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Shoot 'em up

A shoot-'em-up (also known as shmup) is a video game genre of shooter game in which the player controls a vehicle or character and fights large numbers of enemies with shooting attacks. The style of the game may range from cute to serious, from fantasy and science fiction to historic settings.

Shoot 'em ups originated in the arcades with Space Invaders usually being credited with the genre's birth. They peaked in popularity during the late 80s and early 90s, primarily as arcade and console titles. As the use of 3D graphics became more common in video games, the simplicity and arcade sensibilities of the genre slowly relegated their popularity to that of a niche. The genre remains most alive in Japan.

Common elements


In most shoot 'em ups, enemies appear in waves. Passing a level on the earliest shoot 'em ups usually required defeat or evasion of all enemies in that level. In later shoot 'em ups, levels began including bosses and minibosses as key milestones for the player to overcome. More recently, the greater processing power associated with newer consoles have allowed levels with dozens of enemies and attacks at once.


Power-ups are an integral feature of most shoot 'em ups. They are enhancements for the player's character that can be gained during the course of the game, usually as a reward for destroying enemies. Power-ups can improve the player's speed, armor, firepower, or weapon direction and range. These power-ups may have a limited supply or duration. Power-ups vary from game to game.


Many shoot 'em ups have elected to have one hit by an enemy result in instant death. As an additional penalty, the player may have to restart from an earlier level, or lose any special abilities they have gained. Other games use a hit point system that allows a player to take multiple hits before death.


On occasion, shoot 'em ups feature simultaneous multiplayer gameplay, with both players playing on the same screen.


Shoot 'em ups are often categorized by the player's viewpoint and movement.

Fixed shooters

Fixed shooters consist of levels that can each fit within a single screen. The player's movement is usually fixed to a single axis of motion, and their ability to aim is usually fixed in one direction. These games are sometimes also called gallery shooters.

Scrolling shooters

In scrolling shooters, as the player explores each level, the screen scrolls to reveal more of the level and more enemies. Scrolling shooters may scroll horizontally or vertically: A horizontal scrolling shooter usually shows the player from a sideview, while a vertical scrolling shooter offers a top-down perspective.

A small group of scrolling shooters also features an isometric point of view, with a diagonal scrolling. A typical example of this sub-genre is Sega's Zaxxon.

Tube and rail shooters

Tube shooters give players a single axis of movement around the edge of an on-screen "tube", creating the illusion that the player is moving forward into the screen. This style originated with Atari's Tempest and was further popularized by Gyruss.

Rail shooters largely supplanted tube shooters with the rise of three dimensional gameplay. The player's viewpoint automatically turns and moves through the level as if player were attached to a railroad, hence the name of the subgenre. As the player is propelled forward, the player may have limited freedom of motion to dodge incoming attacks. A few notable rail shooters include Panzer Dragoon, Rez, and Star Fox.

Multidirectional shooter

Multidirectional shooters, also called arena shooters, allow freedom of movement and orientation in a two-dimensional environment. This may take place within a single-screen level such as Robotron: 2084, or allow players to navigate a larger playing field as the screen scrolls.

Examples of multidirectional shooters include Robotron: 2084, Time Pilot, Bosconian, Smash TV, Bangai-O, Geometry Wars, Everyday Shooter, Sinistar, Desert Strike, Crimsonland, Zone 66, plobb! and Super Stardust HD.

Run and gun

Run and gun usually describes shoot 'em ups where the player character runs on foot, often incorporating jumping, as seen in platform games. Run and gun games can utilise side-scrolling, top-down or isometric viewpoints.

Examples of side-view run and guns include the Contra series, Metal Slug series, Abuse, Soldat, Liero Xtreme, Gunstar Heroes and Turrican (although the latter also has platform adventure elements and is generally less linear)

Examples of overhead view run and guns include Ikari Warriors, Heavy Barrel, Ninja Commando, Jackal, and Guerrilla War.

Bullet hell

is a sub-genre of shoot 'em up video games in which the entire screen is often almost completely filled with enemy bullets. The genre is also occasionally known as curtain fire or as manic shooters. This style of game originated in the mid-1990s, and is an offshoot of scrolling shooters. Most of the well-known commercial games of this type are developed by the Japanese video game company Cave. The genre is also very popular in dōjin soft, particularly via the Touhou series.


Early years

The first shooter was called Spacewar!, one of the very earliest computer games. However, it wasn't until 1978's seminal Space Invaders that the genre took off. Space Invaders is notable for pitting the player against many on-screen enemies that came from the top of the screen. Space Invaders was also a massive commercial success, even causing a coin shortage in Japan. It was quickly imitated, resulting in games such as Space Stranger and Super Invader Attack,. Namco's Galaxian took the genre further with more complex enemy patterns, and richer graphics.

1980's Defender introduced a scrolling playfield to the shoot 'em up formula. It offered horizontally extended levels. Unlike most later games in the genre, this scrolling could go in either direction, and followed the player. This would be imitated by some later shoot 'em ups, notably Choplifter and Fantasy Zone. The following year, Konami introduced Scramble, a side scrolling shooter with forced scrolling. It was the first scrolling 'shooter to offer multiple, distinct levels, and laid the groundwork for Gradius. Konami has since retconned Scramble into the Gradius series to acknowledge this influence.

