If you’re familiar with the world of videogames at all, you should know of the shmup (short for Shoot ‘Em Up) genre. Out of all gameplay loops out there, it’s one of the simplest and most satisfying: shoot a lot of bullets while dodging even more of them. It’s a vast and varied genre, from a time when all that was needed to have fun was some quarters and to hold the fire button. It’s also a genre I grew up playing — one that took more coins from me than school bullies — and one of my absolute favorites, right up there with RTS. This blog is my love letter to them. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
The history of the shmup genre is one that is intertwined with the history of gaming itself. As one of the oldest (if not, the oldest) genres of gaming, it has evolved into all sorts of forms, that all share the same beating heart: it’s you against the world, so shoot everything! It’s their defying trait, the core of its gameplay loop that, despite the changes in place and time, stands as the connecting thread that gives the genre its instantly identifiable identity. As with everything related to the early history of gaming, not everything is documented and there are some points of contention, but the generally accepted place to start is in 1962, with the release of “Spacewar!” for the first user-oriented computer, the PDP-1. In this game for two players, each person controls a ship, and they try to shoot down the other, managing fuel, ammo, and the gravity of the star in the center of the screen. Far from what we define as a shmup (more like a tech demo really) but it shows how old the idea of shooting things in space really is.
That was the original spark, but the fire wouldn’t ignite until some 16 years have passed. Let’s jump forward to 1978, the start of the Golden Age of Arcades. These machines were taking the world by storm, and leading that charge was a little game by the name of Space Invaders. This is where the traits that would later define the genre start to appear. A single ship (ok it was a cannon but you get the idea) against a horde of aliens? Check. Saving high scores thus encouraging competition? Check. A top-down view camera with movement locked to a 2D plane? You bet your coins it checks out! Enemies that shoot back, the concept of lives, and that “thump thump” sound that I tentatively call a soundtrack, Space Invaders might not impress as it did back then, but it did set the template. I also find it funny how technological limitations also helped to define the genre: the game is set in space because it was the only background that the hardware could handle, and you shot aliens because of Taito’s moral concerns. With Space Invaders, the first sub-genre of shmup was born: the fixed shooter, games whose levels could fit on a single screen and movement were very restricted.
It’s important to note that while Space Invaders popularized these concepts (and went on to become one of the most influential games of all time), it didn’t come up with all of them by itself. It was just the first to successfully combine them to make one addictive game. Other games before it already exhibited some of its traits: 1976’s Sea Wolf has a similar layout to Space Invaders, but it was all about getting the highest score by shooting down ships that did not shoot back. 1977’s Depth Charge was about destroying submarines with (you guessed it) depth charges, only this time, the enemy does shoot back. In ‘77, Atari’s Destroyer had a similar premise to Depth Charge, but you couldn’t control the ship, nor did enemies fight back. Instead, you just control the depth at which the charges detonate. In ‘77, Guided Missile had a premise similar to Destroyer, but this time you guided a missile and controlled its landing (I miss descriptive titles like these). Lastly, in ‘77, there was M-79 Ambush, which again, was about shooting enemies that didn’t fight back.
If you think of Space Invaders as a tree, these games would be the roots. And like every tree, the branches were about to fork.
The next four years would be one of slow but steady progress, with games iterating on the template set by Space Invaders while adding their own twists. That same year, Atari released a little-known game by the name of Sky Raider. In it, you were in charge of a bomber plane and had to use a crosshair to drop bombs on top of targets. It doesn’t look like a shmup at first (in fact, it’s more akin to Modern Warfare’s Death From Above, the AC-130 mission) but it did have the first instance of a scrolling background, something that is hard to imagine a modern shmup without! Aside from that, Sky Raider looks to me more like a prototype rail shooter than anything else.
The honor of being the first true scrolling shmup goes to Midway’s Phantom 2, released in 1979. There isn’t much to say about it, it’s still very primitive stuff, but it's there nonetheless. Another important title of ‘79 was Namco’s Galaxian, known for taking the simplistic visuals of Space Invaders and filling it with personality, with colorful enemies and distinct attack patterns depending on the enemy, the first of its kind for the genre. It goes without saying, but that change added a layer of strategy that wasn’t really present in other titles before it. Also worthy of mention is Ozma Wars, SNK’s debut shmup, that combined elements from vertical scrolling shmups with an energy meter that effectively acted as a life bar. It would be extremely remiss of me to end the year of ‘79 and not to mention Asteroids. Yet another game that hardly needs an introduction, so I’ll just move on. Last and not so least, there was Nintendo’s Sheriff, a run ‘n gun title that had the novel idea of using two sticks, one for movement and one for shooting, paving the way for twin-stick shooters many, many years into the future. Fun fact: it was designed by Shigeru Miyamoto himself.
