A history of shmups

An article discussing the development of the shmup from space invaders to ikaruga. This presentation explores the formal aspects of the shoot-em-up, the tradition of the high score and the range of innovation in the genre. Produced for the 2005 Screenplay Games Festival.


According to http://www.what-means.com/

“A scrolling shooter is, as the name suggests, a shoot ’em up that takes place against a scrolling background.
Scrolling shooters can be divided into two categories:
Games in which the scrolling follows the player’s movement (‘directional’ scrollers)
Games in which the player follows the scrolling (‘linear’ scrollers).
These terms are not official, but will be used for easy reference.”

There are always arguments as to what qualifies as a shmup, and some games fit awkwardly within the description, but seem generally at heart to be considered shoot-em-up games (the Tempest series for eg). There is also an obvious subdivision of horizontal designed shmups (horizs) and vertical based layouts (verts). These 2 formats relate closely to the hardware they were designed for (verts being more traditional in terms of arcade machine design, itself an imitation of ‘fruit machine’ devices). However, regardless of the definitions it is usually easy to identify a shmup from its familiar gameplay principles and focus on skill and scoring.


Space Invaders(1978-Midway) and Defender(1980-Williams) are probably the two most publicly recognized shmups and represent the pure gameplay tradition that is at the heart of the shmup genre.

Although other arcade games were released earlier (Space War/ Pong etc) Space Invaders was the first machine that really took hold of the public imagination. It established the ‘High Score’ principles for arcade gaming (even though you couldn’t enter your name) and instilled the idea of competitive scoring. The controls were basic enough for anyone to understand (left,right,fire) and the concept was equally simple. What Space Invaders managed to achieve was also a graphical flair that had not previously been employed. The insect-like enemies animated their way across the screen with an ominous marching sound that sped up as they got nearer you base. The aliens seemed to have ‘character’ and were perhaps the first video-game icons (something that pac man was to repeat in 1980).

Defender was a more complex game, released in 1980 it was one of the first games to allow the playing area to extend beyond the screen. The player could move around this scrolling landscape and use a radar device at the top of the screen to monitor enemy movements across the landscape. Again, the aliens were insect-like landers that stole humans from the planet surface below and would mutate into killer homing enemies if they were to escape with a captive. The dynamic of saving kidnapped humans and navigating a scrolling play area made for a difficult task. Defender was one of the first games that really demanded a high level of skill from the player. Later levels increased the number and variety of enemies and the directional flip button meant that you had to be competent at performing some tricky back flip style manoeuvres. (Eugene Jarvis, the games designer also wrote the shmup-borderliner classic Robotron 2084)

Due to the success of Space Invaders, the shmup template became established and a myriad variations and improvements followed. Old classic games such as Galaxians(1979), Gorf(1981) and Centipede(1981) proved that the genre was popular with the public throughout the early 80s. However, later in the decade two games; Gradius(1985-Konami) and R-Type (1987-Irem) set new benchmarks for shmup development.

The Gradius series has been a mainstay of the shmup genre since 1985. At the time, horizontal based shmups seemed more prevalent in the arcades but Gradius introduced a few new tricks that made its gameplay unique. Firstly you could power up you ship in the way that you wanted. Each power cell you collected from a dead enemy would give you more buying power to select different and better weapons. This allowed played to customise their own gameplay. One of the most powerful upgrades you could get was the ‘Option’ (or ‘Multiple’). These glowing objects would trail you ship around the screen, firing the same ammunition that you had currently selected. This introduced a greater tactical depth than with standard power-us and meant that different techniques could be applied to different instances. There have been many revisions of the Gradius model (from konami and from various ‘homages’) culminating in Gradius V(2004-Treasure) which is a contemporary and critically acclaimed shmup for the current generation console market.

R-Type had a similar effect on the development of shmup gameplay. Instead of ‘Options’ the player in R-Type could control the ‘Force Orb’. This was a mobile gun turret that could be attached to either the front or rear of the players ship, or fired off into the screen to damage enemies. As with Gradius’ ‘Options’ this new element led to more tactical play and individual style. Along with the ‘Force Orb’ and various laser weapons the designers also included a ‘Beam charge’ function, where holding down the fire key built up a powerful shot that could be released at vital moments. The other area where R-Type excelled was the introduction of ‘Boss’ ships/levels, where you would be forced to fight an enormous enemy mother ship (sometimes several screens large). The graphics were exceptional for the time and blended organic and futuristic imagery in the vein of the film ‘Alien’ or the work of H.R.Geiger.

