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Shoot 'em up

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Shoot 'em up (also known as shmup or STG[1][2]) is a sub-genre of shooter video games, which are in turn a sub-genre of action video games. There is no consensus as to which design elements compose a shoot 'em up; some restrict the definition to games featuring spacecraft and certain types of character movement, while others allow a broader definition including characters on foot and a variety of perspectives.

The genre's roots can be traced back to Spacewar!, one of the earliest computer games, developed in 1962. The shoot 'em up genre was later established by the hit arcade game Space Invaders, which popularised and set the general template for the genre in 1978, and the genre was then further developed by arcade hits such as Asteroids and Galaxian in 1979. Shoot 'em ups were popular throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, diversifying into a variety of subgenres such as scrolling shooters, run-and-gun games and rail shooters. In the mid-1990s, shoot 'em ups became a niche genre based on design conventions established in the 1980s, and increasingly catered to specialist enthusiasts, particularly in Japan. "Bullet hell" games are a subgenre of shooters that features overwhelming numbers of enemy projectiles, often in visually impressive formations.


A "shoot 'em up", also known as a "shmup"[3][4] or "STG" (the common Japanese abbreviation for "shooting games"),[1][2] is a game in which the protagonist combats a large number of enemies by shooting at them while dodging their fire. The controlling player must rely primarily on reaction times to succeed.[5][6] Beyond this, critics differ on exactly which design elements constitute a shoot 'em up. Some restrict the genre to games featuring some kind of craft, using fixed or scrolling movement.[5] Others widen the scope to include games featuring such protagonists as robots or humans on foot, as well as including games featuring "on-rails" (or "into the screen") and "run and gun" movement.[6][7][8] Mark Wolf restricts the definition to games featuring multiple antagonists ("'em" being short for "them"), calling games featuring one-on-one shooting "combat games".[9] Formerly, critics described any game where the primary design element was shooting as a "shoot 'em up",[6] but later shoot 'em ups became a specific, inward-looking genre based on design conventions established in those shooting games of the 1980s.[7]

Common elements[edit]

Shoot 'em ups are a subgenre of shooter game, in turn a type of action game. These games are usually viewed from a top-down or side-view perspective, and players must use ranged weapons to take action at a distance. The player's avatar is typically a vehicle or spacecraft under constant attack. Thus, the player's goal is to shoot as quickly as possible at anything that moves or threatens them to reach the end of the level with a boss battle.[10] In some games, the player's character can withstand some damage or a single hit will result in their destruction.[4] The main skills required in shoot 'em ups are fast reactions and memorising enemy attack patterns. Some games feature overwhelming numbers of enemy projectiles and the player has to memorise their patterns to survive. These games belong to one of the fastest-paced video game genres.

Large numbers of enemy characters programmed to behave in an easily predictable manner are typically featured.[11] These enemies may behave in a certain way dependent on their type, or attack in formations that the player can learn to predict. The basic gameplay tends to be straightforward with many varieties of weapons.[4] Shoot 'em ups rarely have realistic physics. Characters can instantly change direction with no inertia, and projectiles move in a straight line at constant speeds.[10] The player's character can collect "power-ups" which may afford the character greater protection, an "extra life", health, shield, or upgraded weaponry.[12] Different weapons are often suited to different enemies, but these games seldom keep track of ammunition. As such, players tend to fire indiscriminately, and their weapons only damage legitimate targets.[10]


Screencap of Project Starfighter, a side-scrolling shoot-'em-up video game

Shoot 'em ups are categorized by their design elements, particularly viewpoint and movement:[6]

Fixed shooters: Restrict the player along with enemies to a single screen, this can also include giving them a single axis of motion. Everything including movement is constrained to one screen.[13] Examples include Space Invaders (1978), Galaxian (1979), Centipede (1980), Galaga (1981), Galactix (1992), Love Hero (2019), Doughlings: Invasion (2019).

