27 January 2021

Thoughts on approaching the shmup genre

And so here we are in 2021. What a time.

I'm still plugging along with the work - the HOMES sequel is slowly taking shape and I've got at least one RPG I may Kickstart this year. Apart from that, it's a video gaming renaissance for me and so that's what I want to talk about.

If you've noticed, I've been rekindling my familiarity with shooting games, shmups, STGs. There is a glut of content out there on the genre. Apparently last year was a bonanza for the shmup, in terms of quality games and community growth, and so content such as game reviews and strategies and streams fall from the internets like so many raindrops. I will say, though, that I have yet to find much that gets into the mindset of shmupping.

I'm not talking about how to lead shots or read patterns, I'm talking about how to think about shmups as games and approach them as a genre.

Danmaku Unlimited 3

I believe this lack of understanding relates directly to the boom-or-bust path the genre has wavered along these many decades, and I present this thread as evidence. Some declared the shmup dead and buried just years ago and now we are, apparently, seeing a revival. Why is this? 

While it is heckin' complicated, in large part the fluctuation is because this style of game takes a particular mindset to get into and stick with. I've experienced this firsthand.

I would not be called crazy to say that STGs fit in the larger umbrella of arcade games. By that I mean games that are more traditional, games that focus on scoring and immediacy thanks to their background in the coin-chomping days of the video arcades of yore. Besides shmups, arcade games would also include fighting game, beat 'em ups, racing games, and so forth. 

Unlike those games that feature direct competition, like racing and fighting games, and unlike contemporary games with a focus on character growth, exploration, and narrative, shmups do not have much intrinsic direction besides just "beat the game." 

And one can coin-feed their way to victory, that is repeatedly using continues just to finish the game no matter how many times you die. Or one can quit the game in frustration. Beating a shmup, however, is an often difficult affair and, worse yet, it's merely a scratch on the iceberg. And either way you do it, without the infinite dopamine loop of progression and discovery inherent in contemporary games (the vast majority of which are, or are at least rooted in, roleplaying games), those looking to get into shmups will dead-end quite quickly if their focus is simply on completion.

So the purpose of this article is to present a few thoughts, not on how to shmup, but instead on how to approach the shmup.

Battle Traverse

1. The Casual Approach

One must often practice acceptance of oneself, and the grim reality is that I am mostly a casual player of all games. For the shmuppist, this means a few different things I will describe below. All of these approaches ought to focus on enjoyment, because if you're not enjoying yourself then for God's sake go and do something else. However a casual approach to the shmup means enjoying oneself no matter what. Achievement be danged, we're just going to shoot stuff and admire the pretty patterns.

This approach means...

  • Coin-feeding to finish a game at your own pace
  • Not worrying about score or achievement
  • Playing a game as much or as little as you want
  • Having more time for different games
  • Never hitting the scoreboard
  • Always hitting the skill ceiling

2. The High Score Approach
Playing for score is some kind of beast. It means hours grinding away at your favorite game, keeping up with the meta, posting replays, and obsessing over routes and tactics. It an also be very fun and rewarding to set a goal and see it done.

High scoring means...

  • Setting goals for yourself
  • sticking to a small number of games
  • watching streams and replays
  • Commitment
  • Thinking about controller and hardware options

3. The 1CC Approach
Like the high scorer, the 1CC approach is about achievement. However, the 1CC is not about the numbers. 1CC stands for "one credit clear," meaning you are able to finish a game on one credit, without having to continue. Personally I find this more endearing than score, just because I don't like having to crack the proverbial code of some games' scoring mechanics and I can't keep a score chain going to save my life.. It's straightforward and fun -- but time consuming.

The 1CC Approach means...

  • Playing a game repeatedly to finish it on one credit
  • Memorizing patterns
  • Watching replays to determine the best route
  • Spending lots of time with a game you love, perhaps at the cost of trying other games
  • Thinking about hardware options
  • Navigating the existential doom of facing one's limitations

4. The Academic Approach
I don't know of anyone who expressly plays shmups in this way, but many stray in this direction. The Academic Approach tends to look at shmups from a historical or even archaeological point of view. There are many shooting games and the genre spans many decades of history with little innovation. They're novel and interesting artifacts. So some of us end up collecting games, trying them briefly, then getting distracted by another very quickly. It's not helped by all the nostalgia around the genre, with endless YouTube videos and other outlets declaring, "This is the game! You must try it!" Often hand-in-hand with the desire to try new games is the enjoyment of analyzing the genre and what makes it good from a macro point of view.

This approach means...

  • researching about the genre
  • Trying many games on many platforms
  • Thinking about what makes shmups fun
  • Collecting old hardware
  • Never reaching the scoreboard
5. The Spectator Approach
Similar, but not identical to, the academic is the spectator. To be a spectator means to be both a fan of the genre and of its community. While shmups do not lend themselves to the interactive, talk show impression many streamers hope to create, the streamer being too focused on playing to speak much, shmups are still interesting to watch. Like the sports fan who dabbles a little in the summer, the shmup spectator plays but is mostly content to appreciate the games themselves and the super players who conquer them.

The spectator approach means...
  • Keeping up with developer news and shmup communities
  • Watching livestreams and replays
  • Playing less than watching others play
  • Collecting games and swag
  • Advocating for the genre
Soldier Blade, my new favorite old timey shmup

What I present here is in no wise a complete list. Many shmuppists will dabble across all of these approaches. In the end, any hobby is what you make of it. But I hope this is a bit helpful for those who find their interest piqued and are looking for ways to approach the shmup. It's a great genre of gaming worthy of your time and attention.

What do you think? Is it worth looking at more approaches in-depth?

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