a hard pill to swallow, but in the West the reality is apparent: arcades have become an antique of the past. It was around the mid-nineties when the shift to consoles became increasingly apparent. Console technology was advancing, 3D graphics were on the rise with polygonal models dethroning 2D sprites, the internet was thriving; there was no reason to go to a video arcade and play what you could in the comfort of your own home. Developers of arcade games scrambled to stir the pot with flashy titles like Sega's 3D Virtua Fighter, Daytona USA and Bemani's Dance Dance Revolution - but it wasn't enough. With more costly hardware came pricier admission (costing upwards of 50c-1$ per round), drawing the focus away from the traditional teenage crowd who were cautious of buying in. This was the dawn of the end for arcades in the West.
In America there are very few dedicated video arcades today that aren't side attractions of movie theaters or other entertainment venues. The same can be said of the European arcade scene, though with its density and relative proximity to Asia there may be more secondhand outlets to play games beyond DDR, Time Crisis and House of the Dead. In Japan, however, video arcades are abundant and have woven into the very fabric of Japanese culture. They're called “game centers” there and you can find them just about anywhere in the gaming mecca that is Tokyo, though the Akihabara area is of world renown in regards to arcade gaming. Everything from slot and pinball machines (pachinko) to the latest arcade releases, game centers have something for everyone.
In these game centers teenagers, middle aged people and even older salarymen line the cabinets, putting down their yen for a chance to unwind after the day's happenings. There's unspoken codes of conduct that are meant to be followed, two main ones being: A.) You wait in line. Some games have huge lines for newer, popular releases. And B.) One credit only. That's it. Unless you're alone at a cabinet with no one expressing interest in taking your spot, you have to get up for the next person - no continuing. I'm sure that second point has left you bewildered, thinking “I can't clear ANY arcade game with one credit”, and that's the reason you're a limp-wristed, credit-feeding piece of shit. While you and your friends spend a few dollars on a single session getting to the second Queen encounter in Alien vs. Predator, some old guys in Japan have honed their technique to win on a single credit through repeated losses. It doesn't take an otaku to admire that kind of perseverance.
Arcade games are a very different breed when compared to modern home console games. When a developer makes an arcade title they must balance the interests of both the player and the operator/arcade manager. The game has to be pretty enough to attract prospective players, yet hard enough so those players are beaten down mercilessly and squeezed of their precious quarters, providing profits for the arcade owner who bought the game. You don't play arcade games - they play you. It's this unique balance that has made arcade games so distinguished in the gaming world. It's also the reason they're still relevant today: while the challenge is naturally steep and unforgiving, these games are kingdoms of intricacies meant to be conquered.
Without the efforts of W.T. Shmups, Youmu Konpaku and that Cave fanatic (SPC had the right idea but.. yeah.. nah, you're a cunt) there would be next to zero awareness of shmups on /v/. This genre isn't meant to be a niche one - it's meant to be bustling with competition and interest, and not just from those non-gamer Touhou retards on /jp/. The online communities are still going strong and there's plenty of room for new players to etch their mark on the leaderboards. It's my hope that if you've made it this far you're at least moderately interested in the topic at hand, in which case read on intrepid pilot and see if shoot 'em ups are right for you!
Why you should play
Let's face it, we're regressing into a terminal casual state with exposure to current market trends. If the front page of /v/ is any indicator, people don't much care for developing skill anymore. Whatever happened to the games that tossed you to the wolves? Ones where you carved out your own achievements and goals instead of having them handed to you? The games where success wasn't equated to how much time you could throw at it, but through how well you could exercise ability? Unfortunately the world has moved on to new paradigms and these titles have been tossed to the bargain bins due to their rigid, complex texture. Shoot 'em ups may not be lauded in the same breath as fighters, twitch shooters or real-time strategy games due to the dynamic element of multiplayer, but it doesn't negate the fact that all of these games have astronomically high skill ceilings. It takes a lot of practice, willpower and skill to master a shmup, and infinitely more to display that mastery consistently.
