Arcade Flashback SeriesSpace Invader

A Detailed History of Shoot ‘Em Up Arcade Games

It’s you vs. an entire alien army and the odds aren’t looking too good. But in shoot ‘em ups, the original and most popular video game genre, the right ammo and a couple of extra lives just might get you to the end. In the classic version of this beloved format, a solo player mounts a defence against hordes of opponents with nothing more than a spaceship, a laser gun, and a joystick. Yet over thirty years later, the simple shoot ‘em up, or “shmup” as it’s casually called among fans, has evolved into countless, wildly creative forms.

Spacewar Computer

It all began in a musty computer lab on the M.I.T. campus in 1961, where students commandeered the first user-oriented computer, the PDP-1, to design something the world had never seen: a computer game. Their creation, Spacewar!, is now regarded as the original shoot ‘em up. Against a primitive vector starfield, students controlled 2 skeletal spaceships, firing upon one another while getting sucked into the gravitational field of a blazing sun. Little did they know their simple game would fire the opening shots in a 100-billion dollar business and spark the imaginations of gamers worldwide.

The Alien Invasion That Inspired a Revolution

Nearly 20 years later and an ocean away, Japan’s Taito launched the golden age for the stand-up arcade game with the global blockbuster Space Invaders (1978). The minimalist 2D raster graphics depicting an ever-advancing formation of squid-like aliens may be archaic by today’s standards, but it’s hard to overstate the massive popularity and social impact of this game when it debuted, grossing a billion dollars in its first three years. That’s a lot of quarters.

Above: the now legendary space invaders, right: the board that made it all possible!

In this first major fixed shooter, players could steer their laser cannon avatar left-to-right while hammering a fire button upon a wall of alien foot soldiers. The steadily quickening pace of the attack was a happy accident of the render limitations of the game’s 2 MHz Intel processor, which designers exploited by adding a thumping sound design to amp up the tension. Orange and green cellophane stuck right to the screen added colour. And by saving past players’ point totals, Space Invaders also invented a little tradition called the “high score.”

Fixed Shooters Burst Into Colour

Using Space Invaders as the blueprint, Japanese developer Namco added major personality to the fixed shooter in Galaxian (1979). Transforming the faceless, uniform wall of alien clones into an RGB colour-coded cast of characters, Galaxian’s field of opponents each expressed unique behaviours, including dive bombers which leapt out of formation for direct attacks on the lone hero starfighter. What’s your technique – hide in the corners or aggressively fire from the centre? These kinds of questions started to forge a new language of skill and strategy for late 70’s gamers. And by noting onscreen how many increasingly difficult rounds a player had completed, Galaxian birthed the concept of reaching levels as a mark of achievement, just as important as point scores.


Galaxian’s immensely popular sequel, Galaga (1980) honed the format by using Namco’s 8-bit board with built-in sound chips to render more detailed alien design, bonus rounds, and elaborate audio. Insider tactics, like exploiting player captures by boss Galagas to create a double fighter, promoted a feeling of expertise and intense loyalty to the game. Becoming an ace at Galaga was a rite of passage for kids throughout the early 80s.

Scrolling Into The Future

That same year, the shoot ‘em up was literally turned on its side, with a fast-paced mission over a rocky planet landscape in Defender (1980), one of the first horizontal scrolling shooters. Defender’s swiftly moving landscape orientation suggested a vast field of action beyond the confines of the screen, lifting producer Williams Electronics straight from pinball to world building.

Defender Arcade

Five control buttons for laser fire, thrust and reverse, smart bombs, and a Hail Mary hyperspace option inspired individual styles and strategies for gameplay. The horizontal action took full advantage of 16-colour pixel graphics and a wider 320×256 screen resolution… so did the five distinct alien designs, each with unique behaviours. The ability to reverse the starship’s direction and manipulate thrust made this violent, high-intensity classic one of the toughest early games to master. Defender inspired many sequels and imitations, like 1982’s side-scrolling adventure Moon Patrol, which added a parallax 3D background effect.

Journey Into the Screen With Tube Shooters

Atari took the shmup into the third dimension with Tempest (1980).  Tempest’s highly abstract, vector-based playing field presented a 3D tube extending deep into an infinity point, as a slew of lethal geometric aliens hurtled straight out of the screen. Players manoeuvred their ship around the periphery of the tube with a twist of the spin dial.

Tempest Arcade

Thinking outside of flat 2D design with innovative into-the-screen gameplay, tube shooters used perspective lines to create depth, here rendered by Atari’s own Color-QuadraScan, an update of the vector refresh monitor designed for their mega-smash Asteroids in 1979. Tempest’s experimental look encouraged young gamers to fill in the minimal design with the ultimate graphics engine – their imaginations.

