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Posted on Oct 7th 2018 at 08:00:00 AM by (MetalFRO)
Posted under shmups, shoot em ups,shooters,shooting games,STG

Thunder Force IV has been recently re-released on the Nintendo Switch as part of Sega's "Ages" series.

The last 5-6 years have been a marvelous time for the 'shmup' or shoot-em-up. Those of you reading the article are likely already familiar with the term, but for the uninitiated, it's a genre of games started in 1978, by Taito's Space Invaders, and continuing on through the 1980's, with landmark games like Namco's Galaga, Konami's Scramble, Namco's Xevious, Sega's Zaxxon, and later games like 1942 by Capcom, Gradius by Konami, and R-Type by Irem. These games usually scroll, though sometimes they're fixed, or single-screen, they're generally always 2D in nature, where the scrolling, or game area, remains on a single plane, and doesn't allow you to move in a "Z-Axis" sort of way, and pits you as a plane, space-ship, or other character/entity against a horde of oncoming enemies, all bent on your utter destruction.

It's easy to forget that Sega helped pioneer the shmup genre with the pseudo-3D Zaxxon.

The "golden age" of the shoot-em-up was probably from around 1984 to roughly 1992, when the genre was exploding, and each new game brought some new element to the forefront. Developers were constantly trying to one-up each other, as is evidenced by both Sega and Irem in the mid-late 80's, both seeing the success of Konami's Gradius, wanting to create their own shooting game of similarly high caliber, and went on to develop Fantasy Zone and R-Type, respectively. New players entered the game, such as Toaplan and Techno Soft, while stalwarts like Capcom, Konami, Namco, and Taito, all put out important games, such as 1943: The Battle of Midway, Salamander, Dragon Spirit, and Darius, respectively. As the 16-bit era came about, shooters exploded (pun intended) onto consoles, with arcade ports and original titles alike gracing all 3 consoles during the era, and giving fans unprecedented access to these games in a way that only the arcades could hope to do, just a half-decade before.

Fantasy Zone was an important game in the development of the "cute-em-up" sub-genre.

The mid-90's saw a decline in the genre, however, due to a few factors. Gamers were getting older, and few saw the importance of playing these games for score. Those talented enough to finish the games quickly could do so in relatively short order, and just move on. Developers needed to find new ways to entice and challenge players, so the games became harder, narrowing the appeal of the genre, and making the games much less approachable by new players. The push toward 3D graphics meant that a traditionally 2D genre had to either adapt, or do new things to survive. Some developers embraced this shift, and we got some truly exceptional games, such as Taito's RayStorm, or Squaresoft's lone shooter, Einhander, but the bulk of hardcore shoot-em-up fans were dissatisfied with this shift, and continued to prefer the 2D games, despite their waning popularity, and availability. The rise in popularity of fighting games also cut into the shmup market share, as players scratched their competitive itch with the likes of Street Fighter II, and later Street Fighter Alpha and Street Fighter III, along with the Mortal Kombat series, and relative newcomers like Virtua Fighter and Tekken.

Squaresoft's Einhander took the 2D formula into the 3D graphical direction, without sacrificing playability.

The mid-90's saw a change in the way shooters were developed. Most dev houses moved toward the danmaku format, known in the west as "Bullet Hell" shooters, where players were pitted against waves of enemies that spewed forth waves of complex bullet patterns to dodge through. This further made the genre more difficult to penetrate for the newcomer, and closed off to all but the most challenge or thrill-seeking individuals. The traditional shooter, outside of classics like the aforementioned Space Invaders or Galaga, all but dropped off the map, except for in compilation releases, or in small independent developers making games for themselves and the small audience still interested in the genre.