The challenge isn't the only reel shooting games have going for them. Truth be told, it's just a lot of fun blowing shit up. Not to mention the fact that you can pop a few credits in whenever you want instead of wading through tutorials and cutscenes, as there's a decidedly thin barrier between you and the gameplay. Most of these games have only 30 minutes to an hour of content, but reaching the end of that content legitimately is a lot harder than you'd expect, and you will probably be spending upwards of 30-50+ hours understanding the ins and outs of each game. Add in unlockables, multiple ship types/options and a multi-faceted difficulty system and it becomes easy to see why people spend so much time in STGs.
See that? That could be you. Due to the quick pace and short levels all it takes is a few hours practice each week until you can pull off these things. Though the road to attaining this level of concentration and finesse is a solitary one, it's undeniably rewarding. When someone like this showed up in the arcade his presence was magnetic. Onlookers would crowd around to watch the relatively superhuman spectacle while others who played the game would observe how he carried himself, safe boss patterns and what scoring techniques he used. Though this rare occurrence fades out with the death of the arcade you're not completely left in the dark without a compass or recognition. With the advent of sites like Youtube, online leaderboards and lively STG forums you have more ways than ever to embrace the community and improve yourself.
It's up to you to stretch your own limits. The “one-credit rule” is a self-imposed one that instills the competitive spirit needed to fully immerse yourself in the shooting genre. Self-imposed, key word there, as no one can enforce this hardcore mindset but you. Shmups will never hold your hand, but they sure won't cheat on you either. Every mistake and plateau you face will always come down to your ability as a gamer and your willingness to improve and overcome them. Ultimately it will define who you are: if you just play for fun, or if you play to win. Even if you aren't keen on adopting this mindset there are plenty of entry-level games available to whet your appetite, but you should always be reaching higher as a gamer—and, more importantly, as a human being.
How you can play
Due to their low production costs, ease of development and portability, shooting games are available on practically every platform in existence, though there are some platforms with more illustrious libraries than others. While it's possible to emulate nearly every shmup released before 2005 you'd do well to support your favorite (non-defunct) developers, as actually owning a game lets you develop attachment to it, further compelling you to beat it.
- MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator) - The most well known emulator. Has an array of utilities and an expansive library of games that is ever-increasing with breakthroughs in driver support. MAME accurately emulates the minor nuances of an original PCB straight down to load diagnostics and graphical/input glitches.
- Shmupmame (original thread) - Lagless gameplay for a lot of popular titles, with a few compiled drivers not emulable in the original MAME release.
- WinKawaks - Neo Geo/Capcom specialized emulator with netplay support. Very few STGs, but what it can do it does well.
It would take a long time to compile every good emulator here. Just know that console emulation is a pretty good option with backups lasting a lot longer than physical media. There's also usually save state support, quite a few aesthetic options (e.g. scanlines, filters, etc.) and the ability to use a non-native controller via USB.
- Wii -
- Gamecube -
- Gameboy Advance -
- Nintendo 64 -
- Super Nintendo -
- Game Boy/Color A nice handful number of shmups were available on this portable. Some were ports, others original, but you have to respect a well done shmup on this when you consider the limited hardware.
- NES/Famicom -
- Dreamcast - Short lived console that saw quite a few iconic STG exclusives. Due to its similarities with the Sega NAOMI arcade system board it was a bastion for arcade ports that ran on NAOMI/Capcom CPS-2 hardware.
- Saturn -
- Genesis/Mega Drive -
- Game Gear - Lacks FM music, but had a few original shmups, though not alot.
- Master System - Surprisingly had some pretty fair arcade ports. Some content was removed, some added, and some even use the FM chip for some totally tasty tunes.
- Xbox 360 - The best modern console for shmups with a HUGE library. Inexpensive and intuitive dev kits make this the most appealing platform for shmup developers, in both cost and efficiency. XBLA's indie community is especially crowded with shmup goodness.
- Xbox -
- iPhone/iPod Touch - The touch screen is good in that you have perfect control over your ship. In fact, it's so good, it almost feels like cheating with Cave's ports. Unfortunately, your thumb sometimes covers a wave of bullets speeding towards you.
- TurboGrafx-16/PC Engine -
- Turbo CD/PC Engine CD - Arguably, one could say this is this is to console shmups what Elvis is to rock n' roll. Hudson Soft championed this console with their shmups, but other companies had some nice inputs as well.
- MSX/MSX2 - An oddball when it came to shmups. Due to scrolling issues, they had to make some creative compromises. One element of note is that some games have alternate stages and songs exclusive to their MSX versions.