It’s All In The Wrist

The iconic trackball controller of Centipede (1981) innovated by adding fluid, multi-directional control entirely appropriate to the subject matter – defending a garden from an onslaught of long squirming insects. The slippery quality of the trackball in Centipede, its sequel Millipede (1982), and Atari’s Missile Command (1980), required a new skill set for the gamer hands of 1981, pre-dating the widespread use of the multi-directional mouse with personal computers by several years. These games positioned the player as a nimble, adaptable action hero who had to develop game-specific piloting skills to succeed, inspiring the oft-cited defence against accusations of excessive gaming… “I’m developing hand-eye coordination, Mum.”

Centipede Arcade

Rail Shooters Lead A Course to Adventure

As innovations in gameplay modes started to explode, rail shooters brought an emphasis on storytelling and total environments, with elaborate pre-determined fly-overs of complex landscapes teeming with surprise threats. SEGA pioneered the form with Zaxxon in 1982, presenting an into-the-screen adventure over a cinematic industrial landscape of enemy turrets and fuel bunkers, using axonometric projection to suggest depth and heighten the environment’s realism. Shadows kept pace with the altitude of the hero fighter ship, while difficult spatial obstacles like brick walls required depth perception and agility in x-y-z space, just like real piloting.

zaxxon & xevious

A year later Atari answered back with the rail shooter Xevious (1983), wherein fighters cruised over 16 levels of ground-based enemy terrain. Pinpoint crosshair targeting was added to the aerial tour over a seemingly endless world below, dense with foliage and cannonball-firing enemy strongholds. Gamers coursed over the turf without too much freedom of movement, as if literally on a rail.

In Frantic Multi-Directional Shooters, Stress Comes From All Sides

1982’s Time Pilot dispenses with the traditional playing field altogether by dropping a fighter plane into a infinite skyscape full of enemies, in Konami’s highly original spin on the shoot ‘em up. In a multi-directional shooter, the art of dodging takes centre stage, as players must carve hairpin courses through opponents coming from all sides.

Time Pilot & Robotron 2084

Robotron 2084 (1982) took the multi-directional shooter to an abstract zenith of high-pressure gameplay by pitting a human against a relentless mass of swarming robots, like an insanely accelerated interpretation of 1980’s Berzerk. Don’t be fooled by the simple pixel graphics – Robotron’s ferocious high-speed robot attack was among the most stressful games ever produced, maximising the potential of the multi-directional shooter by having few orientation landmarks on the playing field, with hero and civilians barely distinguishable from the thousands of villains. Players scrambled to control dual joysticks, one for movement and one to direct their constant stream of laser fire – thus eliminating pause and precision shooting in favour of a free-for-all vibe. Williams Electronics pulled off this head banger with a processor operating at a then-blazing speed of a whopping 1 MHz!

Third Person Shooters Bring Graphics to the Forefront

Space Harrier Arcade

Shoot ‘em up visual design matured substantially with 1985’s mega-hit Space Harrier. Using 16-bit graphics and high speed 60 fps sprite scaling, SEGA created a fully-immersive 3D fantasy world with a unique third-person perspective. No longer was the player’s avatar a small blip at the base of the screen, but now an elaborately realised character tromping through an alien world boasting more than 32,000 colours. In the groundbreaking sit-down cabinet, the entire seat moved in tandem with the sensitive and precise joystick, rocking a player’s body in sync with their avatar, through 18 eye-popping levels. Space Harrier’s wildly colourful, psychedelic world combined with the innovative booth to make this a one-of-a kind event game, worth dropping quarter after quarter into.

All That Training Starts to Pay Off

R-Type Arcade

R-Type (1987) challenged elite gamers with all-new levels of sophistication and difficulty in a scrolling shooter. This viciously difficult shoot ‘em up from Irem required piloting a spaceship through a manga-inspired bio-mech sci-fi universe with monstrous snake-like machine insects crawling out of the walls. This wasn’t your grandfather’s side scrolling shoot ‘em up. The densely complex 384×256 pixel visual assault was designed to disorient. Fine speed control, an arsenal of unique weapons, multi-directional firepower, perches to land upon, an upgradeable ship, and a dynamic Force energy shield were used to develop the complicated gameplay strategies (along with countless quarters) needed to simply survive.

