Shoot ‘em ups, Shmups if you will, are a sub-genre of shooting games which are best defined by the protagonist facing off against a load of enemies, shooting them whilst avoiding their fire. There are a load of different sub-genres of shoot ‘em up games because there is so much debate on how exactly to define this genre.
The most well known example of a shoot ’em up is Space Invaders, it is also usually referred to as the original. This first foray into the genre sparked a wave of other shmups like Centipede and the ever popular Galaga. It’s a genre that’s only gotten more and more popular as gaming evolved.
It’s now probably one of the most popular genres in gaming.
The Best Shoot Em’ Ups
Today we wanted to take a look into the rich history of shmups and pick out the best shoot ‘em up games of all time and trust me when I say, we had a lot to choose from. So many in fact that it was extremely tough to whittle it down to just the handful of titles we’ve listed below.
We’ll come back to the article every now and then just to re-affirm our position and to make sure we haven’t missed any glaringly obvious games that should have made the cut.
Space Invaders (1978)
So where better to start than at the beginning. Space Invaders! This game is a classic, anyone who is even slightly into gaming has probably played it at least once, if you haven’t played it you’ve certainly heard of it.
The premise is simple, shoot the alien ships before they reach your laser cannon, the ships will gradually speed up, which adds more difficulty to the game. It’s super simple buy highly effective.
Space Invaders walked so other games in the genre could run. It was the starting point for all shoot ‘em up games and introduced multiple generations to the gaming community and I don’t think gaming would be were it is today without it.
Even though this game is over 40 years old, its simple design and mechanics mean it’s still fun to play and can be a great experience for young and old players alike.
Another classic arcade shoot ‘em up is Galaga. This game added a lot more difficulty to the shoot ‘em up genre by having enemies move in different patterns rather than just back and forth across the screen.
The premise of Galaga is simple. Destroy all enemy ships on a level to complete it and move on to the next one with each level increasing in difficulty. With this being an 80’s game there isn’t much in the way of content but Galaga doesn’t need it, it’s simple but effective in hooking the player by making them want to beat their high score over and over.
Galaga is so widely known by audiences all over the world. This is evident by references to it in movies such as ‘The Avengers’ or ‘Pixels’ and even on TV shows such as ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘Stranger Things’.
What most people don’t know is that Galaga is actually a follow up to a 1979 game called Galaxian which closely resembled Space Invaders before eventually evolving into Galaga. And, since that first game they’ve released so many others in the same series, it’s well worth trying to play through them all on old consoles or emulators.
Moving on to the late 80s and we’ve got Contra. Differing from the previous two games on this list, Contra is a 2D platformer shooter where you move through stages avoiding enemy fire and using a shotgun to fight back. It’s available on a wide array of consoles and gaming systems including; MSX2, Amstrad CPC, NES, ZX Spectrum, PC DOS and Commodore C64/128.
Contra has you play as either Bill “Mad Dog” Rizer or Lance “Scorpion” Bean as they go on a quest to either defeat a terrorist organisation or an alien entity, depending on where in the world you live. The character designs are inspired by a couple of really well known actors. Bill is modeled after Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator and Lance is modeled after Sylvester Stallone in Rambo: First Blood Part II.
The name Contra comes from the American title. The Japanese symbols on the side of the Japanese version of the arcade cabinet spelled out “Kon Tra” when read out loud.
Contra is often stated as one of the hardest games of all time. This is because you only get three lives to beat the whole game and you get one shot by enemies. Essentially you can only be hit twice in the entire game where there is an abundance of enemies all out for your blood.
Halo Spartan Assault (2013)
The Halo franchise is highly praised in the gaming community as an intense first person shooter following the story of Master Chief as he fights against the Covenant using all sorts of different methods. But then, in a move no one expected, Halo Spartan Assault came along. A top down shoot ‘em up, following completely different protagonists.
Halo Spartan Assault has you play as Spartan Sarah Palmer or Spartan Davis fighting against a rogue splinter cell of the Covenant who ignored a cease fire that had been agreed upon by the two sides.
