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
How you can play
Due to their low production costs, ease of development and portability, shooting games are available on every goddamn 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.
You can fuck off if you think I'm listing 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.
Display and Controls
Improving your skill level
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 arcade 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:
|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|
|Espgaluda||One of Cave's easier shooters. You play as fairies that can swap genders and go into Kakusei mode (slow motion). This 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?||Arcade, NES, MSX, PS1, Saturn, TG-16, Wii VC, PSN|
|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|
|Thunder Force III||The Thunder Force series is quite similar to R-Type in design in that it requires a lot of memorizing stages. 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 can look past the poorly drawn characters and convoluted annie-may wankfest of a plot you're entreated to an actually refined shooter. Touhou 06 was the first game on the Windows platform. It improved over its PC-98 predecessors 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.||PC|
Perfect Cherry Blossom
|CHERRIES! Patterns get prettier, music is more catchy; this shit is amazing! Adds a “Cherry Gauge” that gives a shield at set intervals, increases the collected point values the higher it gets, and turns red power-ups into cherries in Full Power Mode. In addition to the Cherry Gauge there's a new playable character, Sakuya the maid (from Touhou 6).||PC|
|Touhou 8: Imperishable Night||The pinnacle of the Touhou series. 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.||PC|
|Touhou 9: Phantasmagoria of Flower View||If you have someone to play with or want to challenge another player online, this game's for you. Certain levels of your charged weapon, when used, throw tons of bullets or even bosses onto the enemy's screen. Gets real hectic quite fast. Battling against computer AI isn't recommended as even on normal settings their dodge patterns are superhuman until a death occurs, which branches into artificial difficulty.||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)