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Pew-Pew Zoom: SHMUPS, WTH?

A few weeks ago, I delved into the narrative elements of early space-based aracade games, but I still want to keep exploring the frontiers of what space games have to offer. "Pew-Pew Zoom" will be closer looks at different aspects of space games, and I felt nowhere would be a better starting point than the humble (yet often very, very strange) SHMUP. So dust off your controllers, stack up those quarters, and GET READY!

To start, we should probably define the rather odd, but fun to say, acronym "SHMUP." While it's a shortening of the age-old term "Shoot 'em Up" (which, prior to the advent of electronic gaming, primarily referred to films and TV shows, particularly Westerns and war stories), the term is generally referred to a specific kind of shooting game: one where the player guides a vehicle, such as a spaceship, fighter plane, blimp, or hummingbird, at a set speed across scrolling levels in two dimensions, avoiding enemies and their weaponry, and trying to destroy as many of them as possible. The scrolling can be vertical or horizontal, but I think "horizontal" is what first comes to people's minds when they hear the term "SHMUP." It was certainly the norm for much of the genre's '80s and '90s heyday, and the perspective allows for more detailed, interesting visuals than a top-down one, which, through it's implication of an even, level terrain, makes it far more likely that the game will take place on or above a planet, rather than in space. Hence, many of the most-loved horizontal shooters taking place in the near past (1942) or the near future (Raptor: Call of the Shadows).

I couldn't say the first SHMUP I played, but I can certainly recall the experience - it was something rented by my cousins, the first NES owners I knew. I was grabbed by the depth of detail and movement within the space. Their other rental that weekend, Mega Man 2, also made an impression on me, but this was something different, presenting haunting alien architectures floating in the vast mystery of space. Thankfully, the first SHMUP I owned myself would provide a similar experience: Uridium on the Commodore 64. I had lucked out when my parents decided to pick this one in particular: it's still regarded as one of best on that platform, and provided a good crash course (pun... somewhat intended) in the genre. The enemy ships, each named after a different metal, felt massive, yet plausible, comparable to the huge starships in The Black Hole and the original Star Wars trilogy. The graphics were crisp and detailed, the action quick and punishing, and, most importantly, the explosions ruled. (This was all too rare on 8-bit computers, and helped take the edge off the fact that you just got blown up.) Rather than boss fights, it had a minigame where you set a self-destruct system, but on the whole, it wasn't too dissimilar from games that were starting to appear in arcades at the time it was released. One of these, Gradius (released, like Uridium, in 1986), would go on to essentially define the SHMUP genre in both visual style and gameplay. (It was so influential that even it's official parody series, Parodius, would have a similar effect on the "Cute 'em Up" subgenre.)

Like Uridium, the original Gradius had fairly straightforward enemies spaceships, along a few simple alien designs and, at the end, a giant brain, but far more bizarre enemies were around the corner. 1987's R-Type took obvious influence from the art of H.R. Giger, throwing biomechanical horrors at the player in addition to the traditional fighter craft and robots. From here, things started to get... weird. From body horror amalgamations of gut and metal to living statues to terrifying giant babies (so many giant babies...), many of the monsters of the past thirty-five years of SHMUPs seem more suited to the pages of horror and dark fantasy manga than arcade and console video games. And yet, they just seem to fit, being as much a part of the genre as the power-ups and the incredibly fragile ships.

The manga comparison, I think, gets to the heart (or. more appropriately, "core") of what keeps these games accessible. Much like the platformers and beat-em-ups that came out along side them, SHMUPS use a visual format closer to comics and sequential art than any other form of media - likely another reason that the horizontal format is more enduring. Comics are uniquely suited to "in media res" storytelling, providing much of their narrative through simple visuals and leaving audiences to determine for themselves what goes on around and between them. These games function in much the same way. The player's tiny ship usually only takes up a minuscule amount part of the screen, conveying the vastness of the setting and the threats they face. Games, particularly SHMUPS, can use this to different advantage than comics, as the action never stops, particularly in the arcade, where's those no pause button. (Space combat, it would seem, is neither for the weak-hearted nor the weak-bladdered.) Comics couldn't keep their protagonists so tiny page after page, or they would disappear into the action. Players, on the other hand, have to stay tightly focused on their "guy" and tracking the enemy and other threats through quick glances and peripheral vision. This is processed similarly to comics, implying much of the action - or rather, virtually implying it, because players can't simultaneously watch everything onscreen at all times... not without an immediate demise, anyway. 

This storytelling through inference draws audiences into the game world in ways other genres can't, and is a reason SHMUPs rarely need framing narratives. We know what it is, it's a story of a small, vulnerable individual surviving a numerous and unknowable enemies. The specifics are for us to work out from what the visuals, momentum, and music tell us. (SHMUP music is particularly enduring, having to keep the tension and mood going while also being listenable enough for players to tolerate for hours on end often yields some stellar music). When we are provided detailed narratives, they're often ripped directly from other media or simplistic to the point of near-incomprehensibility - although I will give Zero Wing a little credit for putting an appropriate face to the enemy and establishing that you're fighting a group of... cyber pirates? I think? Thankfully, the music does a better job of telling the story than the famous badly-translated dialogue, particularly Noriyuki Iwadare's arrangement for the home console version, which has become one of my all-time favorite game soundtracks.

With the shift to 3D graphics and less arcade-style gameplay, SHMUPS, weird or otherwise, had largely faded away by the end of the 90s, although they're still a popular format for retro-inspired indie titles, and, to a large degree, this makes a lot of sense - the format is fairly limiting, even with additions such as customizable ship design and cooperative multiplayer. But the lessons we can take from these games can go far beyond their viability as a genre: give audiences forward momentum and sense of scale, provide just enough detail for them to fill in the gaps, and sometimes, simplicity can provide a frame for some truly unique and strange ideas. So, until next time, stick to it, and believe in your (narrative) power!

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