Multidirectional shooters: Feature 360-degree movement where the protagonist may rotate and move in any direction.[14] Multidirectional shooters with one joystick for movement and one joystick for firing in any direction independent of movement are called twin-stick shooters.[15][16]

Run 'n' gun: Describes a shoot 'em up in which the protagonist fights on foot, usually with the ability to jump. Examples include Ikari Warriors, Contra and Metal Slug. Run and gun games may use side scrolling, vertical scrolling or isometric viewpoints and may feature multidirectional movement.[17][18][19]

Tube shooters: Feature craft flying through an abstract tube,[20] such as Tempest (1981) and Gyruss (1983). There is still a single axis of motion, making these a subset of fixed shooters.

Rail shooters: Limit the player to moving around the screen while following a specific route;[21] these games often feature an "into the screen" viewpoint, with which the action is seen from behind the player character, and moves "into the screen", while the player retains control over dodging.[6][22] Examples include Space Harrier (1985), Captain Skyhawk (1990), Starblade (1991), Star Fox (1993), Star Wars: Rebel Assault (1993), Panzer Dragoon (1995), and Sin and Punishment (2000). Rail shooters that use light guns are called light gun shooters, such as Virtua Cop (1994), Time Crisis (1995) and The House of the Dead (1996). Light-gun games that are "on rails" are usually not considered to be in the shoot-em-up category, but rather their own first-person light-gun shooter category.[23] The term has also sometimes been applied to scripted events in first-person shooter (FPS) games such as Call of Duty.[24][25]

Cute 'em ups: Feature brightly colored graphics depicting surreal settings and enemies. Cute 'em ups tend to have unusual, oftentimes completely bizarre opponents for the player to fight, with Twinbee and Fantasy Zone first pioneering the subgenre,[26] along with Parodius, Cotton, and Harmful Park being additional key games. [27] Some cute 'em ups may employ overtly sexual characters and innuendo.[28]

Scrolling shooters[edit]

Vertically scrolling shooters: Action that is viewed from above and scrolls up (or occasionally down) the screen.

Horizontally scrolling shooters: Action that is viewed side-on and scrolls horizontally.[6][7][29]

Isometrically scrolling shooters: A small number of scrolling shooters, such as Sega's Zaxxon (1982), feature an isometric point of view.[7]

Bullet hell (弾幕, danmaku, literally "barrage" or "bullet curtain"): A subgenre of shooters in which the entire screen is often almost completely filled with enemy bullets.[30] This type is also known as "curtain fire",[31] "manic shooters"[7] or "maniac shooters".[32] This style of game originated in the mid-1990s and is an offshoot of scrolling shooters.[32]


Origins and rise[edit]

Spacewar! (1962), a computer game with shooting and spacecraft.

The genre's exact origins are a matter of some confusion.[6] Video game journalist Brian Ashcraft pinpoints Spacewar! (one of the very earliest computer games) as the first shoot 'em up,[33] but the later Space Invaders is more frequently cited as the "first" or "original" in the genre.[6][7][34][35] Spacewar! was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1961, for the amusement of the developers; it was, however, remade four times as an arcade game in the early to mid-1970s. The game featured combat between two spacecraft.[36]

Space Invaders (1978), a fixed shooter that established the shoot 'em up genre.

However, it was not until 1978's seminal Space Invaders, created by Tomohiro Nishikado at Japan's Taito Corporation, that the shooter genre became prolific.[37] Space Invaders pitted the player against multiple enemies descending from the top of the screen at a constantly increasing speed.[35] The game used alien creatures inspired by The War of the Worlds (by H. G. Wells) because the developers were unable to render the movement of aircraft; in turn, the aliens replaced human enemies because of moral concerns (regarding the portrayal of killing humans) on the part of Taito Corporation. As with subsequent shoot 'em ups of the time, the game was set in space as the available technology only permitted a black background. The game also introduced the idea of giving the player a number of lives. It popularised a more interactive style of gameplay with the enemies responding to the player-controlled cannon's movement,[38] and it was the first video game to popularise the concept of achieving a high score,[39][40][41] being the first to save the player's score.[39] The aliens of Space Invaders return fire at the protagonist, making them the first arcade game targets to do so.[42] It set the template for the shoot 'em up genre,[43] and has influenced most shooting games released since then.[37]

Golden age and refinement (late 1970s to early 1980s)[edit]

