Top 10 Best Shmups (Shoot ‘Em Ups) of All Time

Love them or hate them, shoot ’em ups (‘shmups’ for short) are one of the very earliest genres in gaming and are heavily responsible for shaping the industry as we know it today. The genre can trace its roots as far back as 1961’s Spacewar!—one of the earliest examples of videogames. Though it was Space Invaders, which released in Japanese arcades in 1978 that is generally considered to be the father of the modern shooter.

Shmups always seemed rather mysterious and elusive to me when I was growing up. Perhaps because many of the greatest examples required getting your hands on relatively obscure consoles like the SEGA Saturn or TurboGrafx-16, or even importing games from Japan. Maybe it was also due to a lack of choice at my local arcade. Whatever the cause, I have spent many subsequent years tracking down and playing the best the genre has to offer. For this reason I would like to put together a ‘Top 10 Best Shmups of All Time’ list that no fan of the genre should miss.

Of course, there are far more than just 10 titles that would be worthy of a place on such a list. In the honorable mentions section at the bottom you will find some more great titles that didn’t quite make the cut. We may not have been able to mention every great shooter, however we are at least certain that you will enjoy the ones we’ve chosen here. To clarify, this list is limited to horizontal or vertical scrolling shmups. ‘Run and Gun’ platforming shooters such as Metal Slug, Contra or Gunstar Heroes have been excluded from this list—though you can check out our Top 10 Best Run and Gun Games of All Time here! Without further ado, here is LootChaser’s Top 10 Best Shmups of All Time!

10. Strikers 1945 (Arcade/Various)

Top 10 Best Shmups - Strikers 1945

Just barely scraping onto our list is Psikyo’s Strikers 1945, not to be confused with Capcom’s earlier 194x series of shmups. While both series feature fighter planes in a fictional World War 2 setting, Strikers 1945 takes a much less subtle approach to history with a good helping of weapons technology that would look like science fiction even today, let alone 70 years ago. But that is all part of the the game’s charm. The concept of a small plane taking down whole armies with an unlimited bullet supply is unrealistic enough already, why not add huge transforming mechs while you’re it? Still not crazy enough for you? How about if we told you that the final stages of the game have you flying to the moon to take out an alien base? I guess shmup developers just can’t resist the lure of making space based shooters after all.

9. Gradius V (PS2)

Top 10 Best Shmups - Gradius V

No Best Shmups list would be complete without an entry from the Gradius series, which many consider to be the pinnacle of the horizontal shmup. Within this series there are number of fan favorites ranging from the influential design of the original to the notoriously difficult arcade version of Gradius III. However it’s the final numbered game in the series that we like the best, 2004’s PS2-exclusive Gradius V. It’s no surprise once you realize that game was developed by shmup royalty Treasure, who were responsible for such classics as Radiant Silvergun, Ikaruga and Sin & Punishment. Gradius V featured fantastic level design, a beautiful graphical update for the series, and the return of the unique weapons system that made Gradius so great to begin with.

8. Super Aleste / Space Megaforce (SNES)

Top 10 Best Shmups - Super Aleste

Despite having a handful of amazing shooters like Axelay and R-Type 3, the Super NES didn’t exactly have a reputation as the greatest system for shmup fans. What it lacked in quantity however was made up for in quality, and there are few better examples of the genre than the excellent Super Aleste—also known as Space Megaforce in North America. The game features beautiful visuals with lots of detail and variety, as well as some impressive special effects which take advantage of the systems Mode 7 graphics nicely. Super Aleste excels in many other areas too, including its lovely soundtrack, and 12 exciting stages to play through. Perhaps the greatest feature of the game however is its wonderful weaponry, boasting eight different weapons that can each be upgraded for lots of different strategy and replayability. If you are looking for a great shmup for your SNES then look no further, though be aware that a boxed copy in mint condition can go for over $100 these days.

7. Thunder Force IV (Genesis)

Top 10 Best Shmups - Thunder Force IV

While the Genesis may have been beaten by the SNES in some genres, it’s difficult to deny that Sega’s 16-bit console had the edge when it came to shmups. Even with such a wealth of fantastic options, Technosoft’s Thunder Force IV stands out as the greatest horizontal shmup on the system. Thunder Force IV was more strategic than many other shooters, giving players some unique weapons options as well as the ability to tackle stages in any order. One interesting feature was a chargeable Thunder Sword that could give off a powerful blast when fully powered up, the catch was that you couldn’t fire your other weapons while charging the sword. Thunder Force IV was also a graphical showcase for the Genesis, featuring nicely detailed stages and huge, memorable bosses to make this a worthy addition to our Top 10 Best Shmups of All Time list.

