The PC And The Re-Rise Of The Shoot-’em-up

Wasim Salman writes about videogames using short, mechanical sentences. He asked us to let him steer the RPS ship around the doujin game community and to aim his rhythmic sentence-bullets at the shmup genre.

Fashion.

Before the arcades died, they bloomed into obscene spectacle.

Cabinets grew bigger. Stranger.

They became experiences.

In the black sunset of that era, purity lost its place.

MvC2‘s brash neglect of its physical origins. Konami and their gimmicks.

Street Fighter III was pushed away.

Garou‘s silence had no place in the U.S. market.

The House of the Dead lost itself.

STGs disappeared.

Arcades ripped themselves apart chasing immersion.

It became unsustainable. Small arcades shut down.

Chains became birthday novelties.

Consoles fought in the ruins of the empire they helped burn.

The PC continued its experimentation on game design and narrative.

Consoles devoured the arcade dead and created approximations: Elemental Gearbolt. Einhänder. Guilty Gear. Jet Moto 2.

Consoles filtered the will of dark warmth.

They tunneled through the collapsed decadence.

They burrowed into the roots and gave the world a modern translation of action.

As the hardware evolved, the methods of translation evolved and new languages formed.

Games became larger.

Games became intricate. Closed. Complex.

Games became vast, brutalist structures gnawing on the bloated skies of the arcade’s final immersive whisper.

Visceral became the new chant.

It became the new lust.

Dead Space. God of War. Asura’s Wrath. Call of Duty.

Purity was no longer a part of this new aesthetic language.

This new empire had its own traditions hemorrhaging new classics.

But there were other, smaller institutions that re-examined the dead languages of the arcade heart.

And they reveled in the old ways.

And they gave the PC a third face.

Exhaust.

I didn’t have the tools to understand rRootage.

I didn’t understand that its modes referenced Ikaruga and Psyvariar.

I didn’t understand that each stage was a simulated boss fight.

I didn’t understand that it was a highly stylized STG training ground.

rRootage crossed my vision when my mind was full of the impressive, droning monoliths being built on the horizon of this new empire.

I gave up on the arcade.

I had no tolerance for revisiting its breaking.

Half-Life. Unreal. Blood II. Unreal Tournament. Return to Castle Wolfenstein.

The PC flooded the world.

It reached new levels of confidence and insight.

rRootage seemed like a waste.

I turned away.

Years later, the PSP released.

The promise was console-quality portable games.

It never delivered.

The DS glistened with smaller, lighter games.

PSP developers followed suit.

The PSP became about reliving the pinnacles of classic 90’s JRPGs and arcade action.

Desperate for something to play, I bought every fighting game.

I fell in love with them again.

I was tired of modern games after so many years of inflated slog.

I was tired and bored.

I moved to the PS2. I bought an X-Arcade.

I drilled every fighting game I could find there.

My mind opened to what I once walked away from.

I turned to the PC. I turned to the internet.

MAME was a revelation.

I plugged the X-Arcade into my desktop.

Raiden. Strikers. DoDonPachi.

It was my gateway to the small past.

The PSP led me to fighting games.

The PC brought me back to STGs.

Sphere.

rRootage was a prophecy I wasn’t ready for.

I ignored what it was trying to do.

It was only through time and a desperate, forced remembrance that I began to understand.

The main narrative of PC gaming in the late-90s and early-00s was power.

It was technology.

Rapid hardware and software development led to unique and surprising experiences, but it wasn’t the sole narrative.

The PC was a space of experimental design.

The PC was a space of emergent archaeology.

When I moved on from MAME, I discovered how large the PC STG community was.

Insert Credit and Shmups became powerful aids.

I sifted through the scene.

Cloudphobia was the first doujin STG I played.

Its music was electronic stoicism.

Its art was clean, bright, dark, and cold.

I rarely enjoyed side-scrolling shooters, but Cloudphobia felt so fast it didn’t matter.

It wasn’t just a rehash. It played with the formula the arcades left behind:

Bombs replaced with homing missiles.

