Kick-Ass Shmups to get you Flying by the Seat of Your Pants
Shmup. Some gamers get a natural high just from saying the word, while others can’t forget about the genre fast enough. Despite this, one thing’s for certain: shmup’s legacy will endure as long as there are video games to be played.
Why? Because this shooter genre is the one that started it all. Think back to the early days of arcade games and, more often than not, the titles you conjure up are shmup titles. There were no fighter jets blasting aliens before shmup, and they’ll never be done quite the same way again. But what really helped shmup to gain a foothold in the gaming world is that the titles subtly evolved over the years, advancing little by little from arcade machines to consoles to next-gen consoles. So in the spirit of celebrating this throwback, here are five shoot'em up titles that defined the shmup genre.
There’s some debate whether or not “Space Invaders” is a true shmup. Compare to today’s shmups, maybe the criteria does fall short. But “Space Invaders” deserves the top spot on the list because it laid the groundwork for all titles to come by combining, for the first time, a static, look-down camera perspective and controls that allowed movement only on a horizontal axis. Upon its release, the game took arcades by storm, first in Japan, where it caused a 100-yen coin shortage because kids couldn’t stop feeding them into the machines. It captured the U.S. imagination because it featured a wrinkle Americans weren’t used to: the notion of the unbeatable game. Folks could play for days and weeks on end and still likely never crack double digits, level-wise. “Space Invaders” became the perfect open-ended pastime, and it’s the prime reason it, and shmup arcade games like it, are still found in bars, Laundromats and mini-marts today.
The Raiden Series
The Raiden series of games don’t reinvent the wheel in any significant way. But they take the existing genre tropes and refine them into an experience that is truly one of the hallmarks of the bullet hell genre. This game is one of the most brutally difficult shooters you can play, and picking up any of the games in this franchise – Raiden Legacy, Raiden Fighters Jet etc. will quickly show you why it was such a coin-suck in the arcade days. Your craft feels powerful but never too powerful, and the game keeps upping the level of challenge until you’re almost ready to rip your hair out just as you achieve that perfect, exhilarating run.
Atari Jaguar --- Raiden Gameplay
In many ways, “Blazing Lazers” was the TurboGrafx-16’s flagship shooter. It was even used in many of the advertisements selling the console. Turns out the machine’s manufacturers backed the right horse, because it ended up being one of the TG-16’s most popular titles, and today it enjoys a reputation as an enduring classic. The reasons for “Blazing Lazers” success were simple: up until then, folks only knew flicker-heavy NES shooter titles; the TG-16’s hardware was tailor-made for a great vertical scrolling shooter. Not only was the design solid, the game featured slick (for its time) graphics, creative level design and some tough bosses. And what about that soundtrack? It’s like Rush did a bunch of amphetamines and got it in their heads to compose a 16-bit magnum opus.
Another awesome shooter makes the list from the turbografx 16 library. Soldier Blade is fast. Blazing fast. Your ship is impossibly agile, and this maneuverability creates moments of insane, ninja-like acrobatic dodging and shooting as you try to avoid wave after wave of baddies. A worthy sequel to the fine Super Star Soldier, Soldier Blade introduced the wingman plane to the series. The power ups you get are diverse and fun, with some that improve your attack rate and others that empower your secondary ship to blast enemies up close. Interestingly, you can also trade in each of your power ups for a devastating bomb, which also grants special abilities to your primary or secondary ships. There’s a lot of depth to the gameplay, and while the visuals might look dated by today’s standards, you’ll forget all about them once you get to the shooting.
Here is some gameplay of Soldier Blade, Enjoy
Another barroom arcade classic from Namco. This title was actually the sequel to Galaxian, which built off of “Space Invaders” by forgoing static aliens for those that moved down the screen towards the hero. But “Galaga” improved on its predecessor in almost every way, from graphics to soundtrack to gameplay to level design. The rapid rate of fire was certainly a selling point, because unlike “Space Invaders” you don’t have to wait until a single lethargic shot reaches the end of the screen before firing another. But like “Space Invaders,” “Galaga” is a skill came and just as nearly impossible to beat. Say you do make it through all 255 levels. Your reward? A great big fat kill screen.
Tyrian is a shining example of what old-school top-down shooters are capable of. The combat is fast and furious, the controls are slick, and the editor mode will have you coming back to it long after you’ve finished the game once. The game features a lot of really witty dialogue and several game mods that keep things fresh and interesting. The ships are diverse, and blasting through a fleet of enemies with one of the many power ups you’ll find is total fun.
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Seirei Senshi Spriggan
Making a good bullet hell game is a fine balancing act. On the one hand, you need a lot of awesome things to shoot at and plenty of weapons to shoot at said things with. On the other, you also need some sort of compelling reason to drive the action along. Spriggan first burst onto the scene in 1991 with a whopping total game time of 2 minutes. Yes, you read that right. These 2 minutes were filled with such insane awesomeness that it created somewhat of a scoring frenzy, where players all around the world would try to outdo each other. Later, developers compile fleshed out the game into an expansive seven-stage game which kept all the fantastic elements from the original, and added a lot more brutally difficult yet entertaining combat. You get over 20 weapons to lay waste to your enemies, and you’ll need all 20 of them. The incredible in-game set pieces, memorable bosses and gorgeous graphics make this a fun time for hardcore shmup enthusiasts.
