Rail Shooter

For the film genre, see Western (genre). For the 2007 action film, see Shoot 'Em Up (film).
Action video games

Shoot 'em up (also known as shmup or STG) is a subgenre of the shooter genre of video games.

In a shoot 'em up, the player character engages in a lone assault, often in a spacecraft or aircraft, shooting large numbers of enemies while dodging their attacks. There is no consensus as to which design elements compose a shoot 'em up. Some restrict the definition to games featuring spacecraft and certain types of character movement; others allow a broader definition including characters on foot and a variety of perspectives. Shoot 'em ups call for fast reactions and for the player to memorise levels and enemy attack patterns. Newer "bullet hell" games feature overwhelming numbers of enemy projectiles.

The genre's origins can be traced back to Spacewar!, one of the very earliest computer games, developed in 1961 and eventually released in amusement arcades in the early 1970s. However, Tomohiro Nishikado, creator of Space Invaders, is generally credited with inventing the genre. Space Invaders premiered in Japanese arcades in 1978. Shoot 'em ups were popular throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. In the mid-1990s, shoot 'em ups became a niche genre based on design conventions established in the 1980s, and increasingly catered to specialist enthusiasts, particularly in Japan.

The shoot 'em up encompasses various subgenres. In a fixed shooter such as Space Invaders, the protagonist can only move across one axis and enemies attack from a single direction. In a multidirectional shooter the protagonist may rotate and move in any direction. By contrast, a rail shooter player character is viewed from behind, and moves "into the screen", while the player retains control over dodging. Tube shooters feature similar viewpoints, and their protagonists fly through abstract tubes.

The scrolling shooter genre encompasses both horizontal shooters (which are side-scrolling video games) and vertical shooters (which are vertically scrolling video games). Subgenres include bullet hell, cute 'em up, and run and gun games. In the latter, player characters are on foot, rather than in a vehicle and may be able to jump. Run and gun games may scroll on more than one axis.


A "shoot 'em up", also known as a "shmup"[1][2] or "STG",[3][4] is a game in which the protagonist combats a large number of enemies by shooting at them while dodging their fire. The controlling player must rely primarily on reaction times to succeed.[5][6] Beyond this, critics differ on exactly which design elements constitute a shoot 'em up. Some restrict the genre to games featuring some kind of craft, using fixed or scrolling movement.[5] Others widen the scope to include games featuring such protagonists as robots or humans on foot, as well as including games featuring "on-rails" (or "into the screen") and "run and gun" movement.[6][7][8] Mark Wolf restricts the definition to games featuring multiple antagonists ("'em" being short for "them"), calling games featuring one-on-one shooting "combat games".[9] Formerly, critics described any game where the primary design element was shooting as a "shoot 'em up",[6] but later shoot 'em ups became a specific, inward-looking genre based on design conventions established in those shooting games of the 1980s.[7]


Common elements

Shoot 'em ups are a subgenre of shooter game, in turn a type of action game. These games are usually viewed from a top-down or side-view perspective, and players must use ranged weapons to take action at a distance. The player's avatar is typically a vehicle under constant attack. Thus, the player's goal is to shoot as quickly as possible anything that moves or threatens him.[10] In some games, the player's character can withstand some damage; in others, a single hit will result in his destruction.[2] The main skills required in shoot 'em ups are fast reactions and memorising enemy attack patterns. Some games feature overwhelming numbers of enemy projectiles and the player has to memorise their patterns to survive.[1][11][12] These games belong to one of the fastest-paced video game genres.[10]

Large numbers of enemy characters are typically featured. These enemies may behave in a certain way dependent on their type, or attack in formations that the player can learn to predict. The basic gameplay tends to be straightforward and many games offset this with boss battles and a variety of weapons.[2] Shoot 'em ups rarely have realistic physics. Characters can instantly change direction with no inertia, and projectiles move in a straight line at constant speeds.[10] The player's character can collect "power-ups" which may afford the character greater protection, an "extra life", or upgraded weaponry.[11] Different weapons are often suited to different enemies, but these games seldom keep track of ammunition. As such, players tend to fire indiscriminately, and their weapons only damage legitimate targets.[10]


Shoot 'em ups are categorized by design elements, particularly viewpoint and movement:[6] "Fixed shooters" consist of levels that each fit within a single screen. The protagonist's movement is fixed to a single axis of motion, and enemies attack in a single direction (such as descending from the top of the screen).[13] These games are sometimes also called "gallery shooters".[7] "Rail shooters" limit the player to moving around the screen while the game follows a specific route;[14] these games often feature an "into the screen" viewpoint, with which the action is seen from behind the character.[6][15] The term "rail shooter" is also often applied to light gun shooters that use "on-rails" movement,[16] and the term has also been applied to linear first-person shooters such as Call of Duty in recent years.[17][18] "Tube shooters" feature craft flying through an abstract tube.[19]

