The 10 Best Super Nintendo Shmups - 16 Bit Era Shoot Em Ups

We were going to start this article with a question. But we already know the answer. No, you’re not interested in getting into the retro shoot ’em up games.

We get it. It’s a difficult genre for the uninitiated to break into.

For one thing, we mean that literally. Shoot ‘em up games, or “shmups” tend to be very challenging.

Also, the 80s and 90s spawned thousands of these games every year. If you’re trying to get into these games now, where do you start?

So glad you asked. You start right here, of course.

Below are the best SNES shmups that money can buy—or at least some of them. There are several notable mentions that we’ll save for a follow-up article. In any case, you must try these 10 SNES shoot ‘em ups for yourself.

10. Super R-Type

shoot em up SNESObviously, we couldn’t list the best SNES shmups without mentioning at least one R-Type Series. Super R-Type brings the arcade hit, R-Type II, to your home console—well, most of it, anyway. That is, Super R-Type includes 4 of the 6 levels from R-Type II, plus 3 new stages.


For those who aren’t aware, R-Type is not a series for beginners. R-Type is famous for creating some challenging games. 

This is mostly because players must dodge obstacles as well as enemy projectiles. Often, players must navigate through maze-like stages without crashing into the walls.

Furthermore, out of all the games in the series, Super R-Type is particularly infamous for its ruthless difficulty level.

Unlike most shmups, there are no mid-level checkpoints in Super R-Type. Dying at any point means restarting the entire level.

The game also suffers from severe slowdown when there are too many enemies on-screen (which is practically always). But this is good or bad, depending on how you look at it. Although the slowdown is somewhat irritating, it’s a lot easier to avoid danger when everything’s moving in slow-motion.

Overall, Super R-Type is a must-play title for classic shmup enthusiasts who seek a challenge. Test your skills, if you dare.

9. Thunder Spirits

The Funnest SNES ShootersThunder Spirits on SNES (originally Thunder Force III) has a very uncharacteristic history. While it’s common to see hit arcade games ported to consoles, Thunder Force III was actually a console title before it hit the arcades.

The arcade release was itself a port of a very successful Sega Genesis shmup. Later, this arcade port was ported once again, this time as the SNES shmup Thunder Spirits.


At the risk of sounding bland, there’s nothing about this game that stands out as truly unique. On the contrary: it’s a very straightforward, simple, and near-perfect example of the genre. The level design, graphics, controls, enemies, music, and everything else are spot-on.

This is why the Genesis version was successful enough to warrant an arcade release and an SNES port. The game is also deliciously difficult.

8. BioMetal

best snes shooterAt first glance, this game looks like a generic clone of Super R-Type. That’s exactly why we included Bio Metal on this list. We want to give this solid shmup the attention it truly deserves.


The game has decent music, passable graphics, and an okay plot. There are several sub-weapons and powerups—pretty standard vertical shooter fare. But the fun part is a unique game component called GAM.

The GAM is a weapon that you can also use as a shield. It depletes its energy bar while in use and recharges while deactivated.

As a weapon, it sort of works like Link’s boomerang in the first Zelda game. That is, you launch it to the other end of the screen and it returns to you, killing any enemies it touches.

But it’s more effective to shoot enemies with your sub-weapons and save your GAM for use as an emergency shield. Also, having a temporary shield at your disposal makes for a refreshingly different shooter experience.

7. Firepower 2000

Best Super Nintendo ShootersWhile most SNES shmups are set in space, Firepower 2000 is a desert-warfare-themed shooter set on modern-day Earth. It’s also a rarity in that it allows two-player co-op play with each player controlling a different vehicle.


In single-player mode, the player chooses either a jeep or a helicopter. The jeep has more obstacles to dodge, but it can fire in 8 directions. The helicopter flies above all obstacles but it only fires straight ahead.

Which vehicle is best? Actually, the best choice is to play with a friend so you can choose both vehicles. Then, the limitations of each vehicle require players to work together through carefully strategized teamwork.


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6. Darius Twin

best snes shooter gamesHonestly, novice shmup fans might be frustrated to the point of hatred by the many super-difficult games on this list. In contrast, Darius Twin is an easy enough horizontal shooter for beginners and challenging enough for general audiences. At the same time, skilled players can overcome unique challenges to unlock multiple endings.


Ultimately, Darius Twin is an amazing game for any skill level. It also has loads of replay value as players can choose which levels to play as they progress through the game. There are many different pathways you can take, some of which unlock special ending scenes.

There’s a reason this all sounds so familiar. Namely, the original Star Fox (released 2 years after Darius Twin) is often praised for this same type of non-linear level progression.

5. Gradius III

snes shoot em upsAs the only 80s game on our list, Gradius III has its share of technical flaws. The game suffers from slowdown at times. And many elements from the arcade version have been removed, including the awesome third-person level.

Yet many fans, including us, still regard it as a masterpiece. In fact, the SNES port adds an Edit Mode that more than makes up for the missing arcade content.


The Edit Mode allows players to customize the weapon system of their ship. Given the sheer number of customization options, there are thousands of unique configurations to choose from.

