STGs: Where to Start

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For some reason, you find yourself wanting to play STGs. Maybe you’ve seen Ikaruga mentioned so much that you feel like you should play it. Maybe you just want to try once of the “classic” or “retro” genres. Maybe you just feel too confident in yourself and need a videogame to humble you down. Whatever the reason, it’s a huge field of somewhat obscure games that fans have passionate feelings about, so getting started is not easy.

A note on the word “shmup”: I don’t like it. It just sounds ugly, and “shooting” “them” “up” occurs in so many genres, so it’s not even super useful.

How to Play

A lot of the intimidation around these games, at least for me, came from the hardcore crowd and their insistance on the importance of the one credit clear (1cc). Any good STG is designed to make this a goal, as a the pinnacle of skill for that game. Beating any arcade game with one credit is a great feeling, and STGs are largely built for that.

However, that certainly is not the only way to play these games. Play the games the way you want to. It’s OK to credit feed through them to see the whole thing. At very least, give yourself some credits to figure out if you like the game or not. Don’t worry about score or anything in these credits, as no amount of cool scoring system is gonna make a game fun if it doesn’t feel good to you just to play. Don”t feel bad if after a few credits, you just gotta bail on even a genre classic. Not every game is for everyone, and STGs as a whole are never really meant to be. The sales just don’t bear that out.

Mess with difficulty settings if you want; learning a game on Easy/Novice often translates really well to Normal and Hard. In some ports, there are modes that are built to be easier with slightly different mechanics, and these can also be a lot of fun. M2 usually does a good job of making these, and usually their versions have some weird extra scoring mechanic that makes them fun even when you are good at the game.

Use practice modes. Some ports let you practice individual stages. Others, like the M2 ones, will let you practice just individual sections to get them down. Use this. They are fun and fast and you will see yourself improving really quikcly.

A good routine I like for playing a new STG is just trying a few 1 credit runs to see if I feel like I want to improve or even am improving. If I decide I like the game enough, I will just work on 1cc-ing it for a while then, but then I will bounce to pracitce mode for sections that are giving me trouble. And sometimes, if I don’t feel like learning to 1cc the game or if I’ve been trying for a long time and getting tired of it, I will credit feed the game just to see what it has to offer. This is totally OK and worth doing. Figure out a method that feels good for you.

STG fans can be similar to fighting game people in their demands of specific controllers, and I’m sure this translates to some anxiety for people that they aren’t “playing right” unless they are using a stick or whatever. Stop that. Play with what you have or what feels good to you. That’s all that matters.

What to Play

So now that you have some idea of how you can play these games, here’s a list of a few games I think would make good places to get into STGs.

Xevious

Available for: Arcade Archives version on Switch and PS4, ROM

This seems somewhat obvious if you know your videogame history, but it’s still worth saying: Xevious rules. Xevious owns. For a game as early as it was, Xevious brings so much to the STG genre that it is obvious why it became the grandpa to the whole thing. The game is full of weird hidden objects to find and spread rumors to your friends about. Even if you get good at it, Xevious has one of the first ranking systems in games (as you do better, the game gets harder, and vice versa), a feature that would later become prominent in Battle Garegga and other STGs.

With all this, there is one important caveat. While Xevious was ported to like every system at the time and even shortly thereafter, the home ports kinda suck for one really ovious reason: screen ratio. Yes, among the many things that modern vertical STGs have kept around from Xevious is that tate screen (which was a common feature of many arcade games, to be fair). So you should do your best to play Xevious in an arcade or at least the arcade version. Thankfully, Hamster made a pretty great release of Xevious for their Arcade Archives series, so that’s a good option. There’s also always MAME, obviously.

Deathsmiles

Available for: 360, PC (Steam), Switch

Before you touch this game, you need to know it is MOE AS FUCK. Like the game stars a bunch of teenage girls in the afterlife around Halloween. They aren’t naked or anything, so I guess there is that, but it’s still uncomfortable.

With that being said, this is the game that got me back into STGs. When it was released in America, Rudie had hyped it up enough that I bought the physical release, complete with the only Xbox faceplate I ever owned (remember when these were supposed to be a Thing?), which I insisted on keeping on my 360 as a punishment for my moe shame.

