A Brief Definition and History
Shmup is an acronym that stands for shoot em' up. It's a genre of games that has been around since very roots of gaming, and its golden era was in the late 70s-90s. Games and series like Space Invaders, Gradius, R-Type, Darius, and the Thunder Force mark just a few of the famous shmups that kicked off or perpetuated the genre.
Unlike a game like Contra or Metal Slug where the player controls a terrestrial being with platforming and side-scrolling elements, shmups generally see the player controlling a spaceship or aerial being of some sort. The focus is much more on the action and the player's reflexes instead of platforming or a lot of complex level hazards–though some shmups do incorporate that too.
Shmups were popular in the arcades. Games like Galaga, Xevious, and Space Harrier dominated them during the late 70s through the 80s. It was a time of great innovation in the genre. Rail shooters, tube shooters, cute shooters, and shooters with distinct levels all emerged; any older gamer will probably recall seeing and/or playing these games, especially avid arcade goers.
It wasn't long before shmups began picking up traction on the home consoles. The NES and Sega Master System (Mark III) boasted a lot of great shmups like Phantasy Zone, R-Type, and Gun Hed etc. Then the 16-bit era flew in, and the enhanced visuals and ability to flood the screen with more stuff brought in faster and more intense shooters. The 90s continued with bullet hells (Donmaku) like Donpachi and Ikaruga, niche at the time, but they later became cult favorites.
After the 1990s, and seemingly especially with the death of the Sega Dreamcast, shmups seemed to become (and had actually already largely been) a Japanese genre. Western shmups came out at a snail's pace. Sure some consoles like the PS2 and Xbox 360 brought along some really cool titles, but the genre seemed to be stuck somewhere in a past gaming epoch and largely incompatible with the direction of modernity in the gaming market.
That was until the PS4 and Nintendo Switch came around.
The PS4 is home to many great shmups, and many newly created ones at that. Games like Raiden V, Resogun, Ghost Blade HD, and Caladrius Blaze are just a portion of cool shmups that Sony's latest console offers. The PS4 provides a lot of remade classics, but it's really cool to see modern innovations such as the 18th century steampunk Jamestown or civilian saving focused Resogun.
The Nintendo Switch has been a little criticized for not offering a lot of retro games, and while this is true specifically of Nintendo releases, there is a wide array of classics on the eShop. One genre that has flourished is indeed shmups, Zerodiv has brought a lot of classics, especially from original developer Psiyko. games like Gunbird and Strikers 1945 allow players to return to classic shmups that barely had recognition in the west. It's great to see Neo Geo shmups like Blazing Star and Last resort, and it's great that you can add credits for free with any Neo Geo titles.
Steam and PC players have a ton of options as well, and it seems like there are new or old shmups coming out every month. The best part is that these games are usually very affordable. Most of these games, unless brand new (for that console) only cost about $8-$20 dollars. It's an amazing opportunity for players to get back into the genre and allow it to blossom again in the west. The success of these games encourages developers to bring back other shmups as well as put time into creating new ones and advancing the genre.
Most shmups are 2D or at the most 2.5D. 3D shmups don't really work, maybe except for rail shooters, and it causes a mish-mash of genres anyway. Because many indie companies are small and have less money, making 2D games is often ideal. It also seems like indie developers are often in the age group where they want to bring back the style of the 80s and 90s games without the annoyances and tedium that some of those games originally possessed (I am sure you all remember re-spawning enemies and having to memorize levels by dying countless times).
In fact, you are already seeing indie developers jump on shmups and do cool things with them. Graceful Explosion Machine is a personal favorite shmup of mine, and I adored the bright colors and tactical weaponry. You can't just blast everything on screen; you need to think about what weapon will best defeat a foe and free you from vast hordes of enemies. Super Hydora was a great return to 1980s shmups like Gradius, and the branching levels were really fun. Games like Drifting Lands tried to add in an integral plot and RPG elements like experience to upgrade your ship. Still yet, a game like Monolith (another 2017 game I loved) even made a dungeon crawler shmup.
Indie developers may be the future of the genre since very few AAA developers are putting their stakes into shmups, but they are alive and well, and indie developers are truly doing a great job of reviving one of gaming's most enduring genres.
My History with SHMUPS
I was very late to the shmup party. I played games like Space Invaders, R-Type, and Centipede as a child, but I didn't really know anything about the genre as a whole. I remember Thunder Force V being a huge deal, but childhood me quickly put it back down to jump back into platforming and role-playing action. It wasn't that I didn't enjoy the genre; the high difficulty and having to die over and over to make progress just didn't fit with my gaming pallet, and none of my friends at that time really played these games.
