Faithful practicing

I’m eager to document the observations made over the last year since my previous post, Territory, Go, and Shmups. That was published a few days after Christmas, 2018.

During 2019, it seemed like a good idea to focus my time on applying these ideas instead of just writing down conjecture. This particular article will focus on what I’ve learned about practicing during that time.

Bigbrain comment incoming: practicing must be fun. This is true whether you’re learning to dribble a basketball or learning to weave through a complex bullet pattern. Humans can learn any motor skill but there needs to be an incentive. This incentive must also remain strong over a long-enough period of time so that the practitioner gains the necessary skill to pull off the feat.  Whether it’s a state championship basketball game or a 1-credit run, the end-goal for practice is for the performance. In any hobby where skill and practice are rewarded, the process takes months if not years. As an aside, it sure is an inexpensive way to enjoy the hobby. Instead of chasing after the new hotness year after year, one might simply keep playing and practicing the games already found in the collection. The payoff is no longer experiencing new storylines and glitzy graphics. Rather, the feeling of personal growth and accomplishment is the player’s reward. Musicians and athletes know this all too well. Yes, it is thrilling to win the game or put on a crowd-pleasing performance, but this is only possible after investing many hours into study and practice.

So, challenge #1 for the fledgling shmup player is “how do I make practicing fun?” Unless you enjoy banging your head against the game (which I suppose is a form of practice, just highly inefficient…) it is worth considering how you’re going to tackle this massive real-time puzzle rhythm game (a.k.a, a shmup) that you’ve tangled yourself into. Practice may evoke memories of piano lessons or sports drills and therefore put one off from the idea.

Videogames live within a strange realm between sport and entertainment. Surely, videogames dazzle us and capture our attention, but there is an added skill-based element causing videogames to diverge from passive entertainment like movies or literature. There is fun to be found in the challenge of overcoming a videogame, not merely consuming it. This attitude was far more prevalent in the 80s and 90s. The desire to overcome faded away as consoles created a new kind of videogame consumer: the gamer who expects to beat the game that they bought with their hard-earned money. Now that arcade experiences were coming home to the living-room TV, locking players out of content via difficulty was no longer acceptable. This same attitude prevails today, by the way, which is why predatory DLC practices are not embraced by most videogame hobbyists.

The shift in attitude resulted in a shift in design. Old designs that were fine-tuned to extract money out of arcade players suddenly became antithetical to the new “living-room videogamer” of the 80s and 90s. Difficulty in videogames would cost you customers, or so the thinking went. During this same boom, videogame rentals and PC piracy — i.e. the ability to try before you buy — exploded, incentivizing players to grab games that could be rented and beaten over a weekend or over a Christmas break from school.

The pleasure of slowly chipping away at a game stopped making sense. Practicing is now viewed as a chore instead of an ordinary part of mastering a title. And since beating a game is no longer challenging, the hobby lost much of its deference and awe for those who can manage to complete a difficult title. Respect toward skilled players is trickling back into the hobby a bit (git gud Dark Souls, fighting games, eSports), but only just a bit.

I still enjoy sitting down and getting the crap kicked out of me immediately instead of slogging through easy content that consumes my time but not my full attention. I want to grapple with high-level gameplay immediately, if possible. I enjoy overcoming a difficult area and basking in the glow of my accomplishment. I enjoy the process of puzzling out a route and seeing the payoff in my score.

Shmups are wonderful time-savers due to their sharp difficulty. Not only do I find practicing a shmup fun, it is also a judicious use of my limited gaming time. A 30-minute session in an RPG earns you a few experience points and some loot, but a 30-minute session is long enough to complete most shmups in their entirety.

What do we do to make practice “fun”? How do we practice in the first place? I think setting a goal is a good start.

The term ‘Goal orientation’ has been used for decades to describe an approach emphasizing the goal one hopes to reach instead of the specific tasks and behaviors needed to reach that goal.


The earliest conceptualizations of goal orientation were proposed in the 1970s by the educational psychologist J.A. Eison. Eison argued that students who approached college as an opportunity to acquire new skills and knowledge possessed a learning orientation while students who approached college with the goal to exclusively obtain high grades possessed a grade orientation. Eison originally believed that these two orientations were two ends of the same continuum and developed the Learning Orientation-Grade Orientation Scale to measure the continuum.

At about the same time, J.G. Nicholls was developing a related theory that achievement motivation would lead grade school children to set high task related goals. Nicholls found that when some high-ability children encountered difficult tasks, they would use maladaptive strategies, leading to eventual feelings of helplessness, while others would use more productive coping strategies. Nicholls later conceptualized these differences as two types of achievement goals: (a) task involvement: where individuals seek to develop their competence relative to their own abilities and (b) ego involvement: where individuals seek to develop their competence relative to the abilities of others.

Nicholls’s early work set up Dweck’s proposition of two types of goal orientation: learning orientation and performance orientation.

Source at Wikipedia.

The comment about ‘ego involvement’ sure plays a role in our own feelings of discouragement when practicing. Comparing oneself to superplayers is sure to demotivate. Faithfully practicing and then comparing your new skill level to your performance from several months ago, however, is sure to please. How can a player accurately judge their own progress in shmups? Via score, another topic in its own right.

I learned the proper attitude for learning shmups from a different genre, fighting games. Specifically, Guilty Gear. I had friends who played too, so I had a strong incentive to improve. I hadn’t truly practiced fundamentals or combos prior to Guilty Gear as I was content to learn some moves and button-mash my way through matches. However, that isn’t how I wanted to play. I wanted to stop my bad habits as well as pick up stronger fundamentals, and the day-to-day practice was itself very enjoyable because I watched myself improve. The self-improvement was my biggest payoff.

Applying this attitude toward shmups made sense: I could either play tourist and fail to master any shmup in particular, or I could focus all my time on a very narrow range of shmups and attempt to get really good at those. I picked the latter, and so far I am enjoying my decision.

Do I play shmups because I want to snag that 1CC, because I want to post my score on the forums, because I want to feel like I’ve accomplished something? No, I have fallen victim to ‘performance orientation’ if that is my attitude. Instead, I should fix my eyes on the distant goal and enjoy the process. Overcoming my own ineptitude is a part of the journey, not a roadblock, and cruising through areas that were formerly impossible is my roadside tourist attraction. In a sense, I am both the pilot of my journey and I am a passenger to the ride.

The goal of mastering the shmup becomes the game. Methodical practice becomes the gameplay. I am no longer just playing a shmup, I am also fine-tuning my own capabilities and growing as a player. This shouldn’t sound grandiose, so I apologize if it does. This sort of attitude was perfectly normal when pinball machines and arcades ruled the roost. Pursuing mastery and putting up high-scores sounds unusual to our modern hobbyist ears because we still operate on the paradigm that game ownership equals the right to access all content.

Such a paradigm is very profitable for game developers. Year after year, old games are discarded for new ones. Yet imagine if players stuck with the same old games and didn’t buy the new ones until they finished the old ones. Imagine if players judged new games on their longevity and their replayability instead of their total number of cutscenes and voice actors and weapon skins. A customer base that holds on to its old games and mines their depth is not compatible with modern AAA gaming.

My own stumbling block is to practice faithfully, month after month. There’s no logical reason for me to lapse — I sit down and enjoy my sessions each and every time — yet I indeed lapse. On a few occasions I’ve gone several weeks without playing a single session. Thoughts begin to cloud my judgment:

Y’know, I’m just not getting further. I might as well try a different one.

I still can’t master that stage. Maybe I’ve set my bar too high. I’ll just go for the easier route instead of the higher-scoring one.

Here’s the twist: it doesn’t take much at all to dispel these thoughts. I don’t need to psyche myself up or grit my teeth or endure a painful reintroduction to the game.

I simply sit down and play.

Returning to a shmup feels much like sliding a foot into a pair of well-worn leather boots. Practice isn’t a complicated topic even though much can be said about it. Whether the fixture of your attention is a sport or a shmup or a subject of professional interest, practice is pretty much the same. You, the practitioner, must find pleasure in the methodical drive toward improvement. You must find payoff even when you fail constantly. Like that pair of boots, they were at some point brand-new and unfamiliar and slightly uncomfortable. “Breaking them in” requires time.

There is another half to the practicing paradigm. If you do not know toward what goal you are working, then you cannot practice with any efficiency. Feelings of inadequacy and confusion will creep into your practice sessions if you cannot identify where you are going wrong. Many players, myself included, suffer from uncertainty when attempting to improve skills. It is only natural.

Practicing faithfully — meaning, keeping the habit even when the outcome isn’t what you expect — sidesteps uncertainty. One must trust that faithfulness will lead to a payoff even if you cannot see the payoff in the immediate future. Like a religious adherent, you must believe there is true enlightenment for those who stick with it. The game itself won’t hold your hand. The shmup community — largely evaporated — isn’t going to cheer you on. There isn’t a massive YouTube or Reddit community behind shmups.

It’s pretty much just you, little ol’ you attempting to conquer your Goliath. Get cozy with that realization.

Practice becomes an opportunity to improve but also to self-reflect. I don’t know about you, but my brain isn’t fast enough to process all the incoming bullets and determine the perfect route. I will usually die to bullets that caught me off guard and enemies that behaved in an unexpected way. Dying is a lecture. Practice is the homework. My next run is the pop-quiz. The process cycles. I improve.

Regular practice is my only tool for addressing uncertainty. At the end of the day, you’ve either sunk in the time or you haven’t. Shmups don’t really have shortcuts, which is perhaps why so many players bounce off the genre. Can you tolerate the idea of playing a shmup for months or even years before you actually achieve your high-score? If you can, practice for that goal.

I don’t want to leave any readers in the lurch, so if you still aren’t sure what goal to work toward, I will give you one: transfer your knowledge into muscle memory, which is only possible through faithful practice. I can spend hours reading forums, watching superplay videos, learning about routes, about scoring, about how to dodge tricky patterns. This is useful, but humans can only spin so many plates at once. Take your shmup one bite at a time. Commit your knowledge to muscle memory and you will begin to see the sort of payoff you desire. If you die in the same section in a similar way as the last five attempts, don’t give up! You are on the edge of a breakthrough. If you must repeat a difficult boss fifty times before you master it, keep going! Crushing the boss without breaking a sweat is your payoff. You will have to invent these little goals as you go along, playing the role of student and teacher at the same time.

