10 Best Shoot 'Em Up Games for PC

Bang, bang, boom, rata-ta-ta-ta-ta, phiiieeeww...

The biggest PC shmups...okay, okay, Shoot 'Em Ups

When choosing the best of the best shoot 'em up games for PC, you have to keep in mind that there's a lot of similarity between the titles. It's not like with strategies, RPGs or adventure games, that have widely different stories, systems, mechanics etc. This is just you, with a ship or something similar, shooting enemies that come on the screen.

What I'm trying to say is: "If you've played one, you've pretty much played them all." After you grab your first SHMUP (best abbreviation ever!) and play through it, the rest will feel the same and, therefore, lose the "wow" factor. I admit, I am biased too. However, I did try to come up with some criteria by which to rank them and, hopefully, give each game what it deserves.

So, here's what was important for me:

  • The feel - the ship has to handle well and should move naturally, otherwise it gets frustrating
  • The look - I don't mean super graphics, just pleasing or friendly (modern smooth, or old-school pixel, both can be lovely or ugly)
  • The sound - again, I don't mean cutting edge sound, just something that fits well and a good soundtrack
  • Features - a good choice of ships or upgrades can really help these games out!
  • Cleanliness - the screen can get pretty cluttered and it's important to be able to tell what you need to avoid, what to shoot and what to pick up
  • Originality - this is really important for shoot 'em ups, as the genre needs some innovation to give it life

Now without further ado, the list! (Do keep in mind, this is a top 10 list, meaning that these are already the best SHMUPs out there. Now it's just a matter of nitpicking at the details and a bit of personal preference.)

10. Phoenix Force

Phoenix Force is cute. The look is cute, your "aircraft" is cute, the enemies are cute. Now, before we get too cuddly here, it is a shoot 'em up game, so there's shooting involved, but with a twist - it has a fantasy setting. Almost all SHMUPs are sci-fi, like it's some sort of rule. This game dared to be different and instead of a space ship or airplane, it gives you a living, breathing phoenix. And your enemies are beholders, necromancers and the like. Cool!

The game itself is nothing fancy really. You have your stages, only each stage is a boss. Each boss is very unique though, so that makes the whole experience less repetitive. Also, you can unlock more phoenixes and level them too. Fun.

9. Raiden Legacy

Anyone who's played a shoot 'em up, PC or otherwise, must have heard the name Raiden before. The game was successful enough on the arcade to evolve into a whole series and now we have a few titles on the PC as well! It's fast paced, with good music, good control and fun shooting action. The downside? The ports are lackluster. Most have very poor visual options, no real features to match what you would expect on PCs (like long-term rewards or upgrades) and there's the occasional compatibility issue. That's why I can't put it any higher on the list, but at least we get to play it right?

Why Raiden Legacy? Because it offers the most - it's four games in one. Instead of being ported it's actually the MAME arcade emulator, running these games, packed into a simple installation with a menu screen for easy navigation. Thanks to that, this can actually run better than the basic ports. 

8. Astebreed

This was not made with the PC in mind, at least that's what the controls tell me. Oh right, what is it? Well, it's a Japanese SHMUP where you're a mech. I felt I needed to add one of these in the list to cover my bases and this one is...pretty good! What sets it apart is that you have a sword along with your regular guns. It's also a cool looking laser sword that can block certain attacks. It really changes up the game and sometimes it can even feel more like melee combat, rather than a shooter. Should've known right? If you ever want a genre innovated, give Japan a go!

7. Sine Mora

If a shoot 'em up ever had a real, thought-out story, then this is it and Grasshopper Manufacture get huge props for that! Sine Mora is also the first title on this list to have lovely, modernized visuals. It gets extra points for adding something new as well - you can slow down time. In fact, the whole game works around time instead of health. Oh, and the voices are in Hungarian! It's kind of fun to listen to, since not many (if any?) games offer it as a language.

The only problem is that, despite everything listed, it still feels like a very ordinary SHMUP, so I can't give it a higher spot than this.

6. Ikaruga

Ikaruga is another Japanese (of course it is, look at the name!) shoot 'em up game, with a nice gimmick. You have some sort of polarity shield on your ship that lets you avoid certain bullets, but get hit by other bullets. It has light/dark polarity and you'll have to switch it around often in the middle of combat to survive, since enemies really mix up the bullets. It can get pretty intense and fun...or frustrating.

5. Jets'N'Guns Gold

Now this is pretty close to the formula for "best shoot 'em up PC game". It is what you would expect any SHMUP to be, but it gives you a lot (A LOT!) of options for weapons, upgrades and different ships. The story is told in comic book form which is pretty cool, and the soundtrack can get you really pumped up. The downside? The screen gets littered pretty easily and it's hard to tell where the enemy projectiles are. Also, the health bar is pretty inconspicuous.

4. Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony

Without a doubt the weirdest setting for a game ever: Britain colonizes Mars in the 17th century! Wait, are you serious? Yes, I'm serious. This is a bullet-hell SHMUP with local co-op of up to 4 players. Think about that for a second. Obviously, it's a crazy party game, with an even crazier premise, that can get crazy hard. Crazy.

3. Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions

With Geometry Wars, we are taking a big leap into the "different approach" area of PC shoot 'em ups. What's so different about it? Well...you see...there's...it's...Just look it up on YouTube. Seriously, it's hard to explain. You're a glowing little shape, that shoots other glowing shapes, while moving across a grid shaped in a certain way. Don't understand? Told you. You have to see it in action to understand how cool it really is. The whole game sort of glows in a TRONesque manner. Plus it's got great tunes!

2. Beat Hazard

Light 'em up!

The only way to listen to music, at least for gamers. It's another SHMUP with a very unique approach. You do have a ship, you do shoot enemy ships, but the pace of the game, the enemies, and flow of levels is determined by the music played - and you choose the music! Yes! This game can take your favorite song and turn it into a level for the game. It's insanely fun to play. Add to that the fact that all the bullets are brightly colored lights. The game essentially puts you in a disco where you shoot spacecraft - awesome!

1. Raptor: Call of the Shadows

You were either not expecting this one, or you saw it coming a mile away. At first I considered myself biased with this title, but I've never found another PC shoot 'em up that could really compete. I dare say the developers perfected this formula. If you don't trust my opinion, there is the fact that this used to be a DOS game, that was rereleased in 2010 and then again in 2015, so there's obviously some interest floating around.

Why is it so perfect? Remember all that criteria I posted up there? It excels in each (except originality, but back then it may have been original): Your ship doesn't feel sluggish or hyper. Enemies look unique and the environments are radically different. The soundtrack is incredible and sticks in your head, even though it's midi. Each weapon is more powerful and more expensive than the last, giving you something to shoot for (get it? no? okay...). All the enemy projectiles are really visible, as well as all the enemies, and anything you can blow up on the ground is obvious too. If you get hit, it's all on you. Finally, it strikes the perfect balance of easy-to-learn and hard-to-master. 

Raptor has as much as it needs, with no dead-weight and everything runs smoother than most of today's high-budget games! Be careful of one thing though: the remastered editions can have a few quirks. The DOS version, though old, will still run flawlessly through DOSBox. The 2010 edition works well for me, but 2015 has some issues that will hopefully be patched (at least by a fan, if not by developers).

Shoot 'em up games just don't get all the love and attention they deserve, so props to those who really try to make them count! In this day and age where we have less and less time to fit long gaming sessions into our busy schedule, we need this genre to gives us a quick break from the chaos that is life. Any other games good for a 30 min break from reality?

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