Why are Shmups so Unpopular?

My first contribution to Continue is this updated version of an article I wrote back in 2008. You can look forward to more features and reviews of shmups from me in the future – among other things!

I think it’s fair to say that 2D scrolling shoot ’em ups, or “shmups”, don’t sell nearly as well as they used to.  Back in the days when arcades were the ultimate hang-out spot and the Super Nintendo’s Mode7 effects were impressive, it seemed like every game was either a platformer or a shmup.  Nowadays, mainstream reviewers and gamers alike seem thoroughly disinterested in the genre.  What the heck happened?

Dodonpachi Daioujou

Let’s take a quick look at Metacritic scores here, shall we? What follows is just about every american-released shmup that has an average score listed on Metacritic. I’ve selected review excerpts from most of them that really annoyed me, not because they just criticized the game, but because they displayed ignorance of shmups as a genre.   I in fact left out any negative review excerpts that criticized the game and made a fair point about it – even shmups aren’t perfect all the time.  I also obviously left out positive review excerpts, of which there were several for each game.   Keep that in mind as you read on.

Raiden III (2007) – Metascore 61
-Review excerpts that piss me off:

“A purebred ’80s throwback, Raiden III hasn’t a chance of competing with exciting modern shooters – or even the classics of yesteryear.”

(The original Raiden came out in in 1990, not the ’80s)

“The game is too short, and doesn’t sport enough play options to keep it fresh past a few hours of play. “

“The game doesn’t take long enough to beat, there’s no real reason to play it again, and there isn’t anything even remotely special about the experience.”

Gradius III and IV (2000) – Metascore 64
-Review excerpts that piss me off:

“Only enjoyable if you equate fun with frustration, but most gamers have long since outgrown that philosophy, as have most games. Yet Gradius III and IV clings to its roots like a long rotting tooth.”

“Two arcade perfect ports of games that will get stale within a short few minutes. Back then, way back then, this may have been revolutionary but on the PS2 it’s almost like an insult to the grown intelligence of gamers.”

“Old-school graphics and unprecedented difficulty level make this one a loser for all but the most dedicated retro-game freaks. ”

(Those of us who enjoy difficult 2D games are “freaks”, apparently)

Gradius IV

Chaos Field (2004, 2005) – Metascore 61, 63 (DC, GC respectively)
-Review excerpts that piss me off:

“It’s like fighting a fireworks display. Sometimes the enemy blows up. Sometimes you do. There’s no strategy; no hook that makes you think about how you’ll do better next time.”

(Obviously the reviewer doesn’t understand the deep scoring system, nor the hitboxes or attack patterns, which demand loads of strategy)

Triggerheart Exelica (2008) – Metascore 63
-Review excerpts that piss me off:

“Despite the enjoyment of slinging bad guys around like giant wrecking balls, Triggerheart’s indecisive difficulty, average looks and short length render it a bad choice for any but the most devoted shooter fans.”

“Like most arcade shooters, the experience is brief. The challenge is there for those who would like to memorize attack patterns and master the five levels, but there isn’t anything that feels exciting.”

“I enjoyed Triggerheart, but the game’s length is both a good and bad thing — it has only five levels, and most players will be able to beat them all in about 30 minutes.”

(Short length is clearly a common complaint about the genre; read on for more on that)

Castle Shikigami 3 (2008) – Metascore 67
-Review excerpts that piss me off:

“If this were a downloadable title on WiiWare, Xbox Live Arcade, or PlayStation Network, it’s a safe bet that we’d be telling you to go fire up your console and start it downloading right now.”

(Why does the reviewer believe the game is not really worth more than $10?)

“Castle of Shikigami III is a great title for people who enjoy the occasional classic, arcade-style game. However, it has a decided lack of content and doesn’t offer much beyond the initial experience.”

“The mere fact that it fills a niche on the Wii doesn’t excuse this disappointing lack of substance. ”

Gradius Collection (2006) – Metascore 76
-Review excerpts that piss me off:

“Twenty years ago, it would have been worth forty bucks. But today, it’s just another obsolete space ship, grounded in favor of better, faster rockets.”

(Nevermind the fact that the Gradius games have always been among the best horizontal shmups in existence)

“If you love slow, old-fashioned gameplay, you’ll be in heaven here. ”

(Gradius games have been called many things, but “slow” is not even remotely a fair description)

“The Gradius Collection will mainly appeal to fans who want to relive those old school memories; I can’t see many new gamers being hooked on Gradius, even though it’s a fun experience.”