"Scrolling shooters" include vertical or horizontal scrolling games. In a vertically scrolling shoot 'em up (or "vertical scroller"), the action is viewed from above and scrolls up (or very occasionally down) the screen. This has the advantage of allowing complex patterns of enemies, as well as allowing even simple graphics to function convincingly. Vertical scrollers are best suited for arcade machines with tall screens; screens used with home computers or consoles tend to be wider than they are tall, thus are less suited to vertical scrolling.[6] The other main type of scrolling shooter is a "horizontal shooter" or "side-scrolling shooter", in which the action is viewed side-on and scrolls horizontally.[6][7][20] A small number of scrolling shooters, such as Sega's Zaxxon, feature an isometric point of view.[7] Others dispense with scrolling altogether, instead using a flip-screen device: when a player reaches the edge of the screen, a whole new scene appears at once.[6] Some shooters may feature multidirectional movement ("multidirectional shooter"), generally with a static screen.[21]

"Bullet hell" (弾幕 danmaku?, literally "barrage" or "bullet curtain") is a shoot 'em up in which the entire screen is often almost completely filled with enemy bullets.[12] This type is also known as "curtain fire",[22] "manic shooters"[7] or "maniac shooters".[23] This style of game originated in the mid-1990s, and is an offshoot of scrolling shooters.[23]

"Cute 'em ups" feature brightly coloured graphics depicting surreal settings and enemies.[7] Newer, particularly Japanese, cute 'em ups may employ overtly sexual characters and innuendo.[24]

"Run and gun" (or "run 'n' gun") describes a shoot 'em up in which the protagonist fights on foot, perhaps with the ability to jump. Run and gun games may use side scrolling, vertical scrolling or isometric viewpoints and may feature multidirectional movement.[8][25][26]


Origins and rise

The genre's exact origins are a matter of some confusion.[6] Video game journalist Brian Ashcraft pinpoints Spacewar! (one of the very earliest computer games) as the first shoot 'em up,[27] but the later Space Invaders is more frequently cited as the "first" or "original" in the genre.[6][7][28] Spacewar! was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1961, for the amusement of the developers; it was, however, remade four times as an arcade game in the early to mid-1970s. The game featured combat between two spacecraft.[29]

However, it was not until 1978's seminal Space Invaders, created by Nishikado at Japan's Taito Corporation, that the shooter genre became prolific.[30] Space Invaders pitted the player against multiple enemies descending from the top of the screen at a constantly increasing rate of speed.[28] The game used alien creatures inspired by The War of the Worlds (by H. G. Wells) because the developers were unable to render the movement of aircraft; in turn, the aliens replaced human enemies because of moral concerns (regarding the portrayal of killing humans) on the part of Taito Corporation. As with subsequent shoot 'em ups of the time, the game was set in space as the available technology only permitted a black background. The game also introduced the idea of giving the player a number of "lives". Space Invaders was a massive commercial success, causing a coin shortage in Japan,[31][32] and gaining mainstream popularity in America.[33] It popularised a more interactive style of gameplay with the enemies responding to the player-controlled cannon's movement,[34] and it was the first video game to popularise the concept of achieving a high score,[33][35][36] being the first to save the player's score.[33] The aliens of Space Invaders return fire at the protagonist, making them the first arcade game targets to do so.[37] It set the template for the shoot 'em up genre,[38] and has influenced most shooting games released since then.[30]

Golden age and refinement

In 1979, Namco's Galaxian - "the granddaddy of all top-down shooters" according to IGN - was released.[39] Its use of colour graphics and individualised antagonists were considered "strong evolutionary concepts" among space ship games.[40] That same year saw the release of SNK's debut shoot 'em up Ozma Wars, notable for being the first action game to feature a supply of energy, resembling a life bar, a mechanic that has now become common in the majority of modern action games.[41] It also featured vertically scrolling backgrounds and enemies.[42]

In 1981, Defender established scrolling in shoot 'em ups, offering horizontally extended levels. Unlike most later games in the genre, the player could move in either direction.[7] The game's use of scrolling helped remove design limitations associated with the screen,[43] and though the game's minimap feature had been introduced before, Defender integrated it into the gameplay in a more essential manner.[44] Konami's Scramble, released in 1981, is a side-scrolling shooter with forced scrolling. It was the first scrolling shooter to offer multiple, distinct levels.[7] Atari's Tempest, released in 1981, is one of the earliest tube shooters and an early attempt to incorporate a 3D perspective into shooter games.[45] Tempest ultimately went on to influence major rail shooters.[46][47]

Vertical scrolling shooters emerged around the same time. Namco's Xevious, released in 1982, is frequently cited as the first vertical shooter and, although it was in fact preceded by several other games featuring vertical scrolling, it was the most influential.[7] Xevious is also the first to convincingly portray realistic landscapes as opposed to purely science fiction settings.[48] While Asteroids (1979) allowed the player to rotate the game's spacecraft,[49] 1982's highly acclaimed Robotron 2084 was most influential on subsequent multi-directional shooters.[50][51]

