If you’ve been following me for any amount of time on this website, first, how dare you stalk me like that, and second, you know I’m a fan of shoot 'em ups. I understand better than anyone just how niche the genre is, as it appeals to a particular type of person, those who enjoy a good challenge and aren’t afraid to struggle again and again in pursuit of perfection. Not that they fail to be entertaining outside the thrill of chasing a high score—simply playing them provides a rush of adrenaline you cannot get anywhere else—but I’ll be the first to admit that playing for the score is when they’re at their best. This fact makes shmups a tough sell in today’s gaming landscape and considering the current state of the world, I’d bet most of you are not in a position to be wasting any money with games you’re likely to not enjoy. And thus, this list was born.
Whether you’re already a casual admirer and are looking for some free entertainment or want to find out if shmups are what the doctor ordered, I hope you’ll walk away from this page with at least one new thing to play.
Out of all the games on this list, Blue Wish Resurrection isn’t necessarily the simplest, but it is the most straightforward. It’s heavily inspired by the titles of developer CAVE, threading a fine line between homage and rip-off. As such, veterans will find something familiar that still provides the challenge they desire, while novices will find an extremely well-executed experience that will be invaluable in teaching them the basics, which is why I’m starting this list with it. Blue Wish doesn’t do anything special, but don’t hold that against the game. It adheres to the fundamentals of the genre, remixing tried and true elements from other games while putting just enough of a spin on them to create something of its own.
The gameplay is pretty much intact from the mold established by DoDonPachi all those years ago. Your craft is equipped with two weapons: a weak but wide primary fire that offers reliable screen coverage, and a focused laser that acts the opposite way, being narrow but much more powerful, while also slowing your movement speed and making the tiny hitbox that’s your lifeline visible—excellent for boss encounters or moments where precision is needed. Last but not least, bombs provide a second chance at life when mistakes are made. So far, so vanilla.
Here's me clearing Heaven Mode on my first attempt.
Where Blue Wish gets interesting (and what I think makes it good for beginners) is in the way it combines elements from other titles, while still being fairly accessible. Bullet patterns are slow and easy to read, and outside of bosses, rarely come at unorthodox angles or formations. It reminds me greatly of the patterns in Mushihimesama, with a touch of DoDonPachi sprinkled in—even the bullets look similar—and a few of the attacks are taken straight from that title as well. Because Blue Wish flies so close to the “source material,” the fundamentals and muscle memory you’ll learn here are much easier to apply in other shmups, given that you’ll likely find the same pattern or something that follows the same logic. As for accessibility, Blue Wish comes with three difficulty settings: Heaven, Original, and Hell (Easy, Normal and Hard). It’s the right type of “easy” mode too. Often, when shmups offer novice modes, they can stray too far from the “normal” experience to the point where they no longer represent what the game’s supposed to be. Blue Wish doesn’t do that. Every enemy and pattern is present in all difficulties. Heaven Mode might have fewer bullets, but it won’t teach you any habits or strategies that are useless in higher difficulties. It will simply ask you to refine what you’ve learned. The only content that is straight-up cut is the True Last Boss, only available in Hell Mode, but considering its patterns, I’d say it’s probably for the best to keep it that way.
All the ships in this game are indeed blue, but you can get a red ship by confirming the selection with the bomb button instead.
There’s also an Auto-Guard feature (getting hit consumes a bomb rather than a life). It’s on by default, and you should leave it that way. If that wasn’t enough, there’s also something the game calls "Wait." This is an optional feature that slows down the game speed during intense patterns—simulating hardware limitations from old arcades—giving you precious time to read your surroundings and come up with a plan. It’s extremely well implemented, never kicking in needlessly or fading out prematurely. Major kudos to the developer!
Even the scoring system will teach you some fundamentals. Destroying enemies will drop chips with a small base value of 100 points. These chips are automatically drawn to your craft, but the further they travel before being collected, the smaller the multiplier applied to them (starting at 8x and dropping to 1x). This encourages aggressive play but still allows you to mitigate the drawbacks of a more passive approach by moving towards the chips and saving a little of the multiplier. There’s more to scoring than this, but I’m trying to convince you this is a fun game, not an algebra test, so I’ll stop here.
Developed by the same person/team as Blue Wish, Eden’s Aegis shares many of its sibling’s qualities, accessibility options included. Where it differs is in its inspirations. While the former sports a military aesthetic and rewards aggression through its scoring mechanics, the latter goes full fantasy, mixing elements of two different CAVE titles: EspGaluda and ESP Ra.de. No more mechanical ships, time for the magical girls to fire magic at anything that moves!