In other words, you can replay this game thousands of times with a different weapon configuration every time.

Even without the Edit Mode, Gradius III is a solid, well-balanced, enjoyable shooter. It’s challenging but less difficult than the arcade version. Plus, the SNES port allows players to continue after losing all their lives, unlike other versions of the game.

The music is very retro, which suits this game perfectly. The graphics are acceptable, though they sometimes flicker and glitch when the screen’s overloaded.

Most notably, though, the game is longer than the average shmup. While most shooters have 6 or 7 levels, Gradius III has 10. 

4. Axelay

snes shmupsHmm, how do we put this? Basically, Axelay is a really cool compilation of the best features that SNES shmups have to offer. Besides being a fun game to play, Axelay puts special emphasis on striking visuals and cinematic storytelling.


Before the game even starts, you see an emotionally charged, visually impressive, perfectly scored prologue scene. Honestly, it’s one of the most theatrical 16-bit cutscenes we’ve ever witnessed.

From there, the game switches between 2-D horizontal side-scrolling levels and third-person levels with a layered, 3-D appearance. Both types of levels, and all other aspects of the game, are hypnotizingly beautiful.

Seriously, the amount of detail put into each and every sprite makes the game look 32-bit. The same is true of the music and sound effects.

Another unique aspect is that Axelay lets you choose your weapon before each level. There’s no way to switch weapons within the level as you can in most shooters.

The game’s multiple difficulty levels are well-balanced to appeal to all players. For all these reasons, Axelay may be the best SNES shooter there is.


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3. Earth Defense Force

Best SNES Shoot Em UpsMost of the games on this list have something unique that makes them exceptional. For the most part, Earth Defense Force doesn’t have any extra-special aspects that stand out above other shooters.

And that’s fine. Like Thunder Spirits, Earth Defense Force doesn’t need to stand out. It’s just a simple, perfectly-made SNES shmup.


Players get 3 lives and 3 shield points. Get hit 3 times, you lose a life. Lose all your lives, it’s game over.

The visuals and soundtrack are not impressive but decent. More importantly, the levels and bosses are well-planned, the difficulty level is well-balanced, and the controls are tight.

One thing that is unique about Earth Defense Force is the way in which you upgrade your ship. Instead of collecting powerups, you level up your shield meter, special weapons, and sub-weapons by defeating enemies/scoring points. We have a nice copy for sale - here

2. R-Type III: The Third Lightning

Best SNES ShootersHands-down, R-Type III: The Third Lightning is a much better game than Super R-Type. For one thing, it does not suffer the same slowdown that plagued the previous game. But what really stands out in this game is an inspired variety of attack methods.


When starting the game, players choose which “Force” (weapon system) they want to equip. The Round Force has the same firing style as previous R-Type games and the Shadow Force adds auto-aiming turrets. Most unique is the Cyclone Force, an enormously powerful beam that must be charged before firing.

Already, this allows players to enjoy 3 alternate versions of the game, which is excellent for replay value. Additionally, each Force has unique sub-weapons that players can try out and level up. There’s also a super weapon called the Hyper Wave Cannon.

The Hyper Wave Cannon pretty much destroys everything onscreen for about 10 seconds. But once the Hyper Mode is over, all of your weapons become temporarily inoperable. You won’t be able to fire again for a few seconds.

Alongside these great innovations, the game still stays true to its roots. It has everything that R-Type fans have come to expect, including a high level of difficulty.

1. Space Megaforce

best snes shmupsIn Japan, Space Mega force is known as Super Aleste, the fifth game in the Aleste series by Compile. The name was changed for North American/European audiences who weren’t familiar with the Aleste games.

But what’s in a name? The important thing is that the game is one of the best entries in an amazing series by legendary shmup developers.


There are 8 weapons to choose from in Space Megaforce, each of which can be leveled up by collecting powerups. Weapons can be leveled up a maximum of 6 times.

The interesting part is that the power-up chips will strengthen any weapon you’re using at the time. In other words, you don’t have to wait for the power-ups that match your current weapon while avoiding the ones that don’t match.

In most shmups, this tedious matching game is the most frustrating part. If you grab one mismatched power-up, your max-leveled weapon reverts back to wimpy mode. But in Space Megaforce, it’s way easier to max out your favorite weapon and keep it that way.

Also, your weapon’s level doubles as your shield. When you get hit, it downgrades your weapon instead of exploding your ship. A hit will only destroy your ship when your weapon is level 4 or below.

Additionally, each weapon includes a secondary firing method you can manipulate using the Shot-Control button. This “skill-shot” element adds a lot more variety and strategy to the gameplay than simply holding down the rapid-fire button for hours.

Aside from these features, the level design and boss fights are top-notch. The graphics and soundtrack are excellent, too. If you’re lucky enough to play the Japanese version, you’ll enjoy longer cutscenes, a deeper plot, and extra game modes.

And that concludes the list of Best SNES Shoot em ups

Whether you’re a novice or a veteran, these 10 games are the best SNES shmups to add to your retro shmup library. Are there any games that I'm missing from this list?  What are your favorite shumps, let us know in the comments below.

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Friday, 19 July 2024