Gradius V (2004) – Metascore 82
-Review excerpts that piss me off:

“Even though its more visually polished than some of the other shooters out there, the lack of innovation and the small number of seven stages makes Gradius V a must for fans of the series only.”

“It’s just too bad that there isn’t much to it beyond the standard gameplay. ”

“About the only things that keep the game from scoring higher is the lack of any meaningful innovation in the gameplay and the fact that the game only has seven stages to play.”

(These all cite the lack of innovation, despite Gradius V being by far the most unique and innovative Gradius game with controllable options)

Ikaruga: (2002, 2003, 2008) – Metascore 81, 85, 88 (DC, GC, 360 respectively)
-Review excerpts that piss me off:

“As fun as it starts out to be, it gets old rather quickly. Fortunately or unfortunately, the game is extremely short, and on its easiest mode can be completed in about an hour.”

“A perfect example of why shooters have become such a niche genre. It’s a good game that’s well made. It’s even got an interesting hook to keep the hard core happy. But the insane difficulty will keep most players from getting past the first level before giving up. And with the ultra-short playing time, even shooter fans might not find enough to like here.”

(Even the generally favored Ikaruga received complaints about the length)

Summary of Criticisms:

Shmups are too hard!

  • Shmups are too short

Most shmups are between 5 and 7 stages in length (not counting loops) which usually equates to about 30-45 minutes of gameplay time to beat it in a single run.  Criticizing shmups for this trait, however, shows a real ignorance about the genre and about arcade games in general. Sure, if you take a shmup and just play through it, continuing every time you get a game over, until you hit the end, you might think “wow, that was fast.” But that’s not how they are meant to be played. For arcade games, and shmups specifically, the aim is for high scores. To achieve the highest theoretical score, you will need to beat the entire game without using any continues because continuing resets your score each time. To truly “beat” a shmup, you need to beat it without continuing. This is called a 1CC, or “1-credit-clear.” Accomplishing this requires considerable skill and often memorization, but above all PRACTICE. While it’s true that you can continue through a shmup in 30 minutes, doing so requires no skill. To actually beat it properly by 1CCing it will take you considerable more time – often 20-30 hours of total play time, depending on your skill level. To put it into perspective, I played Ikaruga on the easiest possible settings for over 25 hours before 1CCing it. I don’t even consider that 1CC to be legitimate because it was not done at default settings. I played those 5 levels over and over and over until I could survive for longer and longer, and rack up longer chains to get a better score. When I finally reached the end of the game, the sense of accomplishment and self-improvement was indescribable, and it is a feeling not often achieved when reaching the end of a longer and easier modern game.

  • Shmups are too difficult to be enjoyable

I can’t deny shmups are some of the most difficult games in existence. Some people don’t enjoy challenging themselves and improving their skills. These games are not for those people. Those people should not be reviewing shmups if they’re not willing to persevere and learn the games properly.  If a game journalist wrote a review about a game in a genre he didn’t like, and didn’t even complete the game, he’d never be taken seriously.  Yet this is exactly what happens every time a shmup is released.

  • Shmups are all the same

Another complaint that originates from ignorance of the genre.  It would be quite easy to look at any real-time strategy (RTS) game and say “look, it’s just like all the others, you simply order groups of units around and build buildings”; or, one might look at any first-person-shooter (FPS) and claim “You just point and shoot at things in all of these games, there are only minor differences between any of them.”  Those of us familiar with a genre understand the significance of these differences between games, and the shmup genre is no different.  The average gamer will look at Dodonpachi and think it is the same as 1942: a vertically scrolling 2D shoot-em-up.  Of course, there are significant differences: Dodonpachi features markedly different level design, a much more manic approach with a lot of bullets, a screen-clearing bomb attack, the option of slower movement around the screen and concentrated firepower by holding down the shot button, and a strict enemy chaining system for scoring.  That’s why this complaint is baseless when leveled against shmups.  The games are somewhat similar because they are part of a genre!