With that, we jump ahead a little, to 1980, the year that marked the beginning of the Golden Age of Shmups! This was a period of extreme innovation, one that left an enormous mark in gaming history, and not by coincidence, its story is also deeply intertwined with that of the Golden Age of Arcades. The genre was extremely popular, and it was only going up from there.
Let’s start with September 1980. That month, Nintendo released Heli Fire. This one combined the vertical orientation of Space Invaders with a horizontal scrolling that went from right to left, unlike every other fixed shooter so far. Unlike Space Invaders, you could move up and down in order to dodge projectiles oncoming from the sides as well as from above. Not that you could go very far, you control a submarine after all. Later in October, we saw the release of another SNK title, this time for the Neo Geo, called Sasuke Vs Commando. One of the first titles to feature the use of bosses, and also one of the first to feature a human (in this case, a ninja) instead of a spaceship.
Another Nintendo release worthy of note was Radar Scope, released in December that same year, for being the first shmup to allow multiple shots on screen at the same time. It also had an interesting system where you had to defeat the enemy before they destroyed the space station you were defending. One last game worth mentioning was Universal’s Zero Hour. It was simple but fairly difficult, and it was the first game to allow you to move practically anywhere on the screen.
1981 would prove to be a valuable year for the genre. Up until this point, shmups fell primarily in the fixed shooter category. But that was about to change in February that year, with the release of not one, but two different titles that literally turned the genre on its side! William’s Defender and Konami’s Scramble!
Let’s start with Defender. Unlike the rest of its brethren, this shmup was oriented horizontally rather than vertically, offering the first true scrolling shmup we know of, removing all limitations that a single screen had. Not only that, but you could actually move in either direction. It was a fairly complex game (using an unusual layout of 5 buttons. But 2 of them were used for ascending and descending, so really, it only had 3 buttons), where you had to destroy the aliens (obviously) while protecting some astronauts on the planet’s surface. It also featured a mini-map system that reminds me of a lot of the one in Odin Sphere. A map that was very necessary: enemies could abduct the astronauts off-screen, and having an idea of what was happening was essential. As if the game wasn’t unique enough, this was the first shmup to feature the smart bomb feature, a special item that clears the screen of enemies and projectiles. Talk about innovating!
Scramble, on the other hand, resembles the idea of side-scrolling we have today a lot more than Defender. The game scrolls automatically and tasks you with navigating a landscape — that, unlike the one in the previous game, you could collide with and die — dropping bombs on ground targets and deadly lasers on enemy ships, probably the first instance of multiple weapon systems. All of that while watching their own fuel meter. Unlike Defender, this one had the smart idea of letting you go up or down with the d-pad. Scramble was also the first shmup to feature multiple, distinct levels. Six of them, in fact. While simple and straightforward, Scramble would pave the path for a game much, much bigger than itself.
With both of these titles, the side-scrolling subgenre was officially born. It would still take a while before they took off (pun very much intended), but this subgenre would house some of the biggest names in shmup history. It was only a matter of time. Despite this revolution, the world was still enamored with fixed shooters. So much so that in September 1981, Namco would release one of the most famous shmups of all time: Galaga. Building upon the foundation of its predecessor Galaxian, Galaga is just overall a much better game, with better graphics and better sound design. It became the first known appearance of bonus stages as well as the first appearance of power-ups, by allowing you to rescue a captured ship that would then join you, doubling your firepower — even though Nichibutsu’s Moon Cresta allowed for something similar in July of that same year, Galaga overshadowed it so hard people tend to forget its existence.
Meanwhile, the world continued to witness the birth of new subgenres of shmups! In October that year, we saw the first example of a rare breed of tube shooters, with Atari’s Tempest. This one was all about moving between interconnected walls while shooting anything going in the opposite direction. One of the first instances of 3D in shmups, thanks to its vector graphics and also the first game to have a selectable level of difficulty. It’s the tube shooter template and, funny enough, went on to also inspire future rail shooters.
