Control: Where the Meat Meets the Mental

What is Control?

I wrote about physical control in the sister article over here. This article pertains to staying in control of your faculties, remaining calm, learning to focus, and so forth. In other words, I will focus on the mental control required to play shmups.

For our purposes, the ideal of “control” means the following:

Control is the bridge between the mental intention — whether conscious or unconscious — and the result on the videogame screen.

When playing a shmup, there are physical concerns (cramped hands, breathing, increased heart-rate, sore back, the process of eye saccades) that can be picked apart in great detail. Addressing these concerns will likely improve your ability to play shmups.

However, the psychological hurdles of high-level shmup play are more prevalent and therefore more important for players to keep in mind.

At a certain point, high-level play becomes merely a mental challenge with yourself in your head.

Naturally you expect results regularly in a certain timeframe
but this won’t always be the case for many reasons. Staying indifferent towards success helps me immensely. Just keep playing, without any expectations. Results will be a by-product of time spent with a game.

Again, this is a very fierce mental battle you will go through. Shmups have taught me a lot about myself, and being aware of yourself and who you are is very important.
Important for getting a highscore that is.

Plasmo | Twitter

Every skill takes time to develop. Improving the ability to control your cute little shmup ship takes an especially long time.

Do you have the mental fortitude to achieve your aims?

Jogging the ol’ Memory again

High-level shmup play requires memorization. Most important of all is the development of muscle memory.

Here is an introduction to the concept from Oxford University, in case you are unfamiliar:

The memory for facts, known as declarative memory, is thought to be a different system, controlled by different brain mechanisms, than the one used for memory of life events, known as episodic memory.

Memory for skills can be thought of as another distinct system. For example, you may be able to ride a bike perfectly, but that doesn’t mean you could explain to someone the exact sequence of movements needed in order to cycle. You may not even remember when or where you learned this skill.

In the context of shmups, the player’s memory is tested extensively. Though you will engage all three types of memory during a run, there is a hierarchy to their importance. Etching information into your muscle memory should be the goal of study and practice.

Declarative memory is a compendium of facts in your head. The rules for scoring in Mushihimesama are useful to know but will not necessarily help you during your run, for instance. In fact, dwelling too much on factoids may distract you and cause errors. Watching high-score superplays, reading information on the forums, and learning the mechanics of a shmup are important steps to take, but raw knowledge is insufficient. There are too many bullets and too many nuances to memorize. Digesting these facts take time and reinforcement.

Do not underestimate the value of declarative memory. After a death, you should reflect upon your run. Ask yourself where you succeeded and failed. Self awareness is a potent ally in the individual’s journey toward high-level play. Recording your runs and reviewing them later is helpful. If you have a friend or rival who is willing to watch your run and offer advice, that is even better.

I like to “talk it out” with myself after a particularly good or bad run. Too often, I mindlessly rush through my practice in the hope of covering as many different skills as I can. However, if I slow down and ponder what went well and what went poorly, I find myself retaining more knowledge and remembering more tricks. Long term, it is more beneficial to reflect upon your attempts than to cram as many attempts as you can into a play session. The choice to take notes or discuss with a friend or talk aloud to yourself is yours. You might want to avoid doing this in public since you may sound like a lunatic.

Episodic memory is personal memory of events. After learning the rules for scoring in Mushihimesama and putting them into practice, your brain forms more and more episodic memories like that one time you no-missed the fourth stage and scored really well. This personal collage of memories is significantly more valuable to a shmup player than declarative memories. The human mind operates symbolically, taking snapshots of our life events and categorizing them accordingly. Factoids (declarative memory) that have been experienced over and over again can be converted into episodic memories that are more nuanced and more easily recalled.

Lastly, we come to muscle memory a.k.a procedural memory. Unlike the previous two, this type of memory is largely unconscious, taking place in regions of the brain associated with adaptation and motor function. The skills regulated by this system in the brain are most important to shmups.

In the heat of play, it is too distracting to calculate a route on the fly or to remember how you handled things during a previous run. You’re likely to crash into a bullet. Ideally, build your run upon a strong foundation of muscle-memory skills honed over many hours of practice.

An athlete does not think about how to perform a kick. A concert pianist does not think about their hand placement. These basics are etched deeply into the brain through rote memorization and practice. I see no reason why high-level shmup play would be any different.

Hold down button to focus shot

Being able to focus better comes with time.
The first time I got to 2-5 in DDP on a NMNB run, I shat my pants and self-destructed under the pressure.
But the more times you get there and the more times you fail, the less nervous you’ll be in consecutive runs.

Sometimes it helps to play the game without the sound while watching a stream or something, since that gives you a sense of detachment? Not sure.That’s how I got the Futari Ultra clear anyway.

