“There are only three sports,” Hemingway once said, before handily providing a list. “Bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.”
It’s funny, because I sometimes feel the same way about my own personal preferences when it comes to games. There are only really three genres that matter: puzzlers, driving and good old-fashioned 2D shooting. Everything else is mere frippery.
And, quite honestly, when I’m in the embrace of a shmup, smothered by floating clouds of bullets and twitching a tiny ship through impossibly large alien armadas, I could boil that down to one.
There’s something so brilliantly pure about the shmup. Maybe that’s because you can mark the key beats of early video game history by them: there’s Computer Space back at the very dawn, Space Invaders as they pushed into the mainstream, then all those fascinating splinters as the genre burrowed into its own niches. Gradius! Darius! Raiden! Zanac! Xevious!
In the abstract poetry of those names there’s something beautifully alien, too, which might explain another part of the genre’s appeal. These are things of pure fantasy, science fictions culled from half-glimpsed pulpy paperback covers. To play a good shmup is to be whisked away to some 2am otherworld that’s all inky black space coursed with blossoms of purple and pink.
God I love a good shmup, though I’ll admit another part of the appeal is the scarcity of the things – traditionally, at least. Back in the day, it always seemed to be the shmups that commanded the highest prices on the second-hand market, and made Saturn games like Radiant Silvergun and Battle Garegga feel so exotic, so desirable. Those two examples – alongside a fair few others – are what’s probably led me to feel that the Saturn was always the best platform for shmups (you could just as easily make a case for the PC Engine, or the PS2), but now there’s a new contender for that position.
Everything’s better on Switch, of course, but shmups just sing on this thing. Thank the quirks of its design that make it possible to play in ‘tate’ mode – whereby the screen is flipped 90 degrees to make sure all the real estate is made the most of when it comes to vertical shooters. Thank its success in Japan and overseas, and the ease to play games from any region, and to pick up games from any regional digital store.
And thank the abundance of brilliant examples of the genre, both old and new, that make this thing a powerhouse, and the perfect place to start a collection of some of the very finest shmups. If you’re looking for somewhere to start, here’s a list of some personal favourites and recommendations (and I’d emphasise that it’s a personal list, so apologies if your own personal favourite isn’t here – but isn’t it great that we don’t all think the same?)
Oh, and if you’re new to the genre, or have been previously been intimidated by the severity of the challenge they offer, a quick word. The shmup has long been one of my favourite genres, and I’m absolutely terrible at them. It’s possible to love these things, and enjoy them, without pursuing the world’s best scores, or even just spamming credits in them until you see the end. I’m just happy playing a game and knowing there’s a wealth of depth, of systems and of possibilities just beyond your fingertips that you might, with a bit of time and a lot of study, one day master.
Konami Arcade Classics Collection
Why not start off with something of a history lesson? Konami’s Arcade Classics Collection isn’t perfect – though a recent update helped iron out some of the issues and dealt with a fair few of my early criticisms – but it does provide an invaluable introduction to a shmup elder statesman. Here you can chart the progress of Gradius from its beginnings as Scramble, through to the first entry and the subsequent spin-off, the excellent Salamander, and on to the very best of the series, Gradius 2. Well over 30 years on, the appeal, design and challenge of these games hasn’t dulled a bit. Oh, and here’s the bit where I once again beg Konami to do the right thing and bring Gradius 5 to Nintendo’s console.
Darius Cozmic Collection
Taito’s prog flipside to Gradius is better served here thanks to the work of M2, which brings together an early selection of this incredibly ambitious, wide-scope series, and a glorious thing it is too. These are simpler games than you might find elsewhere, but they’ve a spectacle that’s unparalleled – helped by the three screen panorama of the original Darius, or maybe just the out there psychedelia of Darius Gaiden. A word of warning, though – these are old-school games, and like a good old fashioned shmup this is one you’ll have to import as it’s a physical-only release that hasn’t found its way out of Japan just yet.
Danmaku Unlimited 3
No, you don’t have to have played the first two games to have an idea of what’s going on – if you really want I’m sure there’s a story recap out there for you – and instead Danmaku Unlimited 3 is a great introduction to the genre, with easy to parse systems and scalable difficulty that’s gentle enough for newcomers and brutal enough for those who like their shmups with teeth.
A new addition to the Switch library from developer Mebius and Cave alumni Koizumi Daisuke, and fast becoming a personal favourite, Rolling Gunner is another great introduction to the genre that also includes plenty of hidden depths. Another side-scroller, it has an innovative aiming system that’s the most enjoyable I’ve found in a shmup this side of Zero Gunner 2 (which, by the way, is also available on Switch), an aesthetic that’s pure mid-90s PS1 glory and a passion for the form that shines through. You don’t make a shmup for commercial gain or worldwide fame. You do it out of passion, and Rolling Gunner is full of it. There are riffs and licks taken from elsewhere, but that’s all just enthusiastically woven into Rolling Gunner’s own rhythm.
You can get a fair slice of Psikyo’s back catalogue on the Switch, and it’s a tall order picking just one – there’s Zero Gunner 2 with its novel aiming mechanic, Gunbird with its perfectly pitched challenge or even Gunbarich which, well, isn’t really a shmup at all – but that’s what I’ll do here with Dragon Blaze. It’s Psikyo’s prettiest game, and mechanically one of its more interesting as you send your dragon flying out ahead of you to whittle away popcorn enemies or bosses’ health meters. Really, though, you should probably pick up every Psikyo release there’s been on the Switch to date.
Since its release earlier this year, I can’t get enough of Devil Engine – and, handily, there’s more on its way soon with an expansion which you can play a demo of right now in the original game by inputting a cheat code. It’s details like that that make this side-scroller sing, as well as a passion for the good and great of the genre that Devil Engine puts through its own fuzz filter. For all it owes to the classics, though, Devil Engine has a swagger and chunk that’s all its own. Really, if you only buy one game on this list, you’d probably best make it this one.
The Neo Geo wasn’t ever really known for its shmups, but there are some bangers out there. Blazing Star might be the pick of the bunch, a gloriously woozy side-scroller with busy, often breathtaking graphics and a nice side-line in badly translated English to keep you amused in the few moments of downtime. This port of Yumekobo’s game is the work of Hamster, and while they’re not quite the match of M2’s restorations they’re still worth flicking through, as in its selection of arcade classics there are few duds.
Thunder Force 4
One of the best shmups of the 16-bit era – and, therefore, one of the best shmups of all-time – Thunder Force 4’s outing on Switch is as close to definitive as you could hope for, thanks to the work of porting house M2. The opening level of Strite – well, the easiest level, as you can choose which order to go about things here – is worth the price of entry alone, an amazing piece of parallax pixel art that looks like nothing less than a gloriously digitised Hokusai painting. Oh, and the thing plays beautifully too, which really helps.