Why You Should Play Shoot 'em Ups

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Arcade in the '80s Arcade in the current year
Remember when arcades looked like this? Instead of this?

Contrary to popular belief, arcades are not dead. They exist in an awkward state, relegated to sideshow status and mostly ignored by their former core audience (teenagers and children). These mini-arcades can be found in movie theaters, malls, restaurants, and bars all over the country, but you've probably walked by them without even realizing it. The arcades of yesteryear, with advanced technology and unique experiences you couldn't get at home, have been replaced by Dance Dance Revolution, prize games, glorified mobile games, and the occasional light-gun shooter or racing game left over from the late '90s or 2000s. If you manage to find an actual dedicated arcade, they're almost definitely running Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and other antiques from the golden age. The arcades of today have lost the arcade experience, slowly and gradually losing their relevance and appeal.

The arcades of Japan, or game centers, continue to attract their core audience of teenagers, as well as salarymen and elderly people. Though they've declined from the peak of the mid 2000s, game centers offer a booming library of exclusive games and pachinko machines. Alongside the light-gun shooters and racing games that Western gamers will be familiar with, Japanese gamers are treated to high-quality fighting games, MOBAs and other online multiplayer games, and a massive amount of rhythm games and games that defy genre (for example, Cho Chabudai Gaeshi, a game about pounding on and then flipping a table). In spite of the innovation and popularity of these genres, one remains king: the shoot 'em up.

"What is a shoot 'em up?"

Shoot 'em ups (abbreviated as "shmups") or shooting games ("STGs") are split into a few different subgenres:

A Brief History of Shoot 'em Ups

While not the first video game, Spacewar! is often regarded as the first "real" video game and the prototypical shoot 'em up. After its release for the PDP-1 computer in 1962, it was distributed as public domain code and ported to various computer systems throughout the decade. In 1971, its popularity inspired the creation of two remakes: Galaxy Game and Computer Space. While Galaxy Game was a proof-of-concept prototype for coin-operated video games, Computer Space became the first commercially available video game and its developers founded their own company, Atari, the following year.

As the game industry was beginning to take shape in the wake of Computer Space, arcades would become a global phenomenon with the release of Space Invaders, the archetypical shoot 'em up, in 1978. In addition to ushering in the golden age of arcade games and becoming the first killer app for the Atari 2600, Space Invaders established action games as the preeminent game genre and introduced many now-standard mechanics: multiple lives, progressively increasing difficulty, computer-controlled enemies, background music, and leaderboards (or high scores). In the years that followed, many games would expand upon and refine the template created by Space Invaders, giving birth to the "space shooter" genre.

While many Americans associate shoot 'em ups with the space shooters of the '80s, the genre continues to enjoy popularity with Japanese gamers. Because many Japanese STGs are designed as arcade games, they have to balance the interests of gamers and game centers alike; they have to be fun and engaging to attract and hold the attention of customers, while being challenging enough to get them to purchase more credits. The social conventions of game centers have also influenced the design of these games. As it's considered rude to use more than one credit if someone is waiting in line to play, Japanese gamers regularly have to attempt a one credit clear (1CC). As such, STGs are designed to encourage and reward consistency, with levels and enemies often having patterns that can easily be memorized. This emphasis on consistency allows skilled STG players to reach highly advanced levels of play, with some able to get a 1CC while controlling both players at once:

"That's cool, but why should I bother?"

Shmups are a reversal of the general trend in game design: abstraction. Rather than improving upon the core gameplay mechanics (or "gameplay loop" in Redditor/Youtuber vernacular), action games tend to add more mechanics on top; for example, the cover-based mechanics of Gears of War or the platforming of Uncharted. As time goes on, these layers of abstraction upon the core action gameplay have gotten deeper and deeper, to the point that we now have games like Death Stranding where the action is an afterthought. Regardless of whether or not you view this process of abstraction as positive or negative, I think there's a lot of value in a gameplay experience that gets back to the fundamentals.

"Which ones should I play?"

It depends on your personal preference. From here on, I will exclusively discuss and recommend "scrolling shooters", but you might find that you enjoy rail shooters or run 'n' guns more. Do some research and experiment! That being said, my recommendations will be with beginners in mind. There's a pretty good chance that you'll be overwhelmed by how much you suck when you start these games, or you might find them too simple or easy. At that point you should try to move up to a higher difficulty or even try to find a more difficult game.

It also depends on what hardware you have available. Usually shmups are best when played on consoles, or at least with a controller, but there are multiple options available if you don't have access to any. Smartphones are a great choice, as touchscreens offer highly accurate control and the short length and fast-pace of shmups lends well to playing a game in a waiting room or on the toilet.

Vertical vs. Horizontal

As I mentioned earlier, scrolling shooters are categorized into two broad subgenres: vertical and horizontal. The difference between these should be obvious; vertically scrolling shooters have a top-down camera angle, and horizontally scrolling shooters have a side-scrolling angle. Vertical shooters are more popular as arcade games, and generally have a portrait aspect ratio that makes them awkward to play on widescreen TVs or monitors. Horizontal shooters are more popular on home consoles and pretty much always have a landscape aspect ratio. The aspect ratio and camera angle might not seem like a huge deal, but it does affect the way these games are designed.

Besides the two main subgenres, there is a third subgenre: bullet hell ("danmaku" in Japanese). These games tend to have large amounts of weak enemies that fire lots of projectiles; the focus of the gameplay is more about dodging the projectiles than killing individual enemies. Bullet hell games have a strong fanbase and are especially popular in Japanese arcades. These games tend to be vertical shooters, but there are some horizontal shooters as well. The Touhou Project series and digital-exclusive arcade ports to seventh and eighth generation home consoles have also helped the genre build its niche in the West.

Game Recommendations

If you have any of the several plug 'n' play consoles released over the last five years, they offer a limited but pretty high-quality selection of games:


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