Constant shifts in perspective.

Enemy alerts at screen entry points.

An offscreen mothership the player must protect.

Its innovations felt so new and obvious it was difficult remembering why or how STGs faded from arcade dominance.

Cho Ren Sha 68K was a back alley beneath Cloudphobia’s sky.

Cho Ren Sha was first released on the Sharp X68000 PC in 1995.

In 2001, it was ported to Windows and released by the developer at no cost.

At first, CRS is underwhelming.

The entire game takes place in the same endless level.

Vertical scrolling. Bosses. Mini-bosses.

It feels minimal. Empty.

But Cho Ren Sha dredges arcade purity and screams deep inside.

Cho Ren Sha has no waste. It is a direct assault.

The shooting is solid.

The music is heroic.

The movement is fluid.

The explosions stick.

The enemies pop.

CSR’s innovation is the ability to choose a powerup.

Powerups drop as floating, rotating triangles.

The player is forced to maneuver the ship to pick up a bomb, weapon, or shield.

The game pressures movement.

Cho Ren Sha does not allow players to hover at the bottom of the screen.

CSR is Russian roulette while barreling through an industrial cyber-nightscape.

CSR is fast and mechanical.

I considered Galshell: Blood Red Skies Cho Ren Sha’s other face.

I downloaded Galshell after reading the reactions in the Shmups forums.

I wasn’t ready for it.

Galshell’s aesthetic is an organic, surrealist nightmare fueled by Giger and Lovecraft.

It’s all grotesque nudity and blood.

The machinery beneath its skin is solid and oiled.

Like Cloudphobia, Galshell is side-scrolling.

It is a much slower game.

The shooting is light.

The electro-baroque music enhances the art.

The enemy attack patterns are engaging.

The bosses are stunning.

Galshell is a game about narrative through art.

The game’s aesthetic is unsettling.

No matter how long the player sits with it, it is difficult to get used to.

Galshell is the Dark Seed dream sequences.

Galshell is Berserk’s Eclipse.

Galshell is every awkward, terrifying interaction in Necronomicon.

Its aesthetic resonates.

There is no other STG that looks like it.

Galshell is a thought experiment: If the STG formula could be bent to accomodate such unique aesthetics, why couldn’t the arcades experiment with it?

Why did every STG have to look so similar with little exception?

Galshell is a challenge to the genre.

It is a question.

Between Cloudphobia’s innovations, Cho Ren Sha’s iteration on classic action, and Galshell’s aesthetic exploration: STGs could have flourished earlier outside the arcades.

They didn’t have to die in the labs that created them.

But could these mechanical and aesthetic meditations have occurred outside the PC?

Maybe not.

The current PC STG scene is exploding.

The Touhou Project is still going

Classics like Ikaruga and Raiden III have been ported to Steam.

Large, innovative STGs like Sine Mora have gained traction.

Indie devs are still experimenting with, reexamining, and torching the formula with games like eXceed: Gun Bullet Children, Jets ‘n’ Guns Gold, and personal favorite Crimzon Clover WORLD IGNITION.

The STG template is basic.

It doesn’t require much.

The major developers and publishers at the height of arcade ascendance took the genre’s blank slate for emptiness.

It’s because of their low barrier of entry that STGs have the potential to transform ideas.

Even companies like CAVE have stagnated with their latest entry in the DoDonPachi series.

The PC gave STGs a new world to thrive in.

STGs gave the PC a new place to experiment.

A new lens with which to examine its communal nature.

And while this genre is no longer thriving at the forefront of games today, it understands itself better now.

It understands its worlds better now.

It is blooming. Growing.

The PC, its soil and catalyst.

It has been transformed by passion and love.

The genre stands:

Drunk on fuel.

Draped in bullets.

Smiling in the wet clouds above the gasping tombs it left behind.

This article was funded by the RPS Supporter program.

54 Comments

  1. Laurentius says:

    Tyrian 2000, it’s still all I need for this shump urge I got once a year or soemthing, it’s there, thanks to GoG it’s warking flawless and it’s still incredibly good.