The arcades are a goddamn treasure trove of amazement. It has amassed the largest library of shoot 'em ups over its years, higher than that of any other platform. It may take a bit of searching to find a video arcade near you with even a handful of shmups, but you'll find that it's a very unique experience to behold. If you can't find the game you're looking for there's no shame in arcade emulation.
For the average person it's simply unfeasible to buy PCBs or assemble your own cabinet due to the prohibitive expense and maintenance required. A single PCB ranges from $200 to $1000+, while building your own cabinet from scratch would take around $400 to $1200++ (not to mention an Engineering degree). If you aren't rich there are ways to make an all-in-one MAME cabinet by installing a PC instead of a printed circuit board. This is a lot less expensive due to its flexibility, as you can gut and repurpose any old arcade cabinet with a PC that can emulate MAME.
Check out How to Build Your Own MAME Cabinet for more information.
Improving your skill level
Don't be discouraged by initial suckage when it comes to shmups. As you keep trying and keep practicing, your skills will improve. It just takes dedication.
One thing novices have trouble with is regulating bombs, in the majority of shmups that have them. Most people playing a shmup seriously do know that spamming bombs whenever something even remotely dangerous comes their way is not the best method to improving one's skills, but a lesser known truth is that sometimes, not bombing is almost as bad. Especially in games that provide you with a large number of bombs, like DoDonPachi or most Touhou games, knowing when the proper time to use life-saving bombs is part of being skilled at the game. Try to be able to quickly tell the difference between a situation where you can narrowly escape and a situation where you're certain to die, in order to bomb on the latter.
Another important factor to note is avoiding bullets. You don't want to look directly at your hitbox, nor even directly at the bullets. You want to look at where the bullets aren't, where they won't be, and move into that space. It's sort of strange to think about it, but you're not as much dodging the bullets as placing yourself where it will be safe.
Games that can be considered entry-level generally have a low resistance threshold or a myriad of arrangements (through alternate modes and options). Due to the nature of these games there is no such thing as an “easy” shoot 'em up. As such, this is more a compendium of games that serve as good starting points to understand the basics for newcomers to the genre:
|Blazing Lazers / Gunhed||One of the best shoot 'em ups on the TurboGrafx-16. Co-developed by Compile so expect an expansive arsenal and lengthy levels rife with bosses. There's ten levels in all, with each section boss rewarding you several extends. It also has one of the best weapons in a shmup ever: the THUNDER LASER, which utterly unmakes enemies (seriously, try all of level 8 with that weapon - you can even stunlock the boss!).||TG-16, PSN,|
|Battle Bakraid||One of the last Raizing shmups, Bakraid features a more manageable Rank system from it's predecessors (Garegga and Batrider) which can be lowered by grazing bullets. It also features three difficulty levels (normal being the best for beginners) and a boss-rush mode where you are fully powered.||Arcade|
|Blue Wish Resurrection Plus||Freeware shmup with lots of options to ease your way in. Gameplay is centered around heavy patterns and bullet canceling with the difficulty ranging from casual (Heaven/Guard) to balls hard (Hell/Accel). Be sure to get Plus as it introduced a bullet slow option when the screen is full (that's not your GPU fucking up). Oh, what's that? You want more free games like this?||PC|
|Darius (series)||Is gunning for the top score not enough to motivate you to continue playing after your hard earned 1cc? how about the thrill of discovering a new way to play through the same game every time? that's Darius for ya, and almost all of them are at just the right level of difficulty to be challenging at first sight, but not too easy that you'll grow bored of them once you start to improve.||Arcade, TG-16, Genesis, SNES, Saturn, PSX, PSP|
|DeathSmiles||Take your pick from up to 5 adorable lolis (yes, the game calls them this) each with their own unique weapon and helpful familiar. Multiple layouts are available to help you find your best playstyle. From there play through the different levels to see the story and enjoy the beautiful art by CAVE studio. Deathsmiles also has the option of online co-op so you can chat with friends while playing and a clearly-visible hitbox (the little gold heart) to make life simpler for SHMUP newbies.||Xbox 360, iOS, Arcade|
|DoDonPachi||DoDonPachi is one of the most refined experiences on the arcade. Silky-smooth controls, fluid animation, great level design - it has everything you could want. Sports a much more approachable learning curve than the original. While it's not the easiest game on the list, its first loop is generally regarded as a solid challenge for novice pilots. What better way to orient yourself than by playing the best of the best straight off?||Arcade, PS1, Saturn|
|DoDonPachi II: Bee Storm||An entry level in the DoDonPachi series made by IGS, this one has a good difficulty curve, with initial stages being a cakewalk but getting progressively harder. Pay no attention to the haters, this one is as good as any other in the series.||Arcade|
|Espgaluda||You play as fairies that can swap genders and manipulate time. Kakusei mode is powered by the green gems you collect and slows down time, turning enemy bullets into gold ingots when killed. Be careful with its use as once those gems are depleted you go into “Overmode” where bullets turn pink and accelerate. Incredibly fun when you cash in on huge bullet spreads and see numbers flying everywhere.||Arcade, PS2|
|GG Aleste||Compile is a name you'll come to respect if you enjoy easy, well-crafted games. The Game Gear Aleste titles are some of the best handheld shmups available, each with a huge amount of weapon types at your disposal. If you enjoyed this check out its sequel GG Aleste 2/Power Strike II - a fair deal harder but still a good, lengthy romp.||Game Gear|
|Gradius||Haven't played Gradius? Where the fuck have you been?
