(Note: This is actually a joint top ten from gotspork and Pyrrian) This list celebrates a genre on its last leg in the western hemisphere. This list celebrates lightning reflexes and a hefty dose of skill (and memorization). This list celebrates pouring quarters into the arcades in a bygone era. This list celebrates a screen covered in bullets. This list celebrates Japan for keeping the dream alive. This list celebrates gamers who want pure, unmitigated gameplay above all else (though good graphics and sound aren't a BAD thing). This list celebrates shmups.

10th place was a very hard choice, as there are so many great shmups out there, but in the end we decided that at least one representative from the awesome 194x series deserved to be included in the list. The 194x series, appropriately enough, takes World War II as its setting. No aliens or space ships here, just "actual" antique weapons and ships. The whole series was a lot of fun, but Strikers 1945 truly perfected its style and presentation. One of the great things about the game was the ability to choose from several different planes that each had totally different weaponry! This alone promised tons of replay value. Most of the boss battles in this game were vintage World War 2 era mechs and plane/mech hybrids that could fill the air with swaths of bullets, just like Grandpa used to pilot! Not to be left out of this graphical and gameplay enhancement of the series however is the classic turret-covered battleship that has been in every 194x game. I always wondered exactly which side of the war we were fighting for in this game...

Galaga is considered by many to be the first great shmup. It took the basic concepts of earlier games, like Space Invaders and Galaxian, and really refined and improved the shmup genre. The gameplay contained much more strategy; it seemed simple, yet underneath this facade was a cornucopia of complex game design. Every enemy was unique in attack pattern and looks, especially the Galaga themselves. This enemy added a new level to the gameplay. The Galaga could trap one of your ships with a tractor-beam, and if you could manage to rescue it your fallen comrade would join you by your side. You could have both ships onscreen at the same time for double the firepower! These revolutionary concepts, combined with interesting, wavy enemy attack patterns, catchy tunes, and great graphics really show why Galaga shines over its predecessors and, indeed, many shmups since.

Don Pachi is one of those games that starts something important. Don Pachi is Cave’s baby. This is the first game in what has become a trilogy of frantic vertical shooters. Definitely the simplest of the three, it follows the now-standard Cave pattern of having a standard shot and a beam weapon (which slows down your movement rate). There are three ships to choose from, each having different weapons. Don Pachi just feels meticulously designed. There’s always a path through the chaos; whether or not you’re in the right position is another matter entirely. The earlier levels aren’t too tough, but the difficulty ramps up nicely, and unlike some newer shooters, the transition from breezing through to getting your butt handed to you is quite smooth. Everything is a throwback to 1995, but the graphics are still clear, giving you a good look at oncoming bullets which contrast nicely with the background. A brilliant game that really made Cave’s shooters what they are today, Don Pachi is a must-play for people getting into vertical shooters. History lessons CAN be fun!

Raiden has all the shmup essentials: great control, tons of enemies, awesome boss fights, and tons of bullets. The game starts off easy but quickly ramps up the difficulty. Small enemies begin coming in large waves from all sides, while huge dreadnoughts lumber in to finish the job. Luckily you have a great arsenal to take the competition out: Blue and Red. Powering up Red gives you a spread shot, while Blue yields a powerful, but concentrated, laser. Where Raiden truly shines is in its two player co-op. Many a quarter has been (and indeed, still is) consumed with a friend by your side, trying frantically to weave through the boss's onslaught of bullets. A common strategy would have one player using Red to take out the numerous smaller enemies, while the other player used Blue to give larger enemies and bosses a beating. On top of all this, the graphics are great. Every level is different, as you fly through cities, basses, forests, and even in space, and the backgrounds and enemies are rife with detail. If you want an oldschool shmup that is still fun today, search the mines for this gem.

Shikigami no Shiro (Mobile Light Force 2 in the US) was Alfa System’s claim to fame. Shikigami no Shiro 2, the sequel, was even better. The concept of both games is pretty straightforward: you have a shot, a bomb, and a Shiki attack (used by holding down the fire button). You have a tiny hit box, and you squeeze through gaps in bullet patterns to survive and beat the levels or bosses. There is, of course, a twist. When you get close to a bullet (or enemy), your shot changes color and becomes more powerful. You do considerably more damage, and get a multiplier when killing an enemy depending on proximity to a dangerous object. “Buzzing” bullets is actually really neat. It really intensifies the game, increasing your reward and risk at the same time. Everything is presented in a clear visual manner, which is important when you’re trying to stay so close to bullets. All-in-all, Shikigami no Shiro 2 puts a unique play feature in an excellent package. US gamers with a PS2 have the unique option of getting this game (which is translated so poorly to the point that the dialogue is hilarious) at the price of $10!