  2. Chrono256 says:

    Very nice articlce, but you definitively have to try REVOLVER360 RE:ACTOR. Best shmup of last 10 years, or kinda of.

    • RARARA says:

      Yes! Here’s a bit of footage for those not convinced.

      • Dare_Wreck says:

        Holy cripes, that gives me a headache just to watch it in motion. The game mechanics seem really cool, but I don’t think my brain could keep up with this game…

  3. Terics says:

    I love STGs and and starting to not love fighting games. Fighting games require wayy more time and energy(!!!) than any other genre I’ve played. Its the best and worst fit for an arcade. I bought a silly amount of fighting games for the PS3 that I’ll never get good at. I love it, but I hate it. STGs have starched this itch for me with not nearly as much effort (and without needing a physical opponent). Crimzon Clover is indeed fantastic and by far the best STG I’ve ever played or owned. I’m really proud of my highest score and that the 2nd boss destroys me every time. Also Revlover Re:Actor 360 is also really cool, unique , and on Steam.

    • Urthman says:

      Here’s a list of the top PC shmups (or STG’s if you prefer) as voted on by the members of “the” shmup forums:

      link to shmups.system11.org

      Those folks are pretty hardcore, but Crimson Clover is also their pick for #1. That and Kamui are probably my favorites, and I’ve also really enjoyed Samidare and Jamestown. I also have a lot of love for Kenta Cho’s games, especially rRootage, Parsec 47, and TUMIKI Fighters.

      Oh, and Warning Forever! The eternal boss battle where after each victory the boss comes back with extra weapons and armor evolved to counter the way you beat him the last time. That game is great.

      • Urthman says:

        Oh, and wanted to put in a plug for a Japanese game called Exception, which is not the greatest game, but is interesting in that it’s the only shump I’ve seen that does anything creative with 3D polygons and physics.

        You play as a ship blowing up cubes into tiny cube debris with your main shot (z). You can then lock onto all the little debris and destroy it with (x), building up a power meter, which, when full, gives you a repulsion-wave shot (c) that pushes everything away from you at high speed, blowing up whatever else it collides with. Here’s a link to the Japanese website which Google Translate can help you navigate:

        link to i-saint.skr.jp

  4. Dare_Wreck says:

    When did shoot-em-ups start called STGs? And what does that stand for? I’d never heard that abbreviation before this article, and I love a good shmup.

    • Serrit says:

      Yeah first time I think I’ve seen that acronym as well, although I’m not into this genre so aren’t well read/versed in it. Given that Wikipedia mentions STG as short for “shooting game”. I’m guessing it’s (S)hoo(T)ing(G)ame.

    • ChrisGWaine says:

      Initials from the syllables: ShooTing Game. It’s a Japanese genre term.

    • Baines says:

      Apparently a Japanese abbreviation for the genre. Either from “ShooTinG” or “ShooTing Game”.

    • Saarlaender39 says:

      I wondered the same.
      My best guess was “Shoot The Gun” – silly, I know.
      But let’s be honest, the abbreviation “ShooTingGame” is not much better.

    • KDR_11k says:

      Apparently Japanese genre abbreviations are always thee letters so you get STG for shooting, SLG for simulation love game I guess, ADV for adventure (at least that one makes sense though it tends to describe visual novels), ACT for generic action and so on.

      • ChrisGWaine says:

        SLG is SimuLation Games (SIM is also used)

        AVG is used slightly more commonly than ADV

        • P.Funk says:

          Its fascinating looking at how another culture navigates the english language to create an acronym. Do they use syllables rather than whole words because of a lack of fluency (have to speak slower or more deliberately or their own inflection makes them end up emphasizing syllables more?).

          • ChrisGWaine says:

            I think STG, SLG, AVG, FTG (FighTing Game), ACG (ACtion Game), PZG (PuZzle Game), RCG (RaCe Game), SPG (SPorts Game) are just due to following a ??G pattern influenced by RPG. If you’re working in that pattern, the choice of second letter isn’t so strange.