The problem with recommending a specific method is that it might not work for you, or it might be outside of your means. For instance, I can’t use save-states on my PS2 version of Daioujou, so I practice around that limitation. Be aware of all your limitations and puzzle out the way to work around them. Two other posts on the site may provide more insight:

Meat Meets The Metal

Meat Meets The Mental

It is most important to dive into the game and invest the time. Believe me, even if you spend 10 minutes a day playing and then reflecting upon where you went wrong, you will steadily improve over time. This isn’t a profound statement. That’s how humans learn anything in life. There are specific ways to save time when it comes to practicing, but the biggest hurdle is your own lack of muscle-memory and your lack of knowledge of the game’s nuances. Don’t obsess over having the perfect setup.

As one last thought, watching superplay videos over the past few years of learning Daioujou helped me figure out small pieces of a route, but ultimately it was be my time invested into playing the game that paid off the most. Do your best to practice faithfully and your persistence will be rewarded.

Perhaps in 2020 I will more faithfully write articles.

Territory, Go, and Shmups

An understanding of the boardgame Go will help the reader in this article. I will do my best to cover the specifics without getting too technical.

Who am I kidding? Longform is the purpose of this site.

Claiming Territory

I suggest that for a player to excel at playing shmups, they must grasp the concept of ‘territory’. Dodging is nice. Reflexes are helpful. Memorization comes in handy. However, these are only tools to meet an end. Understanding the game arena as a whole is more important.

Why? Because a dodge without context may just as well crash you into a bullet. Reacting to a curtain of bullets may just as well pin you into the corner. Memorizing a pattern may just as well fail you when an unfamiliar attack shows up.

To learn about territory, we can learn from one of humanity’s oldest boardgames, Go.

In China, Go was considered one of the four cultivated arts of the Chinese scholar gentleman, along with calligraphy, painting and playing the musical instrument guqin. [Source]

The pattern-recognition and spacial-orientation skills found in a Go player’s toolkit are just as handy for the shmup player. So, we will use Go as our foundation.

Pictures are courtesy, a good resource for learning Go. I would recommend reading the short article at the link, but I will try to capture (heh heh) the essence of the rules here.

Two players compete over an empty board. Novices tend to focus on capturing the opponent’s stones when first learning Go. Capturing stones is important, but the amount of territory claimed constitutes most of each player’s score at the end of the game.

An empty Go board.

Once you grasp the basics, learning how to claim and defend territory becomes far more important than individual captures. You may even sacrifice a group of stones (planned bomb? planned death for rank?) for the sake of claiming a bigger territory somewhere else on the board. provides a sample game on a 9×9 board. The numbers denote the turn. Even without knowing much about the game, you can see how the game progresses, stone by stone, until the conclusion when territory is counted.

No captures are made in this sample game. One can easily perceive the jostling for territory. Stick with me. We’re getting there.

We need two more pieces of the puzzle before we connect this with the genre of shmups: ladders and cuts.

Hop over to to learn about ladders. A ladder sometimes appears when one player puts the other players stone into “atari” (about to be captured, like “check” in Chess). The defending player may attempt to escape atari by extending their group, but there are cases where sacrificing the stone is a better choice.

Black plays at 1 with the intention to capture the White stone marked with the red circle. Now it is White’s turn.

An experienced Go player would recognize this situation as hopeless. There isn’t enough territory in the corner to build a defensible group from such a weak position. Our novice plays out the ladder, ultimately losing many more stones.

A more drastic example of a ladder can be seen below:

This pattern appears in shmups regularly. It’s not called a “ladder” and it rarely looks so clean. If you’ve ever tapped yourself into a corner while slowly being chased by narrow walls of aimed bullets, then you’ve been the victim of a Go ladder.

While the player above does escape, the long string of narrow bullets puts them into a precarious situation very much like a Go ladder. They must march up the side of the screen to avoid being hit.

One possible answer to a ladder is a cut.

White places a stone at 1 to cut between Black’s two stones. Although this is a simple illustration, one can imagine White slicing across Black’s territory with this maneuver, strengthening their own control over the board while also weakening Black.

Go players should always be searching for good cuts since the move is both defensive and offensive. Cuts are an important part of shmups, too.

This player bides their time and then makes several precise cuts across and against the direction of the bullets, ensuring survival. There are circumstances when it is better to let bullets pass over you instead of cutting against the flow, but as we’ll discuss later there are many shmup patterns designed to kill the tap-dodger. Cuts address large groups of enemy bullets in a swift motion. As long as the cut can be performed consistently, it will often be safer than attempting to stream a whole pattern.

In other circumstances, a cut may be necessary to reach an area of the screen quickly enough to maintain a chain, point-blank an enemy, or something similar.

Now that we understand territory, ladders, and cuts, it is time to finally discuss shmups.

Real-Time Go

You can think of a shmup as a contiguous string of Go patterns. The difference is that one is played in real time and the other is turn-based, but many of the same concepts hold true for both games. Learning more about one should help conceptualize the other.

For the sake of this comparison, I’ll consider “capturing a stone” to be analogous to “dodging a bullet” in a shmup. Important, sure, but hardly the focus of the entire game. We already learned that territory is more fundamental to the game of Go and the same holds true for shmups. Is there a hard and fast rule as to where a player should keep their ship on the screen? Is some territory more valuable than other territory? Can I stop stringing you along with leading questions? (No, never)

Staying as far away from a bullet seems like the most sensible choice upon first examination. A player who keeps against the furthest edge of the screen has the most time to observe an incoming pattern and adjust their ship position accordingly. Bullets usually originate from the top (in a vertical shmup) or from the right (in a horizontal shmup). Keeping to the bottom or left edge (respectively) provides the most space between your ship and the origin-point of the bullets.

This territory at the edge of the screen has another advantage. Nearly all shmups are limited to 8 directions of movement, and moving diagonally is typically slower than moving in the cardinal directions. This can be abused at the edge of the screen by “pressing” against it with a diagonal motion, resulting in a slower movement.

However, retreating from incoming bullets is a useful tool. Pinning yourself against the bottom removes this option. By staying against the edge, you’ve robbed yourself of the ability to flee. Some patterns intersect at the bottom of the screen and become far more difficult to dodge. The rule cannot be “stay as far away from the origin of bullets”, therefore.

Perhaps a player should push toward the origin-point of all bullets during all sections of a stage. The closer you are to the origin of a bullet, the harder it becomes to dodge bullets, or you may even crash into a ship (if the game has collision of that type). The tradeoff is a player can retreat and buy themselves some time to evaluate the field of play. Plus, the player may be able to finish off enemies from close range (known as “point blanking”) before they can fire. Furthermore, in certain games like Dodonpachi, you can prevent enemies from firing at all (known as “bullet sealing”) if you are close enough to them.

By all accounts, staying as close to the spawn-point of enemies should result in the best run. We can think of this as “having the most territory” like in Go. The more territory you have, the less damaging your mistakes become. Having less territory will punish even the smallest of mistakes. Being able to retreat from a pattern is incredibly useful, so it stands to reason that having the maximum amount of territory is the ideal way to play.

In most shmups, it isn’t quite this simple. Killing enemies too quickly or too slowly might interrupt a score-chain or prevent you from cancelling a large cloud of bullets. These factors also determine where you want to be on the screen at a given time. So, the rule cannot be “move as close to the origin-point of all bullets”, either.

The value of a piece of territory depends on many things, safety and optimal scoring being the most important to keep in mind. I don’t believe there is any hard and fast rule dictating where you should put your ship. It’s highly dependent on the game and your own goals.

In the clip above, a small strip of territory renders the complex pattern completely safe. Have you considered how bullets will intersect on the field of play? This, too, determines the value of territory.

Like most things in life, a middle-ground can be found. We should not hug the edge of the playing area, nor should we risk ourselves (and our chain) by point-blanking every enemy that appears.

Instead, we should be thinking of how much territory we control at any given time. This consideration supersedes the minutiae of dodging individual patterns or cancelling specific groups of bullets. When you have territory, you have control over the field of play. At all moments, your territory is infringed upon by bullets, forcing you to relocate and claim new territory.

Qualities of Good Territory

I believe there are common rules for determining good territory.

The advice to “look for safe spots” is often given to new players, but that advice is incomplete. “Look for valuable territory” is more wholistic, because the safest location now may become a death-trap in a few moments (and vice versa).

Ask these questions. Not in the heat of a run, of course, but only when you are reflecting upon your run and considering the kind of territory you need to accomplish your goals. If you want to attain a high score, the most-desirable territory will likely be different than if you only want the safest 1-credit-clear.

  • Are there aimed shots? These bullets will directly intrude on your territory and force you to move in some manner.
  • Are there any fixed patterns (meaning, non-aimed)? Fixed patterns should be considered the underlying grid for all potential territory since the area they cover is outside of your direct control.
  • Are enemies coming from a certain area on the screen? Territory that puts you in firing range of these enemies will be important for two reasons. One, if you want to keep a score chain going you need to be shooting where the enemies are. Two, if you want to survive you should have an idea of where new enemies (and bullets) are going to appear.

Movement is 8-directional. Of course, players can use small taps and adjustments to move in any direction, but the ship itself only moves in 8 discrete directions. Movement along these 8 axes (as in axis, not a hatchet) is the most reliable since it requires no fine-tuning from the player. Territory along these 8 axes is therefore much more valuable compared against territory that requires fine-tuned movement to navigate. Can you place your ship accordingly? For instance, if a group of aimed-shot enemies appears to your right, moving slightly down and then cutting a straight line to the right will dodge 100% of their shots. Any territory that allows you to avoid unnecessary or complicated maneuvers has some measure of value.

Territory in the center of the screen is more valuable than territory on the edges, on the merit that you have the most room to navigate without getting laddered against the wall. This is true for Go and is true for shmups:

Do not neglect your “territory clearing” tools, either. Bombs and bullet cancels must be incorporated into your strategy as many shmups are designed to pin you against walls and kill you when you have nowhere to run.

I’ve not yet talked about power-ups, medals, and other collectible doodads. These also have a significant impact on the value of territory. Territory in the path of collectibles that disappear off the edge of the screen is more valuable than if the item bounces around the screen several times before vanishing. Territory with dense clusters of medals is more valuable than territory with only a few.

If you are in a safe area, is the value of the collectible worth leaving your territory?

Let’s consider the specific example of a Power Up in Dodonpachi: Daioujou. If you are maintaining your chain with the laser, collecting a Power Up interrupts the laser. This interruption may be enough to break your chain. In this instance, territory near to your target and in the path of the Power Up becomes very valuable.

Instead of thinking of a “route” as a rigid path, you should be stringing together clumps of high-value territory. That is how routes are made.


Eventually, players hoping to improve at Go must consider more than just keeping individual stones and groups alive. Instead of local squabbles over small sections of the board, all potential territory must be considered. The same is true for shmups. Dodging bullets and patterns is essential, but it is a means, not the end. Claiming new territory is not the end either, but it is a meta-goal one layer above the niceties of dodging and memorization.