Although 1981’s importance for the genre cannot be overstated, that year was merely the calm before the storm. Up until this point, in one way or another, games were still bound by the template set by Space Invaders. But not for long. The shmup genre was about to break that mold spectacularly!
1982 started strong for the genre! Not even a day into that year, SEGA released Zaxxon on January 1st, giving us the very first isometric shmup! This was a game-changer! You had to dodge bullets, missiles, and the terrain itself while managing your fuel and making sure you’re at the right altitude to do all of that! And those graphics! There’s a feeling of depth never seen before in this game’s art, and I can only imagine how many minds were blown by it!
Later in November, we also got Robotron 2084, a twin-stick shmup that evolved Sheriff’s concept with adding a crap ton of enemies and bullets to the screen! Also in November, Taito released Front Line, widely considered to be the game that paved the way for the military-themed run ‘n gun genre. Instead of spaceships, you had soldiers running through mud and throwing grenades at their enemies, eventually engaging in tank warfare — traits that have come to define this subgenre. All these small improvements culminated in the game that became the codifier for the modern shmup: Namco’s Xevious in January 1983.
If you were to play Xevious today, the experience would feel old, but all too familiar. That is because this game codified so many elements of modern shmup that still feels familiar enough to even the most casual fan of the genre. Xevious was the first to have not only a scrolling background but also a scrolling field, depicting beautiful and detailed landscapes that looked realistic (since the game does take place on Earth), instead of the usual starfield aesthetic that was so common at the time. It also defined key elements in the gameplay as well! The game had a dual-layer setup that clearly defined enemies in the “air” and on the “ground”, and each required a different weapon to take down (lasers for the air and bombs for the ground). The AI would actively try to exploit weaknesses in your play style, enemies had unique behavior, there are secrets to uncover by shooting certain parts of the terrain, and each level ends with a mothership boss with a weak spot on the core. Sure as hell sounds familiar eh?
But perhaps the most notable part of Xevious legacy, is how it exploded outside the game as well. It received spin-offs and various re-releases throughout the years. It also inspired merchandise that ranged from musical remixes to a CGI film. There was even a three-part novel released in 1991 that detailed characters, backstory, and events! All of this makes Xevious the “father” of the vertical scrolling genre, and its legacy still lasts to this day.
Now, if you know anything about videogames, you will remember that ‘83 was when the industry fell apart and almost didn’t recover. Naturally, arcades were hugely affected by this, something that explains why some titles from this year went unnoticed. One of them was Seibu Denshi’s Stinger, a horizontal shmup with a vertical orientation that was surprisingly chaotic, and with an isometric graphical style à la Zaxxon. Another was Konami’s Gyruss, a fixed shooter that played like Galaga if Galaga was a tube shooter. It had an amazing soundtrack for the time, something explained by the fact it was just an electronic version of motherfucking J.S Bach’s “Toccata And Fugue In D Minor”. In particular, it sounded like the “Toccata” rock arrange from the instrumentalist group Sky.
The last game I’d like to mention from this year was the very first installment in Technosoft’s Thunder Force series, which at this point was a free-roaming shmup instead of the horizontal-scrolling goodness we know and love today. This game wasn’t released for arcades, releasing on the Sharp X1 computer instead, with ports to other PCs later down the line. While this installment is relatively unknown here in the West, its success in Japan was enough to guarantee multiple sequels.
The Crash of ‘83 ended the Golden Age of Arcades, but not the Golden Age of Shmups. The genre still had plenty of fuel to burn. In fact, the fall only seemed to make it stronger. With the release of Xevious, the shmups and its subgenres were well-defined, and the next years would see the rise of some of the most legendary examples of the genre, not necessarily because of their mechanical innovations (though that was still present) but the sheer variety of “flavors” if you will.
The first of these titles and the “least memorable” is Capcom’s 1942, the first entry in the 19XX series (and fun fact, the first Capcom game to spawn a sequel). Released in 1984, these WWII themed shmups put you in control of a Lockheed P-38 Lightning against the entire Japanese fleet. You’ll shoot, perform loops to dodge fire and grab power-ups for increased firepower. It’s standard shmup action, and probably the second most influential setting for the genre, the first one being, of course, space sci-fi. There was also Super Xevious, which was exactly what it says on the tin: a harder version of Xevious for veterans. Not much more to add.