Vertical scrolling shooters developed around the same time. While early titles like Galaxian offered scrolling star fields, they were merely superficial. Sega's Borderline (1981) was a vertical shooter with primitive scrolling. In March of the next year, Data East released Mission-X and Zoar, the latter of which was licensed from Tago Electronics. Both games were very similar, with Zoar being the more developed of the two, with separate attacks for airborne and surface-based enemies. This same year Orca released Funky Bee, which offered a more straightforward approach. These games would be overshadowed at the end of the year, when Namco released Xevious, a title often credited with being the first vertically scrolling shooter.

1985 was a big year for shoot 'em ups, thanks to two major games. Tiger Heli was the first shooter from the developer Toaplan, who would become an important name in the genre over the decade to follow. Tiger Heli is perhaps most notable for introducing the "megabomb," a powerful limited use weapon, and one of the genre's most popular conventions. This same year saw the release of Konami's Gradius, another major innovator. Gradius introduced selectable weapons, as well as "options," small offensive pods that follow and aid the player. These conventions, would be frequently imitated in later shooters.

The following year, Compile would release their first shoot 'em up, Zanac, on the MSX computer and Famicom Disk System console. In the years to follow Compile would become one of the biggest developers of shoot 'em ups on consoles and computers. Sega also released Fantasy Zone, this same year, on their new 16-bit arcade hardware. The title would become very popular in Japan, and it introduced Sega's mascot Opa-opa. Taito also released Darius, the first in their flagship shooter series.

R-Type was introduced in 1987. The brain child of Irem, it became one of the major archetypes for side-scrolling shooters to follow, with vividly realized levels, and refined, methodical gameplay. Toaplan followed up Tiger Heli with Twin Cobra. This title introduced a system with a wandering power-up that changed colors to represent different weapons. This convention would become a staple of their games, as well as those of others.

Golden Age

By this time the major conventions of the genre had been firmly established, and shoot 'em ups became the most popular action genre for arcade games. This period lasted into the early and mid 90s and saw the release of many popular shooters, including Raiden, a Toaplan-inspired game from Seibu Kaihatsu, Gun Frontier, and many sequels to Gradius, R-Type, and other popular series of the day.

Console and computer shooters became more common and were increasingly able to offer comparable experiences to their arcade counterparts. The PC Engine saw a whole slew of shooter titles released for it (in fact, PC Engine has by far the highest shooter/game ratio of any console in the postcrash gaming world) and the Thunder Force series brought arcade-style shooting to Japanese home computers and later the Sega Genesis. Games like Axelay and Bio-hazard Battle produced visuals and sounds worthy of their arcade contemporaries.

During this period, shoot 'em ups did not evolve a great deal. The genre remained vital while reusing variations on the same gameplay ideas that had proven themselves. In the early 90s new genres began to emerge, and the market diversified. Fighting games reached new-found popularity in the arcades with the release of Street Fighter II. Meanwhile, many console gamers were turning toward games that could provide longer playtime and in-depth narratives, and shoot 'em ups began to decline in popularity. In 1993, Compile shifted its focus away from shooters. In 1994, Toaplan closed its doors, and the genre lost one of its most devout supporters. For many this would serve as a signal that the Golden Age of shooters had ended.

Evolution and renaissance

The death of Toaplan would ultimately open more doors than it would close. Four companies would form from the ashes of Toaplan, and all remained even more devoted to the shooter genre than Toaplan. The first such company was Raizing. Raizing went as far as to continue to use Toaplan arcade hardware for their titles into the late 90s. Their first game was Mahou Daisakusen, the first title in their flagship trilogy.

The following year another company formed from ex-Toaplan staff. Cave premiered with Donpachi, a game which expanded on the design of Toaplan's final game Batsugun. Batsugun is considered by many to be the starting point for a new breed of shoot 'em up. These games would come to be called "danmaku" (lit. "bullet curtain") in Japan, and "manic" shooters in the West. These games are distinguished by high bullet counts, and a small collision zone (or "hit box") for the player.

Cave and Raizing would have something of a sibling rivalry. In 1996, Raizing released Battle Garegga, an homage to Taito's classic Gun Frontier. It pushed the manic style a level further, which, in turn, inspired Cave to put aside their reservations and produce the most manic shoot 'em up yet, Dodonpachi. Cave continued to carry the Toaplan torch, embedding the message "Toaplan Forever" in the high score tables. Their next game, Dangun Feveron, would be a pastiche to Toaplan as well, made to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Truxton.

While their popularity was in decline, this was a creatively fertile time for the genre. In 1998 Treasure released their first arcade shoot 'em up, Radiant Silvergun.

Second rebirth of Shoot 'em ups

With the release of the Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360's Live Arcade, and the Playstation 3's PSN network, the shmup genre may have another rebirth. Many TurboGrafx 16 titles are being re-released on the Nintendo Wii. The Xbox 360 brought the mega-popular Geometry Wars to the platform. Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved has become the top selling game on the service, with over 185,000 purchases and downloads as of July 21 2006. Several Eugene Jarvis-created shooters are also available on the service, including enhanced versions of Smash TV and Robotron: 2084. Also available is Ikaruga and most recently, Aces of the Galaxy.


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