During the 1990’s the culture of arcade gaming began to shrink, partly due to the increased level of home PC use and the introduction of more competent home games consoles. Shmups continued to flourish during this period, although not at such a high profile as before. More complex hardware systems influenced developers to develop more complex games, which often tried to explore new territories rather than stick to traditional genres. Games as a whole developed more genres and players became more partial to specific styles of games (platformers,rpgs etc). Shmup gaming became more of a niche, but still produced some of the best shooters ever seen.

Radiant Silvergun(1998-Treasure) is one of the most (in)famous shmups of all time. Not least because it can cost over £100 for a Japanese import. Silvergun was an epic game, with strings of elaborately animated and designed boss fights, complex scoring techniques and an RPG-like power up system for your varied weapons. The player’s ship could even swipe enemy bullets off the screen using a laser sword, which could then be charged up and unleashed at key points. Taxing to play but beautiful to watch, this game was the creation of ‘Treasure’ a Japanese developer famous for its innovation and abstraction, and also for its dedication to the shmup genre. The sheer ingenuity and design involved in Radiant Silvergun is astounding as is its abstraction. There is a section where the games 3D graphics deteriorates into a mock vector graphics design and a finale that employs a surreal combination of 2 and 3d space. Silvergun also established the idea of ‘chaining’ score systems, where the player had to destroy enemy craft in different colour orders to get the maximum points. Treasure went on to produce 2 other shmup classics, Ikaruga and GradiusV

DodonPachi(1997-Cave) represents the other side of the coin. Probably the first ‘manic shooter’ (a shmup with a huge amount of slow moving bullets) it is instantly accessible and short in comparison. However the depth in DDP lies in its challenging design (rarely a moments pause) and a deceptively simple scoring mechanism. If the player keeps killing enemy craft within a short time limit from his last kill, the score received is increased immensely. If the time between kills is too long the bonus returns to zero. This requires the player to plan routes through the level carefully if they are aiming for a high score and illustrates the two tier gameplay interface that many modern shmups demonstrate. In DDP it is difficult enough to actually complete the 6 short levels but to successfully chain the game is a challenge to try even the most dedicated. Where Radiant Silvergun is majestic and epic, DDP is fast, loud, colourful and exhilarating. DDP also established the use of impossibly over the top weapons, with the maximum blast stream of a players laser fire covering almost one third of the total screen area. Cave went on to be another prime producer of quality shmups with future titles such as ESPRade, Guwange, DDPDJ and ESPGaluda.

The new century is an even thinner period for the shmup, but even in its niche form some excellent and influential games have been developed, such as Ikaruga,Psyvariar, GradiusV and DDPDJ. There has also been a rise in the quality of amateur (doujin) shmups being produced, partly due to the genres focus on the on gameplay rather than vast content creation (such as rpgs etc). In the next section we will examine how gameplay has changed in the history of the shmup.

Initially shmup gameplay was a simple matter of ‘if it moves shoot it, if it doesn’t move shoot it’ etc. Points were awarded for destroying enemy aliens and clearing levels. Maybe a bonus in the form of a mothership or boss were occasionally thrown in, but nothing that demanded the player to do more than just survive and destroy the insurmountable threat. However, once mastered, the replay value of a specific game was relatively shallow, with no way to try different scoring techniques or be rewarded for more risky or stylish play. Unlike most contemporary game genres where the player is intended to play through a game only once and score isn’t an issue shmups have grown in the other direction, focussing more on the culture of high scores and skilled replays. Shoot-em-ups have built on the arcade heritage of high score tables, allowing players to better themselves in score attacks or boss rushes. Although compared to GTA SanAndreas the playthrough of a shmup may be short (45 mins vs several days) the intention is for the levels to be played over and over, perfecting the players technique. In this case the level design of a shmup must be very well though out. A one minute episode in GTA is unlikely to be revisited and analysed for better scoring potential or tactics. On the contrary, most modern shmups are built for this and are one of the few genres where commercial dvds can be bought showing expert players ‘score attack’ the levels of a specific shmup and discuss tactics and techniques. The scoring systems in a shmup can make or break it and the hunt for interesting and challenging systems has led to some unusual and innovative solutions

Introduced with the DonPachi series of games (Cave) the idea of chaining (discussed in the DDP review above) has been applied to many other shmups. The general approach is that the player must maintain a chain of some type between each enemy destroyed. In DDP this chain is simple, the interval between two independent kills cannot be more that about 2 seconds. If the interval is too long then the bonus used to multiply the score for each kill resets to zero. In some games (Mushihimesama etc) the penalty for breaking a chain isn’t so harsh, instead the multiplier bonus counts down slowly, allowing you to regain some score.
Games like Radiant Silvergun and Ikaruga (both Treasure) implement a colour chaining system. In Ikaruga for instance the player is rewarded for killing the enemy in groups of 3, where each group must be the same colour (in Ikaruga, this is black or white). This can lead to a complex almost puzzle like approach to level design and player strategy.