Explore new territory, young ship, and stake your claim. Your 1CC may depend on it.




Savestates and the 1-Credit-Clear of Theseus

Theseus owned a ship and the ship was entirely made of wood. Every time a piece of the ship needed replacing it was replaced with a metal part. This went on for a few years until eventually it was entirely made of metal.

Is the metal ship of Theseus the same ship as the wooden ship of Theseus?

Source at The Philosophy Foundation.

Leveraging savestates is a time-honored tool for improving your shmup skills in a short amount of time. The practice itself was already a part of the shmup community, but in 2010 System11 user PROMETHEUS provided a touchstone for the practice when he advocated for heavy savestate usage in his document ‘The Full Extent of the Jam‘.

Practice is an inescapable facet of high-level shmup play. When your goal is to 1-credit-clear or — better still! — to post a high score, how else will you improve?

Credit-feeding is an option but it dulls the edge of difficulty. It’s also inaccurate in most cases. Starting a new credit typically grants full powerups, a reset in rank, and a reset in score. That second item — rank — can be nearly impossible to simulate but it cannot be ignored. Practicing at the “wrong rank” means you are practicing material that won’t match what you must overcome during a full run, so why bother practicing at all? You may as well just do 1-credit runs over and over until you complete the game.

Playing one credit at a time instead may appear more sensible. Doing a full run is my goal, so playing full runs is closest to “the real thing”, correct? Sadly, I end up practicing the first two or three stages ad nauseam.  Since the later stages need the most practice in any particular shmup, one credit runs will omit the most challenging parts. I have to sharpen my skills to such a degree that I can reach later stages without much effort. This is too time-consuming and inefficient.

A high-level run is a symphony, or bowling a perfect 300, or a perfectly-choreographed dance. Athletes and musicians have distinct modes of play: some time is set aside to practice, and some time is set aside to perform.

Using savestates, I can practice each measure of the song, each throw of the ball, each step of the dance. Instead of wastefully repeating sections of the game I have already mastered, why not focus all my time on the parts that are holding me back?

It gets better: I don’t have to figure this out alone. Numerous high-level superplays provide a model to follow. This is hardly different than reading sheet music. Other players in the shmup community offer strategies and advice. I am not forced to learn my route from scratch. In the same way that a musician can play music already composed, I can fashion my runs using an example of skill far beyond my own. With savestates, each slice of a game becomes a trivial task. Complex bullet patterns are suddenly manageable. Reckless maneuvers give way to cool-headed routing.

Plank by plank, I build my run. I hope to make my vessel seaworthy, able to carry me to those glorious distant shores of 1-Credit-Clear Paradise. Each piece of this ship is finely-tuned through countless repetitions.

I’m nearly ready for my run. All I need are few dozen repetitions of the Stage 2 boss’ final attack, a few dozen repetitions of the tricky bullet curtains at the beginning of Stage 4, and a few dozen more repetitions of the scoring tricks needed to post a high score. Voila! Now I can just plop in a coin, set sail, and 1-credit-clear the game, right?

Your Theoretical Best

Slicing the game into discreet pieces is a helpful way to practice. Yet it comes at the cost of endurance and flexibility.

When attempting a run, what if something goes off the rails?

Do I restart because of the tiny mistake in my run, or do I try to push forward? The more I practice in this way, it seems as though my destination stretches further into the distance. I find tinier and tinier flaws in my play. Before I know it, I’m restarting the first 15 seconds of Stage 1 over and over again.

I  am going backwards!

Savestate practice is useful. However, any full run centered on savestate practice is incomplete. The compliment of practicing discrete skills via savestates would be practicing for endurance and flexibility. Is your patchwork of savestates the same thing as completing a 1-credit-clear run?

How can I practice for these? You already know the answer: drop a credit and play until that Game Over screen.

Crude! Wasteful! Inefficient!

Yes, but necessary. Savestate practice should be supplementary to your full runs. Full runs should inform you which parts of the game still need savestate practice.

Your vessel — built of individual savestate planks — is not the same thing as a real run. Though the pieces may all fit together, the essence of a ship is in the seafaring and not in the constituent parts. Too much practice and not enough performance — too much building of the ship and not enough seafaring — will fail to reach the destination. Something will always go awry. Adjustments must be made on the fly. When this occurs, kaboom goes your cute shmup ship.

This isn’t to say that savestates are useless for practicing endurance. Rather, I can only gain so much skill from repeating small slices of a stage. Tackling larger slices when I’m still not ready to make full run attempts is a good middle ground. What I am trying to prevent is the loss of my cool, my chill, my wits-about-me, or whatever you’d call it. Every time I drop a chain or die I hear a sharp voice inside: time to restart! This wee voice is not always correct, however.

The solution here is pretty simple: split your practicing time into full runs, brief slices via savestates, and everything in between. Gauge your progress however you wish. I have not quite figured out the perfect balance of savestates and attempting runs. I imagine it varies from person to person, anyway.


The legend says that after Pheidippides barged into the Athenian assembly to deliver the message “νενικήκαμεν” (“We have won!”), he collapsed from utter exhaustion and died. From this we derived the Marathon race, a competition of physical endurance, not raw speed. Marathon is frequently used as slang for “drawn-out and exhausting”.

From this we must conclude Pheidippides was a shmup player: instead of sticking around after the battle to celebrate, he immediately ran to the shmup community at Athens to report his high-score!

Marathoning my shmup of choice often feels like work. My eyes will at some point become strained. My back may ache. I will have to fight through my frustration to keep practicing a difficult piece of 1-credit-clear.

Can this strain be avoided? Yes, but it entirely depends on your attitude. These are games, after all. If you can’t game-ify practice, it will be a slog. If your practice feels like a slog, you won’t build the patience nor endurance to meet your goal.

I think each shmup demands a minimum amount of time invested. This varies depending on the shmup and the player’s skill level, but the minimum will certainly be higher than the 30-minutes (or so) required to beat the shmup in one run. Practice is a part of the game. Study is part of the game. Engaging with the community is part of the game.

What is the ideal balance between savestates and runs?

Our discussion on memory and mental fortitude is relevant: my overarching goal when playing a shmup is to gain enough knowledge, gain enough muscle memory, and gain enough endurance to meet whatever clearing or score goals I might have. Whatever method and mix of techniques earn me the most knowledge, muscle-memory, and endurance is the correct way to practice, by definition.

It is irrelevant if I meet these goals through savestate practice or through repeated runs or watching superplays or meditating in a corner while listening to the Darius Gaiden soundtrack. Savestates alone are not enough. Full runs alone are not enough. If I have access to both tools, I should use both tools. Neglecting either means I am neglecting a valuable shortcut to my goal.

This requires self-awareness. Reflecting on the results of my practice is more important than using the (supposedly) “right” technique. Whether my 1-credit-clear was built by planks of savestates or planks of full runs, it is the sailing that matters.

Control: Where the Meat Meets the Metal

What is Control?

In this context and 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.

The stock definitions for control aren’t all that useful to our discussion today:

to determine the behavior or supervise the running of; a switch or other device by which a machine is regulated; the ability to manage a machine, vehicle, or other moving object

This will pair to another article: Where the Meat Meets the Mental. In it, I will cover the particular mental faculties engaged in the control of that cute shmup ship.

Here, I want to reflect on the matter of physical control of the game and the interfaces we use to pilot that cute shmup ship.

Jogging the ol’ Memory

I returned to Daioujou practice after a hiatus in the second half of October. I’m dying to things I shouldn’t. I’m not stringing my chains together as well as I once could. However, with each death-rattle, more rust shakes loose and I can feel the edge of my skill returning.

This rust-shaking only takes a few days. I am now putting up higher top scores. I am making progress again.

High-level shmup play requires memorization. It is inescapable. Yes, it’s a frightening byword that chases players off in droves — eek! Memorization? I don’t have time for that. And there aren’t waypoints showing you the path through the bullet curtain? Savages! — but memorization has its benefits.

Memorization brings familiarity. Familiarity allows you to pull off complex maneuvers without panicking or resorting to reflex. A few taps, a few flicks of the wrist, some careful switching between focus shot and spread shot… we commit these physical maneuvers to memory, hardly paying them any mind. We often chalk memorization up to the specific movements on the screen and the configuration of bullets burned into our brain-meat. But what about gripping a familiar, trustworthy controller as you play? Does that not aid in memorization, too?

Sitting down to play Daioujou following a lengthy break, the arcade stick helps me return to the necessary flow — or wu wei or trance state or whatever you’d call it — familiar to all serious shmup players. The arcade stick is my controller of choice. Every characteristic is familiar to me. The strike of each button, the click of the lever, the exact contour of the octogate, and even the hard edge of the metal bottom-panel is familiar to me.

Grabbing an unfamiliar controller does not erase my knowledge of routes and score-chains. Memorization is a mental activity. Even “muscle memory” is mental. Using a different controller should not matter yet my abilities suffer if I do. Why?

Little thought is given to the physicality of shmups. High-level players are intimate with the mental challenge of the genre. However, I’d like to investigate the physical dimension of playing shmups.

Holding on for dear life

It begins with your choice of controller, unless you plan on using a hands-free Kinect camera, of course.

The controller itself is not important. Rather, there are four important characteristics common to all controllers:

  1. Responsiveness – Input lag acts a buffer between your intention and what appears on the screen. A certain amount is tolerable — even unnoticeable — but a controller should never introduce an amount of input lag that interferes with your ability to play the game competently.
  2. Comfort – Cramping your hands or causing a welt on your thumb is not my idea of a good controller. It was for this very reason that I switched from a standard PS2 controller over to an arcade stick when I was cutting my teeth (and the edge of my poor thumb) on Guilty Gear XX.
  3. Ubiquity – A common reason for learning arcade stick is the ability to play that same game in your home and in the arcade. Or you may want to have a controller that can be played across platforms? These are important considerations.
  4. Reliability – Will the controller hold up to my abuse? Will it react to my inputs faithfully, day after day?

If your controller of choice addresses these four issues — whether you’re using a keyboard, a controller, a stick, or some other strange abomination — then you’re set.

Don’t tolerate a bad controller, but don’t chase after “premium” controllers that promise to improve your runs.

They don’t. They won’t.

You’ll merely develop an inferiority complex from spending too much money on a controller than didn’t replace the rigor of practice and patience.


I grew up playing most video games with a controller, such as a NES or Genesis pad, so that remains my preferred control method. That said, I like to pick controllers with good directional pads as much as possible, and for older games, I like turbo options, when applicable. I would like to get into arcade sticks, but as many different consoles and platforms I play on, it gets expensive trying to buy quality sticks for everything.

