Video games haven’t been around all that long, but they’ve already changed a great deal in that short time. Not that long ago, a game that involved shooting almost by default meant you were playing a shoot ’em up, or “shmup.” It might scroll vertically, horizontally, or even both, it might even take a Smash TV inspired top-down, single room view. They still shared a lot in common.
While they might have fallen from the spotlight, these games still exist. Modern shoot ’em ups continue to evolve the genre, bringing new mechanics and replayability that makes them feel as vital as ever.
Pawarumi builds on an idea pioneered by a classic of the genre. Ikaruga had you swapping your ship between white and black in order to avoid damage from bullets of the same color and deal more damage to ships of the opposite color. This game takes that a step further, turning it into a rock-paper-scissors approach.
Do you mitigate damage to your ship or deal more damage to enemies? There’s no “right” answer, but not every option will get you through every stage.
2. Nex Machina
This game is brought to you by Housemarque, a studio that knows its way around a shooter. In the case of Nex Machina, you get a twin-stick shooter inspired by Robotron and Smash TV. It’s not all about the shooting though, as you also have to rescue civilians, somewhat of a hallmark of Housemarque games.
Eventually Nex Machina breaks free of the influence of elders of the genre, moving to a more level-based approach, but it keeps the challenge up the entire time.
3. Devil Engine
Some games on this list take older gameplay systems and refresh them with updated graphics. Devil Engine on the other hand, both plays and looks like a lost shooter from the 1990s that has only been uncovered in the last year. I want to make it very clear: that’s a good thing.
This is the kind of game that is capable of producing nostalgia for itself despite being brand new. That doesn’t happen often, and is almost always a sign of something special.
To say Jamestown+ is all over the place is somewhat of an understatement. This is a vertical scrolling shooter set in an alternate history with music that doesn’t match either the gameplay or the time period in which it is supposedly set. Instead of working against the game, these anachronisms make it even more fun.
Right now, Jamestown+ is available on the PS4, but it is coming soon to the Nintendo Switch and PC via Steam.
5. Sky Force Reloaded
If you love shooters but can’t get past the lack of character progression, Sky Force Reloaded may be your new favorite game. This game starts you out with a weak ship that you upgrade via RPG-style grinding. This means you’ll play through levels multiple times going for different goals.
This sounds like it might get old, but you’re always just a little bit from your next upgrade, which makes this game as addictive as they come.
6. Sine Mora EX
If you like your shoot ’em ups with a healthy side of darkness, you can’t miss Sine Mora EX. Yes, it starts talking animals, but this is anything but a lighthearted romp. The story starts out fairly grim and just gets worse from there.
When it comes to gameplay, this is a side scrolling shooter, but the addition of time manipulation mechanics make it more interesting. In fact, the entire gameplay loop is built around time, with dying only subtracting time from your remaining available seconds.
7. Danmaku Unlimited 3
Bullet hell shooters are known for being especially punishing, so it may seem odd, but Danmaku Unlimited 3 is a more kindly type of bullet hell shooter. For starters, you can set the game to display your hitbox, which makes dodging bullets easier. There’s also a beginner-friendly mode that makes everything much easier.
If you’re looking to get into shoot ’em ups but are put off by the difficulty curve, Danmaku Unlimited 3 is a great place to start.
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