            The abbreviations that don’t use the G seem more normal: SHT, SIM, ADV, ACT, PUZ/PZL. But RCE and SPT are a little odd.

    • Premium User Badge

      Phasma Felis says:

      It’s a Japanofetishist thing. Never use an established English word/phrase when an obscure Japanese one will do. (And then act like you’re clever when people don’t understand what you’re talking about.)

  5. RARARA says:

    This writing style has the potential to be grating very easily, but you manage to give each sentence real gravity. I rather enjoy it.

    • Premium User Badge

      Don Reba says:

      For me it did become grating very fast. Same as with film crit hulk, the content couldn’t possibly justify the form.

      • Niko says:

        If only there were tools like convertcase.net or dehulkifier…
        Out of curiosity – do you also use the term “content” when talking about poetry or prose?

    • Traipse says:

      It’s an interesting conceit the first time you read it, but it rapidly gets real old. Tried to read a long-form article by him a while back, and had to bail about 2/3rds into it. Like a bronzed pie, it’s interesting content that’s rendered less useful by the presentation.

    • Juan Carlo says:

      It’s gimmicky and annoying. Which is a shame as he’s a good writer, aside from the gimmick.

      Gimmicks are great to get noticed on the internet, but they usually eventually become albatrosses.

    • Premium User Badge

      Phasma Felis says:

      It’s exactly as hard to read, and for the same reason, as people who write single essay-length paragraphs with no line breaks.

  6. Dare_Wreck says:

    Also, I know someone has said the same thing on every article by Wasim so far (edit: ninja-ed by a slightly similar sentiment from RARARA), but I too really cannot stand his stream-of-consciousness style of writing. It’s awfully taxing to follow. I really wish he’d articulate this thoughts more coherently, though I do realize that would end up resulting in an article about 10 pages long… On the other hand, that’s what a good editor is for, to remove the extraneous chaff from one’s writing.

    • Baines says:

      I made it a page in, and then just skipped to the comments section. The article itself is nearly unreadable due to its construction.

      • MacTheGeek says:

        I like the style. Sure, it’s difficult to keep up with at times, but that’s fine.

        If you’re going to have a site dedicated to gonzo gaming journalism, you need writers willing to write in gonzo styles. Wasim Salman fills that bill with plenty of sentences left over.

    • OrangyTang says:

      Taxing is definitely the word I’m looking for. I love me some Shmups, but I started skim reading after a page and didn’t really feel like I was getting any interesting views or information. Sorry.

    • Advanced Assault Hippo says:

      Yep, I read a few lines of his first article in this ‘style’ and gave up. Haven’t managed to bother since.

      Shame, since it could be he’s actually a good writer and has interesting things to say – so I’m not judging him in that way – but I literally have no idea.

      All a bit….misjudged if you ask me.

  7. Artificial says:

    Absolutely love Shoot ‘Em Ups. Xenon 2 has to be one of my favourites of all time. Still hoping it’ll see a GoG release at some point.

  8. Spacewalk says:

    Man, forget choosing a power-up. Hover in the center to get them all instead.

    • KDR_11k says:

      You mean in CRS68k? Yeah but there’s a bit of risk involved because you might accidentally touch the spinning ring and get the wrong one.

      • Spacewalk says:

        You’ve just gotta keep tapping down to stay in the centre and not get worried when the rotation speed kicks up. Once you’ve got the timing down pat you can get every single one on a single playthrough of the game. I think lining up the first bosses charge shots so that they kill each other is harder because I’ve only managed that a handful of times.

  9. GallonOfAlan says:

    So we’re doing James Elroy reviews now? Cool. We can do that.

  10. Guvornator says:

    The first PC game I ever, ever played was the first episode of an excellent shareware game called Tubular Worlds. Since then I’ve been in love with shmups. Highway Hunter, Tyrian, Seek and Destroy, these were the games that really brought me into PC gaming.

    Also, when is someone going to work out that the mouse is PERFECT for shmups?

