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The Origin of The 'Shmup' Genre: A Historical Study

This is the result of playing nearly 3500 arcade games over a 4 year period in order to trace the genealogy of one of the most important genres of all times.


In 2003 I began research for my PhD topic. As part of my research, I began to explore the family tree of the Shmup genre, the oldest and most profilific genre of gaming (within the context of the arcade medium). Using MAME, A Yahoo Auctions Japan account & a Sega Astro City Arcade machine I began to trace the origins of this genre by playing over 3,500 arcade games.

This blog post is an excerpt from the final dissertation which explores the origins of the Shmup genre and examines the games which set the standards that we accept today.

I thought it would be fitting to publish this work as a blog post now that it is a decade old and use this to reflect on the research and how it was conducted. I will present the chapter in it's entirity, as it was publsihed and then provide some quick reflection on the process at the end.


Defining the Shmup

While contentious, it is widely believed that the first published instance of the word ‘Shmup’ was in Commodore 64 magazine, Zzap!64 Issue 3, July 1985. The word was initially mentioned in the editorial section written by Chris Anderson (1985) 

Some things which you may think are slurred comments, but are in fact quite deliberate are a few strange new words scattered round the mag, like 'Shmup', 'aardvark' and 'wimp out'. You'll find a full explanation for all these on the last page of the mag, so don't panic. (p.5)

 As promised, the back of the issue contained a definition of “Shmup”

A Zzap-coined term to replace the long-winded 'shoot-em-up'. Any game involving stacks of blasting and zapping.

 The term Shmup was also used in the review of Drop Zone (UK Gold/Arena Graphics, 1985)[1] written by Julian Rignall in the same issue of ZZap!64.[2] Despite ZZap!64 claiming credit for the invention of the term, it is believed contractions of ‘shoot-em-up’ first appeared in Western arcades around 1978, the same time that Space Invaders (Taito, 1978) was dominating the arcade market.

By 1985 the Shoot-em-up family tree had spawned many new branches and there was much variation within the genre. Within Western culture, there came a need to classify all of these sub-genres and to this day, Shmups has been the term of choice. Contrarily, in Japan the genre is still known as shooters; it would seem peculiar that a Western magazine specializing in computer games would ultimately dub a Japanese-created arcade game genre. It could be argued that the term ‘Shoot-em-up’ is highly representative of the ‘Country and Western’ mentality of Western gamers. The ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ culture of Western movies and related folklore reflects the machismo and bravado-driven behaviours commonly role-played in popular videos games such as Grand Theft Auto III (Rockstar, 2002). Alternatively, the more subdued and detached term of ‘shooters’ or ‘STG’ used by the Japanese gaming population suggests a less ‘personal’ approach to playing these games, with less emphasis placed on the successful extermination of an imagined enemy, and with much less pleasure derived from the final act of execution. A parallel exists in karaoke in Japan, where it is participation and effort that count, whereas Westerners see karaoke as a kind of talent contest, with a single, ultimate winner. In itself this suggestion poses as problematic when attempting to extract the subtleties and nuances that make for such different and distinct interpretations of the same material. The contrasting titles given to these identical games by these two cultures could be construed as highly suggestive of corresponding, yet diverse, underlying societal mentalities.

Although the term shooter is synonymous with a wide variety of games, Shmups constitute a distinct category within the larger shooter family. In many respects, Shmups are also the genre responsible for the development of contemporary shooting genres such as the ‘First Person Shooter’ (FPS). To distinguish Shmups from the larger body of shooters in general, there are a number of rules which one can use to distinguish a Shmup. The following section defines the Shmup genre based on discourse in contemporary user groups.

Defining the Rules

In recent years, Shmups and their genre classification has become a hotly contested topic within the community. As the name implies, Shoot-em-ups are focused on the player destroying overwhelming numbers of enemies, and what distinguishes Shmups from Shoot-em-ups is the way that the player must do this.

Shmups are defined by certain unique elements of game mechanics[3] including aspects of player perspective, the game world, control, objectives and themes. Starting with control, the player takes control of their avatar from a third person perspective. Using the directional controls, the player is able to move freely along X and Y axis of the screen. The Players orientation is fixed to that of the primary scrolling axis (Figure 1).



Figure 1 

The player has no control over the view perspective of the game. The game will scroll automatically along its primary axis of movement at a speed determined by the game, beyond the player’s control. The player observes their craft from a fixed third person perspective, either above or to the side of their ship depending on the type of Shmup.