Any console version is good for beginners. You can start with the first game, though Gradius Gaiden and Gradius V are also good starts.
|Arcade, NES, MSX, PS1, Saturn, TG-16, Wii VC, PSN|
|Harmful Park||A very absurd shooter that was only released in Japan. Throw all manner of sweets to destroy your foes, with shot types of an ice cream laser, homing jellybeans and pie bombs - all of which can be leveled up! You can probably roll over Easy difficulty (the default option), so try it on Normal mode for a good challenge. It also included some silly mini-games on its disc.||PS1|
|Ibara Kuro Black Label||A revision of the original Ibara, this one allows you to select the character and ships as well as change your equipped weapons on the fly. The best addition, however, is the rank bar which allows you to watch the game's rank, allowing you to adjust your tactics accordingly.||Arcade|
|Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony||A recently-released indie vertizontal with fairly good gameplay (with many difficulty levels), an entertaining story, and co-op multiplayer. Fantastic music as well. Unfortunately, it's local-only multiplayer.||PC|
|Judgement Silversword -Rebirth Edition-||Essentially a score attack and time trial (“caravan”) game. You have a togglable frontal shield that can negate bullets and increase your multiplier if enemies are killed with it. Generous shield recharging allows liberal use while still rewarding aggressive play. Available as a port in the Eschatos release on the 360 alongside its sequel Cardinal Sins.||Wonderswan, Xbox 360|
|Lords of Thunder||MEEETTTAAAAALLLLL!|
So you're some god-knight, right? Now an oppressive empire is pushing your country's collective shit in. Are you gonna stand for that? FUCK NO. Are you gonna morph Ronin Warriors style and slap some shit to metal music? FUCK YEAH YOU ARE. Collect gems and buy power-ups in between levels, which can be tackled in any order. Sega CD version is a LOT EASIER due to how damaging the sword is, some bosses barely finish transforming before they die.
