Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Where Have All The Shmups Gone!?

Nothing saddens me more than to continually ask myself rhetorical questions, only to answer them with further questions that answer far less than I'd have hoped. In this case, I'm talking about the age-old question (more like the 15-20 year question), "Where have all the shmups gone!?" Yes, there are many answers I've heard / yelled to myself in the mirror at night, most of which I'll address below. Keep in mind that I'll be looking up no numbers, citing no facts from reference. This is all a fact of opinion, rather than an opinion of fact.

"What are you talking about? Shmups are released all the time. There hasn't been a year yet where no shmups are released. There's even more planned for the future!"
While this statement is completely true, it doesn't take into account the successful nature of said games. There's been a rather steady decline of shmup sales ever since the dawn of videogames. This in itself raises more questions, but I'll try to be brief.
It all started with SpaceWar! in the 60s, an arena shmup (in its most primitive of forms. Still fun to play today as I hear). The next videogame anyone even feels like talking about is Space Invaders, released in 1978. This is easily the game that jump-started arcades in the US and Japan. It became so popular over there that establishments called "invader houses" started popping up all over, specializing in only shmups. Oh, and it also caused a shortage of Japanese yen in the country. Awesome.
As we go through the 80s, we'll find countless innovations and explorations in gameplay that either started in or were done right in shmups: the highscore and life stock in Space Invaders, the bomb in Defender, co-op gameplay in Salamander, everything in Gradius...
There are dozens and dozens of shmups from the 80s that I hold high above almost all other games from the decade, both in arcades and in the home. Yes, it's a rather bold claim, but in good reason. Now, the interesting part is when you look at my personal list for the 1990s. I think there are four shmups I absolutely adore. Possibly three. The rest are first-party titles from Nintendo and a couple gems on Playstation. I really don't want to get into the list for the 2000s. There may be one shmup there, but I'm still deciding.
So, if I have any merit in your minds as someone who loves shmups with an undying passion, it should come as some shock to hear how quickly my list of loves diminishes over the decades. Yes, I've played and enjoyed lots of shmups made in the late 90s up until today, including the ingenius indie releases, but I don't think they even combine to equal the level of respect I have for titles like Galaga, R-Type, Gradius, Radiant Silvergun, and Ikaruga. Yes, EspGaluda is fantastic. Yes, Guwange was a thrill. Yes, Galaga Legions is fun. Yes, Touhou games bring me joy. And yes, Thunder Force III is as exhilarating as it gets with 7 layers of parallax scrolling. But none of them capture that aorta of my heart that still beats wildly for the compassion that was both put into and that I get out of the classics.

"They've probably gone to hide in whatever arcades that are still open."
This is probably more of a commentary on arcades in the USA, as they are still quite alive and thriving in Japan (and possibly France, as I hear arcades are still bustling a bit over there). Most of the arcades I've been to recently do have at least one shmup cabinet set up (and 11 times out of 10, it's the Ms. Pac-Man / Galaga 20th Anniversary cabinet, oftentimes with an uncalibrated joystick). And I doubt that the same ratio of shmups in arcades can be found in the ratio of shmups in the home. Perhaps this is because shmups both gave birth to the videogame and also assisted in bringing it back out of the crash from the 80s (referring pretty exclusively to Gradius here).