In most cases, the player’s orientation is fixed so that their craft is facing the primary axis of movement. However the most notable exception to this can be seen in Zero Gunner and Zero Gunner 2, where the player has the ability to control their ships direction without impacting on scroll speed or direction.

Movement of the player’s craft in Shmups is fixed to X and Y movements primarily. Movement along the Z axis if present is nearly always controlled by the game’s pre-determined scrolling. If, however, Z axis movement is controlled by the player it is usually implemented as a button, not as a function of the directional control pad. Aside from directional control, Shmups control schemes must also utilize at least one "shoot" button that controls the player’s primary mode of fire. In terms of multiplayer control, Shmups can only be played co-operatively with a second player. Enemy control is strictly generated by the Shmup program itself without the interaction of a second gamer.


Shmups also incorporate certain gameplay elements related to the successful completion of the game. Specifically, Shmups are primarily score driven and rely on the player’s ability to exploit the given Shmups “play system” to their advantage. The main objective of a Shmup is to progress through the level in a linear fashion, destroying or removing enemy craft from the screen by the use of directional control and a primary fire mode. Destruction of enemy craft results in increases to the players score. Clearing the level also results in the continuation of the game to another level, further allowing good players to increase their score at increasing difficulty levels.

Game AI (Artificial Intelligence)

A major distinguishing feature of Shmups is the inclusion of a game world that lacks real enemy artificial intelligence. For example, the game world often follows pre-determined patterns and dictates the movement of the game player, rather than reacting to the movements of the game player. Certain exceptions to this exist and can be seen mainly in aimed bullets patterns and certain boss attack strategies. More often than not, Shmups rely on pre-defined, static patterns of enemy movements. Therefore, the player’s ability to finish certain Shmups relies mostly on their own ability to remember the movement and placement of enemies throughout the various levels in a Shmup. The only non-static element in Shmups AI is the movement of bullet patterns. Although some bullet patterns remain unchanged, the majority of bullet movement in Shmups is programmed to home in on the player’s ships at various screen co-ordinates. However, this homing is mostly limited to only single co-ordinates and lacks the ability to constantly home in on the player’s craft.

What about games that don't meet all of these criteria?

As with all types of genre classification there are certain borderline cases that need special consideration in the classification process. In cases such as these it is sometimes easier to look at what elements are totally foreign to Shmups to eliminate certain borderline cases.

  • Players cannot have control over Z axis movement.
  • The use of a jump button for movement
  • The inability to move along the X and Y axis freely with the sole use of the directional pad
  • Games where scrolling along the primary axis a) is controlled by the player’s movement, for example In the Hunt and b) scrolls freely along all axes.
  • The player’s primary mode of fire must not move along the Z axis, for example, Space Harrier.

Vertical and Horizontal Shmups

Two commonly used sub categorizations: Vertical Shmups and Horizontal Shmups are further used to define the genre. Both of these sub-categorizations are based on which axis (X or Y) the Shmups background scrolls along. In the former of the two sub categories, Vertical Shmups, the background scrolls from top to bottom along the Y-axis of the screen. Vertical Shmups are played from an above third person perspective as seen below in the screenshot taken from Ikaruga (2001) (Figure 2).[4] The orientation of the player’s craft is also bound to the way in which the background scrolls. For instance, in vertical Shmups, the front of the player’s craft is pointed toward the top of the screen; hence to move forwards (along the Y-axis) the player must push up on the directional controller (Figure 3).


Figure 2 


Figure 3 

In the subcategory of Horizontal Shmups, the background scrolls along the X-Axis of the screen. Horizontal Shmups are played from a side-on third person perspective, similar to looking at a cross-section. In the majority of horizontal Shmups, the background scrolls from right to left and the front of the players craft faces toward the right of the screen as seen in Figure 4,[5] taken from Border Down. Therefore, for the player to move forwards in a horizontal Shmup (along the x-axis), the player must push right on the directional controller (Figure 5).


Figure 4 


Figure 5 

Depending on whether a Shmup is vertical or horizontal, the screen orientation must be adjusted accordingly. For instance, most Vertical Shmups use a screen orientation ratio known as 3:4 (three is to four). This means that either the screen must be orientated on its side (as a normal television is 4:3) or the game plays with large black borders on a regular 4:3 monitor. However, Horizontal Shmups take advantage of regular screen orientation (4:3) (Figure 6).

Figure 6 

As always, exceptions must be made: some Vertical Shmups use a regular 4:3 screen orientation, although a side effect of this is that player’s visibility along the primary scrolling axis is limited. This feature is mostly saved for home console only Vertical Shmups, as most people did not want to turn their televisions on their side just to play one game.

