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Thursday, April 25, 2024

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The Switch remains the best console for shmups since the Saturn – and these are some of the best



The Switch is well into its sixth year, somehow, and despite some stiff competition from the Steam Deck recently it hasnt lost its lustre nor its position by my side wherever I go: maybe its something to do with the immense library Ive got on mine at this point, filled to the brim with shmups of all sizes in whats long been a speciality of the system.

Once it was the novelty of having these things on the go, plus the ease of playing vertical scrolling shooting games as intended in tate mode with the screen flipped (and without worrying about permanent damage like I used to when pushing a chunky old CRT on its side to play Ikaruga as Treasure intended). Now its just the abundance of classics that can be dipped in and out of at leisure – and the thing I love about the humble shmup is how immediate they are, making them perfect for short blasts.

So heres a list of some personal favourites, and a rundown of the shmups that are in almost constant rotation on my Switch. There should be an emphasis on the personal, here – theres no science here, and an awful lot of bias towards my own taste for simple, spectacular shmups rather than those with fussy scoring systems. So theres no Ikaruga here, Im afraid – apologies, I do love it but Im not going to pretend to be a master of its rigid polarity-based system (when – or if – Radiant Silvergun ever makes it to the Switch you can be assured itll be top of this list, though).

Also, apologies. I know the term shmup is an unsightly thing, and I understand if it gets your back up – it does mine too, but the fact is if I started calling them STGs Id come across like one of those pricks who insists its pronounced Moog, actually. Well, I am one of those pricks, it turns out, but shmups is what the wider world knows them as so shmups is what well call them.

G-Darius


After a few years away as it explored the mobile space with some success the legendary Taito has spun up its console operations in recent years and is well-represented on the Switch, which is a lovely thing indeed: Theres been a new Puzzle Bobble as well as some exquisite history lessons from the companys past, spearheaded by Darius Cozmic Collections that have squeezed the three-screen behemoth amply down onto the Switch thanks to the handiwork of the ever-brilliant M2. Elsewhere you can find a decent port of the essential Layer Section from City Connection – a shame it costs almost as much as the Saturn original will set you back, but its still a convenient way to play an all-time classic.

If I had to pick just one to get you going, though, itd be another M2 joint – more specifically, the excellent G-Darius which gets its most sumptuous outing here. Its a pretty good entry point if youre new to the Darius series, too – while the deranged Darius Gaiden remains the series high point for me, G-Darius is where youll find a more approachable, thrillingly ambitious take on the stately shmup complete with a dizzying number of routes and some electric set-pieces. Its been subject to a number of updates, too, and with ver. 2 smoothing some of the harder edges down its now very much the complete package.

Aleste Collection


If you want to sample M2 at its most ambitious, theres no better port of call than its Aleste Collection – a gaggle of Compiles beloved, whip-quick games that comes complete with one of M2s most outrageous endeavours to date. Here you get a decent rundown of the 8-bit instalments of Aleste – shmups that serve up simple, straightforward and incredibly speedy pleasures – with the Master System original plus the two Game Gear outings that offered some of the best action available on Segas handheld.

But how about an all-new Game Gear outing for Aleste, in which M2 stays faithful to the limitations of the hardware and its 160×144 resolution while pushing the intensity of the action to the max? GG Aleste 3 is all that and is a dream of a game. Its worth buying the entire collection for alone, and the fact you get a handful of Compiles excellent 8-bit shmups besides makes Aleste Collection pretty much essential.

Thunderforce 4


Theres a handful of enjoyable Mega Drive shmups on Switch, such as the stylish but perhaps overly simple Gleylancer, and even a number of Techno Softs Thunder Force games to choose from but the pick of the bunch is surely Thunder Force 4. Maybe its nostalgia talking and the reverence with which I once held the Mega Drive – a console that as a kid always felt like your older, cooler brother – but Thunder Force 4 for me always epitomised the hard-edged styling that made Segas machine so desirable.

This is a big, wide open shooter with levels you can get lost in, delivered with an aggressive parallax scrolling thats dizzying in its depth at times. It might be adequate rather than exquisite to play – apologies if thats sacrilege – but this is a deeply immersive shmup, which seems to be the point. If you want to surround yourself with Techno Softs 16-bit style, complete with FM synth heavy metal riffs, then Thunder Force 4s your best port of call.

Esp.Ra.De Psi


Ive never been smart or skilled enough to fully appreciate Caves shmups and their complex scoring systems – apologies if thats sacrilege, fellow shmup fans, but its more an admission of how terrible I am at these things – but I still enjoy fumbling through games clearly pieced together with the highest level of craft. Theres a fine selection to pick through on the Switch, from all-timer Mushihimesama through to the classics DoDonPachi Resurrection and Espgaluda.

My personal pick, though, is ESP Ra.De. The ports another M2 joint, meaning it comes with all sorts of bells and whistles that help deconstruct the complexities of Caves scoring systems, and let you play through this sublimely handsome shmup pretty much any way you choose. Being both lazy and unskilled I tend towards the path of least resistance, so that I can soak up the atmosphere of this strange sci-fi bullet hell in which you dance through curtains of bullets that fly atop a gloriously realised near future neo Tokyo.

Devil Engine


Drainus recently won me over as one of the best contemporary shmups that play to my love of side-scrolling classics – and theres no news of a Switch port of that just yet, but bear in mind it plays just beautifully on SteamDeck – but therell always be a place in my heart for Devil Engine.

The release was sadly overshadowed by shenanigans from disgraced publisher Dangen Entertainment, but that shouldnt distract from the achievements of Protoculture Games. This is a shmup delivered with heart and soul, plus no small amount of chunk – if you like your action to shake the screen then Devil Engine is for you. This is an explosion of style and swagger, a student of the classics thats not afraid to mix things up a little and a very good time indeed.

Moon Dancer

The eShop serves up a whole load to sift through, and its easy for more modest fare to be overlooked. But stop right there! Some of those unremarkable looking games offer abundant riches from smaller studios, and theres a whole range of incredible shmups from boutique outfits on the Switch; games like Super Hydorah, Earth Atlantis, Steredenn: Binary Stars or the excellent Danmaku Unlimited 3 – a high-energy vertical scroller thats as good an entry point into shmups as any.

Ive recently fallen for the work of tiny Terarin Games – which I believe is predominantly one person, a cybersecurity engineer by day who knocks these incredible games up in their spare time – whose entire output can be found on the eShop, if you know where to look. Moon Dancer just hit the Japanese eShop and is good a place to start as any, an unashamed tribute to RayStorm with a familiar lock-on mechanic lending it a distinct flavour, its also an enjoyably energetic take on the genre thats got a charm all of its own.

Xexex


If you spend as much time idly browsing the eShop as I do youll be familiar with the weekly drops from Hamsters Arcade Archives series – possibly one of the greatest services offered in games right now, and a constant source of delights and leftfield treasures. For the shmup fan it offers a dizzying array of incredible games, some of them previously hard to attain. Theres SNK and Aicoms hazy Blazing Star, NMKs limited but gorgeous Gunnail and Thunder Dragon 2, or all-timers like Konamis Gradius 3.

My pick, though, is Gradius close relative Xexex. Developed by many of the same team behind Gradius 2, its a psychedelic spin-off which lifts liberally from fellow grand dame of the genre R-Type with its charge blast, though it ends up with a trippy flavour all of its own thanks to its lysergic aesthetic. Its been hard to get your hands on previously, limited to a Salamander collection on the PSP or those fortunate enough to get an original board whose temperamental sound chip still works. Mine, sadly, doesnt…

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