Brash Games’ Top 5 Shoot ‘Em Ups

Like 2D fighters, shoot’em ups (or shmups as they are often referred to) have seen something of a renaissance over the past few years. Thanks largely to the advent of XBLA, PSN and the Wii’s Virtual Console service, this once stagnant genre has seemingly found the perfect home for its traditionally quick-fire gameplay.

While there has admittedly been little in the way of genuinely classic new releases in recent years, the establishment of the aforementioned downloadable services has led to an influx of re-releases; from recent releases such as Ikaruga reaching an all new audience on XBLA to classic titles in the vein of Axelay getting another chance to shine on Virtual Console, the schmup genre is back in the mainstream conscious for the first time in years…..and not a moment too soon.

With its penchant for short burst score chasing, small size and somewhat niche appeal, it’s easy to see why the schmup genre is such a perfect fit for the downloadable services and with each service going from strength to strength, one would hope that some new, genuinely triple A shooters will make their way to our shores in the not too distant future.

For the time being though, and for what it’s worth, here are Brash Games’ top 5 shoot ‘em ups……

#5 – Under Defeat – Dreamcast – G.rev (2006)

Billed as the final Dreamcast release (still not sure if we’ve seen the end of that console), Under Defeat, released in limited numbers in its native Japan, turned into something of a surprise commercial hit for the otherwise flat-lining Dreamcast. While a lack of further ports may have been partially responsible for its impressive sales figures, it’s the games undoubted quality, distinguished development team and somewhat controversial twist on the traditional WWII shooter conventions that truly fuelled its success.

Rather than playing as the Allies, Under Defeat has you fighting within the confines of a WWII inspired game world as an officer of The Empire, replete with German accent and a Nazi SS style uniform as you fight against English speaking enemies from the confines of your uber powered helicopter. While this somewhat subversive setting certainly piqued additional interest in the game, it is the extremely impressive 3D graphics, on the fly resolution changes (you can actually play it arcade style if you are willing to turn your TV on its side) and pitch perfect difficulty curve that has made Under Defeat something of an import favourite.

#4 – R-Type Final – PS2 – Irem (2004)

Although many would argue the case for the original R-type, Final, Irem’s PS2 and supposed series swansong just about pips it on the basis of its beautifully updated graphics and mammoth selection of crafts.

With 101 ships, 12 Bit types (that thing that hovers around your ships) and 53 Forces, R-Type Final takes the series fundamentals and replicates them on a massive scale. Not only does this imbue R-Type Final with exceptional longevity thanks to the R Museum and huge number of unlockables, but it also serves as the perfect love letter to fans of the series.

As one would expect from any R-Type game, Final consists of some of the most intense action to be found in the genre. It might not be bullet hell, but Final requires millimetre perfect precision and a keen memory for the games horizontally-scrolling levels.

#3 – Gradius V – PS2 – Treasure/G.rev (2004)

Another horizontally-scrolling shooter released on the PS2 and another complete gem. Living up to the series penchant for high quality and devilish difficulty, Gradius V, developed primarily by genre darlings Treasure under the supervision of the now defunct KCET, delivers old school gaming mechanics with an extremely impressive next-gen veneer. While it doesn’t move the series forward in any great way, Gradius V offers up some of the finest level design seen in the series and a set of base mechanics refined to within an inch of perfection

Some will inevitably be put of by the games extremely high difficulty and lack of variety, but for those willing to embrace its focused gameplay mechanics and take the time to master its intricate level design, Gradius V will deliver in spades. It may be unrelenting, it may be unforgiving, but I’ll be damned it isn’t great fun.

#2 – DoDonPachi – Saturn – Cave (1997)

While DonPachi may have delivered a solid if unspectacular debut for the then newly formed Cave, its far superior sequel, DoDonPachi singled out the small Japansese developer as something of a special talent. Since its release back in 1997, Cave has gone on to develop numerous top quality shooters but none have quite managed to live up to the insanely frantic, pitch perfect gameplay of DoDonPachi. That’s not to say their work since has been poor – far from it, it’s just that, well, DoDonPachi is really freakin’ good…….Really, really freakin’ good.

A vertical bullet hell shooter of the very best kind, DoDonPachi delivers beautifully detailed graphics, an extensive selection of power-ups and an extremely deep scoring system.

Although the Saturn port didn’t quite live up to the outstanding arcade version, it’s still a quality game if you can get your hands on it. If not, you could always try your hand at its ‘true sequal’ DoDonPachi Dai Ou Jou on 360……if you’re lucky enough to have a Japanese 360 that is.

#1 – Ikaruga – XBLA – Treasure/G.rev (2002)

It may be a lazy choice, but c’mon, you know it’s the right one. Treasure’s masterpiece, Ikaruga, released originally on the Sega Dreamcast back in 2002, has to go down as not only the greatest shoot ‘em up of all time, but surely as one of the finest examples of pure gameplay ever created. Half frantic shooter, half intricate puzzle game, Ikaruga is the ultimate multi-tasking videogame – dodge bullets, swap polarities, shoot enemies. You’ll need to do all of these with pixel perfect precision if you’re going to survive this brutally difficult shooter.

While the near perfect Dreamcast port may be the purist’s choice, thanks to XBLA’s online leaderboards, HD sheen and online co-op gameplay, the 360 version has to be seen as the definitive release for all but the most hardcore of Ikaruga enthusiasts.

The spiritual successor to the fantastic Radiant Silvergun, Ikagura takes the ideas experimented with in its forbearer and pushes them to the next level, creating an intense shooter without the need for endless power-ups and ship options. By perfecting the colour based polarity system, Treasure were able to essentially strip the game down to the bare essentials and in doing so have created one of the steepest, but nonetheless, natural learning curves in videogame history – you try to survive…….then you survive with style. It may sound simple, but believe me, Ikaruga is anything but.

Just getting to the end of Ikaruga is a mammoth achievement. Thing is, when you finally do, you only need take a glance at your place on the leaderboards to realise that the challenge has only just begun.

Honourable mentions:

Bangai-O – This crazy, but extremely unique shooter from Treasure just missed out on account of it arguably not be a shoot ‘em up….at least not in the traditional sense.

Radiant Silvergun – Another Treasure hit that just missed out. Radiant Silvergun, while fantastic in its own right, missed out due to the involvement of the similar, but ultimately superior Ikaruga.

Border Down – This G-rev developed shooter for the Dreamcast offers a unique take on the horizontal shooter via its ever changing difficulty ‘borders’…..be warned though; this one is tricky.

Thuder Force IV – The last of the fully 2D Thunder Force games, Thunder Force IV improved on nearly every aspect of its already stellar predecessor to make the game one of the defining shooters of the 16 bit era.

R-Type – An undoubted classic and for many, a surprise omission – the original R-Type just missed out thanks to a personal preference for the outstanding R-Type Final.

Parodius – This absolutely bonkers shooter is essentially Gradius on acid and certainly worth checking out as an alternative to its more demanding inspiration.

Einhander – Square’s one foray into the world of the shoot ‘em up delivered a cutting-edge horizontal shooter with some extremely impressive production values and a more established sense of place and context than most shooters thanks to the games use of impressive cinematics.

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