Despite the encompassing nature of the above two sub categories of Shmups, some games in the genre do not completely conform to the above definitions. For example, some early Shmups such as Viewpoint (1992) scrolled isometrically along the screen. More recently, however, a Shmup by the name of Zero Gunner (1996) gave players the ability to rotate their craft variably through a full 360 degrees. Zero Gunner also introduced a variable scroll axis, therefore combining a number of scrolling techniques – vertical, horizontal and diagonal. Zero Gunner is, however, still classified as a non-orthodox Vertical Shmup, as the player observes the game from an over-head third person perspective. Zero Gunner is however still classified a non-orthodox Vertical Shmup as the player observes the game from an over-head third person perspective.

Shmups such as Ikaruga (2001), Radiant Silvergun (1999), R-Type (1987) and Raiden DX (1994) are zeitgeists of the genre; games which are synonymous with the time and mediums for which they were created.  These games are iconic representations of the genre and are testament to how widespread and successful the Shmups genre has been over a prolonged period of time. If Shmups are the constant by which one tests the variables, then the variables therefore need to be identified and tested.

The case study Shmups in the analysis chapter only represent the genre at its height, and subsequently do not cover information that provides a contextual reference for the genre as a whole. Therefore, before moving into the analysis of Period One, a concise overview of the genre’s development will be presented here. This discussion also provides evidence of the importance that familiarity played in the development of the genre. To understand this evolution of gaming, one has to track back through a gaming landscape of nearly 3,500 unique games to expose the genre’s roots. Even the most gaming illiterate reader can immediately make the connection between the above genre definition and one particular zeitgeist game Space Invaders, but can the genre be traced back even further, and can the genre be traced back to its para-gaming roots?

This brief overview of the genre provides essential context for the future analysis. The information presented below is not comparative analysis, but rather an overview of the evolution of the Shmups genre. This section of Shmup development will herein be referred to as ‘Proto-Shmups’, as these particular games, although bearing a resemblance to later Shmups, do not follow all of the prescribed Shmup standardizations as presented in the introduction.

Pre-History of the Shmup Genre the Year of the Invasion

In 1978 only a handful of arcade games had been publicly released. The consumption and development of arcade games remained outside of the public consciousness for the most part, but there was a growing presence in this market. The home console market was in a similar state, although things weren’t as optimistic on the home front. Even after the arcade success of Pong (Atari, 1972), Atari had by no fault of their own set in motion a course of events that would eventually lead to the financial collapse of many companies in 1977. It seemed that the success of Pong in the arcades had created a need in the home console market for the game; a need that too many companies were only too happy to fill. Pong clones flooded the home console market and by 1977 the market place could not sustain all of the companies keen to cash in on Atari’s success. The result was the financial demise of many of these companies.

Although the home video game market was still kept active by such consoles as the Magnavox Odyssey, the technology behind these machines had been superseded by consumers’ expectations - expectations that the more advanced arcade technologies were promoting. With the advent of the microprocessor first used in Gun Fight (1975), game developers began to create more ambitious games. Graphics, sound and game play elements were all to benefit from new technologies. Combined with the consumer dissatisfaction with the home console market, these two elements led to the beginnings of the arcade’s popularity. However, the mainstream assimilation of video games was yet to come.

Throughout 1977, no less than thirty-six digital arcade games had been released in both Japan and North America, and by 1978 that number had grown again to forty-three games, most of which were released by Atari or Midway.[6] By 1979 that number had doubled to no less than 96 games and by 1980, the number of arcade games had nearly doubled again to 167 releases.

From 1978 to 1981, Midway, Atari, Taito, Data East and Nintendo created some of their very first arcade games, and with the rapid growth of the arcade industry came public awareness. Games like Space Invaders (1978) caused currency shortages and legal battles. PacMan (1980) inspired popular music by Buckner and Garcia called “Pac-Man Fever” and Pac Man went on to become the most recognizable arcade game ever created (Lindsey, 2002). However, it was Space Invaders that planted the seed from which the family tree of Shmups grew.


Space Invaders

Although not a Shmup by today’s standards, one of the very first games to initially develop the genre of Shmups is Space Invaders (1978). Space Invaders was first released in 1978 by Taito in Japan, and then later licensed to Midway for release in the United States. The release of Space Invaders in Japan was such a success that it caused a Yen shortage around the country, an event only rectified when the Japanese government quadrupled the production of 100 Yen coins (Bousiges, 2004). Many small grocery stores and markets in Japan got rid of their produce and converted into “Space Invader Parlours” or “Space Invaders Houses” overnight (Bousiges, 2004). The “Thump, Thump, Thump” music of Space Invaders was heard all across Japan as loud speakers belted out the menacing, atonal noise of invading aliens.