So remember when I said Scramble paved the way for something bigger than itself? That “something” finally arrived in May 1985, when Konami released the iconic Gradius! It shares many similarities with Scramble (which makes sense, since this was originally its sequel): both are side-scrolling games, both have a bomb attack they can drop to hit targets below, and both use a checkpoint system. But Gradius evolved to take a form of its own, and in the process changed the history of the genre yet again. It’s widely known for its unique weapon system: rather than collecting specific power-ups, what you collect works more like a “currency” that fills the bar at the bottom of the screen. Once the desired upgrade is highlighted, you can then “cash in” to acquire it. It gave you the freedom to strategize like never before, and it’s a staple of the series. Gradius also introduced the concept of pods (called Options), that mimic your ship’s movement and firepower. All of that, coupled with its distinguished aesthetic, made both the game (and its ship, Vic Viper) one of the most recognizable games ever made. Oh, and it also introduced the Konami code. That’s kinda important too.
At this point in time, the genre was influenced by either two things: anime (more specifically of the Space Battleship Yamato variety) or the brutal and gritty reality of WWII, that unsurprisingly resulted in not so realistic games. One day, someone at Konami asked themselves: what if we did Xevious, but it was a cartoon? The answer came in the form of TwinBee, released in March that year for the Arcades. The game took all of that serious sci-fi vibe and turned into a lovely episode of a Saturday morning cartoon, broadening the genre’s appeal and creating the archetype of the aptly named cute ‘em up.
In October of that year, we got Tiger Heli, and this one is important for two reasons: it was the first shmup from developer Toaplan (remember that name) and was the first to introduce the Megabomb: they wreck enemies and block bullets. A simple but essential concept. Fast-forward to December, and SEGA was about to change the face of rail shooters with Space Harrier. Its amazing graphics, big sprites, colorfully surreal setting, and tight gameplay were all complemented by a third-person camera, making for a spectacle unheard of at the time. It's a glorious symphony of chaos that remains influential to this day.
In the wake of the overwhelming success of action movie classics such as Rambo, Braddock and Commando, the run ‘n gun subgenre saw a surge in popularity during the year of ‘85. Titles such as Capcom’s Commando (not related to the Schwarzenegger movie) and SNK’s Ikari Warriors in ‘86 (showing just how far back their rivalry goes) defined the traits of this particular breed of vertical run ‘n gun: macho men, big guns, bigger explosions and one or several jungles. I don’t think either of these games played that well, but their contributions cannot be ignored.
The genre would continue to grow tremendously. In March of ‘86, Sega released their own take on the cute ‘em up with Fantasy Zone, which you might recognize as the introduction of one of their first mascots, Opa-Opa. Later in November, Compile released its first shmup: Zanac for the MSX, a game famous for introducing the concept of having a variety of weapon power-ups (seven of them) which could be further upgraded by collecting the same power-up again. There’s a damn good reason for that: similar to Xevious, this game had a unique AI that changed enemy behavior based on things like the level, your offensive capabilities, and even if you are firing a lot or not. If that wasn’t enough, Zanac just loved to push the MSX to its absolute limit, filling the screen with enemies and bullets enough to cause slowdown at times! This wouldn’t be the last time a shmup did that.
1987 proved to be a year full of competition. Developers, both new and established, were competing for a piece of that ever more desirable shmup pie. Konami, not satisfied with helping to define the genre twice, decided to finish the trilogy of their contributions by releasing Contra in February that year, and once again, defining key traits of yet another subgenre. Its rise to fame was thanks to its co-op multiplayer (uncommon at the time), the multidirectional aiming system, the increased mobility given by the ability to jump and crouch, and its balls to the wall, no holds barred hard difficulty! There is a reason this game popularized the Konami code.
Another established developer that wasn’t about to be left behind was Taito, and that year they came swinging with their most recognizable shmup: Darius. This one innovated by being the first shmup to give you a non-linear path to the end (and as such, having multiple endings). It was also the first to only partially power you down upon death. But when people think of this shmup, what they really remember is the visual presentation. Darius was designed to be played in a huge cabinet with three screens, giving you a huge field to play. The size wasn’t its only feature, the game also sports an unmistakable aesthetic, that includes things like robot sharks, robot whales, and robot jellyfishes. And who could forget that iconic announcement: “WARNING! A HUGE BATTLESHIP IS APPROACHING FAST!”.