Gameboy Guru | Twitter | YouTube Channel

Lag is a byword among shmup players.

Unfortunately, the obscurity of shmups often forces us to tolerate it. Arcade cabinets are not commonplace in most areas of the world, and the PCBs are often prohibitively expensive to acquire for the average player. Emulating shmups on PC hardware or hacked console hardware is viable for many people, but unless you have a finely-tuned system this may introduce lag as well. Ports of shmups are a mixed bag. Some are exceptional and others are so poorly done they aren’t worth your money even if you enjoy the shmup itself.

Converting a controller from one platform to another can introduce lag as well. There are some options like the undamned decoder that you can wire into a padhack. I use one on my Saturn. Companies like Brooks and Mayflash sell various flavors of converters, yet the amount of lag will vary between models.

Playing shmups at high-level play isn’t about fast reactions, you might say. In a certain sense, you are right, bright Reader! Will a few frames of lag kill you? Nope, you’ll be fine. However, memorization and practice have their limits when it comes to compensating for excessive lag. You may as well be aware that it’s an issue.

The buttons themselves — assuming they are of reasonable quality and aren’t malfunctioning — won’t introduce lag. Arcade hardware is purpose-built and reliable. For the most part, specific buttons and sticks may appeal to your tactile preferences, but I don’t think the mechanical responsiveness is too different between the brands.

A larger actuator on a stick reduces travel time — or throw — ever so slightly. A heavier spring will improve your return to center. Buttons also offer the choice between longer or shorter throws, and some buttons have pads at the bottom to reduce the noise of the button-click.

Clicking itself might be important to you. Is the noise a distraction? In my case, I love a clicky thumbstick or lever. The click helps confirm that my input has registered. Mechanical keyboard keys would be suitably clicky, I’d imagine, though I’ve never really played much with a keyboard. I find the clicking useful. Others find it annoying.

Yet, a larger actuator and more sensitive buttons may cause accidental inputs. A heavier spring may cause you to miss inputs entirely. Clicking might drive you insane.

This nitty-gritty nuance exists, but please don’t prioritize it. If you insist your controller isn’t responsive enough, buttons are way down the list of things to consider.

Due to the variety of controller options, a comprehensive comparison is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that lag caused by your equipment may hinder your ability to play a shmup at a higher skill level. Don’t obsess over responsiveness. Be aware it exists and tighten up the screws of your setup, in a manner of speaking, if you feel like the lag is holding you back.


I can’t say I’ve ever been slowed down by physical issues, except for maybe cold hands, which you just have to warm up under warm water. I’d say to make sure to play in moderation and use a comfortable setup. There’s nothing gained from injuring yourself over a videogame.

Jaimers | YouTube Channel

I use an arcade stick for Shmup play. I tend to play better using that, than a controller. Dpads and joysticks on controllers seem to restrict my movement and reaction a bit. Maybe due to my figures being long, so I tend to arch my thumb. Sometimes sweaty thumbs will mess up my runs completely, trying to go for a high score or 1CC.

Noir | YouTube Channel

A decade ago, I switched to arcade stick after nursing too many blisters on my thumbs. Guilty Gear XX Accent Core on PS2 was my obsession, but my hands could not keep up. My friends and I would go in rotations to give our thumbs some rest. It was painful to play on the Dualshock, but there were no arcades in the area with the game. Our shared PS2 copy was the only way.

After a few months of this, I had the bright idea of switching to arcade controls. I knew they were expensive but I loved Guilty Gear so much that I sold off a boxed PS One system to fund a Hori arcade stick.

I’m not here to preach the virtues of arcade stick, but I suspect plenty of gamers have faced similar issues.

Often, our loyalty to our controller is because it is comfortable. Yeah yeah! I read the part above about lag and buttons and whatever, but I don’t care. This ol’ stick just feels right. 

And fair enough! Grabbing your controller should feel like slipping your hand into a glove. I’ll discuss muscle memory elsewhere, but it plays a role in response time and physical skill. Your controller should never cause your hand to cramp, your thumbs to blister, or your wrists to get sore.

Improving your skill inevitably requires long play sessions. Practicing on equipment that wears on your body is nonsensical. Spend the extra money to buy something more comfortable, if that’s what it boils down to.

Some features — like an octogate or a particular brand of button — may have a very particular feel that you enjoy. This feel is an important part of the controller’s function. I like convex buttons with rounded edges. Others prefer concave buttons with sharper edges.

These silly details do combine to form significant differences between controllers. Sometimes people like using a certain controller because the buttons are spaced better for the player’s longer thumbs.

Comfort is subjective. Therefore, you may need to try different setups. Assuming you are paying attention to your body signals, you should be able to navigate your way to a comfortable setup. Do not tolerate sharp discomfort or pain. Your attention is better focused on the shmup. Sit up straight. Drink some water. Take some deep breaths.


I prefer to use arcade control panels for shmups. Arcade controls are just fun! And they are easier on my wrists and hands so I can go for longer sessions without strain. Furthermore I prefer Sanwa parts: the JLF stick and OBSF-30 buttons. The reason I like Sanwa is because they are the arcade standard and they feel good. They’re built to last and both of my Sanwa outfitted control panels feel the same as they did 5+ years ago. There’s something endearing about using the same control setup that hundreds of thousands of players have used among you. This goes for arcade panel controls in general, not just Sanwa parts. I like to feel like I could be in the Arcade using these controls. And a time may come when I sit down at a candy cabinet with arcade controls–I’ll be ready.

For new players, use what works for you and is comfortable. If you haven’t used arcade controls before, you have to try it! It can take a while to get used to but just try to have fun learning. It’s very possible you won’t be as good with arcade controls as with your other preferred controller for a long time. But eventually that gap will be so minor it won’t matter anymore. When it comes to arcade style controls: they’re for arcade games in general and not just shmups. It wouldn’t hurt to try all sorts of arcade games while you’re at it.

Aquas | YouTube Channel | Twitch

Depending on your setup, you may not have the ability to play a certain shmup. Of course, that can be easily solved with the swipe of a credit card! Accessing new shmups through a freshly-bought computer or console is a thrill, but you may not be able to use your favorite controller, your favorite TV, or your favorite chair. Goodbye, comfort. Goodbye, familiarity.

Converters are an option, but then we’re dealing with lag again.

Picking a control scheme that you can use across a variety of platforms is especially important for shmups. If you can avoid it, don’t switch between a wide range of different controllers. Here is where the good ol’ arcade stick really shines. 99% of shmups are designed to use a stick and the few that aren’t are at least compatible.

We are blessed to have so many controller options in our modern era. Using the same control scheme — or even the same controller — across platforms will help you remain consistent.

Another facet of ubiquity to consider: if my game has the option to customize controls, I take advantage of it. Top-left-to-right, I set the first three buttons (or Square, Triangle, and R1 on my Playstation sticks) to Fire, Bomb, and Auto-Fire . This seems to cover most shmups. Once in a while I’ll have to use a slightly-different layout. ESPgaluda needs an extra button for switching in and out of kakusei. I used to customize my controls for First Person Shooters (adjusting mouse sensitivity, for example) when I played them in the 90s. It makes sense to do the same for shmups.

Maybe standardizing all your controls is too obsessive.

One must not forget the arcades, those ancient pantheons of exceptional challenge. Ya gotta be somewhat familiar with a lever and buttons to enjoy the arcade experience, though. Some shmup players find immense satisfaction in playing these games on a genuine cabinet with genuine hardware. I won’t begrudge anyone that desire. It’s a visceral experience, even if emulation and console-ports have come a long way over the years.

If you’d like to play on genuine hardware, it makes sense that your controller would be the same (or at least similar) as what you’d use on the cabinet.

Outside of that concern, a keyboard is probably the best option for shmup players not interested in an expensive arcade stick. PC is compatible with the widest variety of shmups, without question. So, why not use what the Good Lord gave the PC and stick with keyboard? Not a bad idea.


My preferred choice in control method has been influenced by my past in fighting games, and has actually been a long journey. For a number of years, when I played different fighting games, I found that I had a bunch of different control preferences that changed from game to game. For example: I played Street Fighter 3 on a Sanwa JLF, I played Virtua Fighter 5 on a PS3 pad, I played Tekken 6 on a Sega Saturn pad with a converter, and I could never decide on what I liked the best for Guilty Gear and King of Fighters. The reason why I kept jumping from controller to controller was because I was trying my best to match up the strengths of the input method with the requirements of the game. This was actually pretty exhausting and inefficient. So one day I decided I had enough and would begin my quest of very deeply analyzing all the different input methods and deciding, once and for all, which is the strongest in general. I wanted to use the same input method across all the games.

In my heart of hearts, I feel that Japanese stick, Korean stick, and keyboard are the best options in terms of overall performance. They are S tier. However, the Dualshock 4 and Sega Saturn controllers are still strong options and I would rank them A tier. Personally, I am a player who thinks that input matters (which is probably uncommon among shmup players) and I would highly recommend you use one of these 5 input methods if you can. Of course, it is certainly possible to achieve amazing scores on all kinds of different input methods. But, try not to think about the question in that manner. Try and think about it in a scenario where you are placed in a head-to-head competition to compete for score with someone else with equal skill as yourself. You are handed a crusty Game Boy as a controller and they are given a clean Dualshock 4. The game involves many extremely precise reaction dodges (think final form Hibachi). Who has the competitive edge?

Mark_MSX |

I prefer quality sticks, almost all of the Qanba sticks are good. Currently for Shmups on Ps4, I use the Qanba Obsidian and on anything else it will be the Qanba Q1 or Madkatz tournament stick.

For a new player getting in, I say start with a controller just to break yourself into the genre. Although if you feel the need for a close to authentic arcade feel. The Qanba crystal is a stylish affordable arcade stick, Hori Rap 4 is also good, but a little higher in price

Noir | YouTube Channel

‘Reliability’ may refer to being able to reliably pull off a complicated move, but that was already covered earlier under the ‘Responsiveness’ heading.

Instead, we’re talking about the lifespan and trustworthiness of your equipment. Finding a comfortable, responsive, ubiquitous controller is fine and dandy until it breaks. Reliability goes hand-in-hand with consistency unless you wish to buy replacements for easily-broken hardware on a regular basis. For this reason, arcade sticks are ideal. Or a well-built keyboard. Or anything, really. Just make sure it’s reliable.

My body is ready

This seems to cover it for physical control, but I want to close with a discussion about physical wellness.