|Sega CD, TG-CD, Wii VC|
|Mushihime-sama Futari||It's a triumph in modern gaming when the most challenging shmup in existence is also the most accessible one. Features an array of difficulties: Original (standard game with fast bullets and a rank system that gradually increases bullet velocity), Maniac (more emphasis on scoring with slower, dense patterns) and the infamous Ultra mode (fast, dense patterns). You will have a lot of fun on Original and Maniac modes, as there is nothing quite like getting into the rhythm of its complex chaining/scoring system. Put simply: this game is gorgeous on all fronts. Region free, so pick this one up!||Arcade, Xbox 360|
|Sentimental Shooting||You like hentai girls? Well, now you can shoot down spaceships while trying to undress beautiful girls on the background. During the first phase you have to destroy the 100% of her dress to get to the second phase when you have to beat a boss and destroy the last parts to get the nudity. Hilarious and sexy at the same time. Also easy level it's not that bad for a starter to the genre who don't want immediatly fast-paced action (especially because you don't have only to survive and destroy enemies, but tear up the dress too before the end of the level).||DOS|
|Shikigami no Shiro II||Probably the best entry in the series, the game encourages grazing by powering up your attacks. Thankfully shot patterns are usually dense and slow enough to allow players to maneuver through them. The PS2 version was released in english, featuring one of the most hilariously atrocious localizations ever!||Arcade, Dreamcast, PS2, PC|
|Soldier Blade||Last in Hudson's Star Soldier series. Soldier Blade is fast and frenetic from start to finish, with some impressive graphics that pushed the TG-16 to its limit. Weapon power-ups now come in the form of pods and can be sacrificed as high powered weapons. Much like the rest of the series you can take multiple hits so long as you're powered up. Great electronic soundtrack to top off the absolute best shmup on the TurboGrafx-16.||TG-16|
|Super Aleste / Space Megaforce||Another good entry point for the Aleste series. You can switch between eight different weapons, which all have a function you can manipulate with the Shot Control button. Your weapon power acts as your health, and you'll only go boom if you're hit with 0 power. Usually you respawn from checkpoints, but certain items give you special lives that let you respawn without losing progress. It doesn't take an enormous effort to beat on Normal mode without continuing, and there's four harder modes to try if you want more challenge. Not enough time for a full game? No problem! The Short Game's only four levels long, and jam-packed with power-ups.||SNES|
|Thunder Force III||Thunder Force III is a refined, action-packed experience with impressive visuals (for its time) and a fuckawesome soundtrack. It's one of the easier installments due to weapon variety and how generously extra lives are doled out. Spawned two slightly modified versions: Thunder Force AC and Thunder Spirits on the Arcade and Super Nintendo, respectively.||Genesis, Saturn (Gold Pack)|
|Thunder Force V||Technosoft making their mark on the 32-bit consoles with Thunder Force's first 3D title. Has a lot of awesome boss fights where they morph as you're fighting them. A bit easier than III but only due to the imbalanced Free Range Laser which can decimate ANYTHING.||PS1, Saturn|
|Touhou 6: the Embodiment of Scarlet Devil.||If you ever used Youtube, chances are you have probably bumped into Touhou without even knowing. Touhou 06 was the first game on the Windows platform. It improved over its PC-98 predecessors (although past titles experimented with unique gameplay gimmicks) by introducing automatic power-up collecting and adding Spell Cards (phases with a unique bullet pattern) to bosses. Very relaxed pacing on lower difficulty settings that serves as a nice starting point for danmaku. Please excuse the bad art, even the creator is aware of how bad they are.||PC|
|Touhou 8: Imperishable Night||Takes a much darker tone instead of the flowers, funshine and happiness seen in previous releases and introduces a clock and phantom system. Collecting time points is tied to your human-yōkai orientation gauged through a phantom meter, which is pretty intricate in and of itself. Adds some new spell cards to collect called “Last Words” that are more or less bonus rounds should you meet time objectives. Because of the relaxed penalties of this game, it's often considered an entry-level title for beginners.||PC|
|Twinkle Star Sprites||Much like Phantasmagoria of Flower View, this game is for the multiplayer-minded sort. Successive chaining of enemies throws shit onto the second player's screen until one of you dies. Very cutesy with an easy single-player campaign.||Arcade, PS2,|
Neo Geo CD
|Zanac X Zanac||Two games, one disc - typical Compile! Includes the original Zanac, a pretty goddamn amazing title on the NES/MSX, which is crisply emulated. It introduced an AI system that varies the enemy hordes in relation to your weapon use, forcing you to adapt to new enemy patterns on the fly. In addition to Zanac you get Zanac Neo, an upgraded version of the original which adds tons of new stuff: several playable ships, chargeable weapons and two-player support.||PS1, Wii VC|
- http://www.shmups.com/ - THE Shmup Database! Tons of reviews and coverage across all platforms
- http://shmups.system11.org/index.php - One of the biggest forums dedicated to shmups
- http://shmups.system11.org/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=9665 - The Unofficial Shmup Glossary
- http://www.super-play.co.uk/ - Repository of replays from professional players (“superplays”)
- http://www.world-of-arcades.net/ - Fantastic tribute site for a few big name developers (Cave, 8ing/Raizing, Psikyo), with lots of assorted information and images
- http://www.sk8tokyo.com/shmup/ - Doujin shmup emporium, purchase the latest software straight from Tokyo (shipped internationally)