The shoot ‘em up is one of my favorite genres. In this age of 70 dollar games and season passes, these staples of a bygone arcade age offer uncompromising and unrelenting action like nothing else on the market. The premise is as simple as it is timeless: the lone craft against the universe. An impossible war fought with an improbable amount of bullets. Today, they are a niche—supplanted by the rise of console gaming and the death of their natural habitat—but far from gone. Even Steam agrees! From September 25th to October 2nd, they are hosting the Shmup Fest, bringing demos and discounts on all things bullet related. But in a move designed specifically to annoy me, their definition of a “shmup” is loose, to put it nicely. Nearly everything on the front page is either a roguelike, straight up an FPS, or Vampire Survivors and its many clones—that are apparently called bullet heaven, as if the universe couldn’t spite me more.
So I’m here to fix that. If shmups won’t headline their own festival, then I will. Let’s get to it.
Price: $29.66 (60% Off)
No shmup list is ever complete without at least one title from the kings of the genre. Built from the ashes of Toaplan in 1994, for nearly 20 years, CAVE built and defined the bullet hell with some of the greatest experiences the genre can offer. Today they exist only from ports of their titles—mainly from the excellent folks at M2—and while many are still not on PC, the three currently available are hearty recommendations: Dodonpachi Resurrection, Mushihimesama, and Deathsmiles. Not only are these excellent games, with some truly spectacular bullet patterns and deeply engaging scoring, they also compile different re-releases and game modes of these titles, on top of offering a Novice difficulty suitable for newcomers. You cannot go wrong with any of them, so might as well grab the whole bundle.
Developer: Siter Skain
Price: $19.14 (60% Off)
Speaking of threes, my next recommendation also comes in a bundle. Developed by doujin group Siter Skain, the Alltynex trilogy includes three vastly different games: Kamui, RefleX, and ALLTYNEX Second. Unlike the CAVE games, these are much more traditional shmups, focusing on interesting gameplay gimmicks and simpler scoring. Kamui has the player targeting enemies in the background—an homage to the Ray series—while RefleX asks you to, well, reflect enemy bullets right back at them. Last but never least, ALLTYNEX has some of the best melee combat shmups can offer, and combined with regular shooting makes for an engaging ebb and flow that has your ship zooming across the screen. They’re all excellent (maybe even a little underrated) and you owe it to yourself to experience this baffling tale of betrayal, aliens, out-of-control AIs, and ghosts in the machine.
Developer: Mebius, Project Rolling Gunner
Price: $9.99 + $4.99 (DLC) (50% Off each)
A good shmup never allows boredom or complacency to settle in. Rolling Gunner is a damn good shmup. Its namesake and main gimmick is an R-Type like pod that fires in the opposite direction of the ship’s movement. With effectively 8-way shooting available at all times, Rolling Gunner has no remorse in throwing waves of enemies and bullets at the player from any and every direction, making the most of its horizontal orientation but still maintaining a fine balance that it never feels like bullshit. Special notes go to the outstanding presentation. Boping tunes and colorful graphics make this one a treat for the eyes and ears, and I particularly love the detail of making the results screen a tiny cutscene that connects one level to the next. With a former CAVE dev on the design team, it should come as no surprise that Rolling Gunner is on this list. Remember to grab the Overpower DLC as well, as it adds a new game mode that gives full control of the titular Gunner, effectively making this a twin stick shooter.
Developer: Cross Eaglet
Price: $3.19 (68% Off)
Speaking of rolling, my next pick is one that is as impressive as it is overlooked. REVOLVER360 looks like something straight outta a neon blue dream inside the Matrix. Getting used to its color scheme and all the gauges on the screen feels overwhelming, and that’s before you account for its namesake gimmick. The camera can rotate 360 degrees around the craft, like the chamber of a revolver. So an impenetrable wall of bullets in one orientation becomes but a line once you change perspective. It is so fucking sick, and the game takes advantage of that from start to finish, with a bullet cancelling laser, bosses that thrash around the screen, and even secret routes! REVOLVER360 has a bit of a learning curve at first, but I guarantee you won’t find a similar experience, not even in another shmup, but another game.
Developer: Stellar Circle
Price: $7.49 (50% Off)
Surprisingly unrelated to the previous game, Blue Revolver is straight up a good time. Deeply inspired by the bullet hells of old, this one takes inspiration from a collage of older titles to make something of its own. A combo system reminiscent of CAVE’s Dodonpachi, aesthetic choices with a bit of Psikyo, a difficulty system reminiscent of Raitzing, the list goes on. Extremely approachable to newcomers, with cute visuals and beautiful patterns, Blue Revolver is just fun. Sometimes, it really is that simple.