The difference isn’t just cosmetic. Both games are also wildly different in intent. Blue Wish’s systems reward aggression and bold positioning due to its Ketsui-Esque scoring mechanics and the occasional bullet canceling. Eden’s Aegis asks for trigger disciple. Each character has a special attack governed by a small meter, doing solid damage and “tagging” enemies for a couple of seconds. If a tagged enemy is destroyed, all bullets fired by that target are turned into points. So instead of quickly wiping everything on the screen, the goal shifts to strategically remove targets when they’re at their most lucrative by managing the special meter and being wary of each character’s attack power to avoid an accidental kill at the wrong time.
Here's someone much better than me playing Normal Mode.
It asks for positioning that’s less aggressive, but no less purposeful, and given how different each girl's specials are from one another, there’s a fair amount of depth here. For example, Nanathy’s special does medium damage but has homing properties, while Maple’s is stronger but is fired in the direction she’s facing, while also taking longer to recharge. One of the unlockable characters—Ridmie—has extremely short-range but makes up for it with absurd damage and lightning-quick cooldowns. I’m not saying Blue Wish lacks this variety, but the difference between the ships in that game isn’t as drastic as it is in Eden’s Aegis. If there’s one downside to these mechanics, is that they make for a harder game than Blue Wish, as bullet canceling is necessary for basic survival, given that you always have access to that tool. Still, it’s a rewarding system to learn, and pulling off a big juicy cancel never fails to trigger the pleasure center in my brain.
Speaking of bullet canceling, here’s EspGaluda again! Well, at least mechanically. Do you know that meme “you can copy my homework but don’t make it too obvious?” That’s Leiria Stargazer. Unlike the previous two games, rather than taking inspiration from other titles, Leiria just borrows the whole thing, but this is not a negative. If Blue Wish and Eden’s Aegis are remixes of established ideas, then Leiria Stargazer would be like a good cover: a recognizable melody, but the new artist gives it a coat of paint, neither replacing nor invalidating the original.
Thanks to all the Galuda in its DNA, Leiria falls somewhere between the previous two games. Like Eden’s Aegis, it asks for a more calculated approach to destruction—given the reliance on bullet canceling—intertwined with moments of aggressive positioning for quick kills like in Blue Wish. This is because the ebb and flow of EspGaluda revolve around meter management. Destroying enemies gives gems that fuel something called Accel Mode (Awakened Mode in EspGaluda). While in Accel, enemies and their bullets slow down to a crawl, while their firepower ramps up significantly. As you can probably guess, destroying enemies turns their bullets into points, with the multiplier increasing the more bullets are canceled before exiting Accel. If you remember from my blog on scoring systems, you’ll know that watching the screen fill with “x100” indicators makes my brain release dopamine like water from a broken dam.
However, I told you this was a good cover, and Leiria doesn’t take long to start showing its own merits. For one, it improves upon a few of the mechanics. In Galuda, the gems you collect can be increased by destroying enemies closer to the top of the screen. Leiria changes this so that the amount is dependent on distance (the closer, the better), allowing for a bit more flexibility and strategy. It also ditches Galuda’s gimmick of making one of your shot types stronger and the other weaker while in Accel, which is much better for newcomers. It also offers multiple difficulties, but it might still be the hardest game on this list, so I recommend saving it for last.
Interesting to note, Leiria Stargazer was originally a paid game released during Comiket 80 in 2011. It would certainly explain why it has somewhat competent production value. The visuals are not spectacular but do their job—and I’m not a big fan of the designs—but it’s the only game on this list that has voice acting, even if they are just short sentences delivered mostly before and during boss fights. It also explains why the soundtrack is a bop! It even has an original theme song, and I particularly like the theme of the True Final Boss! Hell of a banger for what it's appropriately the hardest fight in the game.
Shifting gears completely, let’s talk about something simple for once. Taking inspiration from Raizing’s titles such as Battle Garegga, Kaikan is a game that fits much better on the “classic” style of the shmup family. Patterns are less dense but can come in fast, so crafts are nimble to stand a chance, with a dedicated "slow the fuck down" button for the moments where precision might be needed. In the last three games, you’re “threading the needle” if you will, but in Kaikan, it’s more like a game of dodgeball: anticipating incoming threats and evading with wide movements is key to victory.
