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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.