Updated with Cotton Rock 'n' Roll (or Cotton Fantasy as it'll be known once it launches in the West). Enjoy!
The humble shoot ‘em up has been a staple genre ever since the very beginning of video games when Spacewar! laid down the basic groundwork in 1962. No, that is not a typo; in the year that Marilyn Monroe died and The Beatles recorded ‘Love Me Do’, some boffins at MIT were busy inventing video games. Of course, it wasn’t quite Space Invaders – that wouldn’t appear until 1978 – but the point is that the concept of using a little ship to blast enemies has been with us virtually as long as video games themselves.
Perhaps the STG’s close relationship with the origins of the medium is one of the reasons for its extremely dedicated, hardcore following. Shmups require dedication to master and inspire a special sort of feeling, encouraging the player to achieve a flow state – to simply react rather than think too much – and that can be a significant barrier to entry if your brain is intent on parsing all the visual information in the busiest bullet hells. The trend of more forgiving mechanics found in modern games makes the hardcore shoot ‘em up genre ever more niche, but for those willing and able to invest the time and effort, there’s nothing quite like ‘em.
The genre is a vast one with many offshoots and blends, be it fixed shooter, tube shooter, rail, vertical or horizontal scrolling, multi-directional twin-stick, isometric, bullet hell – there’s a different shmup for every day of the week and Switch has become a natural home for them, for several reasons. For one, it’s a powerful little handheld with a good-sized screen that can handle all the classics as well as new entries in the genre with aplomb. Secondly, the ability to undock means it’s arguably easier to dedicate the necessary time to conquering some of these games.
However, it’s probably the console’s natural facility with Tate mode that makes it a favourite with shmup fans. ‘Tate’ – often in CAPS – is Japanese for ‘vertical’ and correctly pronounced tah-tay, although enough people rhyme it with ‘hate’ for the debate to have become a jif versus gif-style internet-based clusterbomb. Regardless, many arcade shoot ‘em ups were designed for an upended monitor in the cabinet and playing these vertical shooters on conventional TVs means either turning your TV 90° onto its side for portrait mode or enduring a much smaller picture with borders either side of your landscape screen. The former option was easier with a big chunky CRT in the ‘90s, but most modern paper-thin OLEDs wouldn’t survive the rotation.
Fortunately, Switch’s unique form factor provides the perfect handheld solution. The release of Flip Grip, a third-party ‘cradle’ that enables you to attach the screen and Joy-Con to each other in a vertical configuration, makes the Switch an ideal option for vertical shmup enthusiasts and those looking to dip their toe into a genre that can seem overwhelming and impenetrable to the outsider.
Below we’ve rounded up a taste of the best shoot ‘em ups on Switch, presented in no particular order. We’ll keep an eye on new releases and add to this selection as and when necessary. So, are you ready? Let’s go…
It's not by chance that Ikaruga is so highly revered. It is the result of a combination of an incredibly talented team making the most of excellent hardware and bringing in the unique double polarity gimmick that stealthily introduces puzzle solving mechanics into a bullet hell shmup. It's no great surprise that it remains an incredibly compelling experience all these years since release and it should be at the very top of your shoot 'em up list on Nintendo’s hybrid console. Beyond portability, what truly elevates this version above all others is the possibility of throwing a Joy-Con to a friend for a spot of co-op play anytime, anywhere, as easy as your ship switches polarity. The old king sits once again on its rightful throne; the perfect shmup on the perfect system for it.
Twin-stick space shooter GALAK-Z isn’t a game for everyone: its rogue-lite nature, high difficulty level and punishing policy on death (even in its easier Arcade mode) will infuriate some players who are just expecting a quick blast of non-stop action. Treat it like the slower-paced exploration and survival game it’s supposed to be, though, and your patience will be rewarded with some genuinely satisfying space combat and a wide variety of customisable parts (not to mention its brilliant mech upgrade), all wrapped up in a fantastic ‘80s style aesthetic.
If you’re an R-Type fan you already know that R-Type Dimensions EX is worth getting. Both titles included in this package (the original game and its sequel) are handled brilliantly, whether playing with the old-school sprite-based art style or the enhanced polygonal one. Interestingly, the gamers who may get the most out of this are those who generally struggle to do well in shoot ‘em ups: the brilliant Infinite mode makes a usually hardcore genre far more accessible, meaning everyone – regardless of skill level – can enjoy the satisfaction of beating the game, submitting their score to the online leaderboards and trying to improve next time.
While it lacks the arcade pedigree that makes other Switch-based shmups so popular, AngerForce: Reloaded has clearly been put together by a team that understands what makes this long-established genre so appealing. It offers tight gameplay, fantastic visuals and a stern challenge, but the addition of a rich Campaign mode – which rewards repeat play via a series of unlockable upgrades and abilities – extends the game's lifespan considerably. Fans of the genre should ignore the lack of a big-name IP and pick this up as soon as possible, while newcomers can be assured that the gently-scaling challenge of the story mode offers a perfect introduction.