Most of you will know by now that the 2000's and 2010's have been peppered here and there with the occasional shooter, mostly bullet hell style, and mostly relegated to Japan, again, outside the occasional compilation release. However, a few notable games appeared during that time, such as the Shikigami no Shiro series, aka Castle of Shikigami, the rise of the Touhou games, which have probably given the bullet hell genre the biggest reputation for difficulty of any game in the last 20 years, as well as a number of shmups by notable developer CAVE, who developed the DonPachi series, among others. A large number of these games were relegated to Japan only, and in a time when a console like the PS2 or the Xbox 360 saw many shooters developed in Japan, all but a handful remained there, with a handful of titles trickling to the West.

Japanese developer Success found just that, with their bullet hell Castle of Shikigami series in the early-mid 2000's.

But back to my original statement, that I began this article with: the last 5-6 years have been a marvelous time for the 'shmup' or shoot-em-up. That is true, because the last half-decade has seen more readily available releases in the genre than at any time since the early 1990's. All 3 modern consoles have seen a large number of games released digitally, via Hamster Corporation's "Arcade Archives" series, to a number of SNK Neo Geo shooters, and over the last year, Japanese developer Psykio has seen their games come to the Nintendo Switch via publisher ZeroDiv. We've also seen retail releases of new titles like Sine Mora EX, a flood of new indie developers making fantastic games like Danmaku Unlimited 3, Aqua Kitty, Shikhondo: The Soul Eater, and Defenders of Ekron, spanning multiple styles of shooting games, and a number of classic arcade games being brought back to life by developer M2 under the "ShotTriggers" moniker, such as Raizing classic Battle Garrega, or CAVE shooter Ketsui. Sure, some of these games are primarily Japan or Asia region releases, but with consoles being totally region free now, foreign eShops being totally accessible, and services like Amazon Japan, Play Asia, and more proving easy access to physical copies of these games, it's easier now than ever to get in on as much shoot-em-up action as your wallet allows for.

Danmaku Unlimited 3, with its retrowave aesthetic and intense action, has helped bring shmup action to Nintendo's Switch.

That is just the console side. What about PC? At this point, it's almost impossible to get all the shooter goodness out there without access to a PC. Between Japanese doujin (indie) developers, and new upstarts throughout the world, there have been a wave of new shooting games to play. Most of these are available on platforms like Steam, GOG, or itch.io, while some are a bit more elusive, but still available via either direct release from the developer, or in the case of some Japanese developed games, available through online specialty stores who cater to the niche markets. So many shmups on PC have received accolades, such as Crimzon Clover, Gundemonium, Blue Revolver, the recently released Rolling Gunner from Japan, or the Western-developed Zero Ranger, which has only been out for days, as of this writing, but is already receiving high praise. Not to mention the Steam re-release of some of CAVE's earlier games, such as Mushihimesama, DoDonPachi Resurrection, and Deathsmiles, or re-releases of classics like Ikaruga or Steel Empire. Steam's service alone has more shooting action than you can shake a stick at, and much of that has released in the last few years.

Battle Crust is one of several modern shmups taking a 90's retro style and bringing back that classic arcade look and feel.

In closing, while it's still considered niche and impenetrable by some, the shoot-em-up lives on, and as a genre, is healthier in 2018 than in nearly any time in the previous 20+ years, outside of the small community. There are more games available and accessible to the modern consumer, whether physically release, or digitally available, than ever before. Old games are new again, and old games are playable on more devices, thanks to retro-modern consoles, like the Retron5 or RetroFreak, emulation has made some of the more obscure and expensive games possible to play, and the healthy influx of new games has ensured that the genre still has wings (pun intended). It is my sincere hope that this renewed interest in shooting games will be sustainable, because I, for one, want to continue to have new and interesting games in the genre to play for years to come. Viva la shmups!

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Finally getting a chance to read through some of these articles, and this is a nice look back over shooter history. Well written! I'm glad that there is more attention given to this genre, and even though I'm getting older and don't have the reflexes I used to, I can still enjoy.
@Duke.Togo: Thank you very much! I'm kind of in the same boat. As I get older, and my reflexes dull, I find my enjoyment of the genre not so much waning, but growing, despite my inability to truly master a lot of the games. I play for fun, and to challenge myself, and have begun seeing score as a way to enhance both of those things.

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