While not necessarily a newcomer, Irem was a company that was yet to produce a big shmup. They tipped their toes in ‘82 with Moon Patrol (known for introducing parallax scrolling in side-scrollers) but it wasn’t until July of that year that they left a permanent mark in the genre with R-Type. Its detailed background and H.R. Giger-inspired monsters are bound to be burned in the memory of all who played it, and a slew of copycats was sure to follow. Its excruciating difficulty was also notable. More than anything else, R-Type required planning and memorization to succeed in defeating the alien menace, as well as mastery of its chargeable main shot and the “Force” pod, a deceptively versatile and indispensable tool for your survival that went on to become a staple of the series.
Rounding up the year of ‘87 was Sega again, with a title that for all of its importance, people tend to not include it when talking about the shmup genre: After Burner, also released in July of ‘87. People tend to call it a combat simulator, but in my eyes, it’s a rail shooter and a damn good one at that! Controlling that F-14 Tomcat plane and going to town on other jets could make you feel like an ace in the skies. It’s yet another Sega property that is highly referenced to this day.
The shmup genre ended the rest of the 80s without further innovations, but still full of great games. Toaplan was particularly busy, releasing Twin Cobra in ‘87, notable for the addition of power-ups that changed colors, allowing you to choose which weapon to collect. Truxton (Tatsujin in Japan) in ‘88, defined the art style of their shmups going forward, and in ‘89 they released Zero Wing, a game that would eventually become one of the greatest memes of our time. TechnoSoft’s Thunder Force became a side-scroller with its second installment and went on to become one of the defining series of the Sega Genesis, proving why that console had the superior soundchip. Seibu Denshi changed its name to Seibu Kaihatsu and released yet another shmup that went under the radar: Air Raid. It had an interesting power-up system and a cute little red fighter as the main ship. One that would soon be reborn into the legendary shmup we know today as Raiden.
By the 90s, the shmup conventions were well established, and the genre was at the peak of its popularity. It was a period marked by mostly sequels (Raiden alone got six before the turn of the millennium if you count the spin-offs), with the occasional hit from established developers: Summer Carnival’92: Recca (Recca92 for the intimate) was a game that pushed the NES to its absolute limit —and it is considered one of the hardest games of all time, even by shmup standards. It was developed with competition in mind, so I guess that's to be expected— Konami released Parodious da!, elevating cute ‘em ups to a new level, Taito gave us the brilliant Rayforce, which took the foundation of Xevious and amped every single dial up to 12, Psykio’s Gunbird featured a cute manga art style and a medieval fantasy setting, Nintendo released the iconic Star Fox, wrongfully teaching a generation what a barrel roll is, and so many more. No matter where you looked, there was a shmup worth playing.
Unfortunately, all good things must end, and the Golden Age of Shmups was no exception. There are a lot of reasons for that, starting with the fact the genre was simply too popular. For every Raiden, there was a mountain of generic or downright awful games, and saturated markets don’t tend to last. At the same time, the market’s shift to console gaming took its toll on the arcades, as well as the emergence of other genres that offered new and innovative experiences that just weren’t possible to have on an arcade cabinet. Speaking from experience, the discovery of RPGs took me away from the arcades, so I can only imagine something similar happened with others. What’s worse, the genre that did remain popular on arcades was the fighting game genre, a lose-lose for me, as I love both genres and hated to see one supplant the other. The final nail in that coffin was when Compile shifted its focus away from shmups (eventually going out of business) and the closure of Toaplan in 1994, prompting many to declare an end to the Golden Age of Shmups.
With the closure of many renowned studios and the abandonment of the genre by others who survived, STGs had rough days ahead. However, they are far too resilient to just sit there and take that blow. Toaplan’s closure ultimately served as a stepping stone, rather than a grave. And from its ashes, four companies rose to carry on its legacy.
The first and most notorious of its sons is CAVE (short for Computer Art Visual Entertainment), a company formed by ex-Toaplan staff that made it their life mission to carry their torch. Before its closure, Toaplan released Batsugun, a shmup that took the nature of the genre to its over-the-top logical conclusion, by filling the screen with so many enemies and so many bullets (half of which are probably yours) that you had walls of lead that needed to be frantically dodged on the fly. CAVE picked up that idea and took it even further beyond with their first game: DonPachi, the codifier for this new genre of shmup: the “bullet hell”, or “danmaku” as it’s known in Japan. Focusing on tight dodges, spectacle, and scoring, this subgenre is one that looks intimidating at first, but concessions such as the consistency of the AI patterns, the huge spread of your guns, and the smaller hitboxes on both your ship and the enemy bullets make the whole thing more forgiving than it actually seems (something that I always enjoyed interpreting as the pilot twisting the ship just the right way to squeeze between bullets).