The Garegga inspiration continues in the scoring system, and I’d like to welcome you to “medaling!” The basic gist is simple: collect medals. Everything you destroy generates them, and as they’re collected they "rank up," increasing in value. However, taking a hit or letting a single medal fall off-screen will reset the rank. Fortunately, letting go of the fire button vacuums all medals on-screen to your craft, meaning that once again, trigger discipline is king. Funnily enough, Kaikan is only complex if you’re going for a high score. I’m not exaggerating in saying that you can clear the game just by holding the fire button, focusing on dodging, and collecting the occasional power-up. Ships have overwhelming firepower and even bosses can be dispatched in seconds. But if you engage with what’s under the hood, then the elegance of its moving parts starts to show itself.
Medals feed into a multiplier for the end-stage boss, as well as recharging your bomb meter—given that you can only carry a single bomb at a time, it’s very important to know how to recharge it fast. All crafts have different weapons, and that changes your approach to shooting—Type-B’s spread shot dissipates quickly, while Type-E’s tend to linger, meaning one has to let go of the button earlier. With 4 base ships, plus 2 extras to unlock, Kaikan is not lacking in depth. The stages themselves also play an important role in medaling, being full of destructible objects and hidden medals to uncover, which is par for the course in the "old-school" of shmupping.
Overall, Kaikan is a very clear example of how much shmups change when you engage with their mechanics, and even if the ones here are a bit too “all or nothing” for my taste, I’ll be the first to recognize it’s a damn fun game.
A wise man once said that shmups are about making things explode spectacularly. It was me. I was that wise man, and there’s no game on this list that embodies that principle more than Dokingan. In this one, explosions aren’t just for visual flair. They’re the entire point. It’s a game that revels in chaos, and as such, every tool in its arsenal encourages players to generate as much carnage as possible.
The entire gimmick of Dokingan revolves around surfing explosions. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Everything you destroy produces an explosion, which you can then ride to increase a point multiplier that, as far as I’m aware, goes up indefinitely. Because of this, the gameplay has some twists that will require a slight change in mentality. While the controls are the same as traditional danmaku games (spread shot, laser, bomb) Dokingan has a twist. Your laser attack is short-range and increases your speed (dramatically, might I add) rather than slowing you down. While awkward at first, this is the heart of the entire system. Being close allows that explosion surfing that’s so vital for scoring. Simply hitting an enemy with the laser generates sparks that also increase your multiplier, and clashing it with what I can only describe as “fire beams” awards you with point items that are automatically collected.
Even bombing is encouraged! Grazing—the act of getting your hitbox close to bullets without colliding with them—builds a secondary meter that, once full, rewards you with a bomb, and I greatly enjoy what the developer did here. There are various ways of using bombs in this game, and each has its uses. A quick tap will produce a weak bomb: very low damage, but it clears the screen of bullets. Holding the button will have the same effect, but deal massive damage instead to the top half of the screen only—useful against bosses. Lastly, auto-bombs not only protect you but turn every bullet on-screen to points, so even getting hit can be rewarding!
But it’s not just about aggression, because Dokingan has one last twist for its bosses. All bosses have a timer, after which they fuck off to somewhere else. However, the bosses at the end of each stage have a second timer: Crazy Mode! This is activated once their regular timer runs out. Once active, the boss goes into a frenzy, firing its hardest attack at you, during which you’re awarded some crazy score (get it?)! The longer you last, the bigger the payoff, but getting hit will drastically reduce the timer for Crazy Mode. It’s a fantastic twist on the idea of “milking” bosses, creating something that you’re encouraged to do, and turning the optimization before Crazy Mode, the cool part of that process. My favorite example has to be the boss in stage 3. A couple of strong bombs puts it straight into the phase where it’s constantly firing the aforementioned "fire beam,” skyrocketing your score, should you manage to ride the whole thing.
Dokingan is something I’d happily pay 20 bucks for. It’s a relentlessly energetic game, with gameplay that’s frenetic, but not thoughtless, and never out of control. Like a fine heavy metal album, Dokingan rocks! Play this game!
What’s fascinating about all the games on this list (and many others that I can’t possibly fit in this blog) is that they don’t feel like alternatives or trimmed down versions of bigger games. At worst, they give me more of something I like or offer a noncommittal entry point for newcomers. At best, they’re something I think deserves your money, and more importantly, your time. The density of gameplay on offer is the same as any commercial release on Steam or DLsite, and the net result for giving them a shot is null at best. Didn’t like it? No cash was spent and life goes on. Loved it? There’s a whole universe waiting for you then, so go wild my friend.
If you wish to know more, this Google Drive contains many more freeware, all updated and maintained by the shmup community. An honorable mention goes to Cho Ren Sha 68K, a game that despite not being one of my favorites, remains a classic nonetheless. And if you’re itching to experience something in the veins of Touhou, try Jigoku Kisetsukan on Steam.
That’s it, Nior out!