A change in avatar is supposed to change the structure of the game (the Prince of Persia doesn’t jump like Mario). Video game genres that tend to keep to the same structure keep the same player character, as in the yearly sports and soldier games which could use the same models between yearly releases with just a texture update (and I’m not so sure they don’t). The shoot ‘em up propels deliriously off the spectrum’s other end and into space. You might be playing as a spaceship or a pumpkin, a Barbie doll or a tengu witch, a dragon, a disembodied samurai head, a walnut, a whiffle ball, a luchador. Yet, how you appear in a shoot ‘em up has no effect on your identity as a player or in how the game is played. In an FPS for instance, a cautious flesh-and-blood soldier popping up from behind shoulder-high concrete will instill a different playing psychology than an invincible super spaceman with moon boots and regenerating shields.
The shoot ‘em up is the genre for which aesthetics are least integrated into the act of play, a relationship about which I normally talk about the opposite. Avatars don’t affect players in a shmup; realism remains immune to realism.
This puts the genre in an awkward position where those who like it only like it as itself. Where a person might play a platformer because they enjoy cartoons and romps and puzzles, you can only play a shmup if you like shmups. Even their tendency to feature space themes gives them no edge: they contain none of the methodical feeling of space fiction, turning their own theme into an illogical conclusion. Perhaps because it’s hard to aim at a player base, no one seems to play shmups anymore (I don’t see an abundance of HD remakes of Gradius or the latest entry in the venerated DoDonPachi series for PS4). But perhaps they’ve always been an exclusive market. A better question than “What Happened to the Shoot ‘Em Up?” might be, “Why has it Never Taken Off to Begin With?”
Hard copies of any shmup are generally rare – the English language ones are particularly lucrative finds. The genre has always been so niche that the games immediately become desirable – for all we know, the companies might keep them rare on purpose by limiting the supply, knowing that the genre’s only allure is rarity. After our last fling with the genre on normal retail with Gradius V on PS2 and Ikaruga on GameCube, the shmup hasn’t even been putting out its usual schtick: Japan-exclusive releases trickling in torturously low supply into American ports, either by genuine low demand or disingenuous manufactured rarity. Whatever the story, these games don’t come out. When they do, you have to buy them on Ebay.
I think the reason might once have been the genre’s awkward position among its more marketable siblings. But I think it now has nothing in particular to do with the shmup itself – I think all niche games are being bled from the AAA body politic, one genre at a time. Steam has become a haven for these games and their players, but the attention isn’t the same as they would get from that concrete affirmation of the main industry, which sticks out like a smug silver spoon from the mouths of the NFL games that come out every year, as they inherit a game and a collector’s edition every new calendar, while thirteen years isn’t enough of a wait to grace us with Gradius VI. If it’s not generally appealing, it’s not made by the big developers any more.
And the shmup has been forcefully kept in exclusivity from the beginning, since it first burned itself onto a NES cartridge, so its chances of survival were lower than most. What was the appeal to begin with? More importantly, why do we believe that we have no need for it anymore?
The first generation of shmups – I’ll call this Space Invaders, Defender, Galaga – reveal the main component of their appeal, which is how little the genre has changed. Most genres work with literal nostalgia to refer to the series’ past (Super Mario Odyssey did a thing recently where since making a 3D level feel like a hardcore Super Mario Bros. level would have been too difficult, it instead made itself 2D and pixelated to fake it). Shmups don’t have to do this: they don’t change enough even to refer. Every moment in Gradius V is an homage, practically on the level of a remake, to Gradius, as much as it’s one to R-Type. The genre has no progression arc and for a certain kind of player, this is comforting. But getting the same old thing appeals only to certain people, for whom it appeals to exclusively.
The sincerity of the genre was probably a response to this mentality and not a cause. This is the genre for people who like this genre. No matter how much time passes or what changes occur in graphics or style, a shmup will always replicate the same basic feelings. They all occur on the same continuum of high scores and live counts, where platformers have become so into their own that Super Meat Boy, Fez, and Limbo have almost nothing essentially, in their spirits, in common.
But they all used to share a home on the arcade. While some Steam games have kept the shmup alive, it’s on life support. The gaming public as a whole just doesn’t have a need for it. And I think it’s because the genre is just too honest.
There’s no way to fake a shmup or dilute it. There’s no way to make it drastically easier in concept or to sell it to more people than those that already want for it. And no one has succeeded in giving us the revolutionary shmup for the roguelike generation (Monolith was a nice try). We may lose this genre to time because the gaming public has changed. They demand context and narrative: they crave to be told a story. This doesn’t make them unique among humans, or dishonorable. It’s a sign of games growing up.
I only hope that we don’t lose it for an alternative reason – that it asks the player for too much skill. I’d like to think that though it will freeze and fall off like every other genre the industry no longer feels it needs in order to function for a general audience, the shmup will endure, if for no other sake than novelty, in the Steam store and on Virtual Console. It represents an era when being the best at a game was better than playing it. I know that only one person can be the best and that just doesn’t sell as well, but to this day I still turn them on sometimes, for another three lives of impermanent struggle against the hordes of the universe.
For a genre that has been discarded as unrealistic in favor of modern stories, that about sums it up for me.
M.C. Myers is a graduate of English Literature and a geek even when it’s in vogue. When he’s not writing about video games he has a semi-regular column on Bright Lights Film called “Watch it Again.” He can be reached at his email: email@example.com