A second group of former employees joined forces with Raitzing, a company created in ‘93 by former Compile veterans. Both companies would develop something of a sibling rivalry going forward, which resulted in some fantastic titles: 1996’s Battle Garegga was a fantasy WW1 shmup that paid homage to Taito’s Gun Frontier, while Armed Police Batrider gave us the most destructive cops to ever police (and a kickass soundtrack that is unfortunately held back by the lack of real instruments), and it also had guest characters from Mahou Daisakusen and Battle Garegga. That, in turn, prompted CAVE to out-danmaku itself with DoDonPachi, and you think that’s impossible you clearly haven’t been paying attention.
The third company was Takumi Corporation, and out of the four, it was the only one to develop direct sequels to former Toaplan titles. They are most famously associated with Giga Wing, a danmaku so danmaku they literally give you the power to reflect back bullets, cause the patterns are that unavoidable. The last was Gazelle Co. and out of the four, it was the one with the shortest span, with many of its members joining either CAVE or Raitzing after the fact. Still, they gave us Air Gallet, a fun but otherwise unremarkable shmup that the announcer assured me would “blow my socks off”, and they ported some Toaplan titles to the fifth generation of consoles, most notably, Batsugun for Saturn.
Now, I said these were the “dark ages”, but this is a similar situation to the “dark age of fighting games”. The latter was only called that way because of the eight-year gap between Street Fighter III and IV. Similarly, the dark age of shmups didn’t mean that there were no games being released, but unlike what happened with fighting games, the shmups released by established developers were few and lacked the innovation that marked the Golden Age: Capcom’s 19XX: War Against Destiny in ‘96, alongside SNK’s coin eater Metal Slug, fan-favorite Gradius Gaiden was released in ‘97, R-Type Delta in ‘98, and three different Raiden Fighters. All good games, fantastic even, but it was clear that for these companies, the future was elsewhere.
Despite the reduced popularity of the genre and the uncertainty of its future, the fanbase remained loyal to an experience that only these developers, whose creativity was only matched by their dedication, could provide. That combination was what kept the flickering fire of the genre alive. A flame that would soon turn into a beacon. So let’s talk about anime!
Anime is a huge part of Japanese culture, so it should come as no surprise that a genre of gaming born in Japan would draw influences from the medium. When you get down to it, it’s easy to see how the dogfights in shows like the aforementioned Space Battleship Yamato and Macross would be a big influence, with the classic giant robot show Gundam joining them later. In the first few years of the genre’s existence, shmups were largely content in letting the action just evoke the feeling of these shows that inspired it, as good as technology would allow them, of course. However, as both time and technology progressed, that stopped being enough. And so, shmups evolved to better resemble their inspirations, both in aesthetics and writing. But that source of inspiration isn't immutable. As anime changed, so did shoot 'em ups. And in 1995, they changed a lot.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is a weird anime, and regardless of one's opinion about its quality, it remains a touchstone of the medium. What started as a standard giant robot show evolved into a character study that questions the nature of its own world, and a meta-commentary of both itself and the medium it inhabits. It single-handedly revitalized the anime industry and became a cultural phenomenon that influenced countless shows going forward. Suddenly and out of nowhere, Evangelion changed anime, which in turn, changed shmups. It wouldn’t be long until we saw the first fruits of that change. In 1998, two years after the show’s end, Treasure gave us Radiant Silvergun, the Neon Genesis of shmups.
That comparison isn’t 100% accurate, if only because Eva’s influence on Silvergun was of the indirect kind. Interviews with people that worked on the game (mainly Masato Maegawa, Treasure’s president) make no mention of the show, but I hope that after reading the next few paragraphs you’ll come to see where I’m coming from with this comparison. Like Evangelion, Silvergun is a product that reflects the state of mind of its creators, as well as a message they wanted to convey. These developers grew up with STGs, and in those times of uncertainty, they dared to dream of a world where the genre could shine once again. This isn’t me waxing philosophy like a Bard that just rolled a natural 20 on a performance check, you can read from interviews and other supplementary material (the ones that survived anyway) that every single person working on this game loves shmups from the bottom of their hearts. They wanted a game that could evoke the games of the past while still being the innovation that they thought the genre was lacking, and to accomplish that, they broke nearly every single rule on the proverbial book.