Taking care of your body will have a positive impact on your shmup performance. Sleep well. Rest your eyes. Stretch your hands and arms. Don’t sit in an uncomfortable position. Find ways to eliminate stress. I would imagine that an unhealthy diet may contribute to poor performance, since food can impact your ability to focus and manage your emotions. I will talk about sleep and food a bit more in the next article.

Until we can control shmups with the power of thought, a physical connection to the game will remain a facet of the experience. Take care of your body, please. Take care of your controller. Have fun.


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.

Saccades, Perception, and Shmups

During a recent episode of Mark_MSX’s podcast — the Electric Underground — I spoke about how saccades may interfere with our ability to play shmups at a high level. You can listen to that here on Mark’s podcast.

I’d like to add more to the discussion of how vision works, with a focus on saccades and perception. Our eyes process a significant amount of information at any given time while playing a shmup. If we learn more about how that takes place, perhaps we can compensate and play our games faster and with more accuracy.

Buckle up for a biology lesson.

A saccade is a rapid-eye movement that reorients the center of your vision to a new target. Our vision is not a stream of visual data. Rather, our vision is a string of slices of individual images, akin to a webcam or a film reel. We see a collage of still images mixed with snippets of blurred motion and depth information. This unsorted data is crammed into our brain-meat and translated into an approximation of the outside world.

Saccades are an essential part of how humans visualize the world. Our eyes are not passive cameras or windows that the brain looks through. Quite the opposite: the brain is constantly readjusting our eyes and snapping to new targets in order to best understand the physical world surrounding us. This is especially true when we are attempting to perceive an object in motion. Our brain is an active player in how we see things. We move our eyes involuntarily due to these underlying biological mechanics at play.

This section offers a brief overview on the four types of eye movements, but it is the below piece on saccades that relates directly to our topic:

After the onset of a target for a saccade (in this example, the stimulus was the movement of an already fixated target), it takes about 200 ms for eye movement to begin. During this delay, the position of the target with respect to the fovea is computed (that is, how far the eye has to move), and the difference between the initial and intended position, or “motor error” (see Chapter 19), is converted into a motor command that activates the extraocular muscles to move the eyes the correct distance in the appropriate direction.

Saccadic eye movements are said to be ballistic because the saccade-generating system cannot respond to subsequent changes in the position of the target during the course of the eye movement. If the target moves again during this time (which is on the order of 15–100 ms), the saccade will miss the target, and a second saccade must be made to correct the error.

An (approximated) 200ms delay between noticing movement and the start of a saccade seems rather important. If an error occurs (as in, your brain miscalculated the final position of the visual target) or if the target changes trajectory, this causes an additional 15ms – 100ms delay to make secondary adjustments. These smaller adjustments are ‘corrective saccades’.

We need more information before reaching a conclusion. I’ll take several excerpts from the succinct article here:

Saccades direct the fovea onto an object or region of interest which enables subsequent high-acuity detailed visual analysis at that location. In normal viewing, several saccades are made each second and their destinations are selected by cognitive brain process without any awareness being involved.

“High-acuity detailed visual analysis.” Huh, that seems to match other research indicating that foveal vision is responsible for symbol recognition. Quite important for navigating dense bullet patterns. The next part is even more important:

Vision is dependent upon the information taken in during fixation pauses between saccades: no useful visual information is taken in while the eyes are making a saccadic movement.

In other words, your eyes do not “see” during a saccade. Considering what we know about the delay in saccadic eye movement and the 15-100ms penalty for misjudging a target, this seems important. More saccades = more time spent with no useful visual information taken in.

Move your eyes more and you see less.

This is fundamental.

After all, your screen is outputting a fixed amount of frames. So if your eyes are blanking during all those saccades as you dart your eye around the TV screen, you are cutting out valuable visual information, replacing it instead with assumptions (discussed later).

Each frame in a 60-frames-per-second shmup takes 16.67ms. Do the math (or bust out the Texas Instruments if that’s too challenging) on how many frames have gone by during your 200ms response delay prior to a saccade.

The Remote Distractor Effect also appears to hinder the shmup player:

The remote distractor effect is a related automatic effect on saccadic latencies found when a visual onset occurs elsewhere in the visual field simultaneously with the appearance of a saccade target (Walker, Deubel, Schneider, & Findlay, 1997 Figure 4). Such an occurrence results in a prolongation of saccadic latency whether or not the location of the target is completely predictable. The timing of the distractor onset has been shown to modulate the magnitude of the RDE with distractors presented within ±50ms of the target producing the greatest effect.

So if there are other items that appear in your field of view while attempting to track a target during a saccade, there is an increase in delay. Interesting.

What about memorization? Surely if you’ve memorized a bullet pattern it will be easier to perceive its details.

The memory-guided saccade is similar but in this case the target is only flashed briefly so that saccades are directed to a remembered location. Such saccades tend to show a decrease in accuracy in normal individuals[…]

So when relying on memory of where to orient your eyes, your accuracy goes down. I wonder if that is to blame for all those times I could’ve sworn I was moving to a safe area, only to be snagged by a previously-unnoticed bullet.

Our current body of scientific research indicates that our vision is highly fallible when it comes to perceiving discrete details, especially during eye-movement. But if my eyes are constantly “shutting off” during saccades, why don’t I see flashes of darkness?

Good question. That brings us to the other half of the matter: perception.

That’s what your brain does with the raw visual information delivered via the optic nerve from your eyes. It perceives. The data is translated, in a manner of speaking. We all learned in school about how the image in our retinas is flipped, right? The brain must translate the visual data before we actually “perceive” it.

Sounds to me like some input lag is hiding inside our own skull.

Unfortunately, there are even more problems introduced by human perception. Our perception, it turns out, is not at all like a videocamera recording visual information. Instead, our brain cheats.

Remember, our brain-meat is interested in identifying patterns as quickly as possible. So, it will often cheat to get to an answer faster at the cost of accuracy. That’s why things can end up looking different in poor visual conditions (fog, darkness), because your brain is leaping to conclusions.

More specifically, it is filling in blank spots with false data. The visual information you “see” during a saccade isn’t actually there. It’s a predictive image made by your brain. This avoids any sort of stutter in your stream of vision. It also isn’t exactly accurate. It’s a good guess (based on the last fixed image) but it is only a guess.

Have you ever been surprised by a bullet that you just didn’t see? Of course. There’s a chance you were tricked by your own brain as it filled in information based on assumptions.

There’s also the matter of how perception can be involuntarily altered if you are fixed on a certain goal.

See how you do on the challenge below:

Levin and Simons (and later Simons, Franconeri, and Reimer) conducted a series of tests to illustrate how our perception can be easily tricked. If you are interested in learning more about lapses in perception, follow the links below:

The Door Study

Movie Perception Test

Spot the Change

To sum: the biological and psychological characteristics of human vision impact our ability to play shmups at high levels of skill. An understanding of the characteristics of human vision and perception allows one to adjust accordingly, resulting in improved response times, awareness, and acuity.

Can we do anything about this? Possibly.

Heartbeat has been tied to the rate of saccades. Heartbeat goes up and saccades go up, too. An increase in saccade latency has been linked to elevated stress. It seems the practical advice here would be to keep calm and keep staring forward.

In some of our earlier documentation, there is reference to another facet of our perception, the smooth pursuit system.

Smooth pursuit movements are much slower tracking movements of the eyes designed to keep a moving stimulus on the fovea. Such movements are under voluntary control in the sense that the observer can choose whether or not to track a moving stimulus (Figure 20.5). (Saccades can also be voluntary, but are also made unconsciously.) Surprisingly, however, only highly trained observers can make a smooth pursuit movement in the absence of a moving target. Most people who try to move their eyes in a smooth fashion without a moving target simply make a saccade.

The next section offers more insight. Replace “stripes in a rotating cylinder” with “pink bullet” and you can see why this matters:

The smooth pursuit system can be tested by placing a subject inside a rotating cylinder with vertical stripes. (In practice, the subject is more often seated in front of a screen on which a series of horizontally moving vertical bars is presented to conduct this “optokinetic test.”) The eyes automatically follow a stripe until they reach the end of their excursion. There is then a quick saccade in the direction opposite to the movement, followed once again by smooth pursuit of a stripe. This alternating slow and fast movement of the eyes in response to such stimuli is called optokinetic nystagmus. Optokinetic nystagmus is a normal reflexive response of the eyes in response to large-scale movements of the visual scene.

Perhaps, based on this information, it is possible to train the eye to follow a moving object without saccades. More experimentation to follow.

Shmups: the next dead videogame genre

What defines a dead genre?

When a genre has fully explored the potential limit of its game mechanics, it is functionally dead. Titles of such exceptional quality saturate the genre, guaranteeing that the average player will never master more than a handful out of many worthwhile titles. The number of must-play games is too high for any one player to play, in other words. It is not dead because it lacks games. There is an abundance of games, strangely enough. Rather, the genre dies because it reaches the creative limit of its mechanics and the profitability of its games. Future titles must appeal to the existing fanbase in order to pull in any money. Innovation is no longer a driving factor as to which games sell well and which do not in a dead genre.

For the player, this is a wonderful problem to have (though it does have its long-term consequences, discussed below).

For developers, these kind of market forces toll the death of a genre.

Developers must appeal to an ever-increasingly niche player base, a shrinking market. From where else can they get their profit? This downward spiral has been travelled before by text adventures, MUDs, roguelikes, and various rhythm-music franchises (ya still got those plastic drums?). It is the spiral of a genre leaving the world of commercial profitability and laying to rest in the grave, where devoted fans can enjoy it omne aeternum, or maybe a slightly more pleasant example would be Snow White sleeping in the glass coffin, waiting to be kissed by Activision with his greasy money-beard.

Wait. Gross.

Setting aside our fairy tale references, it is evident that shmups are on such a downward spiral.

A shrinking, spiraling market does end up catering to its remaining customers. In this sense, it’s quite nice to be a shmup fan right now. However, there’s an obvious downside for the community: players scatter themselves across too many excellent games. If the goal is competition, there often aren’t enough players focusing on one particular game to make it worthwhile. Shmup-of-the-month clubs can help alleviate that a bit, but it cannot be a genuine answer to the overall problem. If it was, the problem would’ve been solved, so we must look elsewhere.

A shrinking, spiraling, scattered market puts most dedicated players into one of two camps. You’re either a shmup tourist or you’re someone who focuses on a small handful of games to achieve top scores.

Quick aside: I did say “most dedicated players”, not “all”. There are some exceptional players who seem to have played a bit of everything and yet can also place extremely high scores. In this case, however, I am talking about the rest of us mere peasants.