"Those were just tests for new technologies in the 80s. We've all moved on to more sophisticated games."
This may be in regards to the graphics, the controls, the difficulty, or even the general idea of shmups. As far as graphics go, I can't say that they faithfully reenact a historical event from 1940s-era Normandy, but I can say they do more than enough to slow down even the most powerful home PCs (here's hoping it's more than a matter of inefficient coding on the developers' part).
For controls, I guess that can get tossed out, as shmups still retain some of the most simplistic controls out of any game. I can't think of any shmup that uses every button on current-gen controllers. Pacifism mode in Geometry Wars 2 requires the user to simply manipulate the left analog stick. Excluding the Katamari series, I'd say this genre takes the cake. Perhaps the statement claims that players want to have to press as many buttons as possible. I hope not.
For difficulty, I'm sure I'm not alone when I say that the Devil May Cry series and the Ninja Gaiden series aren't quite as difficult to complete as it is difficult to clear certain shmups on one credit. Yes, they're all hard, but you don't exactly get to keep retrying the same boss battle over and over in shmups, nor are your movements and actions allowed to be as freeform. Sometimes a militant eye and precision movement is the only way to defeat certain waves of enemies / bosses, as well as a healthy dose of 100s of hours of practice at a time.
As for the generality of the shmup against other successful genres, there's probably a reason why World of Warcraft has over 10 million active subscribers and why I can't even think of ten friends of mine that would enjoy playing / watching / hearing about a shmup. It all has to do with the ease of getting into it. World of Warcraft is a glorified chatroom, the pinnacle and epitome of the ideal virtual place to meet and do stuff. It's all a matter of clicks that aren't always necessarily dependent upon pinpoint precision (save for a few 144-man level-7000 teams that try to take down an invincible dragon).
Microsoft did a wonderful job marketing Geometry Wars into the success story it is today, and shmups appear to be some of the most successful casual games across multiple Flash portals on the Internet. Regardless, though, I don't see any of them becoming #1 on any future lists, including the sales report during the week that Project RS3 is released (as much as this opinion saddens me even further).

"They're still pretty hot in Japan. Go check there."
According to Brian Ashcraft in his book Arcade Mania!, that seems pretty accurate. There are arcades over there that specialize in exclusively housing shmups, and across multiple floors at that. The fanbase in the states is a quiet, underground collective of dreamy lovers stuck in a world that has long left us. We peruse the same forums, talk about our newest highscores, brag about recently-acquired PCBs of the latest Japanese releases, and complain everytime that a new shmup is released on Japanese Xbox360s with region-lock protection (which is just about every week).
In our little world, shmups are still very hot. We all dream of living in a place like Japan (or possibly Japan itself), where arcades are found every couple of blocks, and many of them tout the coveted, noble, and ever-popular shmup of the day. Instead of discussing the weather and the latest professional sports player in court, we instead discuss the politics of Cave's latest release, the joy of dog-hunting in Radiant Silvergun, or the ethics of shooting your own base in Space Invaders. Those of us who've travelled to or lived in such lands share our stories in front of digital campfires / forum threads, giving as many details as possible without saturating the experience.

"What's a shmup?"
A "shmup" is something you played when you were younger, but have forgotten about by this point. You had no greater pleasure each day than to play the latest one and learn all of the tricks to get you further. Your friends enjoyed watching you lose and would quietly admire your skills everytime you took down the level 3 boss without using any bombs. One guy in the back never understood why you didn't just pop in a few more quarters and beat the game, knowing you were so close to the end. To his confused countenance, you reply, "Then I wouldn't be beating the game."
The truth here is that the genre is only getting more difficult to appease the pros who have been long-time, money-dishing patrons. They are the reason the genre still exists at all today. However, this just further alienates those who are vaguely interested, but aren't committed to such dedication just to beat a 20 minute game. That's the real double-edged sword here, one that hasn't really been sharpened correctly yet.

"I don't know."
This is probably the most appropriate answer any of us can give. While we can all point fingers (not all at Madden, but a good amount), it's best to just realize that as of this writing, the glory days of the shmup have come and gone. I think it's just about impossible to bring them back to the status they once had (that being 50-100% of the "market" in the 60s), but they certainly aren't dead. That leaves me to simply look forward to the future of them. And not just shmups, but videogames in general. They're kind of hitting that point where the box needs to be broken and we need to move on to the next great movement in gameplay, interactivity, visuals, sound, feedback, connectivity, etc. I doubt the PS9 is right around the corner, but there's got to be something in between.