It's sad to say, but it wasn't really until the last few years, being in my mid-late 20s, that I really decided to foray back into the crazy world of shmups. Modern games like Resogun and Graceful Explosion Machine blew my mind and made me wonder what else there was. After all, these games were innovative, not intimidatingly difficult, and still gave me that adrenaline rush that the older games once gave me.
Now I have a few great Sega Saturn shmups and have downloaded a handful of the PS4 and Nintendo Switch shmups available. Having a friend to play with, whether handing off the controller or playing local multiplayer, makes shmups so much more fun.
It goes without saying that shmups are action-packed. You generally jump right into the action, and there are very few pauses between then and when you stop playing. New enemies constantly appear, and getting hit is almost always very costly. I actually prefer it when shmups do not give you unlimited continues because it forces you to get better and better. Before you know it, you can polish off the first couple levels while barely taking a hit.
It should be noted that most shmups don't have HP (hit points). It's usually one hit and you're dead. Some games allow you to change difficulty, and some have lives per continue and multiple continues, but this all varies between games. Look at Ikaruga: Ikaruga offers no continues–unless you tweak the stats and don't play for points–and only allows you to get hit three times. Players who want to invest in Ikaruga will have to become masters at dodging bullets, potentially at the expense of higher scores.
Shmups vary in what weaponry they offer. Games like Blazing Star have no real extra gadgets, you can charge your main weapon and collect upgrades to make it stronger, but there are no bombs, changing out weapons, or any defensive items. Other games like Radiant Silvergun map out your buttons so you can use 3-5 different weapons to take out enemies more efficiently.
Lastly, resolution and aspect ratios have convoluted shmups. A lot of the older titles were on older TVs with different aspect ratios, and this means that a lot of the remakes, and even some of the older games, utilize wide screen mode instead of utilizing the entire TV screen. This is especially true of vertical shooters where the player is moving up towards the enemies.
TATE mode is one answer to this annoying little issue in a lot of older games. It allows you to literally flip your TV monitor and play the game as if it were a horizontal shmup with a wider screen. Even without the dilemma of widescreen, shmups are pretty much all horizontal or vertical with the exception of certain genres (rail shooters, tube shooters etc.). This will bother some players far more than others, but you get used to the more narrow screen surprisingly quickly.
Why SHMUPS are Awesome
Action action action! SHMUPS are all about the action. Actually, there is more to it than that. Shmups really do leave you constantly on the edge of your seat and hit your neurons with an adrenaline hammer the size of a hostile planet. This action is what makes shmups so fun, but there is a fair amount going on under the surface, and a lot of smaller contributors add to the adrenaline and fun.
First off is the atmosphere. SHMUPS are generally pretty beautiful games, and they generally take place in very intense locales outside of Earth. You may see stars, planets, water, desert, snow, alien labs etc. Think of R-Type: that level design was so detailed and totally inspired by the Alien movie franchise. With all these impressive and vast atmospheres, levels are swirling with colors, and each level sits in sharp contrast with the last. Most shmups are 2D, so even the older shmups hold up surprisingly well.
The music is usually fast-paced and anthemic. You will be more excited than Rocky before a fight; don't believe me? Go give the first level of M.U.S.H.A a go. The raging guitars, pulsing rhythms, and scarily loud explosions are enough to get anyone amped and terrify your neighbors or relatives into thinking WWIII is starting.
The controls in a shmup are usually very straightforward. You can always move around, and in most cases, you only need about two other buttons to fire or use a bomb. Some shmups use more, but for the most part, the controls are accessible to anyone.
Lastly, the gameplay itself is what makes a great shmup truly stand out. It's you vs. the hostile universe, no backup, barely any breathers, and your reflexes and immediate decision making will constantly be put to the test. Stuff like knowing when you can't escape and when to use a bomb, or what part of the screen is safe to fly on will constantly be spinning in your mind. It's exciting, crushing when you are defeated, and amazing when you beat a level without taking a hit and progress to a new stage. As long as they are well made, even the hardest shmups will have you coming back over and over again for another go.
It's about high scores, making it further than your previous run, beating a game with a friend, and a lot more. It's fun to pass off controllers, and many shmups are co-op, some even competitive. There is a lot of replay value in these games, and it will generally take a surprising amount of tries to finally beat the 5-10 levels available in the game.
I wrote this because of all the great shmups I have played over the last few years and months, but remember, I am continuing my journey through a genre loaded with great games that range from 30 years old to 30 days old, under $10 to over $200 dollars and with great games that expand over many consoles.
Nevertheless, now that I have played a number of great shmups (still many I have yet to play) I will recommend 5 favorites that are all a little different from each other.