While the debate about which Thunder Force entry is the best ever rages on through the decades, there can be no denying that this fourth title – the final one to launch on the Mega Drive – is one of the best shooters of the period and absolutely stands up today, despite the passage of time. The visuals are detailed and eye-catching, while the vertical scrolling still looks impressive by modern standards. It's a shame that more new content couldn't have been added, but if you're looking for the ultimate way to relive this classic blaster, then this SEGA AGES edition of Thunder Force IV from port masters M2 is your best option – even better than the original cartridge, thanks to the inclusion of that surprisingly addictive online ranking mode.
Steredenn: Binary Stars is a fantastic release that does a great job of providing an experience that feels simultaneously classic and modern. An expanded version of the original 2015 game from French studio Pixelnest, its high difficulty, rewarding gameplay, endless variety, and beautiful presentation make this an essential buy for any STG fans, but we'd also give this a recommendation for those who aren’t. If you’re looking for a tightly made arcade-style game that can be played both in short bursts and for hours on end, look no further.
Psyvariar Delta is an arcade shoot 'em up from the year 2000 and features an intriguing mechanic which rewards you for living dangerously. While you'll still have to avoid incoming projectiles (and there are a lot of them), your strength and score increase the closer you fly to the bullets. This Switch version truly is a comprehensive package that combines all the features from both Medium Unit and Revision, giving the player the chance to customise the experience in a way that has never been possible in prior releases. Add in the graphical upgrade, Tate support (which is perfect for the Flip Grip, by the way), an exclusive level, a new optional character to use and smooth performance either docked or portable, and this becomes a must-have for any Switch-owning shooter fan; however, casual players or those who simply aren't fans of the genre may find the focus on high scores and short length off-putting. Still, it's a fine shooter, and we can but hope the Sega Naomi-powered Psyvariar 2: The Will to Fabricate will eventually receive a similar deluxe treatment in the future.
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Tengai is part of a distinguished niche in the shmup pantheon that we like to refer to as the ‘flying-person shooter’. It sits comfortably on top of other great examples of the genre such as Forgotten Worlds, Space Harrier, Lords of Thunder, Cho Aniki and Gynoug (aka Wings of Wor). It's not only one of the finest shoot 'em ups developed by Psikyo during its active years, but an absurd luxury to have on Switch at a very sensible price. It offers an arcade perfect, single- or two-player horizontal scrolling experience that still manages not only to pack a punch and a challenge, but make modern efforts look a little dull by comparison.
Strikers 1945 II is a lot like the first (already great) game, but this sequel improves on it thanks to its frantic gameplay and new approach to charged attacks. Two-player is a lot of fun whether played on the big screen or undocked in TATE mode with detached Joy-Con and trying to improve on your high score adds plenty of replayability. The game could benefit from an online high score board, but it's a joy to play through each time and it's quasi-historical WWII setting is a pleasant change from the usual future tech and fantasy common to the genre, although there are still plenty of mechanical sights that wouldn’t have been seen in 1945.
Dragon Blaze is Japanese developer Psikyo on top form. You might be a little disappointed that this strays so very close to bullet hell instead of the more traditional games that made its name famous in this industry. However, the game remains a beautifully executed vertical-scrolling shoot 'em up with a unique gameplay gimmick that goes beyond having the titular dragons as eye candy, effectively making them a core part of the high score chasing experience. You may be able to clear the whole game loop in under 30 minutes, but we very much doubt you will play it once and never touch it again. It's quite simply brilliant, addictive and another must-have addition to your growing digital arcade Switch collection.
Graceful Explosion Machine is a masterful example of a modern arcade shooter done right. Eye-catching visuals and extremely fine-tuned gameplay combine to make this a memorable and compelling experience for anybody looking to get into a faster paced, action focused game. That being said, there is a minor element of repetitiveness which never goes away entirely; the selling point comes not from the amount of levels, but from how many times you'll be playing each one. We still give it a very strong recommendation, though; considering the amount of polish and replayability on offer, this is quite the bang for your shmup buck.
Danmaku Unlimited 3 is a brilliantly executed ‘best of’ collection of bullet hell ideas wrapped up in a phenomenal package. It's a stand out game in the whole Switch library and even if you don’t particularity like shmups - or if Japanese bullet hells are not your particular favourite flavour within the genre - exposure to the insane lightshows provided by this game might just turn you into a die-hard fan. We only really found one significant fault with the game: every other shmup on the system will arguably feel a little slow and dull by comparison after you've sampled this one.