Developer: 东方幕华祭制作组 (Orient Curtain Fire Festival Production Team)
Price: $4.54 (65% Off)
Touhou is an internet phenomenon that has far outgrown its origins as a shmup. Like an airborne virus, you have been exposed to it even without knowing. Now, Fantastic Danmaku Festival II isn’t a mainline Touhou game, rather, it is a fan remake of Touhou 7: Perfect Cherry Blossom, a fan favorite. I’m recommending this over Touhou 7 for two reasons: Perfect Cherry Blossom is not on Steam, and this remake is extremely faithful while looking simply gorgeous. The developers clearly love the source material, and as far as introductions to Touhou go, this one is a banger.
Price: $4,99 (50% Off)
I mean, c’mon. Developed by the legendary Treasure, Ikaruga’s reputation precedes itself. Wearing its Buddhist influences on every part of its sleeves, duality is the name of the game. It’s the thematic pillar, used as an analogy for Samsara, and reflected in its main gameplay gimmick. All ships and shots come in either Black or White color. The player craft can change its own polarity at will, becoming immune to one color and dealing double damage to the opposite. Complemented with a Chain scoring system that encourages you to destroy enemies of the same color in sets of 3, and you have what many describe (perhaps in a derogatory manner) as a puzzle shooter. I do not care about that definition. Ikaruga is what it is: a relentless, overwhelming, and absolutely unforgettable game.
Price: $11.99 (40% Off)
If you want the best, you hire a professional. Designed by a former CAVE superplayer, Crimzon Clover is just a natural evolution of everything that makes bullet hells tick. There are enough fine adjustments and design choices to fill an entire essay, from the way the special meter ties into both scoring and survival, to the multipliers that stack on top of each other, Crimzon Clover has enough meat for veterans to sink their teeth into without sacrificing its accessibility. It’s deep but intuitive, flashy but not mindless, an overload for the senses but always perfectly readable. Don’t let the absurd number of bullets and medals on screen intimidate you. Start from Novice mode if you must and stick with it, and I guarantee you the dopamine will follow.
Price: $7.49 (50% Off)
Speaking of dopamine, in Eschatos speed is the name of the game. A far-reaching forward shot, a side-shot, and a recharging shield are all you get to fight a giant alien fleet. Kill things fast and let none escape for maximum points. On paper, Eschatos sounds painfully simple, but the devil it’s in the constant and snappy decisions one makes during play. None of your options can cover every situation thrown at you, at least not individually. So the game becomes this lightning quick dance of micro decisions: the narrow shot is powerful and goes full screen, but leaves your flank wide open. The shield is reliable, but sacrifices any firepower and only covers the front. The screen clearing bomb gets used immediately upon collection, so when do you nab it? Combine that storm of choices with its wonderful presentation, and Eschatos is a non-stop thrill ride from start to finish.
Developer: System Erasure
Price $8.99 (25% Off)
If you’ve read this far, allow me to plead with you: if you buy but a single game from this list, let it be ZeroRanger. For 90% of its runtime, this is a love letter to the genre and everything else that inspired it. The controls are perfect, the green and orange color scheme is striking, and it references everything from Gradius to Neon Genesis Evangelion. The remaining 10% are what I can only describe as some 4th wall, meta fuckery that wouldn’t be out of place in Undertale. ZeroRanger uses its framing as a shmup to deliver an experience that could very well be the thematic sequel to Ikaruga. Some would call it pretentious, but considering that five years later I still get emotional over that finale, those people are wrong and shouldn't be trusted. It’s a game best served blind, which is weird as hell considering this is a shmup we’re talking about! It is the genre where gameplay is king, but here I am trying not to spoil it! There is a demo that doubles as a prequel, so you got nothing to lose by giving it a shot. Go, and may you attain enlightenment.
Truth be told, this list is barely a drop on the Steam shmup ocean. If I had infinite time and infinite smarts, I'd love to write about many more of them: Cosmo Dreamer with its cute and fluffy looks, Pawarumi and its "sci-fi Aztec" setting, the Brazilian made Sophstar and Sky Racket, the co-op focused Jamestown, the legit PvP bullet hell Maiden & Spell, or my childhood classic Platypus. As I once wrote in a blog that literally broke Dtoid's character limit, shmups are a genre with plenty of fuel on the tank. The torch doesn't burn as brightly, but I'll be dammed if it isn't as warm as it ever was, and I can only hope you'll find the same comfort here as I have. Now get out of here and go chase some high scores.