1. Blazing Star
Platform: Neo Geo CD/Nintendo Switch
I love this game. It originally came out for the Neo-Geo CD, but you can easily purchase it on Nintendo Switch for just $7.99. It's my current favorite shmup on the console. It's a 2D horizontal shmup that keeps things simple and fun.
You only have one gun, no bombs or secondary weapons, but that weapon can be powered up and charged (think Mega Man blaster). The controls are smooth and fast, the level design really beautiful–it took full advantage of the Neo Geo's beautiful sprite powers–and the soundtrack rocks. This is a great entry level shmup, and I still have yet to beat the fourth stage of the game.
This game excels in all areas except voice overs. Those English voice overs are annoying and the text is littered with typos; however, none of this matters in the presence of such flawless gameplay. With such an affordable price tag, there is little reason to pass on this game.
2. Star Parodier
Platform: PC Engine CD/
I apologize in advance; this game can only be found on the PC Engine CD (as far as I know). If you've never heard of this device, it's a fascinating little console that did great in Japan, but it absolutely flopped in the west under the alias TurboGrafx-16.
I had to include it because this game is just way too much fun. A huge shmup-nerd friend of mine owns this game, and he made me play. It's technically a "cute em' up" game, and the player can even play as Bomberman or a PC Engine console. The art is really beautiful, and it feels like a whacky cartoon. Enemies are adorable, and the gameplay is addicting and simple. It begins very easy, but holy spaceship, the difficulty spikes pretty hard about halfway through the game.
I cannot tout this game enough. It's adorable, fun, and easy to play, unfortunately, just very inaccessible to most audiences. It was fun enough for me to consider buying a PC Engine console or running the CD on my PC, so if you can find a way to play, this is as fantastic and charming as shmups get.
This was considered one of the elite PS4 games when I first got my PS4 in early 2015. It's a vertical shooter that only has five levels but a ton of depth within them. There are hordes of enemies, civilians to save for upgrades, and the soundtrack is electrifying. You go around a tubular city in this game, and despite the somewhat basic design, the colors and graphics show off some of the best 21st-century arcade style visuals I have seen.
What makes Resogun great is the premise and controls in the game. You need to defeat all the enemies, but not saving civilians by flying them to safety also hurts you, and helping them can fetch nice rewards. This game has a handy dash feature which allows you to fly through enemies in hyperspeed for a short distance. it allows you to evade or get to civilians in time. Everything is blazing fast, and the play area is huge compared to most shmups.
I was surprised at how much time I sunk into this seemingly small game. The fast-paced gameplay will leave you coming back for more to see if you can beat the game on harder difficulties.
Platform: Arcade, Android, PSX etc.
R-Type is an absolute classic in the shmup genre. It's true to the 80s style of shooter, yet in my opinion, it rises above the competition. The controls may seem slower than a lot of modern shmups, and the difficulty is insane, but the levels reward patience and remembering enemy positioning.
This game has come out for countless consoles, but unfortunately, it doesn't currently exist on any new platforms except mobile. This game has very dark aesthetics that will immediately remind players of the Alien movie franchise. The harrowing music and bizarre enemies also lend themselves to the freaky atmosphere.
Most importantly is the implement of a floating orb that accompanies your ship. You can shoot an orb that can attach to the front and back of your ship and add fire. It can also fire on its own if you detach it. Using this orb and positioning it correctly is key to surviving, and no other shmup has really utilized this variant on the gameplay.
R-Type is challenging and can be downright frustrating; expect to die a lot. The gameplay is still rock-solid though, and this game has one mean soundtrack and environment that will freak out even veteran players. It's an old essential in any shmup fan's library.
5. Soukyugurentai/Terra Diver
Platform: Sega Saturn
Anyone who knows me knows that I adore Sega's forgotten console, and the Sega Saturn arguably has the best library of shmups ever to grace a home console. These range from cheap to hundreds of dollars. Soukyugurentai was an early shmup on the console that never saw a release outside of Japan. It also costs around $50 online, which adds to the difficulty of finding it.
I love this game, and as of now, it's my favorite Saturn shmup. It uses some 3D style backgrounds which look great once you get used to them, and the game features a lock-on mechanic, allowing you to take out multiple hostiles in one shot. You get bombs and limited continues.
I love this game because of the challenge and strategy; the more I play, the better I get, but stuff like locking on and using/not using a bomb all have immediate repercussions and lessons. This game has gorgeous backgrounds, and it comes with a great soundtrack. Stage 3 is one of the greatest shmup stages ever bar none. It's very playable and fun, and the difficulty will leave you coming back for more without maiming your ego.