6. R-Type (Arcade)

Top 10 Best Shmups - R-Type

Arguably the greatest horizontal shmup of all time, R-Type blew audiences and critics away when it was released in arcades in 1987 by publisher Irem. Though it was followed by a number of excellent sequels, the original game in the series makes it into our Top 10 for its exciting gameplay, fantastic level design, and relentless challenge. The game featured a memorable soundtrack and mind-blowing visuals for its time, including multiple layers of parallax scrolling to give a great feeling of depth and detail to each stage. To top it off R-Type introduced some innovative gameplay mechanics that have had a huge influence on the genre, such as a chargeable main weapon and a detachable force pod which can be used to protect the player from enemy bullets. R-Type is an absolute staple of the genre, and is one game that no shmup fan should miss.

> Top 10 Best Shmups of All Time: 5-1

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14 Readers Commented

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  1. Mike on May 9, 2014

    Great list! Never played Radiant Silvergun unfortunately because I never had a Saturn 🙁

    Anyway, I know you mentioned the ones you felt are best, but I’d really like to add Nanostray, Nanostray 2, and Nano Assault to this list. Absolutely amazing games, and playing these games made my love for the genre grow!

  2. David on May 22, 2014

    I do agree to this list to a degree, but having Radiant Silvergun at No. 1 was a little predictable. I was pleased to see Battle Garegga in here though, being slightly more obscure. I hadn’t realised how valuable owning a copy had become. I feel quite chuffed I got it years and years ago for about £40 now!

    But really? None of the “Raiden” games even in the Honourable Mentions? Raiden Fighters Jet is probably one of my favourites with it’s big selection of ships and crazy-ass weapons, not to mention a thumping 90’s techno soundtrack to boot! I only wish the Raiden Fightes Aces collection on 260 saw a PAL release.

  3. Darren on May 25, 2014

    Radiant Silvergun is and has always been massively overrated in the shmup genre. Don’t know if I’d even put it in the Top 10 to be honest

    Ketsui, Mushihimesama-Futari and Progear should all have been on this list.

  4. Bob on June 10, 2014

    Strangely enough I don’t see Xenon 2: Megablast on anyones top x list of schmups. It is my all time favourite, with it’s permanent weapons and the awesome alien merchant (what a face). Anywhy some nice titles, don’t know them, sure to check them out.

  5. Anony on July 3, 2014

    Dude, you forgot about Raiden II. Remember that? It’s one of the best shmups ever made and you leave that out!? HOW COULD U??! =(

    • Tim Nightingale Author on July 4, 2014

      Sorry to disappoint you! Raiden II was great but there are probably 100+ games that easily could have made this list. Too many great shooters to choose from!

  6. RetroChampion on September 5, 2014

    I like this list a lot, tons of great games for anyone that’s never experienced them.

  7. 60Hz on September 17, 2014

    Mushihime Sama Futari needs to be on that list for the last boss alone…

    Space Invaders mysteriously missing.

    good list though.

    Radiant is an interesting choice, it’s a great game, probably one of the greatest but as a shmup I don’t know if i’d put it in first place…

  8. blighty on September 18, 2014

    No mention of Starwing / Starfox???

    • Tim Nightingale Author on September 19, 2014

      We adore Starfox, but don’t really consider it a ‘shmup’ in the true sense, which usually refers to shooters that use a scrolling (either vertical or horizontal) 2D perspective. They can use 3D graphics, but tend to be restricted to 2D movement. I’d probably call Starfox an on-rails shooter / rail shooter.

  9. Danton on November 2, 2014

    No mention of any game from Darius series? Not even G-Darius or Darius Burst?

  10. May on December 7, 2014

    There’s also Touhou series which is so great!!

  11. Steve Phillips on January 2, 2015

    I’ve just spent the couple of hours going through these on my arcade machine and I’ve no complaints about the list. Completely agree with the shout for Xenon 2 though, Bitmap Brothers rock! Only addition I’d make is for Gigawing as it’s way above a few on the list in my view (unfortunately I’ve not played Gigawing 2 as it won’t work). I’m also a big fan of “Sine Mora” on both Vita and PC but it’s too new school for this list… Well worth checking out though. Keep lovin the shoot em ups!