A traditional and familiar method of score system the idea of collection is fairly simple. Destroyed enemies drop medals or pods that the player picks up to get extra points. Sometimes the objects increase the current score multiplier (GigaWing/Mars Matrix/Dangun Feveron) and sometimes they are just bonus score rewards. In the GigaWing series of games the collection multiplier is additive and exponentially increases the players score, leading to some ludicrous high scores (sometimes in the quadrillions). The Shikigami games use a similar system when collecting coins dropped from the enemy. Both games will reset the multiplier to zero on the event of a player losing a life. This leads to a greater need to SLC (Single Life Clear) the game to score maximum points. Other games even penalize the player for missing objects, in Night Raid a negative score becomes possible. In Strikers 1945 you receive more points by collecting a gold bar at the height of its animated twinkle.

Probably the three most relevant games that employ proximity techniques are the GigaWing Psyvariar and Shikigami Series. In the Shikgami No Shiro games your player has what is called a ‘tension gauge’ which reflects how close the player character is to nearby bullets and enemies. Not only does a high tension boost the power of the character’s main weapon but it also multiplies any score from currently destroyed enemies. This encourages players to ‘bullet hug’ and risk destruction by ‘scraping’ bullets to keep the multiplier high. This a good example of a ‘risk-reward’ system that allows players to adjust their play style to increase the challenge of going for a high score. In the GigaWing series players can use a ‘Reflect Laser/Barrier’ which sucks in all nearby bullets and releases them as player bullet attacks back across the screen. This skill recharges slowly after use, so players have to time its use carefully. By ‘bullet herding’ the player can reflect huge clouds of bullets at once and receive a hefty number of bonus score objects in return for the return damage they cause. As well as adding another strategic level to the game this enables an even higher bullet count onscreen and a relevant method of survival for players. Perhaps the most extreme form of proximity gameplay is in the Psyvariar series. In these games the player can ‘buzz’ enemy bullets and craft by positioning their ship near to these otherwise deadly objects. Each buzz increases the level of a gauge onscreen, when they gauge is full the player has a brief period of invincibility. During this time the player can continue to buzz without fear of dying. Using this technique expert players can ‘cloud jump’ from one clump of bullets to the next, extending their invincibility and scoring more points each time they fill the gauge. In fact the most skilled players will rarely fire on enemy craft at all, preferring to allow them to fire as many ‘buzzable’ shots as possible.

Other gameplay systems:
Probably the most progressive and admired shmup of recent years is Ikaruga(2002-Treasure). In Ikaruga the player must learn to manage a ‘polarity system’ where every object and bullet in the game can be either black or white. The player can switch between these two colours and will fire the appropriately coloured bullets. While in the white state, white enemy bullets cannot damage the players ship, similarly black bullets cannot harm the player in black state. This forces the player to constantly switch polarity to navigate the duotone bullet patterns the game throws at them. This lends an almost puzzle like quality to the gameplay which demands a great degree of fast reactions and mental agility. In addition to this rule, bullets absorbed by the player (while the same colour as the bullets) can be fired off as homing bullets. Black laser fire will damage white enemies quicker than shots their own colour (and vice versa). Ikarugas design plays cleverly with these aspects and still manages to look strikingly unique.
EspGaluda (2003-Cave) uses another unusual gameplay twist. The player collects crystals from dead enemies to fill up a gauge. The player then has the ability activate this gauge to slow time down, causing all enemy bullets to move at roughly half speed. Once the gauge empties the bullet speed returns to normal (actually even faster). If an enemy is destroyed while in this slow-time state, all the bullets that have been fired by the enemy transform into bonus points. As well as being a method of escaping tight ‘bullet mazes’ this technique also tempts players into teasing large amounts of ‘bullet spam’ from enemies to convert into extra points. This is another good example of a ‘Risk/Reward’ system that can extend the possible play styles available to the user and increase the challenge and life span of the game.

Shmups are traditionally a 2D phenomenon and have great difficulty in translating the core concepts and motion gameplay into a 3D environment. As such, most recent 3D shoot-em-ups have used 3D engines to render elaborate spacecraft and exotic backgrounds while remaining from the camera perspective as 2D planar games (where movement exists only on the x,y plane with z-depth being used for background graphics and special fx). Where some games have tried other approaches (2.5D such as silpheed – lost planet ) it is often unsuccessful as correctly predicting the path of enemies and bullets becomes much more difficult. Yet in either 3 or 2 dimensions the graphic design of shmups has followed many different routes with two prominent themes, space and warfare.

