Shoot ’em ups, shmups, STGs, shooting games, whatever you want to call them… it’s probably the most enduring genre of gaming in existence, considering this type of game dates right back to the very beginning of the medium. And while there was a period a while back when it felt like shmups had all but died off, they’re very much back with a vengeance.
And so we present to you today, dear reader, ten of the best shmups you can play right now on today’s consoles without needing to seek out pricy retro copies or dig out old systems. We’ll be presenting a mix of brand new titles and ports of older games to today’s systems, but they all have one thing in common: they’re some of the best shmups of all time.
As always, if you have any of your own picks to add to this list, feel free to add ’em down in the comments — or pen us a letter for the Rice Digital Friday Letters Page if you’ve got more to say!
Let’s begin. In no particular order…
Raiden IV x Mikado Remix
The Raiden series has consistently presented some of the best shmups available to players, and has been around for a long time. Hell, even Raiden IV has been around for a few years at this point in one form or another — it first released to Japanese arcades in 2007 before being ported to Japanese and North American Xbox 360s in 2008. In 2014, the game’s enhanced “Overkill” version finally got a worldwide release on PlayStation 3, with a Windows PC version following in 2015.
Nintendo Switch port Raiden IV x Mikado Remix, which first released overseas in May of 2021 and which is coming to Europe both physically and digitally on October 22, 2021, is the ultimate version of Raiden IV; it features a wide selection of game modes, plus a brand new remixed soundtrack by Game Centre Mikado.
The new soundtrack features 16 pieces of music, featuring new arrangements of classic songs plus live performances from artists including series composer Go Sato’s band, Heavy Metal Raiden, Daisuke Matsumoto from Cave and Groove Coaster sound director Hirokazu Koshio, aka COSIO. You can switch back and forth between the new performances and the original soundtrack at will — but you’ll want to blast these new tracks at high volume, for sure.
You can find out more about Raiden IV x Mikado Remix on the official site, or you can preorder physically and digitally. I’ll see you on the leaderboards, ’cause I’m gonna be playing this one a whole lot.
Previously a star of our weekly “Blissful Death” column that goes into a lot more detail on the best shmups of yesterday and today, Astebreed is an absolutely magnificent shoot ’em up that combines a well-crafted, short-form, anime-style story with some truly spectacular cinematic shooting.
Astebreed strikes a great balance between accessibility and challenge factor. Simply one-credit clearing the game on its easier levels is well within reach of even more casual shmup fans, and the pros will take great delight in the mechanically interesting scoring system and the game’s built-in functionality to analyse your performance. Plus for those who like cute girls… well, it has those, too. Also giant robots.
Astebreed is the work of Edelweiss, who more recently brought us the excellent Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin. Their work has typically gone rather underappreciated over the years, but hopefully Sakuna’s positive reception will encourage more people to check out their past work — because it really is consistently excellent.
Coming from the fine folks at Qute, creators of one of the best shmups of all time so far as I’m concerned, Natsuki Chronicles is a magnificent horizontal scroller that successfully blends influences from a variety of past classics. There’s the high-speed blasting of titles like Darius; there’s the intricate negotiation of scenery seen in R-Type and Gradius; there’s even stages where the threat primarily comes from the ground like in genre progenitor Scramble.
Combine this excellent blasting action with an amazing soundtrack from Yousuke Yasui and you have one of the most satisfying, enjoyable and thrilling shmups that is around today. Now if we could just get a port of Eschatos to Nintendo Switch, I’d be really happy.
Natsuki Chronicles is available for PC and PlayStation 4. No Nintendo Switch version, sadly — but the PlayStation 4 version is getting a physical release via 1st Press Games, bundled with its predecessor Ginga Force.
R-Type Final 2
While not to everyone’s taste due to its brutal and unforgiving level of difficulty, the fact that R-Type Final 2 exists at all is quite remarkable. Its predecessor on PlayStation 2 is regarded as one of the best shmups of all time, but the series seemed all but dead for the longest time.
When R-Type’s original publisher Irem decided to switch to pachinko and slot machines, a bunch of people left to form Granzella, who, among other things, set up a crowdfunding effort to gauge interest in a new R-Type. The response was clear: after raising ¥98,863,825 (about £630,000) it was obvious people very much wanted a new R-Type. And so that’s exactly what we ended up with.
