Early years (1961 - 1979)

Shmups (shoot 'em ups) hold a prominent place in video game history, being one of the first genres to exist and setting many standards in the video game industry. Although their place now may not be as it were in the beginning, their prominence is nothing to scoff at. This article is a rough history of the origins and early days of shumps, from 1961 to 1979.

Origins and precursors (1961-1977)Edit

Possibly the first shooting video game of any kind to exist was a game called Spacewar!, created in 1961 as a novelty at MIT, then later played in arcades. Spacewar was a two-player game where two ships would shoot at each other in an effort to destroy the other, similar to Combat. Such games based on one-on-one combat are sometimes classified as "combat games" rather than "shooter" or "shoot 'em up" games, which are usually based on shooting at multiple opponents (the "'em" being shorthand for "them") attacking at once.[1]

From the mid-1970s, Taito released several experimental shooter games that culminated in their seminal title Space Invaders. In 1975, they released Gun Fight (Western Gun), designed by Space Invaders creator Tomohiro Nishikado.[1] It was an early two-player, on-foot, multidirectional shooter, which was also the first video game to depict a gun on screen, introduced dual-stick controls with one eight-way joystick for movement and the other for changing the shooting direction,[2][3] and was the first known video game to feature game characters and fragments of story through its visual presentation.[1] That same year, they released Interceptor, also designed by Nishikado.[4] It was an early first-person combat flight simulator that involved piloting a jet fighter, using an eight-way joystick to aim with a crosshair and shoot at enemy aircraft that move in formations of two and scale in size depending on their distance to the player.[5] In 1977, Taito released Missile-X, a simulator that featured real-life colour images as background scenery, and involved the player launching missiles to destroy enemy tanks,[6] and Sub Hunter, an early submarine simulator that featured colour background scenery and involved controlling a destroyer that fires depth charges at submarines while having to avoid their mines.[7]

In 1977, Sega released the first side-scrolling shooter for the arcades, Bomber, which involved controlling a bomber plane that drops bombs on moving targets, which include a scrolling pattern of buildings, while shooting at oncoming fighter jets that also move in a scrolling pattern across the screen.[8]

Birth of shmup genre (1978)Edit

The shump genre proper is generally considered to have begun with the widely popular game, Space Invaders, created by Tomohiro Nishikado and released in 1978 by Japan's Taito Corporation. Space Invaders is usually cited as being the first true shump, due to its massive popularity and setting new standards in games. Many a person spent much time and money in arcades simply playing Space Invaders, seeing how high of a score they could get in these playing sessions. It is this frenzy that started the shmup craze. The result of Space Invaders' popularity was a number of similar shumps developed during the early 80's.

Space Invaders pitted the player against multiple enemies descending from the top of the screen at a constantly increasing rate of speed.[9] The game used alien creatures because the developers were unable to render the movement of aircraft; in turn, the aliens replaced human enemies because of moral concerns (regarding the portrayal of killing humans) on the part of Taito Corporation. As with subsequent shoot 'em ups of the time, the game was set in space as the available technology only permitted a black background. The game also introduced the idea of giving the player a number of "lives". Space Invaders was a massive commercial success, causing a coin shortage in Japan,[2][10] and gaining mainstream popularity in America.[3] It popularized a more interactive style of gameplay with the enemies responding to the player-controlled cannon's movement,[4] and it was the first video game to popularize the concept of achieving a high score,[3][11][5] being the first to save the player's score.[3] While earlier shooting games allowed the player to shoot at targets, Space Invaders was the first in which targets could fire back at the player.[12] It was also the first game where players had to repel hordes of enemies,[6] take cover from enemy fire, and use destructible barriers,How Cover Shaped Gaming's Last Decade in addition to introducing a continuous background soundtrack.[13] It set the template for the shoot 'em up genre,[14] and has influenced most shooter games released since then.[6]

That same year, Sega released Secret Base, which allowed two-player cooperative gameplay and where the aim was to destroy an enemy base amidst enemy missiles and anti-aircraft fire.[15]

Rising popularity (1979)Edit

The famous game Galaxian was released in 1979. Galaxian is similar in style to Space Invaders, where one takes on several rows of enemies. These enemies were more active than the simple invaders though as they occasionally detached from their formation and attempted to ram the player. This was the first game in the Galaga line. It took the genre further with more complex enemy patterns and richer graphics.[16][17] It featured an improved enemy AI where enemy ships frequently break out of formation to dive towards the player,[18] making it the first game to feature enemies with individual personalities. Its use of colour graphics was also considered an important contribution to the genre.[7] The Space Invaders clone IPM Invader also used colour graphics that same year.[19]

Another famous shmup that gained popularity was Asteroids, released in 1979. Just like Space Invaders, Asteroids became very famous and was played constantly, so much so that it resulted in the creation of a bigger coin box. Asteroids was similar to Spacewar in that the field was free-roaming, and going to one edge resulted in the player appearing on the opposite side. The enemies were primarily asteroids that broke apart when shot, and the occasional UFOs.

That same year saw the release of SNK's debut shoot 'em up Ozma Wars, notable for being the first action game to feature a supply of energy, resembling a life bar, a mechanic that has now become common in the majority of modern action games.[20] It also featured vertically scrolling backgrounds and enemies.[21] Namco also released SOS, an early vertical scrolling shooter.[22]

Nintendo's Sheriff, designed by a young Shigeru Miyamoto and released in 1979, was a run & gun multi-directional shooter that featured dual-stick controls, with one joystick for movement and the other for aiming, and a large number of enemies shooting many bullets, paving the way for later dual-stick shooters such as Robotron 2084 and Geometry Wars. Nintendo also released Radar Scope, which introduced a three-dimensional third-person perspective, imitated years later by shooters such as Konami's Juno First and Activision's Beamrider.[23]

To this point, shumps were simple in design but also revolutionary in play. The novelty of shooting targets just to get the highest score around led many people to spend countless hours and lots of money playing these games. Of course, technology improved and the time had come for an evolution. The next period is considered to be the Golden Age of shumps, when the quality of games drastically improved and established many sub-genres of shmups.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Chris Kohler (2005), Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life, p. 18, BradyGames, ISBN 0-7440-0424-1, accessed 2011-03-27
  2. Ashcraft pp. 72–73
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Ryan Geddes & Daemon Hatfield (2007-12-10), IGN's Top 10 Most Influential Games, IGN, accessed 2008-07-11
  4. Retro Gamer Staff, "Nishikado-San Speaks", Retro Gamer, Live Publishing, issue 3, p. 35
  5. Craig Glenday, ed. (2008-03-11), "Record Breaking Games: Shooting Games Roundup", Guinness World Records Gamer's Edition 2008, Guinness World Records, ISBN 978-1-904994-21-3, pp. 106–107
  6. 6.0 6.1 Benj Edwards, Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Space Invaders, 1UP, accessed 2008-07-11
  7. "Arcade Games", Joystick, September 1982, volume 1, issue 1, p. 10


  • Ashcraft, Brian, (2008) Arcade Mania! The Turbo-Charged World of Japan's Game Centers, (Kodansha International)