The Gradius series typifies the space/sci-fi element of shmup design. This theme was essentially born in Space Invaders and developed through games such as R-Type, the ThuderForce series and DDP. Parallel to this style of design games like 1942(1984-midway), Battle Garegga(1996-Raizing), Strikers 1945(1999-Psikyo) and Ketsui(2002-Cave) followed a theme of airborne military warfare with bi-planes, helicopters and gunships taking the place of aliens and asteroids. These two themes have remained popular since the early days of shmups, however there are some notable exceptions that explore more abstract source material and drawing style.

Guwange(1999-Cave) is a shmup set in feudal japan. The player chooses to be one of three brave warriors each with an associated spirit (a wolf,a demon or a winged spirit) and fights samurai, magic lanterns and giant spiders. The design often mimics surreal Japanese martial arts films (Ghost story etc) and displays a vast amount of beautifully hand drawn pixel animation. Based on the The Muromachi era (1336 – 1573) of Japanese history Cave’s designers obviously used historical documents in its design process.

Twinkle Star Sprites(1996-ADK) demonstrates the strand of ‘cute-em-up’. In this game and other similar shmups the player and opponents are cartoonish and cuddly. Players will find themselves up against giant bouncing cats, glowing rabbits and flying pigs. With a more ‘hello kitty’ approach to graphics and some competitive puzzle elements TSS became an odd classic. Other games followed in style such as the Cotton series Dangun Feveron(disco themed) and Sexy Parodius (fighting giant penguins and corn cobs)

REZ, although often considered an ‘on rails shooter’ as opposed to a pure shmup, takes an abstract approach to its whole design. Mixing futuristic elements with mythological themes REZ creates an immersive environment where just moving through the levels is as enjoyable as destroying the enemy. Although described as ‘Panzer Dragoon with trance trousers on’ the retro-futuristic stylings of REZ found it critical acclaim, if not market sales.

The formulaic elements of shmups allowed designed to reduce graphics to a abstract minimum while still maintaining gameplay. From classics such as Asteroids to contemporary games like Geometry Wars or Mutant Storm the use of neon-abstract forms has allowed designers to produce addictive games that do not rely on months of content generation, while still remaining aesthetically interesting.

With shmup design still a home for 2D pixel graphics and abstraction it is not surprise that the genre has prompted the development of many amateur (doujin) games developers. Even within the mainstream industry a shmup development team would be typically less than five people as opposed to the large teams working on complex 3D RPGs or FPS titles.

For many enthusiasts the home development of any game is a daunting enough task. Where game design studios spend millions and work with vast teams over years of production the homebrew designer/programmer must accept the limitations of his/her situation. Shmups offer an ideal formula and structure in which to produce innovative products within realistic goals. The abstract nature at the heart of the genre allows individual designers to be innovative and experimental.

ABA Games is probably the most impressive example of this approach. One man has released approximately Five high quality doujin games over the last few years. Employing mainly vector graphics styling ABA has produced aesthetic classics such as Rrootage and Noiz2sa which appeal as interactive art works as much as games. Often paying homage to classic commercial shooters(Rrootage) or trying out new innovative ideas (Tukumi FIghers) ABA games always look like ABA, perhas because of the distinctive design and interfaces. It is also impressive that these games have now reached most platforms and are still freeware.

Warning Forever is another vector themed shmup. In this game the twist is that the player has to face an infinite queue of boss fights. Starting as a simple opponent, each death allows the next generation to improve on its failings. From a small vulcan firing diamond to a screen filling monster is simply a matter of evolution, the enemy increasing the use of any weapons it has so far found useful against the player. Again a simple idea that is explored with a twist (the evolutionary aspect) that can lead to sessions of addictive replay.

Mutant Storm and Space Tripper are both shmups from PomPom, a small two man UK company. One is a defender-like shooter and the other a Robotron clone. Both games have exceptional production quality and are both highly addictive challenges. One of the developers focuses on the design and the other on programming (with obvious interchange between the two) and by sticking to simple but elegant shmup concepts PomPom have managed to produce excellent games that are now destined for Xbox live.

Ultimately shmups may be a niche genre that will never regain the popularity it had in the late 80’s early 90’s. Shmups is also a haven for currently unpopular strands of game design (2D sprites, short games and replay value). Mainstream gaming culture has changed to prefer forms that often clash with shmup philosophy and as a result shoot-em-ups receive less press and publicity (but of course in truth also sell less). Even in Japan, traditionally a shmup stronghold, interest has waned somewhat. However with the release of critically acclaimed games like Ikaruga and GradiusV the shmup is obviously not dead yet. As an alternative to time sapping MMORPGs or under-par FPSs shmups can offer a quick blast, a sense of true player skill and an enduring challenge. The basic formula of shmups has undergone many upgrades and innovations but can still remain as addictive as space invaders was. In addition to these factors shmups also offer some of the nearest opportunities and examples of independent (indie) game development that is currently available.
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