Video game genres were formed in the arcade. The experiences we continue to play today were invented for coin-op, and then brought home for us to enjoy on consoles. Pretty much every genre made the jump to consoles just fine, from fighting games to platformers to even rhythm games. There is one genre that never found a place in homes, and that is the shooter, specifically the scrolling shooter or “shmup”. Sure, they’re readily available and people do buy them, but they haven’t broken into the mainstream like fighting games,another quintessential arcade genre, has.
Fighting games were a niche genre, one mostly played in arcades even after home ports were made, and once arcades began to wind down, fighting games did as well. With the release of Street Fighter IV in 2008 however, fighting games had an upswing. The ability to play online with friends quickly brought in a new market, and today there’s a massive fighting game community, with events such as Evo watched by millions and games like Guilty Gear Strive selling better than any other game in the franchise by a wide margin.
As for shmups, there have been just as many quality releases as fighting games in the past few years, with classic games like Gradius, Darius, and Cotton readily available, and new IPs like the excellent Drainus carrying the torch forward. These are fantastic titles in their own right, and have added a few modern upgrades such as online leaderboards, so why haven’t shmups been successful like their arcade borne brethren?
The basic reason I see is approachability. Fighting games have many ways to play them: If you’re a beginner, you can hop into training mode or even play against a friend at a similar skill level. You can learn the game, become better, and climb the ranks to highlight your skills far easier in a fighting game than in any shmup. There is a tangible “I’ve gotten better” feeling in a fighting game when you’re able to defeat someone you previously could not. Shmups are very self-motivating, and it can often be disheartening when you get stuck on a level early on and can’t progress. Multiplayer in shmups usually involves taking turns, not fighting someone or playing cooperatively. It’s you against the game, and if the game is hard, a player can often drop the title instead of grinding at it if they aren’t internally motivated. How can shmups get their moment of glory, that Street Fighter IV-esque chance to reach mainstream attention?
First, there needs to be far more comprehensive and easy-to-get-into tutorials and simple modes. Shmup fans may scoff at the idea, but we were all newbies at one point, and the more of a chance fresh faces get to learn the basics, the more likely they’ll stick around and become lifetime fans. Options similar to fighting games’ auto-combos would help, perhaps infinite missiles, smaller hitboxes, and deep rundowns of mechanics would get new folks into the game better than dumping them into level one. The excellent tutorialization of Skullgirls, and the auto-combos in Persona 4 Arena were how I first learned fighting games. Something similar should be a standard inclusion in future shmups.
There also needs to be some form of player vs player mode. It’s disheartening to go against the game and have it destroy you every time, but being able to play against someone else at a similar skill level to you would be a fantastic way to introduce new players to how shmups work. Perhaps a three vs one mode, with three players controlling the hero ships and one player placing enemies in their way and controlling the boss at the end of each stage? There’s precedent in the fantastic Neo Geo title Twinkle Star Sprites, a vs-focused game where defeating enemies on your screen sends them to your opponent’s side. Modes similar to this in side-scrolling shooters would be a welcome addition, and would lead to a more even playing field for players of similar skill level.
If gameplay changes aren’t enough, then story could be just what a game needs to bring in new eyes. Shmups have never been a story-focused genre, but why not? Why put a limit on a style of play? There have been several shmups with acclaimed writing, such as Sine Mora and The Void Rains Upon Her Heart. The story doesn’t need to be woven directly into the gameplay, and I hope the acceptance of visual novel elements in other games leads to an adoption of easier to digest writing to offset the frantic shooting gameplay shmups are known for. Many doujin shooters such as Touhou are popular to many people almost despite their shooter origins. I know many fans of the series who haven’t touched the games, but I also know just as many who fell in love with the characters and went to try the series and greatly enjoyed the challenge. Having something like a character or even a style of play to latch onto through a series can bring players into the fold. When someone’s favorite Street Fighter III character returns for Street Fighter V, there’s a good chance they’ll go and get V when it releases. Having some form of recognizable character beyond a spaceship can go a long way for people, which is something Cotton does well, at least.
I believe there needs to be more external motivation. Many people get into fighting games for the community, watching Evo or a similar tournament and seeing the rivalries and friendships form in real time is exhilarating, and there’s always a feeling of “that could be me” in the hearts of many. How can a genre that mostly hosts single player games have moments like that? Shmups are a very different type of game, and maybe they are destined to be niche forever. But making tutorials and versus modes standard through the genre will grow the community, and icing the cake with an involving story would get players far more invested than before. Will these suggestions work? Maybe, maybe not. A big problem shmups often face is one of optics, where they are often seen as games made for bite-sized attempts instead of deep
experiences. Fighting games were able to escape that concept by going online and adding more features. I wouldn’t call the future of shmups dire by any means. People will buy them, and the community of bullet-dodgers will eat up every new classic released. There is a road towards further acceptance, though, and I would like for more gamers to be able to appreciate a genre they may have not given its due.