Friday, June 18, 2010

Thursday Thoughts - Can Shmups Evolve?

My original idea was to do a list of the top 10 shmups from the XBLIG library, but then I thought of something while checking out E3 videos. I started thinking about other genres and how each of them over the years has added one thing or another, or even changed the game altogether. FPS titles went from single player affairs without the ability to even jump to huge budget campaigns and competitive bloodbaths for a few dozen players. Platformers made the leap to 3D and arguably lead to the more action-oriented titles like God of War and Bayonetta. Even RPGs got larger and found themselves spawning a multiplayer branch of the genre. You can do this with nearly every other gaming genre out there, but one remains ever defiant and has for over a decade if not more: the shmup.

The shmup had some pretty simple beginnings with Galaxian and Space Invaders, allowing only side-to-side movement as the enemies came to you. The next evolution was the obvious of four way movement, though a few other ideas came about in the form of a 3D Galaxian/Space Invaders (Tempest) and turning the action sideways (Defender, Scramble). Even though this was in the incredibly early 1980's, the genre hasn't seen any sort of evolution that has stuck since then outside of just adding a lot more bullets to the screen or adding cooperative gameplay. So my question is this: why has the shmup not seen any true evolutions?

To answer this question, let's look first at the ideas that didn't go much further than the initial attempt. The most successful one was the 3D on-rails shooter, seen as early as Tempest but more known with titles like Space Harrier and Star Fox. Out of all the less traditional styles, the rail shooter is probably the most successful, spawning greats like Rez and Sin & Punishment. The reason it doesn't get much love today outside of a simple reskinning (XBLIG 3D Infinity, for example) is two-fold. One, the vast majority of today's gaming crowd would rather just play a 3D shooter that ISN'T on rails, such as Halo or, if they still want a ship, Ace Combat. Even the latest Star Fox game ditched the rails and went into all range mode. And, two, the genre did somewhat change, but in doing so people dropped the controllers and picked up light guns for Time Crisis and House of the Dead. Because of this, the 3D on-rails shooter stayed pretty much the same since 1985 outside of a couple cult classics.

Another idea born in the 80's that has seen significant success is the twin-stick shooter. Arguably it was Asteroids that started it, but Smash TV, Robotron 2084, and even Bosconian carry close ties to current gems like Geometry Wars. Also arguably, this IS the evolution of the shmup genre for today's consoles. There are two problems with this as well, though. One, the flooding of the genre. It's most prevalent on XBox Live in the Indie Games section, with a new one coming out every week it seems by people who care nothing about the genre as much as they do about a quick buck. Of course, there are some amazing ones on the service, such as Joy Joy or Pew Pew Pod, but that brings us to the second problem: they don't feel like shmups. The point of 99% of twin-stickers are that they revolve around survival rather than a set goal. I'm actually having some trouble thinking of a single twin-stick game that scrolls on its own, too. So they lose the feel of what most consider a shmup and, because of that, don't really get accepted into the genre.

Sadly, that last paragraph kind of leads into what I think is a huge obstacle in shmup evolution: how dated and unsupported the genre is. The majority of the titles professionally done these days are, sadly, all Japanese titles revolving around loli-goths and screen-filling bullet patterns. And most of the remainder is simple reskinning of 25 year old games. Even Konami's latest, Otomedius, looks and plays like 1985's Gradius with gratuitous amounts of bouncing bewbs. Even more depressing is that these games come out once in a blue moon, making it probably the most unsupported genre I can think of on current gen hardware. The titles that do try different mechanics usually get left by the wayside, such as the ones by Milestone, and the only ones we see released on XBLA or something similar are the remakes and rereleases of games we played 10-20 years ago.

There is a slight glint of hope, though. As I've said dozens of times, the place you'll find the most innovation in this (or most any other) genre is the indie scene. For example, XBLIG/PC title Leave Home from hermitgames is one of the more innovative titles I've seen in the genre. It's definitely not the best and, in all fairness, you'll either love it or hate it. It's a shmup with a fixed game length and self-adjusting difficulty that's over within a few minutes of its start. Obviously not something you'll see on a disc anytime soon, but excellent as a $3 download. And maybe that's going to be the only way we see evolution in the shmup genre. Not because the community doesn't care, but because the genre is just too dated and not cost effective enough to see physical copies outside of the tried and true sequels from well-known companies. And so, once again, it's left to the underdogs to breathe fresh air into that which is stale, and I wish them luck.


  1. Nice article and well written. I am glad you got so much into this. Though i think more could be said about side scrollers like defender, vs say vertical scrollers like Exed Exes. I feel personally there is so much variety in shooters of this kind, but the subtelty is not always recognized as such, nor is the exciting gameplay loud enough to shout over the current slew of bullet hell shooters. I like most all shooters, but so many bullet hell and twin stick ones are making me a bit bored. Thougg my reasoning for the twin stick is that they are so freakin easy to produce a basic one, with hardly any balancing etc. Though that reason should be added to the fact that Geometry wars did make it a very high profile style.

    dang i am going on and on, and not really listing all my thoughts. Time to call it a night.

    Kepp up this great work.
    Da Voodoochief

  2. Nice article, I love most types of shmups but I do think that more can done to evolve them,

    the only problem is that most gamers find challenge / arcade style game totally alien to them, even to think that many aspects of them are bad game design.

    Personally i can see devs changing shmups more in the future to cater for the mainstream which will imo end up alienating many of the hardcore shmup fans, especially those into scoring.

    IMO theres still allot of room for invation for traditional hardcore shmup, but devs cant or wont invest in making it happen. It also doesnt help with the fans who tend to be very stuck in their ways as to what a good shmup should be, ie with lots of bullets like cave.