BULLET DIVE: STAGE 0 — An intro to scrolling shoot-em-ups and subgenres

amr al-aaser
Oct 4, 2015 · 7 min read

Scrolling shoot-em-ups, or SHMUPs, are an interesting genre. One of the longest running formats of arcade games, they’ve launched from major mainstream success with Space Invaders and have grown steadily more niche until evolving into a the bullet hell form with games like DoDonpachi. They often revolve around familiar and recurring themes and settings. Where first person shooters increasingly court the military complex and geopolitics, SHMUPs often return to single spaceships, ace pilots, and genocidal foreign organisms. As critic John Thyer puts it:

This is an important thing to note. While many SHMUPs may seem to be similar on a surface level, those small differences can create drastic changes in the structure of the game, and are relatively major within the constraints of the genre.

Similar to first person shooters, this gives the genre a lot of interesting avenues of exploration once the basic tenets are understood, but make them increasingly incomprehensible to outside viewers. For that I’d like to present a rundown of those formats. Keep in mind that none of these are hard and fast rules, nor do they necessarily define the quality of an entry.

Rayforce, Taito

Ex. Space Invaders, Galaga, Xevious, Raiden, Rayforce, DoDonpachi

One of the oldest formats in the genre, vertical shooters often have a strong focus on dodging enemy fire while taking down waves of enemies. While there are games such as Space Invaders Extreme that take place in a wider space, these games generally have a play space that is taller than it is wide, with a trend toward forward motion and an emphasis on scoring. On consoles these also often have a tate mode, in which the screen is rotated on its side for widescreen monitors capable of being displayed vertically.

DoDonpachi iOS, CAVE

Many of these games have evolved into the danmaku format, also known as “bullet curtain” or “bullet hell”. These are a very niche format in which players must dodge screen-filling patterns of bullets.

DoDonpachi is largely considered one of the first major players in this format, and largely set the trends for it.

R-Type iOs, Irem

Ex. R-Type, Darius, Gradius, Scramble, Defender, Fantasy Zone

As the name implies, these are shoot-em-ups that scroll horizontally. These typically have a larger emphasis on the environment, often making navigating the terrain a core obstacle. Some of the earliest examples can be found in Williams’ Defender and Konami’s Scramble, both published in 1981. The former would become well known in its own right, providing the looping environments and free movement that would become the basis of games such as SEGA’s Fantasy Zone. The latter became the predecessor to Gradius, one of the best known series in the genre.

This sub-genre tends to draw some of the most notably stranger aesthetics, from R-Type’s H.R. Giger inspired organic machines, to Deathsmiles mashup of gothic lolitas and Halloween themed environments. It’s also where you’d find Zero Wing, a generally unremarkable shooter whose poor translation became the subject of a widespread meme in the early 2000's.

Zero Wing, Toplan

This space also attracted the attention of a lot of European PC developers, whose design sensibilities led to them to create a related subgenre with a much different philosophy than their arcade counterparts. This genre would be known in enthusiast circles as the Euroshmup, the aesthetics of which are worth exploring themselves.

Soldner X-2, Sidequest Studios
Robotron 2084, Williams

Ex. Robotron 2084, Smash TV, Geometry Wars, Waves, Ultraton, Everyday Shooter, Scoregasm

One of the most formative genres, twin stick shooters were popularized with the appearance of Eugene Jarvis’ Robotron 2084, which was one of the earliest shooters to use the eponymous control scheme. By assigning separate control sticks to moving and firing, Robotron allowed you to navigate hazards while still being able to fire at enemies. It also served as the predecessor to the dual stick control schemes that would become popular for first person shooters on home game consoles.

Geomtery Wars, Bizarre Creations

These became less popular as the arcade fell out of fashion in the US and longer console focused experiences became more popular. They saw a resurgence, however, when smaller experiences such as Bizarre Creation’s Geometry Wars helped popularize downloadable games alongside the return of the highscore table in the form of Leaderboards. (These developments helped bring back shoot-em-ups in general, but the twin stick shooter was the only one that saw anything close to mainstream success).

These shooters tend to have a focus on a large amounts of enemies and crowd control. Their popularity also sees them taking on a degree of hybridization. While titles like Geometry Wars tend to focus more on enemy behaviors and endless waves, games such as Valve’s Alien Swarm or Frozenbyte’s Shadowgrounds take on a cooperative approach highly influenced by the exploits of the space marines in the James Cameron film Aliens. These tend to also borrow elements of first-person shooters, such as limited ammo and a greater emphasis on controlled shooting. This also means that first-person shooters themselves often see spin offs in this style, with popular shooters like Halo and even Call of Duty: Black Ops getting spin-offs in the style.

Halo Spartan Assault, 343 Studios and Vanguard Entertainment

This hybridization often makes it a bit more difficult to pin down exactly what represents an entry in this genre, as the control scheme and top down viewpoint are often the only consistent elements, and even those can be ambiguous when paired with mouse controlled entries on PCs. These can also be some of the most accessible entries to get into, as players with experience in other genres can transfer some of those skills here.

Child of Eden, Q Entertainment

Ex. Child of Eden, Star Fox, Panzer Dragoon, Sin and Punishment, Gamera 2000

Another genre often marked by hybridization, its defining features are continuous forward movement through environments outside the control of the player, as if the avatar is attached to a rail that pulls them forward. Generally the player will also have some control over their avatar on a 2D plane, being able to move the avatar on the X and Y-axes in order to dodge enemy fire or environmental obstacles. This allows complex movements through 3D space while keeping movement from being too complicated from the perspective of player inputs. In some ways, these can often be seen as a 3D evolution of vertical scrolling shooters, presenting a similar style of progress and pacing but changing the axes players control.

Time Crisis:Razing Storm, Namco

These differ from light-gun shooters, such as Duck Hunt, House of the Dead or Time Crisis in that attacks generally are generally projectile based rather than connecting immediately, and players often also have a better sense of their player avatar. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, however. As with twin stick shooters there’s often a degree of hybridization in the genre.

Pokemon Snap, HAL Laboratory

Shooters such as Rez or Child of Light both feature static avatars and focus on locking onto targets in order to distract less from their integration of sound effects with the soundtrack. Pokemon Snap is one of the more off-beat entries in the genre, where the act of shooting is replaced with shooting pictures. This is probably one of the more expressive and open ended sub-genres and often parts of it find its way into other, larger games. (See: Kingdom Hearts’ Gummi Ship sections).


Within these genres and outside of them there are increasingly larger variations on these formats, but these should be enough to give you a basic understanding of each. I’ll update these as needed.

Bullet Dive

a series deconstructing elements of shoot-em-ups

amr al-aaser

Written by

Editor-in-Chief of @deorbital and @clickbliss. artist. writer. Egyptian-Filipino American.

Bullet Dive

a series deconstructing elements of shoot-em-ups