In 1979, Namco's Galaxian—"the granddaddy of all top-down shooters", according to IGN—was released.[44] Its use of colour graphics and individualised antagonists were considered "strong evolutionary concepts" among space ship games.[45] Atari's Asteroids (1979) allowed the player to shoot in any direction by rotating the game's spacecraft.[46] That same year saw the release of SNK's debut shoot 'em up Ozma Wars, notable for being the first action game to feature a supply of energy, resembling a life bar, a mechanic that has now become common in the majority of modern action games.[47] It also featured vertically scrolling backgrounds and enemies.[48]

In 1981, Defender established scrolling in shoot 'em ups, offering horizontally extended levels. Unlike most later games in the genre, the player can move in either direction.[7] The scrolling helped remove design limitations associated with the screen.[49] Though the minimap had been used before (such as in 1980's Rally-X), Defender integrated it in a more essential manner.[50] Konami's Scramble, released in 1981, is a side-scrolling shooter with forced scrolling. It was the first scrolling shooter to offer multiple, distinct levels.[7] Atari's Tempest, released in 1981, is one of the earliest tube shooters and an early attempt to incorporate a 3D perspective into shooter games.[51] Tempest ultimately went on to influence major rail shooters.[52][53]

Vertical scrolling shooters emerged around the same time. Namco's Xevious, released in 1983, is frequently cited as the first vertical scrolling shooter and, although it was in fact preceded by several other games of that type, it is considered one of the most influential.[7] Xevious is also the first to convincingly portray dithered/shaded organic landscapes as opposed to blocks-in-space or wireframe obstacles.[54] 1982's highly acclaimed Robotron: 2084 was most influential on subsequent multi-directional shooters.[55][56]

1985 saw the release of Konami's Gradius, which gave the player greater control over the choice of weaponry, thus introducing another element of strategy.[7] The game also introduced the need for the player to memorise levels in order to achieve any measure of success.[57] Gradius, with its iconic protagonist, defined the side-scrolling shoot 'em up and spawned a series spanning several sequels.[58] The following year saw the emergence of one of Sega's forefront series with its game Fantasy Zone. The game received acclaim for its surreal graphics and setting and the protagonist, Opa-Opa, was for a time considered Sega's mascot.[59] The game borrowed Defender's device of allowing the player to control the direction of flight and along with the earlier TwinBee (1985), is an early archetype of the "cute 'em up" subgenre.[7][60] In 1986, Taito released KiKi KaiKai, an overhead multi-directional shooter. The game is notable for using a traditional fantasy setting in contrast to most shoot 'em up games filled with science fiction motifs.[61] R-Type, an acclaimed side-scrolling shoot 'em up, was released in 1987 by Irem, employing slower paced scrolling than usual, with difficult levels calling for methodical strategies.[3][62] 1990's Raiden was the beginning of another acclaimed and enduring series to emerge from this period.[63][64]

Run-and-gun and rail shooters (1980s to early 1990s)[edit]

Run-and-gun shoot 'em ups became popular in the mid-1980s. These games feature characters on foot, rather than spacecraft, and often have military themes. The origins of this type of shooter go back to Sheriff by Nintendo, released in 1979. Taito's Front Line (1982) introduced the vertical scrolling format later popularized by Capcom's Commando (1985), which established the standard formula used by later run-and-gun shooters.[19] SNK's TNK III, released later in 1985, combined the Front Line tank shooter format with unique rotary joystick controls, which they later combined with Commando-inspired run-and-gun gameplay to develop Ikari Warriors (1986), which further popularized run-and-gun shooters.[65] Ikari Warriors also drew inspiration from the action movie Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985),[48] which it was originally intended to be an adaptation of.[65] Contemporary critics considered military themes and protagonists similar to Rambo or Schwarzenegger prerequisites for a shoot 'em up, as opposed to an action-adventure game.[19][66] The success of Commando and Ikari Warriors led to run-and-gun games becoming the dominant style of shoot 'em up during the late 1980s to early 1990s, with the term "shoot 'em up" itself becoming synonymous with run-and-gun shooters during this period.[19]