The result is a game that looks and feels familiar but hides a tremendous amount of depth, with seven weapons that are each suited for a situation, a scoring system that directly impacts your firepower, complex and lengthy bosses that can be meticulously destroyed for extra points, and a “bomb” in the format of the Hyper Sword that has to be charged first by absorbing bullets with your regular Radiant Sword. Some call Silvergun a puzzle shooter, and they’re not entirely wrong.
Then there’s the story, and this is where Radiant Silvergun really differentiates itself from the rest. We follow a crew of humans that returned to Earth after an artifact known as the Stone-Like wiped out all life on the planet. They narrowly escaped and are now back for supplies and answers. The story is told out of chronological order, and we watch as the protagonists fight a hopeless and ultimately pointless battle. Other shmups would give you the satisfaction of victory after enduring such hardship. Silvergun chooses instead to point out how futile a situation like this would really be, with the bright anime aesthetic juxtaposed against a bleak and depressing finale that serves as a meta-commentary on the cyclical nature of playing shmups and the state of the genre itself at the time. All of that is punctuated by a score whose use of leitmotifs would make Nobuo Uematsu himself proud.
Thanks to Saturn's failure worldwide, Silvergun never left Japan until 2011, thanks to a port to the 360, and even then, many are only aware of its value as a highly sought collector’s item, instead of the landmark STG that it truly is. Its successor, however, would suffer no such limitations. In the same way that it is almost impossible to talk about Evangelion without mentioning its follow-up film(s), it is hard to talk about Silvergun’s legacy without talking about its spiritual successor.
Released in 2001, Ikaruga is a game that also deconstructed and challenged genre conventions, but this time, opting for simplicity instead of complexity. The whole game revolves around its polarity system: your ship can change between a black or white state that will absorb bullets of one color and be destroyed by the other. There is only one weapon this time, outside of your homing beam (that reminds me of Rayforce) that you charge by absorbing bullets. And that’s all there is to combat. This simple idea is taken to its logical bullet hell extreme, resulting in stages that keep you constantly engaged in a crazy ballet of dodges and constant changes in polarity.
For the plot and setting, Ikaruga was heavily inspired by Buddhism, with each of the five stages being named after one of the steps required for Enlightenment, which would make the polarity system kinda like an analog for the Yin-yang. It’s fitting then that this is a game that allows for pacifist runs (bosses have a time limit, just like in Silvergun), something that definitely sets these two games apart from the rest even more. Much like Silvergun, there is actually a lot of plot to digest but unlike that game, you’ll find almost none of it during gameplay. The story is relegated entirely to the manual or as a bonus text that you can read while browsing the gallery, and it is as bleak as a sequel to Silvergun should be. But in a surprising reconstruction of the genre, you can actually win this time! It's a bittersweet but nonetheless happy ending.
Going into the new millennium, the state of shmups remained largely the same for the first few years, marked by the sporadic release of a sequel here and there: R-Type Final in 2003, Gradius V in 2004, and Raiden lived a short revival in 2005 with Raiden III and 2007 with Raiden IV. Most of these marked the dying breaths of their respective franchises, so it fell to the “old-guard” to keep the lights on: CAVE continued to do Toaplan justice with DonDonPachi Dai-Ou-Jou in 2002, Ketsui in 2003, and the more accessible Espgaluda and Mushihime-sama in 2003 and 2004 respectively. G.rev — a company founded by former Taito members, and fun fact, they actually helped with the development of Ikaruga — poured their blood, sweat, and tears to release Border Down, a spiritual successor to Taito’s Metal Black. The game was well-received, and they followed it up with Under Defeat, a gritty WW2 themed shmup. Another company that rose to the challenge was MileStone, formed by ex-Compile members, and they’re known for their boss-centric shmup Chaos Field. There was also the unexpected gem that was Geometry Wars, a twin-stick shooter born as a mini-game for Project Gotham Racing 2 of all things, that eventually dominated the Xbox Arcade.
Now, the shmup fanbase is one of the more dedicated I’ve ever seen, so hearing that there are fans out there that make their own STGs is not surprising at all. These “doujin” games as they’re called, are essentially homebrew shmups that fans would sell at conventions. By 2000, this wasn’t a new thing by any means, however, they started gaining a tremendous amount of traction around this time, rising up to help fill the void left by the big series, using the PC as their base of operations.