Later that same year Space Invaders began its assault on the United States. The game was one of the first to break out of arcades and milk bars and into the consciousness of non-gamers. The effects of the Space Invaders phenomenon was felt so widely and deeply that concerned residents of Mesquite, Texas, took banning the machines to the Supreme Court in order to stop the “illicit machines” from “souring” the minds of their youngsters (Bousiges, 2004).

Space Invaders brought two main technical innovations to the world of video games. Space Invaders was the first game that could save players high scores, and secondly, it was the first game to have a soundtrack, albeit a menacing, atonal aural assault compromising of few notes and mostly noise. Along with Space Invaders’ technical innovation came innovation in the field of game play. Space Invaders lay in place the framework for all vertical Shmups to come by introducing three main-game play criteria:

  • A fixed overhead third person camera perspective (Figure 7)
  • A static player orientation (Figure 8)
  • Directional input schemes that allowed movement along one axis


Another feature of Space Invaders is that it was the first truly addictive single player game experience. Jørgen Kirksæther (Kirksæther, 2004), in a radio interview with Halvard Jakobsen for the Norwegian radio station NRK had the following to say:

It took the Japanese to figure out how to make a satisfying single-player game. The key is that you should never be able to win. The Americans could never have created that game, he says, because the idea of a game that can't be won is inconceivable within the American culture. The Samurai codex of the Japanese, on the other hand, allows for the idea of losing with honour, Jørgen says. After Space Invaders, which was a huge success, both the Americans and the Japanese made and are still making popular, unwinnable games.

Toshihiro Nishikado, creator of Space Invaders states in a BBC documentary “I Love 1978” that he himself can only get to level three of Space Invaders (I Love 1978, 2002).

Figure 7 

Figure 8 

Although these features had appeared in video and arcade games before, the combination of these elements was something new. Space Invaders also brought with it a new theme for video games, probably best surmised in the game’s title and most likely inspired by the large amount of sci-fi films being produced at the time. This theme has carried itself over into countless Shmups, even until this day.


However there is some controversy as to whether Space Invaders was truly an “original” game. Two reputable Internet sources, Zube (2004) and Williams (2004), point out that Space Invaders was heavily influenced by a previous Taito game called Space Monster (1972) (Figure 9).[7] Williams (2004) states that “Taitotronic’s Space Invaders was based on the mechanical game Space Monster, released by Taito Trading Co., in 1972”. Despite this, Space Invaders designer Nishikado refutes these claims. Zube (2004) later stated:


(On the other hand,) Toshihiro Nishikado, the designer of Space Invaders, gave an interview in the November 2001 Electronic Gaming Monthly (EGM) and he makes no mention of the game [Space Monster]. David S. J. Hodgson, who interviewed Mr. Nishikado, states that he was "IN NO WAY" (Hodgson's words) influenced by the game. (para. 4)


Despite this, Nishikado makes two contradictory comments in later interviews. In a BBC documentary about popular culture in 1978 entitled I Love 1978, Nishikado states the following: “The original idea was to create a kind of shooting game with several targets on the screen for the player to shoot. I wanted to have human targets but we saw that might be a bit too violent so we decided to use aliens instead” (I Love 1978, 2002).

Although Nishikado’s reference to creating a “kind of shooting game” is mere speculation when comparing Space Invaders to Space Monsters, an interview in issue three of Retro Gamer Magazine is more concrete. In the interview about the origins of Space Invaders, Nishikado states that “I wanted to create a parlour shooting game…” and when asked about whether he was happy with the title of Space Invaders, he stated that he initially wanted to call the game Space Monster, but a Taito official advised him to change the title.

Figure 9 

Space Invaders to this day is still making money via licensing agreements, which have seen it released on new generation mobile phones worldwide. The Museum of Computing Magazine estimates that by 2003, Space Invaders had made a staggering 500 Million US dollars for Taito, making it one of the highest grossing games of all time (Waddel, 2003).

Although Space Invaders may have been condemned by a Texas right wing Christian group, the game received positive reviews from a 1980 issue of The Christian Science Monitor. The article from this issue, “Aliens in the pizza parlour!” by staff writer Peter Grier (1980), praised the game while at the same time shedding some light on consumption of the game in that year:

It has since become the most successful coin-operated game ever sold in America. The average video game or pinball machine is manufactured for only 90 days before production switches to a new model, but Space Invaders is still being snapped up by amusement arcades and burger joints after 22 months on the assembly line. Even Midway can't quite figure out why it's so popular.