Jaimers | YouTube Channel

If you have a hard time focusing during a run, just take a break from it. If you’re stuck, just look at another person’s run and take inspiration from it. Video games, and even more their competitive aspect, are not something worth to put your health at risk. If you feel sick or in physical bad shape just put your controller away and take a rest.

Gekko | YouTube Channel |

I’ve found a lot of recent success in playing shooters with the sound down, and something else in the background. For games that don’t have audio cues required to play the game, I like to try playing a game while I have other music, talk radio, another TV in the background, etc. to see if I can focus on just the essential elements of the game I’m playing. I enjoy the music and sound of most shmups, but in practice, especially when playing something over and over again, the game’s own audio can become a distraction itself, so switching it up to something unrelated can sometimes get me focused on just the game mechanics and action on screen.

Gameboy Guru | Twitter | YouTube Channel

Do you have difficulty focusing?

I do. I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder as a child.

Focus is a learned skill. I am easily distracted — a medical professional said so! — but that can be no excuse. Our lives demand focus at one time or another, so it stands to reason that improving your focus is valuable.

Meditation is a well-known method for improving your focus. Breathing exercises — which often go hand-in-hand with meditation — are also recommended.

Cold showers help and so does exercise. All physical stress has an associated mental stress. Learning to cope with physical stress will sharpen your mental focus.

The knack for swatting away distractions is acquired through patience and self-awareness. You may need to explore a variety of methods.

I focus better in the morning so that is when I tend to do full runs. My scores are higher and my execution is more reliable. In the evening, my focus is ragged from a full day of activities. Shorter bursts — like practicing a boss repeatedly — are better for my evening practice sessions.

Food and Tea and Urination

I like to drink tea when practicing shmups. It sharpens my focus and calms my nerves. Is it merely a placebo effect?

No. Tea contains caffeine, antioxidants, and L-Theanine. This last one in particular — L-Theanine — has the remarkable ability to regulate the negative aspects of caffeine consumption. In practical terms, you are less likely to get “the jitters” from drinking too much caffeine if your beverage also contains L-Theanine.

I discovered this affect many years ago when drinking tea throughout my workday: after 3 cups of good-quality black tea, I would feel a strong rush of focus and energy but without the associated jitters and anxiety that often accompany high doses of caffeine.

Drinking a lot of tea makes for a clear head but a full bladder. Even small distractions such as needing to use the toilet will break your focus, so take a moment to adjust your chair, to use the bathroom, to change into a warmer shirt, or whatever is causing irritation.

I recommend loose-leaf tea that can be re-brewed multiple times. I am not responsible for your poor tea choices nor am I responsible for any burned tongues for drinking the tea too early.

Satiation plays a role in your performance. In 2011, a research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science indicated that parole determinations for incarcerated criminals were more favorable after the judge had eaten a meal:

We test the common caricature of realism that justice is “what the judge ate for breakfast” in sequential parole decisions made by experienced judges. We record the judges’ two daily food breaks, which result in segmenting the deliberations of the day into three distinct “decision sessions.” We find that the percentage of favorable rulings drops gradually from ≈65% to nearly zero within each decision session and returns abruptly to ≈65% after a break. Our findings suggest that judicial rulings can be swayed by extraneous variables that should have no bearing on legal decisions.

Prior research suggests that making repeated judgments or decisions depletes individuals’ executive function and mental resources, which can, in turn, influence their subsequent decisions. For instance, sequential choices between consumer goods can lead to an increase in intuitive decision-making as well as a reduced tolerance for pain in a subsequent task. Sequential choices and the apparent mental depletion that they evoke also increase people’s tendency to simplify decisions by accepting the status quo. German car buyers, for instance, were more likely to accept the default attribute level offered by a manufacturer later in a sequence of attribute decisions than earlier, particularly when these choices followed decisions between many alternatives that had required more mental resources to evaluate. These studies hint that making repeated rulings can increase the likelihood of judges to simplify their decisions.

Our endeavors in shmups are not nearly so serious, thankfully. Still, we can apply this knowledge to ourselves in expectation of a payoff. Playing on an empty stomach will likely hinder your decision-making skills. In the heat of a run, this slight disadvantage may spell disaster.

Ah, this is the best article I’ve read all day. To get better at shmups, I must eat, you may be thinking.

But don’t stuff your face, either, my Reader. The body regulates your presence of mind with hormones and peptides. One such peptide called orexin plays a role in wakefulness. High levels of glucose in the bloodstream suppresses it, leading to post-lunch yawning and grogginess. Tryptophan is converted by the brain into seratonin and melatonin, other contributors to sleepiness. A sizable meal will cause a spike in leptin. If you guessed that high leptin also leads to grogginess, you guessed correctly!

Timing your meals and charting your diet for the sake of a better score seems rather excessive. However, perhaps you’ve experienced a post-meal dip in your shmup skills before and wondered why. Now you know!