Sega's Space Harrier, a rail shooter released in 1985, broke new ground graphically and its wide variety of settings across multiple levels gave players more to aim for than high scores.[52][53] 1985 also saw the release of Konami's Gradius, which gave the player greater control over the choice of weaponry, thus introducing another element of strategy.[7] The game also introduced the need for the player to memorise levels in order to achieve any measure of success.[54] Gradius, with its iconic protagonist, defined the side-scrolling shoot 'em up and spawned a series spanning several sequels.[55] The following year saw the emergence of one of Sega's forefront series with its game Fantasy Zone. The game received acclaim for its surreal graphics and setting and the protagonist, Opa-Opa, was for a time considered Sega's mascot.[56] The game borrowed Defender's device of allowing the player to control the direction of flight and along with the earlier Twinbee (1985), is an early archetype of the "cute 'em up" sub-genre.[7][57] R-Type, an acclaimed side-scrolling shoot 'em up, was released in 1987 by Irem, employing slower paced scrolling than usual, with difficult levels calling for methodical strategies.[1][58] 1990's Raiden was the beginning of another acclaimed and enduring series to emerge from this period.[59][60]

Shoot 'em ups such as SNK's Ikari Warriors (1986) featuring characters on foot, rather than spacecraft, became popular in the mid-1980s in the wake of action movies such as Rambo: First Blood Part II.[61] The origins of this type go back to Berzerk by Stern Electronics, released in 1980. Taito's Front Line (1982) established the upwards-scrolling formula later popularized by Commando, in 1985.[26] Commando also drew comparisons to Rambo[62] and indeed contemporary critics considered military themes and protagonists similar to Rambo or Schwarzenegger prerequisites for a shoot 'em up, as opposed to an action-adventure game.[26] In 1986, Arsys Software released WiBArm, a shooter that switched between a 2D side-scrolling view in outdoor areas to a fully 3D polygonal third-person perspective inside buildings, while bosses were fought in an arena-style 2D battle, with the game featuring a variety of weapons and equipment.[63] In 1987, Square's 3-D WorldRunner was an early stereoscopic 3-D shooter played from a third-person perspective,[64] followed later that year by its sequel JJ,[65] and the following year by Space Harrier 3-D which used the SegaScope 3-D shutter glasses.[66] That same year, Sega's Thunder Blade switched between both a top-down view and a third-person view, and introduced the use of force feedback, where the joystick vibrates.[67] Also in 1987, Konami created Contra as an coin-op arcade game that was particularly acclaimed for its multi-directional aiming and two player cooperative gameplay. However, by the early 1990s and the popularity of 16-bit consoles, the scrolling shooter genre was overcrowded, with developers struggling to make their games stand out (one exception being the inventive Gunstar Heroes, by Treasure).[68]

Bullet hell and niche appeal

A new type of shoot 'em up emerged in the early 1990s: variously termed "bullet hell", "manic shooters", "maniac shooters" and danmaku (弾幕?, "bullet curtain"), these games required the player to dodge overwhelming numbers of enemy projectiles and called for still more consistent reactions from players.[7][23] Bullet hell games arose from the need for 2D shoot 'em up developers to compete with the emerging popularity of 3D games: huge numbers of missiles on screen were intended to impress players.[23] Toaplan's Batsugun (1993) provided the prototypical template for this new breed, with Cave (formed by former employees of Toaplan, including Batsugun's main creator Tsuneki Ikeda, after the latter company collapsed) inventing the type proper with 1995's DonPachi.[69] Manic shooter games marked another point where the shoot 'em up genre began to cater to more dedicated players.[7][23] Games such as Gradius had been more difficult than Space Invaders or Xevious,[54] but bullet hell games were yet more inward-looking and aimed at dedicated fans of the genre looking for greater challenges.[7][70] While shooter games featuring protagonists on foot largely moved to 3D-based genres, popular, long-running series such as Contra and Metal Slug continued to receive new sequels.[71][72][73] Rail shooters have rarely been released in the new millennium, with only Rez and Panzer Dragoon Orta achieving cult recognition.[14][53][74]

Treasure's shoot 'em up, Radiant Silvergun (1998), introduced an element of narrative to the genre. It was lavished with critical acclaim for its refined design, though it was not released outside of Japan and remains a much sought after collectors' item.[1][7][75][76] Its successor Ikaruga (2001) featured improved graphics and was again acclaimed as one of the best games in the genre. Both Radiant Silvergun and Ikaruga were later released on Xbox Live Arcade.[1][7][77] The Touhou Project series spans fifteen years and nineteen games as of 2011 and was listed in the Guinness World Records in October 2010 for being the "most prolific fan-made shooter series".[78] The genre has undergone something of a resurgence with the release of the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii online services,[77] while in Japan arcade shoot 'em ups retain a deep-rooted niche popularity.[79] Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved was released on Xbox Live Arcade in 2005 and in particular stood out from the various re-releases and casual games available on the service.[80] The PC has also seen its share of shmups exclusive to the platform, like the eXceed series and the successful indie shmup Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony. However, despite the genre's continued appeal to an enthusiastic niche of players, shoot 'em up developers are increasingly embattled financially by the power of home consoles and their attendant genres.[79][81] Destructoid acclaimed Cave's 2010 (2012 in the West) game Akai Katana Shin - which was ported to the Xbox 360 - as one of its best.[82]



  • Ashcraft, Brian, (2008) Arcade Mania! The Turbo-Charged World of Japan's Game Centers, (Kodansha International)
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