The most interesting part of Halo Spartan Assault is that it was originally a mobile game before coming to Xbox and PC, a first for the franchise. The game still has the look and feel of a Halo game so is definitely worth a play for fans of the other games.
We really like the modern take on this shoot em up style and it’s worth being included on this list.
Star Fox (1993)
Whilst younger audiences might know Fox McCloud as a character from Super Smash Bros what they might not know is in the early 90s he had his own game. Star Fox (released as StarWing in Europe, hence the box art above) is the first game in the Star Fox franchise from all the way back in 1993 (28 years ago if you can believe it).
The game has you placed into the metal legs of Fox McCloud, the leader of the titular Star Fox, an anthropomorphic team of fighter pilots. The goal of the game is to defend your home planet of Corneria against the attacking fleet led by a scientist called Andross.
Star Fox was one of the first games to utilise the Super FX chip inserted in some SNES game cartridges to create a 3D game. Since it was such a pioneer in this sector the graphics were very blocky and polygonal, but at the time of its release it was amazing.
The polygon shapes and flight remind me of the Gummi Ship in Kingdom Hearts.
The game still holds up today and even if you can’t get past the graphics there is no denying that Star Fox was instrumental to reaching where we ate with gaming today.
Centipede: Recharged (2021)
Ok so this one might be a bit early to call but my next choice for one of the best shoot ‘em ups of all time is Centipede: Recharged. Released on 29th september 2021 this game takes the old Centipede game and brings it into the modern times.
The objective of Centipede: Recharged is to survive. Basically it is another game similar to Space invaders but instead of being stuck on a horizontal plane you have a set area to move around in. As the game goes on more and more enemies begin to fill the screen and you have to try to destroy them with your little laser gun.
I really think this game, despite lacking much content, is extremely fun, and the ability to connect to the internet and see people’s scores and where you rank on a global scale can drive anyone who is as competitive as me to play for hours trying to climb the leaderboard.
The biggest thing this game changes from its original counterpart is the graphics, making it easier to look at. Apart from that there is still the arcade type feel to the game, perfect for anyone who wants a hit of nostalgia.
The Binding Of Isaac: Rebirth (2014)
Have you heard the story of Abraham? God commanded he sacrifice his son to him to prove his loyalty but stopped him at the last minute, content that Abraham would’ve gone through with it. So what does this have to do with shmups? Well Abraham’s son he was to sacrifice was called Isaac, the same as our protagonist from the next game, The Binding Of Isaac: Rebirth.
If the Bible reference didn’t tip you off, this game is about a boy named Isaac who lives in an extremely religious household. One day his mother believes God is talking to her and demands she sacrifice Isaac. So she does the only sensible thing and goes at her son with a knife. The game follows Isaac through a series of dungeons where he fights enemies in a rogue-like scenario with the rooms being procedurally generated. The main goal is to defeat your mom but there are 16 different endings you can get.
The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth has a very messed up art style that isn’t for the faint of heart, but I really like it and I think you will too. If gore doesn’t bother you then you need to be trying out this game as soon as possible, it’s an awesome shoot em up.
In 2017 Cuphead took the gaming world by storm. From streaming to youtube videos this game was everywhere. There was a good reason for this, the cutesy art style drew people in but the crazy difficulty kept them playing for hours on end.
In Cuphead you can play as either the eponymous Cuphead or his brother, Mugman. The story revolves around the pair losing a bet to the literal Devil and to save their souls they have to collect what the game calls soul contracts from others who owe the Devil. Cue running through bright levels fighting hordes of enemies, shooting blasts of energy from your fingers.
The best part about Cuphead is definitely the boss fights and the uniqueness of the bosses, most games will go for big scary monsters, but not Cuphead, they would rather you fight a giant sentient carrot instead.
Cuphead not only deserves its place as one of the best shoot em ups of all time but could be placed on a list of the best games of all time.
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