  • Shmups are only worth buying as $10 downloads

This common complaint draws from all of the ones explained above.  Gamers don’t think a 30 minute shmup has as much value as a 30 hour RPG. Of course, properly beating a shmup can easily take 30 hours of practice to achieve.  Many gamers also believe that a 30 minute 2D shmup must not be all that hard or expensive to develop, so it shouldn’t cost as much money as a 3D game with bloom effects and soft shadows.  This idea is both true and false.  It is cheap and relatively easy for just about anybody to create a shmup.  Xbox Live Indie Games are chock full of them, for example.  What many gamers don’t understand is how difficult it is to create a good shmup.  The difference between your average $1 indie shmup and a $50 Cave game like Death Smiles – recently released in the U.S. on the Xbox 360 – is monumental.  There is a massive amount of design work and testing on the levels, the scoring system and the bullet patterns which take years to perfect. The artwork for a good 2D game is also very difficult and time-consuming.

deathsmiles

Just as there are cheap $10 platforming games you can download on every console, people will gladly shell out $50 for New Super Mario Brothers Wii because they know the difference in quality means a difference in value.

And that’s why some people dislike shmups.  But just why do some people love them so much?  I think Winston Churchill has an answer to that question:

“There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result.”

Raiden III: 61
-Review excerpts that piss me off:“A purebred ’80s throwback, Raiden III hasn’t a chance of competing with exciting modern shooters – or even the classics of yesteryear.””The game is too short, and doesn’t sport enough play options to keep it fresh past a few hours of play. “”The game doesn’t take long enough to beat, there’s no real reason to play it again, and there isn’t anything even remotely special about the experience.”Gradius III and IV: 64
-Review excerpts that piss me off:“Only enjoyable if you equate fun with frustration, but most gamers have long since outgrown that philosophy, as have most games. Yet Gradius III and IV clings to its roots like a long rotting tooth.””Two arcade perfect ports of games that will get stale within a short few minutes. Back then, way back then, this may have been revolutionary but on the PS2 it’s almost like an insult to the grown intelligence of gamers.””Meritless in terms of taking their genre forward or, worse even, invoking the warm glow of nostalgia. Spend £15 on a NES and the original games instead.” (I’d like to point out that neither of these two games were on the NES. Or on any home console until this collection on the PS2, in fact. And Gradius on the NES was a joke compared to the two masterpieces of Gradius III and IV)

“Old-school graphics and unprecedented difficulty level make this one a loser for all but the most dedicated retro-game freaks. ”

Chaos Field: 61, 63 (DC, GC respectively)
-Review excerpts that piss me off:

“It’s like fighting a fireworks display. Sometimes the enemy blows up. Sometimes you do. There’s no strategy; no hook that makes you think about how you’ll do better next time.”

Triggerheart Exelica: 63
-Review excerpts that pissed me off:

“Despite the enjoyment of slinging bad guys around like giant wrecking balls, Triggerheart’s indecisive difficulty, average looks and short length render it a bad choice for any but the most devoted shooter fans.”

“Like most arcade shooters, the experience is brief. The challenge is there for those who would like to memorize attack patterns and master the five levels, but there isn’t anything that feels exciting.”

“I enjoyed Triggerheart, but the game’s length is both a good and bad thing — it has only five levels, and most players will be able to beat them all in about 30 minutes.”

Castle Shikigami 2: 67

Castle Shikigami 3: 67
-Review excerpts that pissed me off:

“If this were a downloadable title on WiiWare, Xbox Live Arcade, or PlayStation Network, it’s a safe bet that we’d be telling you to go fire up your console and start it downloading right now.”

“Castle of Shikigami III is a great title for people who enjoy the occasional classic, arcade-style game. However, it has a decided lack of content and doesn’t offer much beyond the initial experience.”

“The mere fact that it fills a niche on the Wii doesn’t excuse this disappointing lack of substance. ”

Under Defeat: 67
-Review excerpts that pissed me off:

“Inarguably, what Under Defeat does, it does very well. The execution is perfectly pitched and it clearly ticks each and every box the developers drew up on the ideas table. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is ’80s gaming dressed in ’00s visuals running on ’90s hardware. The gameplay is sweet and eloquent but, underneath it also tired and relentlessly derivative.”

Thunder Force V: 70

Gradius Collection: 76
-Review excerpts that pissed me off:

“Twenty years ago, it would have been worth forty bucks. But today, it’s just another obsolete space ship, grounded in favor of better, faster rockets.”

“If you love slow, old-fashioned gameplay, you’ll be in heaven here. ”

“The Gradius Collection will mainly appeal to fans who want to relive those old school memories; I can’t see many new gamers being hooked on Gradius, even though it’s a fun experience.”

R-Type Final: 79

Gradius V: 82
-Review excerpts that pissed me off:

“Even though its more visually polished than some of the other shooters out there, the lack of innovation and the small number of seven stages makes Gradius V a must for fans of the series only.”

“It’s just too bad that there isn’t much to it beyond the standard gameplay. ”

“About the only things that keep the game from scoring higher is the lack of any meaningful innovation in the gameplay and the fact that the game only has seven stages to play.”