Okay, it’s a bit of shame the whole game wasn’t quite finished when it eventually released, but that’s since been corrected with a bunch of post-launch content and DLC — and the sheer challenge factor of this one plus its wide variety of unlockables will keep you busy for a long time. Assuming you don’t fling your controller through the nearest window, of course.
Taito’s Darius series is a bit of an acquired taste for some, with its focus on fish-like enemies and its often bizarre soundtracks from house band Zuntata. But Dariusburst, in one of its many forms from over the course of the past few years, is a great entry point to the series — and one of the best shmups out there today from a sheer content perspective. There is a lot to do in this game beyond simply blasting your way through an arcade mode!
Highlights of the Dariusburst experience include an adaptation of the original arcade game’s “ultrawide” aspect ratio, plus modes that are a little more practical on today’s displays, missions to complete, ships to unlock and plenty more besides. Plus all the robotic seafood you can eat. Not a bad deal, all told.
Cave’s bullet hell titles are some of the best shmups of all time, and Espgaluda II is a popular one that strikes a good balance between accessibility and challenge factor. It’s been released in a variety of forms over the years, including excellent versions for mobile platforms and a region-free Xbox 360 release in Japan, but most recently it’s been ported to Nintendo Switch.
Like most Cave titles, Espgaluda II’s mechanics are quite complicated if you really want to pursue high scores — but the basic shooting action is pretty straightforward, allowing you to get a feel for the game before you truly start getting serious. You’ll also need to quickly get a feel for the “danmaku” formula, where only a tiny part of your ship’s sprite is vulnerable — this allows you to weave in and out of bullet patterns that look like they’d be impossible to negotiate!
Espgaluda II is available right now for Nintendo Switch.
If you enjoy the deliberate pace of Konami’s classic Gradius games, then Astro Port’s Satazius is one of the best shmups to add to your library, since it’s essentially an homage to Gradius. Navigate perilous environments, collect power-ups and deal with elaborate setpieces — it’s all here, and it’s all an absolute pleasure to play.
Satazius was originally released for PC via Capcom, of all people, but its enhanced “Next” version is available for Nintendo Switch either by itself or as part of the excellent Astro Port Shmup Collection bundle. However you choose to acquire it, this is definitely one you should have in your library.
Thunder Force IV
A classic from the Mega Drive era, Thunder Force IV got a magnificent port to Nintendo Switch as part of the Sega Ages collection. This version includes not only the Mega Drive original, but also an easier version for those new to the series, plus a variety of customisable options for you to tweak the experience to your liking.
If you prefer your shoot ’em ups on the retro side of things, Thunder Force IV is one of the finest games from the 16-bit era, featuring astonishingly good pixel art, stunning parallax scrolling and some of the most face-melting FM synthesis music you’ll ever hear. An all-time classic, for sure.
Assault Android Cactus
While most of the shmups we’ve talked about today are horizontal or vertically scrolling titles, the twin-stick shooter is well worth exploring too. And Assault Android Cactus from Witch Beam is one of the best shmups of this type out there — taking, as it does, plenty of influences from classic Sega and Treasure titles along the way.
In Assault Android Cactus, you take control of one of several different android characters — each of whom has their own distinct set of weaponry — and work your way through a series of challenging levels. There’s a strong emphasis on playing levels “perfectly” in order to attain the elusive “S+” rank — but if you prefer just blasting through the story you can do that, too. Tons of unlockables, lovely design and blistering performance make this an essential part of any shmup fan’s library.
And our final entry on this list is another retro title, this time forming part of the excellent Psykiyo Shooting Stars collections for Nintendo Switch, but also available separately. In Gunbird 2, you take on the role of one of several different colourful and delightful characters as you blast your way through enemy hordes and attempt to thwart the plans of the Queen Pirates.
Gunbird 2 is colourful, vibrant, energetic and full of joy. It’s the ’90s anime of shoot ’em ups — and despite its age it still plays extremely well today, with solid mechanics, excellent level design and plenty of personality. Of all of Psykiyo’s many and varied titles, it’s probably the most well-known with good reason — but if you find yourself enjoying this one, be sure to check out their other work, too.
So there’s our picks! What are yours? Be sure to share ’em down in the comments — or pen us a letter for the Rice Digital Friday Letters Page!
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