Konami's Green Beret (1985), known as Rush'n Attack in North America, adapted the Commando formula to a side-scrolling format.[67] Later notable side-scrolling run-and-gun shooters include Namco's Rolling Thunder (1986), which added cover mechanics to the formula,[68] and Data East's RoboCop (1988).[19] In 1987, Konami created Contra, a side-scrolling coin-op arcade game, and later a NES game, that was particularly acclaimed for its multi-directional aiming and two-player cooperative gameplay. By the early 1990s and the popularity of 16-bit consoles, the scrolling shooter genre was overcrowded, with developers struggling to make their games stand out, with exceptions such as the inventive Gunstar Heroes (1993) by Treasure.[69]

Sega's pseudo-3D rail shooter Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom demonstrated the potential of 3D shoot 'em up gameplay in 1982.[70] Sega's Space Harrier, a rail shooter released in 1985, broke new ground graphically and its wide variety of settings across multiple levels gave players more to aim for than high scores.[71][72] In 1986, Arsys Software released WiBArm, a shooter that switched between a 2D side-scrolling view in outdoor areas to a fully 3D polygonal third-person perspective inside buildings, while bosses were fought in an arena-style 2D battle, with the game featuring a variety of weapons and equipment.[73] In 1987, Square's 3-D WorldRunner was an early stereoscopic 3-D shooter played from a third-person perspective,[74] followed later that year by its sequel JJ,[75] and the following year by Space Harrier 3-D which used the SegaScope 3-D shutter glasses.[76] That same year, Sega's Thunder Blade switched between both a top-down view and a third-person view, and featured the use of force feedback, where the joystick vibrates.[77]

Bullet hell and niche appeal (mid-1990s to present)[edit]

Japanese players at a shoot 'em up arcade in Akihabara, Tokyo. (2017)

A new type of shooters up emerged in the early 1990s: variously termed "bullet hell", "manic shooters", "maniac shooters" and danmaku (弾幕, "barrage"), these games required the player to dodge overwhelming numbers of enemy projectiles and called for still more consistent reactions from players.[7][32] Bullet hell games arose from the need for 2D shoot 'em up developers to compete with the emerging popularity of 3D games: huge numbers of missiles on screen were intended to impress players.[32] Toaplan's Batsugun (1993) provided the prototypical template for this new breed,[78] with Cave (formed by former employees of Toaplan, including Batsugun's main creator Tsuneki Ikeda, after the latter company collapsed) inventing the type proper with 1995's DonPachi.[79] Bullet hell games marked another point where the shooter genre began to cater to more dedicated players.[7][32] Games such as Gradius had been more difficult than Space Invaders or Xevious,[57] but bullet hell games were yet more inward-looking and aimed at dedicated fans of the genre looking for greater challenges.[7][80] While shooter games featuring protagonists on foot largely moved to 3D-based genres, popular, long-running series such as Contra and Metal Slug continued to receive new sequels.[81][82][83] Rail shooters have rarely been released in the new millennium, with only Rez and Panzer Dragoon Orta achieving cult recognition.[21][72][84]

Treasure's shoot 'em up, Radiant Silvergun (1998), introduced an element of narrative to the genre. It was critically acclaimed for its refined design, though it was not released outside Japan and remains a much sought-after collector's item.[3][7][85][86] Its successor Ikaruga (2001) featured improved graphics and was again acclaimed as one of the best games in the genre. Both Radiant Silvergun and Ikaruga were later released on Xbox Live Arcade.[3][7][87] The Touhou Project series spans 23 years and 27 games as of 2019 and was listed in the Guinness World Records in October 2010 for being the "most prolific fan-made shooter series".[88] The genre has undergone something of a resurgence with the release of the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii online services,[87] while in Japan arcade shoot 'em ups retain a deep-rooted niche popularity.[89] Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved was released on Xbox Live Arcade in 2005 and in particular stood out from the various re-releases and casual games available on the service.[90] The PC has also seen its share of dōjin shoot 'em ups like Crimzon Clover, Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony, Xenoslaive Overdrive, and the eXceed series. However, despite the genre's continued appeal to an enthusiastic niche of players, shoot 'em up developers are increasingly embattled financially by the power of home consoles and their attendant genres.[89][91]

See also[edit]


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  • Ashcraft, Brian, (2008) Arcade Mania! The Turbo-Charged World of Japan's Game Centers, (Kodansha International)

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