Shmups on the Super Nintendo are…An interesting thing. I say interesting because while there’s quite a few available, the number of them that are worth playing is another story. That said, there are some absolute diamonds in the rough that is the SNES shmup library, and I’m going to list off a few of them here so you can get your blasting on if you so desire!
Gradius III’s arcade release is incredibly infamous for being one of the hardest games in the series. No continues allowed plus soul crushing stage difficulty with some absolutely nasty, unforgiving level gimmicks like the dreaded Cube Attack. The SNES version thankfully ends up being its own take on the game rather than a straight up port. While some levels and bosses are re-used from the arcade release, some new, original content is also included while one of the worst offending levels from the arcade version is completely removed.
For those who haven’t read my other Gradius pieces like Spolous EX, this is a shmup where you pick your powerups. Every Power Capsule you grab advances the power gauge on the bottom of your screen one space. Pressing the power-up button activates the highlighted powerup and requires you to start again from the left of the gauge when you grab your next power capsule. You can increase ship speed, activate anti-surface missiles, get a second direction for your shot or a much stronger main gun, get Options which follow your ship and have the same weapons it does, or get a defensive shield to help keep you alive. Choosing powerups becomes a major strategy in the game because of this approach, rather than just getting something immediately by grabbing a powerup.
Gradius III SNES makes things more interesting by offering several pre-set weapon loadouts to choose from when you start, as well as a pool of individual power-ups you can pick for each slot via Weapon Edit, giving you multiple ways to play through the game as you try and find the weapon setup that fits you best. The game also has several difficulties so any level of skill can have a chance here. Masochists who enjoyed the ridiculous difficulty of the arcade version can even play Arcade Difficulty if they REALLY want to have a bad time via a code on the options screen.
As usual for a Gradius game, each level has its own distinct visual theme, starting with a vast desert full of sand dragons and a massive insect boss at the end. You’ll also have a traditional volcanic cavern, Easter Island themed level filled with Moai heads, and a high-speed level exclusive to the SNES version of the game. Many “Big Core” themed bosses, a series staple, are present, but you’ll get a few unique ones as well such as a giant ship eating plant to shake things up. It’s easily one of the best shmups on the SNES, though it’s not without one caveat: Slowdown.
On a technical level, Gradius III has a LOT going on with its backgrounds, enemy and bullet counts, plus all the shots you’ll be firing. It adds up, and due to a lack of optimization, Gradius III will often suffer slowdown in more intense parts, though this can often be used to your advantage. That said, if you’re emulating, an SA-1 patch that removes all slowdown is available here: https://github.com/VitorVilela7/SA1-Root/tree/master/Gradius-III
Just be warned, this will make the game MUCH harder. But even without this slowdown fix, it’s still a solid shmup and one of the best on the system, and will make you yearn for the days Konami wasn’t terrible.
Another Konami shmup for the SNES, though this one is an original title as opposed to a long running series entry. Axelay tasks you with avenging your planet and family after an alien attack using the titular prototype fighter.
What shakes Axelay up is two things. One, like Salamander, the game uses both horizontal and vertical levels. The other is that you’ll pick your weapons on a per stage basis, with the options available for your loadout expanding with each stage you complete. You get three weapon slots, and all three weapons you pick are available and can be swapped between freely from the get-go.
The ability to freely switch between your three weapon types (A primary, secondary, and missile) results in using the right gun to use for the right situation being a major gameplay element. There’s no grabbing power-ups here, just strategic weapon selection. That’s not to say you can’t end up in a bad spot though: Any time you take a hit from enemy fire, the currently selected weapon is broken and you are left with only a basic pea-shooter in its place. Once all of your weapons are broken, another hit means you’re done. Direct collision with a surface or enemy is even worse, usually resulting in instant death! The bad news is there’s no way to fix a broken weapon, you’ll only get it back when you either beat the level or respawn after a death.
This does make Axelay a fairly difficult shooter for newcomers, though it has an Easy setting, but that’s relatively speaking.
Despite this, I still find Axelay to be one of the best entries on the console. It’s not as slowdown ridden as Gradius III, but intense moments will result in some noticeable chug at times. It’s made up for though in solid level design, a great soundtrack, and the vertical sections are quite the visual treat due to the use of Mode 7 for a unique visual style compared to other vertical shooters.
Bosses are definitely one of the more visually impressive aspects of the game as well. Stage 2’s mech boss in particular uses Mode 7 sprite rotation effects to give it an incredibly fluid animation style.
Like Gradius 3, an SA-1 (Fastrom) patch exists for those who want a slowdown free experience:
MACROSS: SCRAMBLED VALKYRIE
Fair warning, this is probably one of the hardest entries on the list, even on the Normal setting, so there’s no shame in trying Easy if you’re starting out.