Naturally, both camps will try an assortment of games, but they aren’t likely to find much common ground with many other players. The community is small and scattered. Players either pass like ships in the night — “Oh! Yes, I played that shmup too. Yes, I did 1CC it. What a fun game. Goodbye!” — or they are lucky enough to find a friend, rival, or mentor playing the same game and who will help them improve. This latter example is where playing for score becomes thrilling, that rare event when you can pit yourself against another human.

Searching for the time

Pause for a moment and name a specific game — not a whole franchise or a developer’s catalogue — in the shmup genre that has a large community surrounding it. One specific game. Daioujou? Raiden Fighters? Ikaruga? I can only name a handful and even in those cases the community boasts only a few ten-thousand potential players worldwide, no more. After all, a shrinking, spiraling, scattered market is not going to have a lot of players to buy these games. If they’re not buying them, they’re not playing them. If they’re not playing them, there’s no community. I’m not ignorant to the usage of emulators, but this is not enough to skew too far beyond the sales numbers for these titles. The total number of potential players is small, that’s my point.

I can name plenty of specific Fighting games with mobs of loyal fans and well-known players. Guilty Gear, Tekken, King of Fighters, Darkstalkers, and even smaller, forgotten titles like Melty Blood, Samurai Shodown, and Waku Waku 7 each have their separate fandoms because there are enough concurrent players interested in the game. A single Street Fighter game likely has more active players than the entire shmup community.

How do these communities differ? For one, there is an explicit understanding that serious Fighting game players will enjoy their time if they focus on a few games and only a few characters. Top players — the ones known in the game’s community by name — almost always stick to one or two characters. While hopping between various fighting games (akin to shmup tourism?) is not anathema to the community, it certainly isn’t lauded as the most enjoyable way to engage with the genre. You will not master all the Fighting games and that is okay. No one expects you to. Pull up a seat and get your head kicked in, scrub. The focus of a player entering this genre is not to play all there is to play but to become skilled at a few favorites so that you can compete. We will return to the issue of competition later.

The Puzzle genre — nearest and dearest to my heart, second only to shmups — has patiently trudged forward, rarely skyrocketing to success but never falling away entirely. Like shmups, many puzzle games are single-player affairs. Yet, the competitive nature of Vs. Puzzle titles (think Puyo, Puzzle Fighter, or Puzzle League. That’s a lot of Ps!) is a source of fuel, allowing this genre to thrive in the modern age of Twitch streamers and tournaments. SEGA is tailoring their next Puyo release for the eSports crowd, going so far as to name it “Puyo Puyo eSports”. Once again, there is an explicit understanding in the community that serious Puzzle game players will enjoy their time if they focus on mastering a few puzzle games. No one is tuning in to watch competitive Tetris played by amateurs. Skill is celebrated, but there must be people to celebrate it. Putting on an excellent performance for an audience of zero is hardly worth the effort for most people, no matter how loyal you may be to a franchise or genre.

You can look to the graveyard of FPSs — that vast Père Lachaise — and witness how losing the online player base of a First Person Shooter pushes it into obscurity. Shmups are no different. A shrinking player base will be powerless to prevent the game from fading. Since these titles take so much skill to master, why risk putting all your time into a newfangled game that might vanish after a year (in terms of popularity)? You might as well stick to the well-known shmups, the time-honored classics, right?

Traditional subscription-based MMOs collided with this problem in the late 90s: in order to compete, you must steal players from other MMOs. Otherwise, your MMO would die off as competing MMOs sapped players from your community. The high time investment excludes the option of playing a bunch of different MMOs concurrently. You stick to one or two. There isn’t enough time in a day for more. Within each MMO there lives a community, but this community can only thrive if other communities diminish. This manifests a bit differently in the shmup market but is essentially a mirror-image of the same problem faced by subscription MMOs: players congregate around entire developer catalogues because there isn’t a large enough active community for each game. Completing a title on one credit takes an inexperienced player weeks if not months. Playing for score takes exponentially more investment. Such a cost is beyond most players.

The lack of depth is certainly not to blame: I’ll reference the well-known example of Daioujou’s Death Label mode going undefeated for 7 years since release. I’m preaching to the choir when I say that shmups boast a significant amount of depth especially when played for score. This is a hardly a controversial statement to those in the community. Players are forced to either ignore this depth or embrace it fully at the cost of missing out on other excellent shmups available to the player. As with MMOs, there isn’t enough time in a day for more.

If the downward spiral is not due to a lack of depth, then what can be to blame? I would argue that the abundance of depth has ended up giving us the same result as too little depth, ironically: too much depth forces players to either ignore the depth or to focus on it entirely to the exclusion of many other games in the genre.

Fractalization of the community’s talent means finding common ground between players is a rare event, with each game only boasting a few dozen top-tier players. The thrill of competition becomes scarce, further eroding the foundations of the community.

Future development

Circling back to the issue of developing games in a dead genre, a developer has two choices. They can either build their titles according to well-known expectations and standards codified by the shmup community (essentially resorting to imitation and remixing of old classics), or they can stretch the definition of a shmup in the hope that catching the attention of non-shmup players will lead to greater sales. This latter option usually fails as it depends both on the willingness of the shmup community to go along with the new twist on the genre and the interest of the non-shmup players to buy it. Developers who dutifully port old titles will enjoy reliable sales from the existing fanbase but are less likely to grab sales from outside of this loyal community. Existing shmup communities may circle their wagons around a canon of best games, a Top 10 list, or whatever, but this does little to invigorate the genre.

Competition is a recourse. Competition begets passion, and passion begets excellence, a prerequisite for quality content-creation. The shmup community is traveling a route akin to the days of Geocities pages and passionate fansites buried deep within the internet. To the individual, this level of detail and nuance is thrilling. I can approach nearly any shmup with a veritable feast of information at my fingertips. And this is all but necessary: new shmup players face a steep learning curve as they endeavor to catch up to the average level of knowledge found in the community. They have no choice but to dig into this information if they hope to join rank with existing shmup players. This obscurity and fractalization of talent is poisonous to the health of the community, as pleasing as it may be for the individual player. Francis Bacon describes:

He that seeketh to be eminent amongst able men hath a great task; but that is ever good for the public: but he that plots to be the only figure amongst ciphers is the decay of an whole age.

“The only figure amongst ciphers” refers to the individual who rises to such an obscure proficiency that though he may be a master, the lack of peer and community renders it all meaningless. The current trajectory means even the best of shmups will only be heralded by one or two of these masters, fulfilling Bacon’s warning. Even now, there are obscure tricks and exploits known only by a handful of top-scoring players. These tricks, in a manner of speaking, are mysterious ciphers to the rest of the community. Perhaps we have already fulfilled the warning.

Whether a corpse or a comatose princess in a glass coffin, the cure for the genre’s mortal condition is the same: competition.

Conversation with myself on 1CC hunters versus Score Chasers

Though the pursuit of score and 1 credit clearing are on the mind of any serious player, there is a preponderance of 1CC-hunters in the shmup community. 1CCs are worn like a badge of honor. Moreover, 1CCs serve as currency, a sort of recognizable credibility to use while we exchange our opinions and compile our Top 10 lists.

By 1CC-hunter, we shall consult my own arbitrary dictionary to understand what that means:


wən sē sē ˈhən(t)ər
An individual who learns a shmup well enough to 1 Credit Clear, then migrates to a new shmup, repeating the process ad nauseam. Their tendency to ignore scoring strategies sadly excludes them from the most thrilling aspect of the genre.

What? I can’t believe they would dare print that in a dictionary.

There isn’t anything wrong with being a 1CC-hunter, is there? Inherently, no, of course not. We are all free spirits able to pursue our hobbies as we choose.

But is being a 1CC hunter anything special?

That’s what I would like to examine.

It appears that our focus on 1CCs has neutered the competitive spirit of shmups. We hone our competency for a particular shmup 80% of the way and then throw it in the trash bin after clearing the game. Let us explore the strange synthesis of clearing a shmup in one go and of pursuing a high score. Perhaps I can convince you to set aside your lonely clear-hunting and to instead keep your eye on that combo gauge before moving on to the next conquest.

Conflicting information

Shmups are unique in our videogame hobby. At the easiest difficulty levels, a shmup takes an afternoon. At the highest skill levels, the same shmup might take years to master. They can be beaten in about 30 minutes by credit-feeding until the end, but this is really no different than cranking down the difficulty of a fighting game to Easy and button-mashing your way through arcade mode. Sure, you “beat” the game but no one really cares. Would anyone concede that credit-feeding is truly beating the game? For that matter, beating the game through save-states (save-scumming) is no different than playing it straight on one credit, right? Wrong. No one really cares. Were someone to submit a stitched-together run for a record, it would be considered cheating.

The community doesn’t backslap one another for credit-feeding or save-scumming, so we clearly have a metric for what is and isn’t a notable accomplishment in the shmup genre. We would say that “anyone can do that”. Truthfully, though, not everyone can do that. There’s still a basic level of skill required to piece together a full run via save-states. It’s not impressive, but it’s also not something that anyone can do.

Begrudgingly, we acknowledge that save-scumming is “hard” from a certain perspective, yet we choose not to praise it. This makes sense. There must be some standard for what is and isn’t “hard”. Just because some people cannot do something — even if a very large number of people cannot do it — that doesn’t make the task itself inherently difficult.

Why are credit-feeding and save-scumming any different than getting a 1CC? The limitation of one credit, of course. The limitation frames the challenge and makes it exciting. Most players cannot win with only 1 credit. To do so is to definitely an accomplishment. We discussed above that not everyone can save-scum through a shmup, but an even smaller number of players can successfully 1CC a shmup. I would point out that 1CCing is harder than save-scumming and therefore deserves more praise in comparison.

However, I do not understand how a 1CC is different compared to beating any other difficult videogame from any other genre. I have beaten plenty of games in my life. Why is beating a shmup so special?

“These games are super challenging, that’s why. A 1CC is hard enough without worrying about score. It’s worthy of being celebrated.”.

Yes, these games are challenging.

That’s why I play them, but I cannot have it both ways: if I play them for the challenge, why boast about overcoming the least-challenging facet of the genre?

This is why Dark Souls Let’s Play videos aren’t much of a thing anymore: no one cares if you beat the game. People hardly care if you beat it naked, minimum level, on New Game ++++. Beating the game is a fine accomplishment, but if Dark Souls internet message boards were full of nothing but “I did it!” posts, the community would crumple under the weight of its own superficial glee.

There seems to be a missing element to the equation of what makes shmups interesting. Can it be the challenge of a shmup — and nothing more? — that intrigues us?

“Think about how long it takes to gain enough skill to 1CC a shmup”. 

