STG Gaming: A Glimpse at the Culture Behind the PEW PEW PEW

Have superfighter, will shoot.

Scrolling shooters aren’t mere relics, but part of a rich heritage that runs deep into the heart of why we play games. Though they seem obtuse at first glance, those willing to give them a chance will find a purity of play that’s rivaled by few other genres.

catstronaut (02/18/2013)

As a seasoned gaming veteran, I can say by experience that STG gaming has actively shaped the videogame world for what it is today. Back in the day of hulking arcade boxes and fist-sized, four-hundred-in-one cartridges, STG gaming was a staple genre, with popular titles like Galaga, Strikers 1940Star Force and Space Invaders. Through the years, the genre evolved into something akin to a cult following, like a conceptual mystique that never fails to pique a gamer’s interest.

But what really lies beyond the number of lives, the hail of bullets, and the screen-clearing bombs? How does STG gaming retain its luster and alluring feel-good feel-goods, despite its difficulties in enduring the transition of gaming media?

Player Morality

To explain this, let’s take a personal favorite as an example: Tetris. If we dissect it, we find the objective[1], the goal[2], and set difficulty[3]. This fundamental format doesn’t need much to work on, as with most of the Golden Era games, which meant that player morality is next to nil. You don’t need to make decisions that label you as neutral, good or evil, yet it leaves you with enough freedom to play the game as you see fit without demerit. This means you can always stack the Z tetrimino facing downward so long as you can achieve the game’s objective, and there’s nothing wrong with that even if some X-time Tetris champ tells you that you’re a few screws loose because what you’re doing is illogical and stupid.

The same goes for STG gaming. You are given an environment where you can move freely while simultaneously imposing linear limitations on what you can do; you still won’t get a good score if you don’t shoot enemies, and you still die if you don’t use screen-clearing bombs when a bullet is about to hit your character’s sprite. However, it also presents us with a different goal other than the one intended or expected by the game’s developers, which appeals mostly to the demographic; you get a pacifist run if you don’t shoot enemies, and you get a no bomb run if you manage not to use bombs. This does not only bolster flair and skill among the genre’s players, but also adds a plethora of additional achievements and bragging rights[4] aside from the commonly revered leaderboards.

Welcome to her domain.

Danmaku a.k.a. Curtain Fire a.k.a. Bullet Hell

It’s no doubt that this subgenre has made an indelible mark in the core of STG gaming. Many believe it to be a genre of its own because of its very nature: A literal curtain of bullets that can make even a seasoned shmup vet’s life a living hell. The very idea of maneuvering through a screen full of game over inducing spheres of pure death seemed insane, masochistic, and outright ridiculous, and yet the demographic loves it as much as it hates it.

If there was any evidence of evolution happening for the shmup genre, it surely happened here. Through the recent years, danmaku has evolved and improved itself, as evidenced by the Dodonpachi and Touhou Project series of doujin games[5]. Now, bullets are alive; they fan out, they create patterns of rain, flowers, or fireworks, they create impenetrable cages, they bounce on the borders of the screen, and they relentlessly home[6]. Player-controlled mechanics and objects also improved through the years. Aside from the common hitbox mechanic, there are now bullet-erasing features[7], player states that have different features aside from increasing the score[8], and life-saving maneuvers that may or may not come with a major setback[9]. And finally, game bosses now have traits of their own, such as having a lot of “forms” that you need to defeat, or a last-ditch attempt to kill the player by spraying a lot of patterned shrapnel while being invincible for a period of time before exploding into smithereens.  And if you think you’re done well enough, you can save a replay of your run and upload it for your friends to see.

Curiosities and Indirectly Implied Comedy

Of course, as with any other genre, there’s the laughs and the parts that make you go WTF. Sometimes, we ask why most horizontal shooters have sprites that move left and right when you move up and down, why some game developers shy on using the player side of the screen for their stage bosses[10], or why half of the Gunbird characters are whacked[11]. Some may say it was indirectly implied, while some say it’s there to add an interesting twist to the plot of the game[12], I don’t know. It might as well remain a mystery I can laugh and whine about until the day I die.