Unlike basically everything else on this list, this is a horizontal STG. It’s also a Cave game, so you should know the scoring system is a little complicated and weird, but you can watch a video on that and get the general gist. An important thing to note is that unliek a lot of other Cave stuff, this game is really enjoyable even if you aren’t playing for score, which is not to say there is anything wrong in playing for score, but I know it causes anxiety in people when it’s the only fun way to play.

If you get into this game, there’s a whole bunch of other Cave stuff readily available right now on PC, PS4, and Switch.

Eschatos

Available for: 360, PC (Steam), Switch, PS4

Do you want to live in a world where the Dreamcast never died, where the dream of that sweet NAOMI aesthetic never got papered over by the PS2? Eschatos is a game from that universe. Eschatos is pretty simple mechaincally, while still managing to be interesting and challenging. You get a few different kinds of shots and a shield, and are left to fight off the seemingly never ending horde of invaders attacking the Earth until you take off for space and eventually the moon. It’s simple and clean and lovely.

As a bonus, the developer Qute’s earlier Wonderswan STGs Judgement Silversword and Cardinal Sins are both included with the game in most versions. Cardinal Sins is a series of STG minigames with specific rules related to the sin they are named for, and is worth checking out, but Judgement Silversword is an actual classic, worthy of being played on its own. The mechanics of the later Eschatos are almost all here, somehow running on a Wonderswan (though obviously emulated in later releases).

Aleste

Availability: Musha Aleste is a ROM, Aleste Collection is on Switch and PS4

Compile, the makers of the Aleste series, have made a ton of games. There are some common complaints people have with them. Their stages tend to be very long, which I can totally get not liking. Their power-up systems are always just slightly too complicated or too varied (sometimes with like 9 different weapon options, and levels to each of those). These are legit issues, but even with that, there are couple of entries here that make great places to start playing STGs.

Musha Aleste (or just MUSHA in its NA release) for the Genesis is a weird mix of older Japanese aesthetics with scifi mecha and such, combined with a completely amazzing soundtrack. Toshiaki Sakoda, the composer of the soundtrack, has said he wanted to make speed metal on the Genesis, and it worked. It’s a shame so few companies knew how to make the Genesis sound shine, but when it works, it is perfect. The game itself is relatively fast moving vertical shooter, but the power up system is comparably restrained (fewer weapons), and the game is light enough that even a new player can get pretty far without much work, but it still feels really good.

The Aleste Collection is a bit of a cheat, because it’s five separate games, but that is OK. The first two Master System games are a bit rough (you will understand people’s complaints about Compile, definitely), but the 3 Game Gear games are great. Specifically, the third game, creatively named GG Aleste 3, which is an all-new game developed by M2, headed up by Manabu Namiki, who is mostly known as acomposer for all sorts of other STGs. It’s a really solid fun lofi STG that was programmed to work on an actual Game Gear, making it by default the Game Gear GOTY 2020. The first GG Aleste is also a pretty easy 1cc if you want a confidence booster.

ZeroRanger

Availability: PC (Steam or Itch.io)

We’ve talked about this game a lot here on Hinge Problems, and there’s a reason: it’s really good. It also highlights one of my favorite aspects of the STG genre, the dialogic nature of STG games with other STG games. Especially in more modern games, almost every STG makes reference to prior games in the genre, either as tribute or parody. ZeroRanger has countless references, from more obivous references to Gradius and R-Type to countless more obscure references. I know I don’t know them all, but that doesn’t matter, because the game itself is a blast even without those.

ZeroRanger, like all good STGs, is designed for the 1cc, but also does an excellent job of mechanincally and thematically incorporating the concept of continuing. While many STGs have locked extra credits behind a time barrier, ZeroRanger locks them behind score gates, while theming itself around a constant struggle for enlightenment, specifically through reincarnation. It’s a beautiful way to include people who don’t 1cc these games in the story of the game, and it even plays an important role in the ending of the game.

In the past few years, the indie game scene has seen a lot of STG releases. Some of these have been decent, but ZeroRanger is one of the few that absolutely is a classic. Just play it.

Just Play STGs

STGs will never be the most popular genre by far; that day is long past, and that’s OK. As Rudie and I have long joked, they each sell 20,000 copies and no more, but those 20,000 fans are dedicated as hell. Maybe that number has gone up a bit in recent years, but it’s still not huge, and very few AAA developers are coming near the genre at all. But the fans and developers dedicated to it soldier on, and more solid STGs have been released in the past few years than the previous decade. It’s a good time to get in.

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