A good example of a successful doujin shmup is Cho Ren Sha 68K, released at 95’s Comiket, a fondly remembered title that people play to this day. But if you’re gonna talk about doujin shooters, then there’s no series more successful than the Touhou Project. What started as a one-man doujin game has since become a phenomenon, far surpassing (and perhaps even overshadowing) its origins as a danmaku: with the blessing of its creator, fans created an entire universe around its colorful cast of cute girls that would take an entire to blog to explain, so, for now, it suffices to say that the main STG series so far has around 27 games, copious fan-made games (some of which are commercial releases and damn good ones at that), a world record in the Guinness Book, and so many musical covers! Touhou is, if anything, a tool for its creator ZUN to show off his musical prowess, and judging by the results of a quick Google search, I think that’s a fair assessment.
Though not in danger of extinction, at this point the genre was as niche as it gets, but that was precisely why the notable releases from that time seem to be bursting with personality and creativity, even more so than during the Golden Age of the genre. But fate still had one more card in store for STGs, and this one forever altered the course of this ship: the internet. Digital distribution allowed these games to reach audiences that would’ve otherwise been impossible, forums and group chats (remember chat rooms?) allowed like-minded individuals to band together and realize whatever vision for an STG they happen to have, and the rise of YouTube gave anyone a place to show off their skills or share their knowledge and passion for the genre. Shmups grew. Slowly. Steadily. Then exponentially. When I noticed, it was the mid-2010s, and suddenly there was a rapid increase in well… Everything! We welcomed back classics with Dariusburst and its many updates and re-releases, Raiden V brought the series back to a new generation in 2016, R-Type Final 2 funded itself on Kickstarter in 48 hours, and there will even be a new entry in Compile's Aleste series! Doujin games are not far behind, having reached heights so impressive they’re practically indistinguishable from the professionally made shmups: Crimzon Clover is a danmaku that gives CAVE a run for their money, Jamestown brought us fantastic co-op steampunk shmupping, Cuphead fused run n gun action with beautiful 30s cartoon anesthetics (all animated by hand), ZeroRanger is a love letter so nice I already talked about it (twice), Devil Engine feels like a lost Saturn game in the best possible ways, and Danmaku Unlimited offers bullet hell to the novice as well as the veteran in equal amounts.
Even Brazil contributed: Blazing Chrome is Contra in all but name, and QUByte had the honor of remaking both Vasara games last year (that our own Voltaic Owl reviewed). Hell, there are even titles that are getting a Western release for the first time now, like Hellsinker, the shmup equivalent of playing Invoker in Dota 2, and Judgment Silversword, considered by many as the greatest handheld STG to ever STG. And how could I forget the entirely new experiences like Enter The Gungeon or Monolith, that masterfully fuse twin-stick shooting with rogue-like elements, or the recently released Maiden & Spell, that offers honest to God, actual PVP bullet hell battles between cute magical girls!
It’s 2020 as I write this text, and the world is living a shmup renaissance. Classics that were previously exclusive to Japan are getting worldwide releases, new developers stood up to the plate to give us new games, and the Switch is quickly establishing itself as the perfect platform for this newfound surge in shmups. All of a sudden, this genre that only seemed to exist in the mind of old fans received a new gust of wind, one that while probably won’t take it to new heights, will at least offer one hell of a view. Throughout all these years, the genre kept a purity that you just won’t find anywhere else, untainted by the need to innovate for the sake of it, or to follow the trends of market or technology. A genre so focused on giving its players a memorable experience that it is by nature incompatible with things like GAAS or the freemium market that plagues mobile gaming. They were, and still are, the very essence of video gaming.
Should one decide to dive into this rabbit hole, finding a shmup that resonates with them isn’t an eventuality, it’s an inevitability. Its history is as old as it is rich. Its legacy is as vast as it is varied, and its gameplay is as challenging as it is rewarding. As long as there are people, there will always be someone craving the simple joy of blowing things up in spectacular fashion. They satiate a primal need to compete, to accomplish something others deem impossible, to go beyond our own limits and become stronger for it.
I'm not sure what the future has in store for STGs, but I know I don't need to worry. They might never be the future of gaming again, but they won't ever become a footnote in its history either. Like a bolt of lightning cutting the skies, it will always strike again.