Run And Gun On The Front Lines of Adventure

Run & Gun Arcade Games

Breaking free from the “lone spaceship against a hostile alien world” formula, the mid ’80s saw a new wave of shoot ‘em ups focused on human mobility, the run and gun. In Capcom’s Commando (1985), a Rambo-like warrior runs on foot through an elaborate jungle environment with only a machine gun and some grenades for company. The soldier of fortune learned to jump in Konami’s Contra (1987), wherein gamers could do everything a human could do – jump, crouch, and fire while in the air. These widely influential warfare-themed games would extend their influence through countless arcade hits, like Ikari Warriors, Gun Smoke, and Metal Slug, eventually leading to ultra-sophisticated contemporary military campaign shooters like Call Of Duty.

Bullet Hell Sets A New Standard For Total Anarchy

Batsugun - Bullet Hell!

Robotron fans could never have dreamed of the complexity of high stress bullet dodging they would be up against just a few years later with the advent of the manic shooter, aka bullet hell. Manic vertical scrollers like Toaplan’s Batsugun (1993) combined an infinitesimal hit box surrounding the player’s ship with a mind-bending chaos of bullets to fly through. Players were required to think fast and make split-second navigation choices.  Call it extreme maneuvering. Toaplan’s heirs formed influential game company Cave, which lifted the manic shooter to new plateaus with Dodonpachi (1996). A wild arsenal of artillery guns, lasers, and bombs exploded against shockingly chaotic backgrounds, teeming with attack ships in every shade of the 32,768 colour raster rainbow. The most valuable skill in a manic shooter is simply training the eye not to get distracted.

High-Intensity Can Still Be Cute

Twinbee-Yahoo Is Cute!

While the bullet hell format was dominating mid-90s arcades in ever-expanding eye-numbing complexity, a brand new take on the shoot ‘em emerged, with a decidedly less aggressive skin – welcome to the cute ‘em up. The landscapes, villains, and sounds of these surreal games were more like the stars of children’s cartoons than hard sci-fi or military stories. The epitome of the cute shooter trend was Konami’s TwinBee Yahho! (1995), featuring a phantasmagorical ride through a psychedelic candy-land of puffy shapes and bold colours. Yet, the frenzied pace of the genre is every bit as intense as hardcore bullet hell games, with hyper-stylised children’s ice cream truck music adding a comic counterpoint to the adult-intensity warfare.

The Zenith of the Shoot ‘Em Up

Radiant Silvergun Screenshots

The modern shoot ’em up reached its pinnacle and perhaps the conclusion of its relevance in the gaming world with Radiant Silvergun (1998), by Konami offshoot Treasure. This high intensity hard sci-fi vertically scrolling adventure was gorgeously rendered in 704 × 513 resolution, but the high level of strategy required was what set it apart. Radiant Silvergun called for a finely developed knowledge of a fighter ship’s many unique capabilities, and being able to swap among them in an instant to achieve goals, defeat bosses, and just plain survive. Treasure’s 2001 follow-up Ikaruga featured the groundbreaking concept of polarity – altering the character of ammo to inflict calculated damage to particular ships at particular times, a mental mouthful that was a challenge for even the most hardcore gamers, and a far cry from the left-right uni-directional shootout of Space Invaders.

A New Era of Creativity

New Generation Shoot-Em-Ups

The 2000s saw endless sequels to hit games that had launched in the 90s, yet it still proved a period of great creativity for the arcade shoot ‘em up, long after its heyday as the central genre in world gaming had given way to the ever-increasing sophistication of home consoles. Visco’s 2000 release Vasura imagined a hard sci-fi retelling of 1600s Japan populated with mecha-samurais in an intensely manic shooter. Progear (Cave/Capcom 2001) offered a riveting scrolling shooter with an imaginative steampunk design. And in Takumi Corp’s extremely demanding Mars Matrix (2000), players piloted through an explosion of colour in a battle for control of Mars, against the backdrop of thousands of sentient and extremely hostile moving parts.

It’s been a wild ride from the shoot ‘em up’s humble, static-screen origins to these elaborate and insanely challenging mini-masterpieces. Perhaps a new decade will breathe fresh life and innovation into the enduringly popular format. As long as there are laser guns to fire and alien hordes to kill, there will probably always be a lone starship pilot, ready to heed the call of adventure.

Has this flashback given you the taste for some retro shooting action? If so here’s a table showing you which of our awesome arcades has which games on:


Cosmic II 60-in-1 / Galaxy II 60-in-1 Arcade Machines Cosmic III 350-in-1 Arcade Machine Frontier Customisable Arcade Machine
Space Invaders
Time Pilot
Gun Smoke
Moon Patrol
Missile Command
Ikari Warriors
Metal Slug
Space Invaders
Moon Patrol*
Missile Command
Time Pilot*
Robotron 2084
Space Harrier*
Ikari Warriors
Gun Smoke
Metal Slug
TwinBee Yahoo*
* = optional extra

Comments are closed.