I never felt any physical exhaustion from playing shmups and I have periods when I play them a lot. I remember playing Strikers 45 without autofire on a regular basis for several months. That’s a lot of tapping, I can tell you. See this video for reference and listen to the button mashing.

Keeping up concentration is a different issue though. I seem to experience fatigue after a multi-hour session for games that really take lots of focus. After some experiments I found out that 2h to 2 1/2h is the ideal time for me to play on a daily basis
If I keep playing after this time, the effort is wasted since I tend to make many smaller silly mistakes that would normally not happen. So that’s my max for a day. 3-4 days a week is ideal for me.

The most difficult thing for any long term goal in shmups is to prevent a burnout. You have to be aware in advance that a burnout is necessarily bound to happen if you overplay it
so your training routine needs to deal with this. I guess a burnout can happen at very different points of time depending on the individual setting of the player.

Plasmo | Twitter

I think sleep is rather important. However, my love for shmups conflicts with my need for sleep. What better time than at night to practice my runs? All the children are tucked away instead of stomping directly above my head during practice. My wife is sound asleep and cannot peek her head through a gap in the door to mention concerns in the midst of an attempt.

I’ll admit that I have a hard time focusing on shmups when there is a lot of noise throughout the household. I’m not certain, but I imagine it is that way for most players. We each have responsibilities to meet and schedules to keep. The skill grind is essential, but who has time in their day? The obvious solution is to play at night.

Do not be deceived: skipping on sleep is not worth a bit of extra practice time. Your memory and reflexes will be hindered when the body suffers from sleep deprivation:

The decrease in attention and working memory due to [sleep deprivation] is well established. Vigilance is especially impaired, but a decline is also observed in several other attentional tasks. These include measures of auditory and visuo-spatial attention, serial addition and subtraction tasks, and different reaction time tasks.

I’ve found that practicing in the morning is incredibly potent. My brain is fresh. I can direct my attention with far less effort. Often, I will achieve my best scores in the morning.

Improving your sleep habit is an easy way to maximize the payoff for all that shmup practice. Cutting back on sleep will only extend the time it takes to master the particular game in question, so why waste your own time? Fluff that pillow and get some rest.

From the same sleep deprivation article as before:

Harrison and Horne (1998, 1999) suggest that the deterioration of cognitive performance during [sleep deprivation] could be due to boredom and lack of motivation caused by repeated tasks, especially if the tests are simple and monotonous. They used short, novel, and interesting tasks to abolish this motivational gap, yet still noted that [sleep deprivation] impaired performance. In contrast, other researchers suggest that sleep-deprived subjects could maintain performance in short tasks by being able to temporarily increase their attentional effort. When a task is longer, performance deteriorates as a function of time.

When you are practicing brief slices of gameplay, sleep deprivation won’t affect you nearly as much. However, attempting full runs will be seriously impacted.

Burnout is the enemy. Burnout occurs when you push yourself too hard. Depression can overcome you. Anxiety can spike. Worst of all, your skills will be capped. Burnout is a sorry mental state to find yourself in when you’re pursuing high-level shmup skills.

Sleep is not the only preventative for burnout but it is one of the most effective.

The human brain will commit things to memory during sleep. So, I practice discrete skills in the evening when my attention is too worn-out. Repeating a boss a dozen times or running through the end of the level is good dream-food.

Nighttime is quieter yet my mental acuity is superior in the morning. Is there a way to acquire both advantages? The obvious solution is to go to sleep early and wake up at 5 a.m.!


Be bloody, bold, and resolute;

laugh to scorn the power of man,

for none of woman born shall harm Macbeth

Shakespeare: Macbeth IV.i

Poor sleep, noisy children, a grumbling stomach, and chilly hands can all be overcome. Daunting challenges crumble beneath the strength of your willpower. The worst distractions mean nothing if you are resolute, yet the best environment means nothing if you are weak-willed.

Shmups are fun toys. Mastering them is neither a matter of survival nor public adoration. There is a gulf between merely playing shmups for some casual pew pew fun and playing them at a high skill level. Nothing save your willpower will allow you to cross that wide chasm. A good night’s sleep, razor-sharp focus, and a cup of tea are no substitute for raw willpower. There won’t be crowds of adoring fans nor a steady income for achieving your high score.

I think it is the lack of willpower in the general gaming audience that pushes many would-be shmup fans away from the genre. One might say this is a feature, not a bug. Shmups are painfully demanding. You cannot stumble or cheat your way into a high score.

I don’t have particular advice for willpower. A lack of willpower transcends all the issues discussed so far. No one can force you to invest your time into shmups. You must find your own reason. If that sounds hokey, it is. And it’s even hokier in the context of mastering a videogame. Coming up with the willpower to keep playing and practicing is up to you.