Bullets, bullets everywhere…that’s the name of the game when it comes to shmups. Here are a few favorites.
The best genre
One of my favorite genres of video games are arcade shoot ‘em ups, otherwise known as “shmups”. Games like Space Invaders and Gradius are classic shmup titles that you’ve probably played at some point. Shmups to me represent some of the best challenge in video games. While shmups vary in terms of design and theme, most of them are just straight up shooting and surviving. Dodge bullets, collect power-ups, defeat bosses…the usual stuff, just extremely hard and brutal. And to be honest, I like the punishment. Playing the same level over and over again might sound dull (and it can be) but in many ways that’s the only way you’ll ever be good at a game. It’s incredibly rewarding watching your skill and score increase after an hour session play.
If you throw a shmup in front of me, I’ll play it. I’ve played a lot of them, good and bad. I’ve played classics, played imports, indies and big budget titles. Just give me an arcade joystick and I can play for hours attempting to master the craft. That being said, there’s a small handful of titles I always go back to – even after burning out – that have come to represent to me some of the best shmupping available.
Let me please be clear that this list represents the games I like to play most often, not the titles that are significant to the history and evolution of shmups or even gaming at large. Space Invaders might be the mother of shmups, but I really don’t like playing it. If I was stuck on an island and was only allowed to pick five shmups to keep me busy for the rest of my days, these are them (in no particular order).
Gyruss was one of the first shmups I played growing up. I dined on the NES version although the original arcade version is nothing to sneeze. I didn’t realize at the time but Gyruss presented a very different way to experience shooters, that being in a circle. Instead of flying up the screen or across it, in Gyruss you slide around orbiting the center of the screen, shooting bad guys as they emerged from deep space. Yeah, Tempest predates Gyruss by a couple years and also uses the “tube shooter” style but Gyruss is just a lot more fun (and it has much better music).
Side Arms was the first game where I experience shooting both left and right. I first played this game was on the doomed TurboGrafx 16 at my friends house and was not only blown away by the graphics and sound but the mechanics as well. For the first time I was able to shoot guys the right of me AND to the left of me…of course, this also meant danger came at you from both sides. Side Arms made great use of power-ups that you could build up and also switch at any time…need super spread, not problem. Then need the mega laser for the boss, switch to it and kick ass. Side Arms was as much about weapon management as it was about dodging bullets. And to this day, I have yet to complete Side Arms on the TG-16 or the arcade version. Bucket list.
Okay, so Smash TV is what has become known as an “arena shooter” but I consider it a shmup nonetheless. There’s bullets, bad guys and a whole lot of challenge. More so, Smash TV was the first game where I saw double joysticks come into play. Today we take dual analog joysticks for granted and that alone has made the arena shooter one of the most over-released genres out there…but in the early 90s, Smash TV gave me a new challenge (building on Robotron in the 80s). I saw the game in the arcades but they also released an NES version that required two controllers to play…one controller D-pad controlled your movement, the other controlled your aim. If nothing else, I enjoyed the challenge that was presented in learning the controls! Plus, how can you go wrong when the story of the game is The Running Man?! The NES version is where I cut my teeth, but the arcade version is far superior (although this game has been ported to just about every console).
Ikaruga comes from what I call the “modern shmup” in that it’s big, beautiful and incredibly challenging – it could very well be the toughest shmup you can pick up. Ikaruga is barely a decade old but its impact on shmup fans like myself is undeniable. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to play Ikaruga until it came out on Xbox Live Arcade but it was well worth the wait. Ikaruga uses the seemingly simple mechanic of switch polarity (color) between black and white to destroy your enemies. Sure, you can roll through the game just blasting bad guys left and right, but if you’re looking to be considering anything worth your salt, you have to learn how to use that color switching to maximize your score. And as if learning how to chain your kills wasn’t tough enough, Ikaruga sports some of the hardest levels I’ve ever seen. You’ll be happy to face the impossible boss just to be done with a level.
Dodonpachi represents to me what I see in my head when the word “shmup” comes up in conversation. Dondonpachi is colorful, vivid, fast and has more bullets on the screen at one time than almost any other shmup you’ll play. Compared to titles like Ikaruga and even Side Arms, Dodonpachi might seem “tame” but again, it’s all about scoring, and being good at Dodonpachi isn’t easy. I play Dodonpachi on MAME but you can find lots of different versions out there, including new releases on iOS for the iPhone and iPad. I can understand how some shmups might get old after a while, but Dodonpachi doesn’t fit into that mold. It just keeps mocking you until you take it seriously and fight.
Grab your joysticks and play
There you go. Go try any of those titles and you’re guaranteed to have fun. From the 8-bit to the super-bit, shmups have a great history in video games and there are so many varieties that there is something for everyone, both in challenge and theme. Just don’t blame me when you can’t stop playing.