R-Type Delta is often hailed as the best R-Type game to date. As in other R-Type games, you are able to get a pod, which can attach to the front or back of your ship. It can shoot, be fired or rammed into enemies, and absorb bullets. Leave it to function autonomously or connect it to your ship for added defense and offense. It’s really a remarkably fun gameplay element in itself. The pod is also different for each ship, of which you start with three: The R-13, the standard R-9, and the RX. Each has a different charge shot, as well, so they all play quite differently. In addition, you have the Dose ability, which each ship charges up by ramming the pod into things. The Dose is unleashed in a full-screen attack. As you can see, R-Type comes to the Playstation in all its glory. Polygonal graphics, which both look good AND are clear, provide the series with an excellent visual upgrade, without suffering the epic slowdown that came with the later R-Type Final. Level design is top notch, arguably the best in the series, and adds the final component to a mix that cements this game as one of the best of all time.

ESP Galuda is the successor to ESP RaDe, another excellent Cave game. Much like other Cave games, ESP Galuda has a basic shot for use when tapping the fire button, and a beam shot that slows your movement speed down, but does more damage when the fire button is depressed. Your hit box is small, which allows you to weave in and out of narrow holes in bullet patterns – something that really makes a tough battle even more intense and rewarding. However, in addition to the typical Cave features is a special ability: the ability to slow down bullets with your ESP powers. When in normal mode, you collect gems for killing enemies. These gems are then used up when you switch to the slower bullet mode. While in this mode, any enemy killed will have its bullets turned into points (a way to really boost score) and you will automatically use a bomb if hit. However, if you let your gem supply run out in this mode, the bullets will turn a darker shade of pink, and the speed will be increased beyond that of the normal game. Beyond the awesome gameplay elements, there are a few more excellent things going on for ESP Galuda: the art is vibrant and beautiful (especially the wings) and the soundtrack is one of the best ever.

We would get blasted from all sides if this weren't on here. Fortunately it well deserves a spot on this list. Ikaruga is one of the most beautiful looking shmups of all time, if not THE most beautiful. Every enemy and every background and foreground object all have intricate and varied detail especially the gigantic bosses; however, it is the use of color that really makes the graphics awe inspiring. Almost everything is either a bluish white or a reddish black. This is all well and good, but every shmuper knows gameplay is what's really important! With Ikaruga, however, the graphics are wed to the gameplay! Your ship can change from white to black in order to absorb like-color bullets. You actually want to be hit; it powers your missiles! In addition, enemies of opposite color are easier to kill but yield fewer points, and combos can be performed by destroying several enemies of one color in a row. This deceptively simple color-based gameplay idea opens up whole new realms of strategy to explore. Ikaruga is truly one of the most intricate, fun shmups to date.

You may have been worried Gradius wasn't going to make an appearance on here. The Gradius series is arguably (even amongst us!) THE horizontal shooter. Its power up system is unique, and its enemies are diverse. This series is where you go when you want bone-crushing difficulty, especially Gradius III (not the wimpy SNES port, the mind-numbing arcade original which had no continues). Gradius V (designed by Treasure, who created Ikaruga) is the culmination of the series. It is like every Gradius game before it, borrowing enemies, environments, and even musical themes from the entire series (even borrowing from its sister series Salamander/Life Force), but this is a GOOD thing. This time, you pilot the Vic Viper against the Bacterian forces in a beautifully rendered version of the Gradius world. You go through space, emerald cities, asteroid fields, and even an alien's body. Every enemy, even the smallest one, is a sight to behold, from giant core ships to tiny eyeballs. Like all Gradii, this game starts off easily enough, but quickly begins flooding the screen with enemies, obstacles, and bullets. At some points it even rotates the stage rapidly enough to induce vertigo and at other points cruelly forces you to fly backwards. A real draw to this game is its nostalgia factor. Almost immediately you face the first core ship from the first Gradius game, and from there every new experience has some old favorite nearby in stunning new 3D. It doesn't get much better than this, so collect four Options, get two speed ups, a laser, and "SHOOT THE CORE!"

Giga Wing is one of those masterful vertical shooters that seems to nail things right on the head. The graphics are clear, gameplay is simple yet challenging, and the level design is spot-on. The game's reflect shot stands out as one of the neatest shmup weapons to date. Basically, if you hold down the shot button, you become invulnerable for a short time and generate a field around yourself. Any bullets entering the field are reflected back at the enemy, and turn into point pickups if they hit. After the shot is fired you must wait for it to recharge before using it again. It really adds a new strategic element to the game. In addition to saving your butt, it also can be used to maximize points (and in Giga Wing you get trillions). Using it too soon may result in untimely demise, but waiting too long can mean you don’t get to reflect any bullets, and your shot is essentially wasted. Giga Wing also has a story, told about one of the four pilots individually or in combination, depending upon the number of players. The stories are sparse but done well, so they don’t take away from the gameplay. The four ships provide a variety of bullet and missile patterns, allowing the player to choose something that best suits their style. Of course, at number one, the game has to be excellent. Giga Wing delivers greatness in a package that is thoughtful, unique, and - most importantly - fun.

So there you have it. We concentrated our list to "pure" shmups, so no platform shmups like Contra or Metal Slug. The shmup genre is one of the few left alive (barely) that still manages to hold on to its oldschool gameplay and difficulty while still making steady advancement. Help out us shmup junkies by buying at least one if you ever see one! We have to keep the dream alive. If the shmup dies, we all die a little inside.


List by gotspork (02/03/2006)

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