R-Type and R-Type II
In a genre that is notorious for its difficulty, R-Type is one of the more difficult ones you will play. Developers Irem crafted one of the quintessential danmaku games, and while they’ve since given up game development, the several ports of R-Type keep their legacy alive. More recently, DotEmu has ported R-Type II to the iOS platform, and this version of the game is a great challenge for those looking to test their reflexes. R-Type II contains all the stages from the original, and ups the difficulty level to a point that will make you weep. Your journey to the end of this game will depend heavily on how well you are able to master the Force system. Collecting the Force power-up grants you an extra pod that attaches to either end of your ship. This pod is invincible and blocks bullets while also adding to your firepower. If that sounds like an overpowered ability, wait until you start playing.
Gate of Thunder
Gate of Thunder originally launched on the TurboGrafx-CD system, and the stellar soundtrack and fantastic graphics are a testament to the power of the CD medium back in the day. Even today, Gate of Thunder is a treat for the eyes, with the vivid colors and dynamic environments populating every level. You won’t get too much time to admire the scenery, though, as things get fast and furious really quick. Your ship has three different speed modes – slow, normal and superfast. You’ll need to switch between all three modes depending upon the kind of enemies you’re up against. You also have the option to switch fire modes. Your main ship always fires forward, but you can switch the direction of fire for your attachments, enabling them to shoot things behind you. But that’s not all. You also have three different weapon types to choose between – a straight laser, an explosive weapon and a projector that has a wide angle of attack. There’s a lot of complexity to get into, and Gate of Thunder will keep you entertained right through to the end credits. We have a super nice copy for sale in our shop.
The Espgaluda Series
Developers Cave are the grand daddies of bullet-hell shooters. And probably their crowning achievement in a whole library of stellar shooters is the Espgaluda series. The Espgaluda (pronounced esu-pa-galuda) series features a colorful cast of flying metahuman characters who can kick ass and take names. You are the ship, and boy oh boy, what a ship you are. The whole steampunk feel of the games and the incredibly creative bosses (as you’ll come to find are a staple of this genre) are. All of your characters have a normal attack, a barrier ability and a super-cool slow-motion mode where time slows down and you can navigate the impossible swarm of bullets to keep pummeling your enemies. Not only that, once you’ve accumulated enough damage, your barrier unleashes a ridiculously powerful attack that usually fills the screen with the bodies of your foes. Good times guaranteed.
The Do DonPachi series
Yet another stellar danmaku (bullet-hell) title from Cave, the DoDonPachi series of games is a frantic ride that encourages multiple replays. Because once you’re familiar with the controls, you’ll be able to navigate the game pretty quickly. But that’s not what this is really about. These games are about reaching the end of each stage with the least damage taken and the most points accumulated. Once you’re trying to beat your high score, you’ll feel the pinch of each of the bullets your ship gets hit with. And when your entire screen is filled with bullets, that’s a lot of stuff to navigate. DoDonPachi Resurrection recently hit steam, and a lot of the older titles area available on mobile phones too.
Ikaruga only has five stages, but don’t let that stop you from playing one of the classics of this genre. Ikaruga is one of the more difficult bullet-hell shooters you can get your hands on, and the incredible combat system and memorable enemies are a sight to behold. Right off the bat, you’ll realize that there’s more going on than just shooting and dodging. Enemies appear in two colors, and you can switch the polarity of your ship to match the enemies you’re going up against. White enemies take more damage from black bullets and vice versa. In the same vein, white bullets from your enemies can’t hurt you if you have switched your polarity to white. There’s a tremendous amount of pattern recognition you’ll have to undertake if you are to complete this game successfully. You will die. A lot. But isn’t that part of the fun? We have a copy for sale here in our store.
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Sine Mora is one of the most beautiful shoot-em-ups ever made. Period. The futuristic, dieselpunk setting, incredible combat, brilliant set pieces, the fantastic cast of characters and a surprisingly engaging story make this an absolute must play. Sine Mora also operates on an interesting mechanic. There are no health bars or lives, only a ticking clock. Dealing damage adds time to the clock while taking damage takes time off. As long as there’s time on the clock, you’re in business. There’s also a cool, Prince of Persia-esque ability to reverse time that you can employ. However, this ability is extremely limited and you really have to fight tooth and nail to gain charges of it. Do yourself a favor and get this game.
That concludes our round-up of the best bullet-hell shooters of all time. Whether you’re a fan of the shmup genre or not, these games are truly some of the most exhilarating experiences you can have as a gamer. If you’d like to add some more shooter games to this list or vehemently agree with what we’ve mentioned, let us know in the comments.
Happy shooting, y’all!
Let us know what you thought of this list in the comments. Did your favorite games make the list? Which ones did we miss out? Let us know!