STG gaming may be a bit stale because it’s still finding a suitable platform that it can settle in[13], but it’s a tried-and-tested genre that’s part of gaming history. Will it die? Definitely not. As long as there’s someone who has an undying urge to shoot something while trying to maneuver a superfighter amidst an unending salvo of bullets, STG gaming will always have a place in the everyday gamer’s heart. Grab a title. Get shooting. Get dodging.

Further Reading

Another well-written article about STGs. Includes rail shooters, which is a topic I plan to discuss on another time.:

Understanding Scrolling Shooters – Catstronaut Loves Games (2/18/2013)

Headquarters of the English-speaking shmup community. Might also be the oldest and the largest. Very retro.:

SHMUPS (5/26/1997)

And of course, some of the Touhou western communities that I, and you might in the near future, frequent in.: (9/30/2007)

Maidens of the Kaleidoscope (Time Immemorial)


  1. Create horizontal lines from falling tetriminos to clear up space and get score. []
  2. Get the top score or a ranking score. []
  3. Speed increments after a certain score is achieved. []
  4. More commonly known as swag. []
  5. ZUN still insists that they are, for obvious reasons that I won’t really have to explain. []
  6. This trait is particularly unwanted by some danmaku players. []
  7. Progear is a good example, where making enemies explode while in the vicinity of bullets erases the latter from the screen. []
  8. The Trance State of Touhou‘s Ten Desires. []
  9. The Deathbomb mechanic popularized by Touhou‘s Embodiment of Scarlet Devil. []
  10. The “player side” is the lower or left half of the screen where the players are usually found. []
  11. Ash is a pedophile, Marion is a sadist, Aine is a closet gay, and Tetsu is an open faggot. Seriously, what the fuck is wrong with this cast? []
  12. Yeah, pair Aine with any male character and get interesting results. []
  13. PC’s already the best bet, what with Touhou around. []

3 Responses to “STG Gaming: A Glimpse at the Culture Behind the PEW PEW PEW”

  • Player morality is a really interesting idea, and one that I think more people should consider when playing games. For example, if a game is easily broken, does that make it right to do so? Certain players will ignore an exploit as best they can in order to preserve the fun of the game, but others will exploit an otherwise fun game to the fullest before declaring it garbage.

    I think scrolling shooters are actually very strongly linked to players’ ethical paradigms, in that there is a perceived “right” way to play from both the fanbase and developers’ perspective. Many fans would say that credit-feeding is “ethically” wrong, while high-scoring is “ethically” right. The games are easily beaten through “illegitimate” means, but this robs them of some essential character.

    In regards to the morals of Gunbird 2, I would say that there’s nothing inherently wrong with being an active sadist or active homosexual. I think the morality of the situation is determined by their infringing on the rights of others – a sadist might form a healthy relationship with a masochist, and homosexuals obviously can form happy and healthy relationships. As for pedophiles, they can’t have a moral pedophilic relationship because that necessitates preying on the young, violating children’s rights by definition since they can’t give consent.

    • Re: exploiting exploits in a game then declaring it garbage because of said exploits, it’s kind of sad that most people use this kind of logic when it comes to playing games. However, I do find it quite funny that such exploits back then usually didn’t break the popular games. The pause-firing exploit in Rockman/Megaman was exploited well enough, but it didn’t mean that anyone who can do it can break the game to the point of Easy Mode.

      Re: ethical paradigms, game developers try to break them by making hilariously difficult games. Examples of such games are SNK’s Metal Slug series and Psikyo’s Strikers Series. Sure, it’s hell of a lot difficult for a lot of players, especially casuals, but it’s not unbeatable to the point that you need to spend more than one quarter per play session. If ever, it “requires” you to credit-feed in order to get the coveted 1CC, by memorizing attack patterns and spawn points for enemies so that you can kill them before they can shoot bullets at you, if not dodge their bullets outright.

      As for Gunbird’s cast, I don’t think I want to elaborate on it. It makes me want to chuckle before I can even start thinking about explaining their situation.

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