It takes about as long as the average-sized Japanese RPG. I wouldn’t puff out my chest if I happened beat Chrono Trigger.

“But that’s different because these games take skill“.

In what way? The controls and mechanics are simpler than a Super Mario Bros game: 8 cardinal/inter-cardinal directions and one to three buttons. There is nothing complicated about playing a shmup.

“I didn’t meant the control scheme took a lot of skill. I meant…”

Memorization? Twitch reflex? I think there’s something more fundamental at play here beyond the mere mechanics of the genre.

The missing element

In all endeavors, quality is relative. I can cobble together a birdhouse, but my quality wouldn’t justify paying even $5.00 for it, let alone $100s. How do we know what is best? How can I go to sleep at night wondering whether my birdhouse is good or garbage?

Thankfully, humans use a time-honored method to answer these questions.

We compete.

If I take my birdhouse to the birdhouse fair and try to sell it, I am opening myself up to comparison. If my birdhouse sells for much more than the other birdhouses, that says something about my birdhouse compared to the others. I could say — in the context of that birdhouse fair — mine was higher quality.

Perhaps it tickles some corner of our limbic system to gain an advantage over another creature. Competition is an exciting venture. We are hard-wired to enjoy victory and we are hard-wired to regret defeat.

Both Dopamine and Endorphins are released when playing videogames. Even without the meta-accomplishment of beating a game, our brains enjoy the constant feedback and positive-reinforcement of videogames and will react by cranking up our pleasure hormones. This biological response has often been cited by politicians and medical academics hoping to warn the public about “video game addiction”.

Economics and brain chemistry are fine topics, but we must return our focus to shmups and to the matter of skill.

If quality is relative, it follows that skill is also relative. Any shmup must offer us a way to gauge who has more skill. Otherwise, there’s no way to determine relative skill levels. Each is designed with an internal measurement, a running counter, a score. And since score is a blind deity — interested only in the final number — we know it is a fair way to judge mastery of a game.


Since the mid-80s, shmups have offered ways to prove your skill above and beyond just clearing the title on one credit. These scoring systems are myriad. Consider them your New Game Plus, the next layer up, the true final form of the shmup in question. Completion (even a difficult completion, like a 1CC) is not mastery. Completion is — at best — merely a prerequisite to something far more compelling.

In modern times, shmups are a solo pursuit, something for basement-dwellers. When did this transition occur?

Earlier, I said that we throw all our hard work into the trash bin when we 1CC a game and then move on. Beating arcade mode in a fighting game but never playing against another human is considered wasteful as well. It’s like carrying around a massive keychain full of keys that match no locks.

At least it jangles loudly when you wear it on your belt.

Why should I practice for a 1CC when it is a superficial demonstration of the game’s mechanics?

“Well, because that’s how I love to play shmups. It is what I enjoy.”

That’s valid. But then why do I do this over and over again, making a huge list of all the times I superficially explored a shmup? I cannot come up with an answer.

Each score run is a declaration, an unambiguous pissing on your territory for said game. No need for platitudes or excuses. Your score is better than everyone below you and inferior to everyone above you.

Beating a game is personal and rewarding but it contributes nothing to the community at large. Posting a score does. Entering a tournament does. Competing with other shmup players does.

Not everyone wishes to pursue high-level play and I see no problem with that. Our current problem emerges when we elevate the bog-standard way of completing a game above the mastery of a game.

When we hold up a high number of completions as some kind of accomplishment and we dominate the conversation with the jangling of our keychains, we water down our definition of accomplishment in the hardest game genre on the planet. Yes, yes, let’s praise one another for 1CCs, but why is it the predominant sign of skill in the community?

I made the comparison to Japanese RPGs which I will return to now: many RPG fans also hold up their total number of RPGs completed as a badge of honor. Within that community, it is a sign that you are well-travelled in the world of RPGs and can offer a more educated opinion. But it is not taken as a sign of skill. All players know that completion is merely a matter of investing hours.

If I have a tally of 1CCs to my name, what have I done differently compared to the RPG player? Like them, I am bragging about time invested, not mastery demonstrated. I merely join the ranks of the hundreds of others who’ve invested the hours. Yes, yes, a 1CC is a challenge and I freely admit that. But after your first few 1CCs, you attain an underlying competency to the point that subsequent 1CCs are no real test of your skills. Investing your time is nice. But is it skillful? Is it brag-worthy?

Shmups have become like single-player MMOs, complete with our own warped interpretation of the loot grind. We explore a long list of titles instead of exploiting the mechanics of each. We play tourist instead of pushing ourselves to accomplish something more substantial.

Outwardly, to a viewer who plays Madden and Call of Duty, our 1CCs are impressive. But impressing an audience in that context is nothing more than putting on a magic show at a child’s birthday party.

“Impressed, are you? Wait until you see me beat Ikaruga!”

*Audience claps because they hear the title of a game they recognize.*

We are bragging about nothing. Yes, yes, a 1CC is a lot of hard work, but that is part and parcel of our genre. Imagine if we spoke this way about other genres:

“Heh, I just beat all the Guitar Hero songs on Hard. Yeah, I’m pretty much amazing at this game”.

“Heh, I just beat Super Mario World. I had, like, 20 extra lives after I beat Bowser. Pretty much a normal day for an expert like me.”

“Heh, I just hit max level in Diablo. Not sure if you knew that was even possible but I totally did it.”

If you want to show off, show off your scores.

Scoring well requires a mastery of mechanics above and beyond what is needed to clear the game. Most scoring mechanics are ignored or used clumsily since a 1CC doesn’t usually require you to understand them. Should I brag if I play Street Fighter III without bothering to ever use parries? Should I brag about my chess accomplishments when I take no advantage of en passant and castling?

Why then would I brag about beating a shmup if I am not also leveraging the score system? What does my 1CC contribute to the community at large? 1CCing a game is not competition. It is a binary “beaten” or “not beaten”. It lacks nuance. It is unable to compel me to reach for higher accomplishments.

On the other hand, if I outscore you then I have accomplished two things: I have shown myself to be better than you while also reaching down my hand and offering you a chance to prove me wrong. By doing so, I add to the community spirit. I create a new challenge out of thin air. I create a chance for you to prove your skill. A 1CC is monolithic, unchanging, uninteresting. But a score? That can be improved upon.

From this spirit of competition, shmups reveal their most interesting facets.


Two methods to bring new players into the shmup genre.

I propose — for those hoping to act as ambassadors and loudspeakers for the shmup community — that the correct way to attract a healthy influx of new community members is to emphasize high-level play when someone enters the genre. Throw them into the deep end. Make them walk over the hot coals. Take the plunge.

Currently, we do not welcome players in this way, instead pushing for wholesale tourism of the genre as their de facto introduction. Is this proper? I do not believe so. Not only is it improper, but this approach is to blame for many of the issues currently stifling the community’s growth.

Are you a shmup tourist or a score chaser?

There are two prevailing schools of thought when it comes to welcoming new players. The community does both. This is not a matter of either/or but a matter of prioritizing where to invest effort. I’ll use the following terminology for the sake of argument: “shmup tourists” and “score-chasers”.

The first school of thought takes a doting, maternal approach. New players should be eased into the genre. We don’t want them to be scared off. New players should watch a lot of superplays, try out as many different shmups as they can, credit-feed to see what you like, and watch Top 10 lists so that they can learn about the genre. Maybe they’ll try for a 1CC.

Maybe not.

Probably not.

Maybe they’ll watch my Twitch stream.

These players are tourists. They are not interested in settling down and engaging with the genre at a higher level, and that’s okay. They are still fans and are a welcome part of the community. However, their behavior deserves no encouragement or emphasis.

New players are incapable of comprehending high-level play. That’s our underlying assumption when we adopt this approach. We resign ourselves to the trickle of shmup tourists who wander by. “This is just how the genre is, nowadays. People just don’t like hard games”, we tell ourselves.

Some of this attitude and approach is by necessity. You won’t have a thriving sub-community for each shmup when the overall community is so small. It makes sense that we’d lump ourselves together for the sake of some sort of community, some sort of opportunity for conversation. But we presume a separation between the core of the shmup genre and the community at large when we shelter players from the deeper facets of this genre.

Actually, I can take that further: our underlying assumption is that shmups are too intimidating. We act as though shmup tourists are the norm and score chasers are the outliers. We see the window shoppers walking by outside of the genre, occasionally glancing in during Steam sales or notable releases, and we do our best to hide the Gareggas, Black Labels, and 2-ALLs in the back room. We keep the easy, flashy stuff up front.

“Come in! Come in!” We beckon this new player like a nervous salesperson paid on commission, hoping that they will check out the back room. But we know in our hearts they’ll only drop 1 or 2 quarters and then move down the street to the “FPS store” or “RPG store”. We force a smile as they casually check out the Raidens, the Dariuses, and then they leave. Hardly a word is exchanged.

“Oh well,” we moan. “Better luck next time.”

We consign ourselves to the belief that the genre is dying, even though the current avalanche of shmup releases on consoles and PC rivals the days of SEGA Genesis, TG-16, and arcades.

How can this be? How can such a dead genre be surging forward? Perhaps we are not as insightful as we like to believe.

In contrast, the second school of thought expects the new player to engage in high-level play immediately. The player must not be sheltered from the challenge ahead. New players should try out a small handful of games — playing them, watching/reading/listening to reviews, watching superplays, and engaging with the community — and then pick a game to 1-credit-clear. Shortening the length of time between getting into the genre and accomplishing their first 1CC must be prioritized. After all, isn’t that “the fun part” of shmups according to the community? Why, then, would we divert the attention of new players into unrelated directions?

This principle is flexible since the game in question is entirely up to the player and their skill level. It is their choice.

This isn’t to say the community fails to push high-level play. We definitely use the second approach but it only takes one form: elitism. It is only natural for an insular community to be neutral or even hostile toward newcomers, but this chases away new players, obviously. Skilled players in the community often insist on the “proper” ways of playing shmups. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. Excellent play should be celebrated. 

Highlighting excellence and mocking mediocrity are two different things, though. In the community, a great deal of hot air is invested into blathering about what the “proper” way to play a game is or how to get new players into the genre (you’re reading such an article right now). When that bores us, we groan about how a new shmup port is “garbage” because it doesn’t offer the same flexibility as MAME. These opinions aren’t exactly false, but imagine being a new player who has eagerly purchased a copy of a shmup only to be told it’s terrible or to see thread after thread lamenting “the slow-motion death of STGs”. Would you stick around if that’s what you saw when you entered the genre?

A Public Relations problem.