  11. gameaddict says:

    This article put STGs into perspective! It was a fun interesting read!! LOVE YOUR STYLE MR. SALMAN!

  12. subedii says:

    Interesting timing. I actually recently stumbled across a youtube channel that seems to be dedicated solely to SHMUPS (never heard the term STG before either)

    link to youtube.com

    Granted the genre’s usually been console based (they do quite a few Dreamcast reviews), but since Steam started pumping out more Japanese games, shmups have been on the increase there, and have been getting reviews as well.

  13. Saarlaender39 says:

    The only Shmup, I ever fall in love with, was “Uridium”, on the C64.

    link to en.wikipedia.org

    link to c64-wiki.de

  14. KillahMate says:

    As long as we’re talking about shmups, here’s a new one people might be interested in:
    link to youtube.com
    It’s a French take on the genre, which I frankly love mostly for its visual style since I’m too bad at shmups to know if it’s any good :-)
    It’s under development, and has a free demo!

  15. Jason Moyer says:

    I’m probably missing something (it’s not really my genre, so this opinion is heavily influenced by other people), but the only 3 really great shmups on Steam are Crimzon Glover, Ikaruga, and Jamestown. At least until someone starts bringing the really crazy Cave and whatnot stuff over. I personally also enjoyed Sine Mora for its crazy Burroughs-esque narrative although it was pretty obvious, even to me, that it had mechanical issues. Most of the other shmups on Steam are kinda lame, really, especially those ones that do the really awkward perspective shifts and cover the screen in bullets that are impossible to distinguish from the background effects.

    • Urthman says:

      Steam also has Kamui, a fantastic shmup in the tradition of Gunlock (aka Layer Section aka Rayforce).

      link to store.steampowered.com

      • Tim James says:

        Kamui is indeed superb.

      • Spacewalk says:

        For reals? Sweet.

      • Jason Moyer says:

        Oh wow. Yeah, that looks great.

        Reflex is also pretty good. Haven’t tried Kamui or their other game on Steam, but they look great.

        The games I specifically dislike because the projectiles are impossible to distinguish from the background, in addition to doing weird perspective changes that don’t really work because there are different planes and it’s not really obvious which one you can interact with, are Ether Vapor and Astebreed. Which is a shame because they’re pretty stunning games visually.

    • KDR_11k says:

      You complain about covering the screen in bullets and pick three bullet hell shooters as good exceptions?

    • Zanchito says:

      I really like Jets ‘n Guns too. I’m not much into bullet hells, I like games with tons of weapons, powerups and stuff. The old Nemesis, Senon and Parodius games come to mind. Any recommendations?

  16. vanhisa says:

    Er. Inheritage just has been released on android. I know..I know. But its indie stg from my country. So how could I not promote it? link to play.google.com

  17. Spacewalk says:

    The way that I look at it Galshell is a (different kind of) body horror Cho Aniki or maybe a more visually extreme Gynoug.

  18. Mr Coot says:

    I note this article was funded by the RPS Supporter program. This is the second such unreadable article by the same author in a short space of time. I cannot support this execrable and cringeworthy writing style and am cancelling my recurring donation which I was planning to convert to a full sub when the gratis 6 month ‘Supporter’ gift expired (April).

    • Premium User Badge

      Phasma Felis says:

      That’s kind of an overreaction. I mean, yeah, the style is annoying and I wish they’d stop, but I never had an expectation that every single one of the subscriber articles would be fantastic, just most of them. I don’t read every free article, either.

  19. islisis says:

    with this style you should consider making condensed versions in video form. i’m sure many people woule be very interested in listening to it in the original writer’s voice!

  20. MojaveMusic says:

    I don’t come to this website to read poetry.

  21. Da5e says:

    I bloody love shmups, to the point of having a supergun set up in the living room. However, few others do, and I don’t think they’re going to be convinced.

    To like them.

    By someone.

    Typing.

    Like a kid in primary school.

    A bit less of the attempts at poetry, please? Bah and gnn.