In Defense of Euroshmups, a Retrospective

Tyrian, a euroshmup made in America
Tyrian, a euroshmup made in America

If you’ve read or participated in discussion about shoot-em-up games on the internet, you’ve probably heard the term ‘euroshmup’. It’s not a positive term – if a game is described as a euroshmup, chances are the person who called it that doesn’t really like the game. Likewise, if you’re developing an indie shmup, you’re probably going to get advice about not making it too “euroshmuppy.”

The meaning of the word ‘euroshmup’ is not obvious – after all, nobody is critcizing the games for being made in Europe or advising people to develop them on a different continent. The term usually refers to a certain set of design choices common among European shoot-em-up games (and can be applied to games developed outside of Europe like Tyrian), usually the ones released on Amiga and PC to contrast them with the arcade-style shmups. But is the arcade style always better than computer style?

What makes a shmup euro?

There is no strict definition of euroshmup – there are only certain common elements often (but not always) shared by euroshmups. As it doesn’t seem that anyone tried to create an unbiased list of euroshmup traits and most of the attempts at definition come from discussions on message boards, there’s a lot of subjectivity here: many people think that a euroshmup is a shoot-em-up game that is ‘boring’ or ‘badly designed’. This, of course, doesn’t tell us much: we already know that shmup fans often dislike those kind of games and such vague criticisms only seem to make the argument a circular one (it’s a kind of game we don’t like because it’s not the kind of a game we like).

Discounting strictly subjective elements, it seems that euroshmups don’t follow the unwritten design rules of arcade shmups: they’re long and slow-paced, have a lifebar (as opposed to one-hit kills), they focus more on upgrading your ship in specific ways than on learning to perfectly dodge enemy attacks (and, as a result, tend to have situations in which taking damage is not avoidable), they have simple scoring systems (and the score might be used as an in-game currency for buying better ships and weapons) and they’re not designed for finishing in one sitting (longer euroshmups might have a save feature between the levels).

Another important part of the euroshmup definition is the aesthetic. Sprites in euroshmups often make extensive use of shading and gradients, giving them a distinct pseudo-3D look. This is made even more noticeable with the animation as power-ups and enemies are often made to look as if they were being constantly rotated around the x-axis.

Many arcade shmup fans would argue that such design choices make euroshmups less exciting: the game is no longer something easy to pick up but difficult to master. It isn’t a quest for perfection as the lifebar gives a lot room for error and saving means that once you learn how to beat a level once you might just as well forget it. It’s also pretty unbalanced as some weapon and upgrade choices will be superior to others while certain combinations might not even be sufficient to beat the game.

In reality, while some of those things might make a game less fun (my personal pet peeve is something that often happens in browser-based shmups when you can either keep all the money found in a level even when you don’t beat it or replay early levels ad infinitum, making it possible to grind your way to victory), they’re not universally bad. They simply make the game less arcadey – and this is the essence of the subgenre. Euroshmups are shoot-em-up games designed for computers.

Software houses, demoscene, early and modern computer gaming

An Amiga 600 computer
An Amiga 600 computer

To understand why euroshmups were so different from their arcade counterparts, it is necessary to understand some things about computers: both the technical aspects and the culture that surrounds them. For example, the reasons behind the (real or perceived) lack of polish in many of those games are twofold. First one is the limitations of microcomputers and personal computers. Those systems, while powerful for their time, usually weren’t built specifically for gaming and as such had issues with several common video game features.

The most important one for the shmup genre is smooth scrolling (without it, the movements neither look nor feel natural) – something consoles like NES were built for while the most of computers needed to do it by constantly redrawing the display (at least until id Software found a way around it). The other reason is the cultural one: while arcade and console games were often created by large companies (many of which exist to this day), games for older computers were created either by single programmers or by small software houses, often consisting of just 2 or 3 programmers.

Why were old computer games designed by such small teams? Like many other elements of computer culture, it all comes from the idea of those machines being meant for the more tech-savvy people. In fact, users of such computers often needed at least some programming knowledge – after all, the most popular way of interacting with a Commodore 64 was through a BASIC interpreter.

Computer games, just like computers themselves, were created for people who spent a lot of time with them, liked to learn, customize and experiment and weren’t afraid of trial-and-error. Just look at some of the more common computer game genres from the 1980s: everything from interactive fiction to RPGs to strange item-oriented platformers required the players to solve some pretty crazy (and often completely illogical and counter-intuitive) puzzles. Compared to those, the need to figure out a good weapon configuration in a shooter seemed quite trivial.

While all the harsher, less forgiving elements of computer gaming became less pronounced as the time went by (starting with late 1980s and continuing even today), many of the attitudes toward both games and machines still exist. The ability to adjust and customize is one of the most important parts of the modern PC gaming culture: those who play on their computers are known to care about everything from the ability to upgrade their system and adjust the game to use its full power to the non-linearity and replay value of the game combined with the possibility of modding it to extend its lifespan even further.

The art style of euroshmups is also a result of both the computer culture and computer technology. Flashy effects, gradients, shading, rotating, raster bars, large text and unusual fonts have for a long time been staples in demoscene (and cracktro scene before it) – a subculture focused on pushing the machines to the limit by programmatically creating impressive graphics and music. Of course, many of those things only look impressive to those who know how hard they are to achieve on those computers – but the audience for euroshmups, as was mentioned before, consisted mostly of people with above average technical knowledge.

Euro-arcade and arcade-euro

Apidya, an arcade-like computer game
Apidya, an arcade-like computer game

Another thing worth mentioning is that while the arcade and computer shoot-em-up games were certainly different, the line between the subgenres has sometimes been blurred. First of all, the euroshmups, while designed with computer users in mind, were very much inspired by arcade and console shooters. The level of influence may vary – Tyrian might be influenced by the graphicals style of Zanac but otherwise plays like a typical customization-focused computer shmup while Apidya, despite being an Amiga-exclusive, plays very much like an oldschool arcade game (with upgrade system borrowed from Gradius and charged shoots inspired by R-Type) with some graphical and musical computer tricks thrown in.

On the other hand, not all arcade and console shooters are very arcadey. Not even all the critically acclaimed ones. For example, the dynamic difficulty system in Battle Garegga is much more counterintuitive than anything in computer shmups – and the game is impossible to beat if you don’t know how to control it. R-Type Final has 101 ships for you to unlock and quite a few different level variations. Radiant Silvergun forces you to alternate between seven different weapons and try to level them up more or less equally. It’s also a relatively long and slow-paced game.

Euroshmups are different from arcade shmups because the technology and culture of arcade machines is different from the technology and culture of computers. It is impossible to objectively qualify one as better than the other – a lot of this comes down to personal preferences. If you’re looking for a game that is fast-paced, tests your mechanical skills and has an in-depth scoring system which allows for hardcore competitive play, most of computer shmups are not for you. It would not be fair to assume that those games fail at being arcade shooters though – they’re just made for players who look for a different experience (the same way European cRPGs are not made for the same audience as jRPGs or ‘cinematic’ RPGs).

Further reading

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I play games (I have a preference for old, weird and difficult ones but that's not the rule) and write articles about them that are sometimes a bit too long. Sometimes I also do things other than gaming, I swear.

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