Engaging with high-level play doesn’t only refer to how we play our games but also the content we view. We want to turn new players  into score chasers, right? So, we should be presenting information related to score. Not only high-level scoring, of course, but rudimentary information on how to start and maintain chains (for instance). These puzzle pieces are already written and filmed. These opinions have already crystalized over the past 30 years.

The problem is not a lack of information or skill in the community. It’s a public relations problem: the puzzle pieces are scattered across the internet and tucked away in obscure places. We expect our new players to find it and then we moan when they give up. Instead of this attitude, we should shine a spotlight on the challenge of shmups — without applying a filter — and then provide information needed to meet that challenge. Some players will be scared off. That is only natural. Blaming them for being scared off — with one hand on our arcade stick and the other clutching our waifu body-pillows — without lifting a finger to clarify or meet them halfway is perhaps related to the issue, I would say.

If the goal is to create score chasers, then our methods and our assumptions must be different: in order for a new player to know if they like shmups or not, they should be exposed to high-level play right away. The sooner this occurs, the sooner they can either move on or choose to spend some more time here among the Gareggas and Black Labels.

Treating new players this way allows them to make the informed decision as to whether or not shmups suit their tastes. Unlike the nervous salesperson, we can act confident in our product, take it or leave it. Watering down the product for the sake of getting a customer is a sales trick. It might get a few more people in the door, but they never stick around. Isn’t that the point, getting them to stick around?

Both approaches are built upon assumptions made about the new player. If the future of the genre is comprised of the window-shoppers and the shmup tourists, then easing players into the genre makes sense and the first approach should work. However, this is already the primary way in which players become aware of the shmup genre. If the approach worked, the community wouldn’t be this tiny.

We are not being clever when we suggest that new players should “check out some games and see what looks good to you”. This already takes place. Is it successful? Doubling down on tactics that have continued to fail since the mid-90s will not suddenly begin working in our favor.

Transforming the shmup tourist into the score chaser 

Unfortunately, the belief that shmup tourists will someday become score chasers is untrue. It is untrue for shmups. It is untrue for other videogame genres. It is untrue across all consumer products. Tourists exist everywhere, and every other product and brand wants to capture them. If shmups have to magically solve this age-old issue in order to survive, we truly are doomed.

We put both approaches — catering to shmup tourists or catering to potential score chasers — on equal pedestals. They are not equal. No other competitive genre places these two approaches on the same level, either. Fighting game collectors (is there such a thing?) are not held at the same level as tournament players, nor is there any praise or acknowledgement given to players who buy up a bunch of fighters across various consoles when they enter the genre. If there’s praise for any sort of consumerism, it would be for arcade sticks. This, clearly, stems from the desire to improve skill, not merely to acquire games. You won’t hear the argument that someone is stupid for buying an arcade stick “because you could’ve bought 5 or 6 more fighting games”.

High-level play deservedly sits on a pedestal. Does shmup tourism deserve a spot on that pedestal? I haven’t yet heard a compelling case as to why this behavior should be praised.

How can we hand out participation trophies to new players and then expect them to pursue bigger challenges? How will they become a score chaser? We’ve pandered them out of the genre, essentially, before they got the chance to engage with a true challenge and form their own opinion. We hope the shmup tourist will maybe-someday-eventually want to explore the genre further. This is not rooted in historical evidence.

An example: Nintendo thought they could take the huge number of new fans who bought the Wii for its motion-control games and turn them into “regular fans”, y’know, the ones who would be willing to buy Super Mario Galaxy and Metroid: Other M and the Wii U system.

“With the Wii, we wanted to bring in as many new users as possible and have them experience the games, but as a consequence, I think a lot of the core gamers felt that it wasn’t for them, and they started moving away. With the new console and the new controller, we definitely want to bring core gamers back and create new gamers as well. So, with the Wii U, we hope that the players who were introduced to gaming for the first time on the Wii will step it up and become core gamers themselves.” –Katsuya Eguchi

Nintendo designed their games — especially following the 2009 mega-success of New Super Mario Bros Wii — with the new player in mind. Handholding was rampant. Super Mario Galaxy even came with a tutorial DVD to ease new players into the game. Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword’s adventure was punctuated with the incessant “advice” from your companion, Fi.

All this was for the sake of converting casual players into devotees, but there is no evidence that occurred. Otherwise, the Wii U would not have become Nintendo’s worst-selling home console.

Our strange blend of skittishness mixed with prideful hostility toward new players — as though we might chase them off, but are too stubborn to offer them a helping hand — is self-defeating and betrays a lack of confidence in the genre. No other videogame genre dumbs down or hides its high-level play when new players are in the room. Celebrating high-level play (like fighting games in a tournament setting like EVO, for instance) is what attracts many new players to a particular game or videogame genre. Better yet, these players are most likely to stick around and engage in that kind of play because it is what caught their attention in the first place. 

Are we embarrassed of our own accomplishments? Are we embarrassed to play some of the hardest games ever made? Clearly that is the case. Why else would we make excuses and shuffle our feet as the community remains small? Other genres have exploded in popularity due to their difficulty. A shmup player should confidently step into that ring to say “surely you could handle this sort of game if you enjoy a challenge.”

Has that gauntlet been dropped?

What about collectors?

Indeed, what about them? They are an growing source of traffic for the genre. Collectors provide an unexpected-but-welcome spotlight from the outside. Your typical game journalists could hardly be bothered to name 10 shmups, let alone cover them with any nuance or expertise. The attention gained from the rarity of many shmups cannot be avoided.

However, collectors — by their nature — are genre-agnostic. The rarity of a shmup has no bearing on its quality. Myself, I own over 100 shmups, so I say this from the perspective of a collector, after a fashion. Curious collectors are welcome members of the community and valuable advocates for the genre, but the attention gained due to collectibility is incidental. Any “traffic” of that sort should be considered immaterial to the goal of pushing high-level play for a new player. Since we have established that meandering between different shmups and playing tourist is detrimental, encouraging players to chase after rare games and acquire a large collection of shmups is merely a palette-swap of the same issue.

The shmups genre has a lot to offer a videogame collector. Not only are the top games time-tested, they are also unlikely to decrease in value.

Following the example of the FGC

Speaking of fighting games, a comparison will help us understand: if a new player was getting into fighting games, we would not tell them “yeah! Go out and play dozens upon dozens of fighting games, try all the characters, play the arcade modes, and learn combos.” That would set them up for disappointment and frustration.

According to prevailing wisdom in the FGC, new players hoping to “see what fighting games are all about” should do the following (more or less):

  1. Find friends and friendly strangers against whom they can compete and seek advice.
  2. Find a game and stick with it.
  3. Find a character and stick with it.
  4. Embrace the concept of “practice”

We can use the same advice for shmups:

  1. Find friends and friendly strangers against whom they can compete and seek advice. Learning the mechanics is a challenge. There is camaraderie in figuring out these games, and in this regard the shmup community seems very friendly and eager to share its knowledge.
  2. Find a shmup and stick with it. Shmup tourism is going to be a part of the community whether we recommend it or not. Why should we waste energy in talking about it? We should tell new players that the depth of a shmup can only be uncovered when you spend some time learning it.
  3. Find a route and stick with it (or at least be methodical as you improve your route). This is a fundamental concept in shmups and is often misunderstood as memorizing. While memorization is a piece of the puzzle, a player working toward a 1CC is also building a structure — a scaffolding — of concepts and tricks to help them reach their goal.
  4. Embrace the concept of practice. Practice should be praised. Players need no assistance in feeling discouraged by constant defeat. Offering them insight into how to practice and why practice is valuable may help them overcome the hurdle. High-level play in shmups has less to do with innate skill and more to do with mental discipline and endurance. Reinforcing the idea that high-level play is mainly due to talent — not practice — leaves players with the incorrect belief that if the genre doesn’t click with them immediately then they lack the necessary talent. 

A player can only properly engage with the genre once they’ve made the decision to focus. Credit-feeding is akin to button-mashing your way through a fighting game’s arcade mode on Easy. Sure, you get to see the ending, but is that what the genre is about? Shmup tourism and credit-feeding are natural parts of the genre (and any other genre based on skill). They cannot be eliminated, nor should they be.

However, credit-feeding and shmup tourism should not be given attention or offered as advice. It is on the shoulders of the community to elucidate why these games are enjoyable. Dumbing down that message is self-defeating: we rob new players of the realization that shmups have something more to offer. The notion that they are “simple” and “short” and “lacking in content” is obvious to an outsider and is superficially true. Players do not need anyone to point this out to them. Players do not need encouragement to hop from game to game, to ignore the nuance, to blissfully ram credits down the throat of their emulator of choice. They will do this by themselves without prompting. 

The way in which players are brought into the genre affects how they will approach the genre moving forward. If we encourage them to skim over games as they search for one they like, then they will tend to skim in the future. If we encourage them to download huge ROMsets and randomly go through them, then they will tend to randomly go through them.

Our protests mean nothing.

No, no that’s not quite the right way,” we say after the fact, after they’ve settled in.

“You’re supposed to stop skimming and start chaining. This isn’t the right way”.

Their natural response would be confusion. How can we say this is not the right way? It is what we instructed them to do when they first decided to try the genre. We cannot tell new players to be shmup tourists and then wring our hands when they remain so.

The comparison to fighting games also provides us a path: each game has its champions and each scene has its commentators delivering hype to the viewers.

A new shmup player, however, would be spun dizzy trying to find the “top player” for a particular shmup, let alone the top players in the genre. Shmups are a much more private challenge compared to fighting games, but we still need our names. We still need champions of the genre to participate in moving it forward.

A proposal

Perhaps this is all merely a call to evangelize.

New players need a guide and skilled players need an audience. In an effort to shelter the small trickle of new players, we have cut ourselves off from the source of the water. The gaming audience at large is ravenous for skillful play. eSports could not exist otherwise. Speedrunning could not exist otherwise.

This audience is unlikely to approach us — hands outstretched — for examples of this skillful play. Like a 90s child approaching a cabinet of Street Fighter II for the first time, they have no context, no paradigm through which they can understand what they are seeing. They only see two warriors duking it out. Cross-up means nothing to them. Frame-data is a foreign concept.

How do newcomers approach shmups? The same way. They see a ship and bullets and exploding stuff, but they have no paradigm through which they can understand what they are seeing. Micro-dodging means nothing to them. Choosing to play with only one credit is a foreign concept.

By brushing aside the needs of our new players, they become stunted. By insisting “we’ll talk about all that hard stuff later. You go ahead and just run around the backyard”, secretly hoping they will come back inside and learn about the real nitty-gritty of shmups,  we can only expect a childish, distracted community as the result.