Ikaruga: 81, 85, 88 (DC, GC, 360 respectively)
-Review excerpts that pissed me off:

“As fun as it starts out to be, it gets old rather quickly. Fortunately or unfortunately, the game is extremely short, and on its easiest mode can be completed in about an hour.”

“A perfect example of why shooters have become such a niche genre. It’s a good game that’s well made. It’s even got an interesting hook to keep the hard core happy. But the insane difficulty will keep most players from getting past the first level before giving up. And with the ultra-short playing time, even shooter fans might not find enough to like here.”

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8 Responses to Why are Shmups so Unpopular?

  1. […] #35 (permalink) of 35 You guys might find this article interesting. It talks about critics views on Shmups today and mentions Death Smiles in it, which I have yet to play but sounds sick. Why are Shmups so Unpopular? Continue?Cheers. […]

  2. […] #35 (permalink) of 36 You guys might find this article interesting. It talks about critics views on Shmups today and mentions Death Smiles in it, which I have yet to play but sounds sick. Why are Shmups so Unpopular? Continue?Cheers. […]

  3. RetroGamer says:

    Is there such a thing as 3D shumps? As a big fan of shumps, I find many of the newer 3D shooters just as fun and satisfying.

    Take Lost Planet, for example. Great graphics, brilliant explosions, lots of enemies and bullet patterns. These games are the modern shump equivelents.

    I still like 2D shumps, don’t get me wrong (get a DS), but just sayin’ there’s a lot of good new stuff.

  4. Justin says:

    I’ve been into Dragon Spirit: The New Adventure on the NES for a week now.

    I think this genre of game is slightly lost on the kids today who have need to kill… but who shoots more missiles then a shmup ship?

  5. Erin says:

    Great post. I am a big Shmup fan myself, but I can still understand where the reviewers are coming from. I think most gamers today play games for different reasons, so although a shmup could be extremely innovative, they simply do not fit into how games are played anymore.

    There are certainly some great points made and as an aspiring indie game dev, they are very important for me to take notice of, as one of my long term projects will undoubtedly be a shmup.

  6. John Doe says:

    Here’s why: Most people have already gotten everything they’re ever going to get out of shoot-’em-ups. There’s not enough variation in gameplay or story; I played a lot of them when I was younger and eventually there was really nothing new. Once you’ve killed a few million miscellaneous flying alien spaceships, you’ve pretty much killed ’em all. Recently I did play one (a Flash game) that had RPG elements (side missions, equipment and stat upgrades, etc.), and that was sort of neat for a bit. There’s just not enough variation for these games to be widely interesting any more, now that the novelty has passed.

    “But that’s not how they are meant to be played.”

    Yeah, the problem isn’t that I’m doing it wrong. Playing a game dozens of times in an attempt to get a perfect score, or beat it without dying, is not what most people are interested in. You are, and that’s fine, I don’t begrudge you it; but to expect everyone to find value in that kind of gameplay is ludicrous.

    “When I finally reached the end of the game, the sense of accomplishment and self-improvement was indescribable, and it is a feeling not often achieved when reaching the end of a longer and easier modern game.”

    I hope you realize that most people would not feel that same sense of achievement if they accomplished the same thing. Most people would feel like they’d wasted their time, since they’d have been bored for the preceding hours. Again, if you enjoy this, that’s fine, I don’t have a problem with that; but you seem to think that everyone else feels and thinks the same way you do.

    Why are shoot-’em-ups so unpopular? Because it’s a very limited genre with limited appeal, and they haven’t been able to come up with anything radical and interesting enough to cause them to be popular. I don’t think it’s because they’re uncreative morons; I think the nature of the genre itself is limited, much in the way that there’s really only so much you can do with haiku. They’re neat for a while, but the number of interesting permutations is relatively small.

    • Kevin says:

      I absolutely agree with you that the genre is not for everyone. My beef isn’t with people who don’t like the genre; it’s with people who misunderstand the genre. And particularly, with professional reviewers who don’t understand the games they’re reviewing.

      • TrevHead says:

        The thing is that there are imo allot more gamers out there who like to challenge themselves with a hard game. Sure different genres have different challenges but there is a type of gamer that would love shmups if only they gave them a chance and all these shitty reviews isnt doing anyone any favours. Especially as most gamers dont even know about 1CC, scoring etc.

        good article, the more the fans bang on about this the quicker the review sites will get their acts together.

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