"Into our hearts, and there's no escaping."
Aw, isn't that sweet? ♥

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]


  1. Excellent article, man.
    It makes me think about how alienated I also am among my gamer friends, who will never ever understand why I love shmups so much. Last weekend I invited some friends over and had one of them play Death Smiles with me, and he kept saying "OMG, how can you play something crazy like this, it's impossible"...
    I'm actually happy that I have shmups to play for the rest of my life, but it's always nice to know the genre isn't dead yet.
    Also, the comment goes here cause I don't want to create yet another login (for Gamasutra). 2 to 3 forums is activity enough for a shmupper!

  2. Thanks, Ed. At least it's good knowing there are plenty of us hanging around the Internet, though I encourage you to try and coax any fence-sitters into becoming a part of the community. The more, the merrier!

  3. Unfortunately, the rumours concerning arcades in France are wrong. At this time, we have a whole 4 arcades in the country, 2 of them being fight-games-only, one specialized in dedicated cabs, and the last (Neo Arcadia in Toulouse) having only one shmup cab (Mushihime-sama last time I went there). What we do have is a small but strong community of players (including a few good scorers), a TV channel (called Nolife) broadcasting commented superplays every month, and a good amount of PCB & cabs collectors.

    As for the situation of shmup cabs in Japanese game centers, I cannot say for figures, but I have the personnal impression they're still on the decline. For the small part of it I can see, one of the two arcades in Kyoto where shmuppers were meeting closed about a year ago. But it's true every decent game center has one shmup cab (generally one of the latest Cave title), so the genre isn't completely dead. (And of course, we have a resurgence of console ports of arcade titles and a doujin market which is booming thanks to the Touhou franchise...)

  4. "The truth here is that the genre is only getting more difficult to appease the pros who have been long-time, money-dishing patrons. They are the reason the genre still exists at all today. However, this just further alienates those who are vaguely interested, but aren't committed to such dedication just to beat a 20 minute game. That's the real double-edged sword here, one that hasn't really been sharpened correctly yet."

    During my last year in college, our graduate thesis involved reviving a dying consumer product and making it accessible to the modern consumer market.

    We picked a candy bar that almost everyone of our generation (at least within the group's age level) remembered enjoying as a kid, and decided that the best course of action would be to re-brand and market it to consumers that were of the same generation WE were, seeing as kids younger than 10-12 would probably never even recognize the product. Better to just pitch it to those who actually even remembered the brand name to begin with, we thought.

    Well, we thought wrong. Imagine our shock when, during the presentation, we were criticized for effectively turning the product into a niche brand (although we still got high scores across the board, almost everyone of us got a bit traumatized by that event--I myself thought never to look for work in an advertising agency ever, and I certainly hope not to).

    I sort of feel this way towards Cave games and the latest Touhou/Seihou offerings. While I enjoy my share of danmakus and all--in fact I had just finished my day's round of the MMO shmup "Valkyrie Sky" before I typed this--I have this feeling that they do indeed tend to push the envelope towards the more specialized end of the shmup customer market, the YOS.Ks and Clover-YMN/TAC-Clovers and all those other players who can smoothly glide their 5-pixel collision rectangle through a wave of bright pink antacid pills without so much as batting an eyelid.

    Of course, I exaggerate--I don't think even those guys can play perfectly every single time--but the market out there is way too broad, tastes most certainly differ and trends tend to push peoples' attention onto whichever direction is dictated by the next big thing in consoles and technology for shmup development to suddenly focus itself onto trying to draw more and more instances of bullets onto the screen--ranging in the upper three-digit range--and ensuring that all but the most dedicated set of players could analyze the waves and navigate through them.

    Now I can't fault Cave, et al for doing something like this. They made a name for themselves via the bullet hell subgenre. But whenever I see a doujin group or any indie developer suddenly pull off a danmaku offering, I just have to scratch my head and wonder if that sort of stigma is what they want to keep the genre in. Even CAVE's Tsuneki Ikeda admitted in his interview on Dodonpachi Daioujou that he wanted to distance himself from the danmaku subgenre:

    Just my two cents.