Sometimes we scratch our heads, and go, ‘Why has this continued so long?’ sighs Stan Jarocki, Midway's marketing vice-president. But there's no end in sight. I think it's just a release from tension. No matter what your score is, you'll enjoy it, and want to play it again. (p. 45)


Grier (ibid) also goes on to state that Space Invaders machines in good locations brought in as much as $1000USD for their operators. Space Invaders was revolutionary and although there had been Shoot-em-Ups before it, none had managed to successfully combine the game play elements quite so successfully.

Outside Influences on Space Invaders

Tracing the family tree of Shmup development begins to become difficult when moving further back than 1978. Part of the reason for this is that not many of the analogue gaming devices from this era survived, and unlike digital games, emulation has not been able to preserve them. However, Nishikado does give some insight into the influences behind the creation of Space Invaders.

In Retrogamer magazine (2004) and the BBC documentary series I love 1978 (2002), Nishikado makes reference to a few of the pre-cursory concepts that he wanted for the game that was later to become Space Invaders. Originally, Nishikado wanted to either use Tanks or Humans as the target. As discussed earlier, Taito and Nishikado decided that shooting humans would prove to be too violent, whilst animating the tanks’ approach would require too much expensive hardware.

Ninety-eight digital arcade games pre-date the release of Space Invaders: five of those games have game play elements similar to Space Invaders, and all of them have a military theme.

  • Sea Wolf (Midway, 1976)

Similar Layout to Space Invaders, but enemies did not attack the player; instead the player had to accumulate maximum points within a pre-defined period by shooting enemy ships.

  • Depth Charge (Gremlin, 1977)

The player attacks enemy subs from the top of the screen and although enemies do shoot back, they do not converge on the player’s position.

  • Destroyer (Atari, 1977)

Similar to Depth Charge, but the player has no control over their movement. The player controls the firing of depth charges and the depth at which they explode.

  • Guided Missile (Midway, 1977)

The player fires missile up the screen (Y) and then controls their descent into enemy craft, played against a time limit.

  • M79 Ambush (RamTek, 1977)

Player fires projectiles from base of screen at enemy craft moving along the X axis; the player must accumulate points against the clock.

The seed that was planted by the release of Space Invaders in 1978 grew at a frantic pace, inspiring numerous copies, modifications and hybrid variations on its game play. The combination of new technologies and variation to the already successful Space Invaders recipe developed the first fork in the branches of the Shmup family tree: Vertical and Horizontal Shmups had been born. Space Invaders; however, was not solely responsible for the game play developments that were to follow.

The Proto-Shmup period is a time of massive experimentation and growth within the Shoot-em-up genre. Many developers based their designs on the successful model of Space Invaders and then began to experiment with game play ideas. The period between 1978 and 1983 established the ground rules and principles for the Shmup genre.

The Family Tree

Figure 10, although illustrated in a linear fashion, is the product of the back tracing of the Shmup genre to identify games that established key genre elements before others.


Figure 10 

Figure 10 shows the perceived development of the Proto-Shmup genre by looking at elements of player interactivity within the game world. The freedom of movement along various spatial axes and other control interfaces is fundamental. The following examination of Proto-Shmups delves into this initial family tree to try to explain why certain games have expanded upon others and ultimately, why games like Mission X and Battle of Atlantis developed into a game play framework for Shmups.

Sky Raider

Following just after the 1978 release of Space Invaders, Atari released a little known game called Sky Raider (1978). Sky Raider was not just another clone of Space Invaders but a new style of Shoot-em-up game. Unlike Space Invaders, Sky Raider put the player at the helm of a bomber aircraft, in charge of the deployment of its bombs. Also unlike Space Invaders, the player was not represented by an on screen entity (such as the missile base used to represent the player in Space Invaders; instead, the player had control over a moving cross hair on screen. As the player was not represented by an on-screen avatar, the player was therefore unable to be damaged by the enemy. The game mechanics represented this fact accordingly, as the player was put up against a time limit in which to achieve their best score rather than subject to enemy attacks.

Even though Sky Raider does not appear to represent modern day Shmups, it did contribute two very important factors towards what we know today as Shmups. Firstly, Sky Raider was the first game to use a constantly scrolling background (Bousiges, 2004). The games’

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