Why Vertical Shooters?

by Jed Pressgrove

I will be writing a series of reviews of vertical shooters. Initially, I was going to let the reviews stand by themselves, but I want to share my thinking behind this series.

Let’s start with a definition of “vertical shooter”: a game where your primary ability is shooting vertically, that is, toward the top of the screen (naturally, the tradition doesn’t involve three-dimensional spaces). There are two major forms of the vertical shooter. In one form, you are at the bottom of a fixed screen and have limited movement (in many cases, you can only move left or right). Popular games in this form include Space Invaders, Galaga, and Centipede. In the other form, the screen scrolls vertically, and you have greater movement (in many cases, you can fly anywhere on the screen in any direction).

My reviews will focus on the second form. Space Invaders is fun, but it doesn’t have the thrill of flying and shooting.

But still, why vertical shooters?

It’s a workmanlike genre. As mentioned, I will be reviewing games that allow you to fly anywhere (or almost anywhere) on the screen as the screen scrolls vertically. While some may consider this idea limited in its modesty, the vertical shooter is a great traditional form of expression. On a surface level, the genre captures the feeling that you barely got out alive, as you’re often a lone ship shooting and avoiding hordes of enemies raining from above. And because everything is moving — you, the enemies, numerous types of bullets, and the screen itself — there is an art to the maneuvering that is something to pull off (as a player) and something to see (as a viewer). The stylistic differences in vertical shooters offer a lot to appreciate, whether we are talking about the style in how the player plays — the movement or lack thereof, the use of this power-up over another, the different ways of winning and failing — or the style in how the developer elates us with a form that could easily be stagnant. Of course, not all vertical shooters are worthwhile; my reviews will also cover these games.

Why not horizontal shooters? After all, the only difference between the vertical and horizontal shooter is simple. In one, the shooting, flying, and scrolling are vertical; in the other, they’re horizontal. On the surface, that is the difference. But in a non-3D game, moving up captures the idea of flying better than moving across. Some horizontal shooters are thrilling, but they miss that tiny illusion of flight. Vertical shooters have that illusion because they share less in common with horizontally scrolling platformers like Super Mario Bros.

One final point: you will never see me calling a vertical shooter, or any shooter, a “shmup.” “Shmup” is an abbreviation of shoot-’em-up. One day a toddler tried to say “shoot-’em-up” and “shmup” came out and it stuck.

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