That out of the way, Macross SV is an interesting entry in that while it may use the Macross (AKA Robotech) anime as its source material, it only does so in a very loose sense. The game doesn’t follow the plot of Macross at all, so if you’re expecting a re-telling of the anime, you won’t see it here. What you will get though is a fun, fast, and frantic shmup. And if anything, the choice not to be a 1:1 re-telling was a good one, it gave the developer more creative freedom in enemy, level, and boss design since they weren’t limited to Macross’ canon mechs.
The premise of Scrambled Valkyrie is a simple one: you pick one of three pilots: Hikaru, Max, or Millia (Where the hell is my Roy, game?!). Each has their own transforming jet mech hybrid known as a Valkyrie equipped with three weapons (not unlike axelay). The twist here is that changing weapons also involves changing the form of your craft between Fighter (Jet) mode, Gerwalk (A jet with its legs out), and Battroid (Full on humanoid type robot). Fighter offers the best speed, while Battroid offers the worst speed. Usually, power of each mode’s weapon shares an inverse relation with speed: The slower you are, the stronger your weapon. This becomes tricky in that sometimes you will absolutely need the speed of Fighter mode to survive, with Batrroid’s lack of speed making it easy to be hit by enemy attacks or pulled into gravity based traps (which in turn get you hit by enemy attacks).
Unlike most shmups, Macross SV uses a health gauge. Taking a hit doesn’t mean instant death, which is good because you lack extra lives, only continues which restart the level from its beginning. This does however make power-ups behave a bit differently than most shmups as well. Each of your forms has power level that increases by 1 when grabbing a power-up item, and each form caps at Level 3. That said, if you take a hit? Your current form goes down a level, meaning sometimes you may want to hold back on using a specific form so you can keep its Level 3 weapon handy for a tough spot. There’s also power-ups to restore your health, but they’re far less common. So, much like Axelay, it’s all about figuring out the best weapon to use in any given situation, but with a bit of a power-up balancing act thrown on top of it. There is one more unique twist however that makes Macross SV unique: Converting an enemy to your side!
If you don’t fire your weapon, a golden aura will eventually form around your Valkyrie. If you can fly close to an enemy and avoid taking damage for a long enough period, that enemy will be converted over to your side! The bigger the foe, the longer it takes, but usually it means more firepower as well. Unfortunately, this is a risky move, as taking a hit resets the amount of time you have to fly near an enemy with your aura active to convert it. Every enemy you can convert has its own attack pattern, some may only cover certain parts of the screen, others may actively seek out other foes for you. It’s all about experimenting to find the enemy that best suits your needs.
One of the more impressive things about this game is how little slowdown it has, even with all that’s going on visually. You’ll have tons of enemies, bullets, and everything you’re doing on top of it, with the game still going full speed almost all the time. So whoever worked on this game’s optimization? Uh…Good job! My only real complaint is that unlike Axelay, which lets you freely go back and forward on weapon selection, you can only go forward on Macross, Fighter -> Gerwalk -> Battroid -> Back to Fighter. The ability to go backwards isn’t present…unless you get a romhack!
Overtech Edition makes the game a bit easier (honestly Hard difficulty in the original is insane. Normal is hard enough, so that’s the new Hard in this hack.)
That said, this is absolutely worth looking at. This wasn’t a big name developer or a big title in general, but it’s easily one of the best hidden gems of the SNES library.
UN SQUADRON/AREA 88
UN Squadron was available shortly after the launch of the Super Nintendo, and was one of the best early titles in the system library. Based on the CPS-1 arcade game of the same name by Capcom, the SNES version was a very, very different beast. The premise is simple: you play as one of several mercenary pilots trying to defeat the evil international arms syndicate known as Project 4 which manipulated events in a fictional middle eastern country to start a civil war, and both sides are now quite angry about it and willing to put aside their grievances to bring said syndicate down. It’s actually a licensed property, based on the Area 88 manga out of Japan, but we’re not gonna spend a lot of time talking about that.
Instead, we’ll talk about what makes the game unique as far as shmups go. You pick one of three pilots, but rather than this determining your aircraft and weapons, each pilot has their own unique perk. Shin gains levels on his aircraft’s primary weapon faster than the others via power-ups, Mickey is a pro with special weapons and able to fire more than one at a time, and Greg is incredibly tanky, able to take more hits and recover from them quicker.
The game’s health mechanic is easily its most unique feature: Being hit doesn’t mean instant death. Instead, taking a hit puts you into a Danger state. Taking another hit during this state results in death, but if you can avoid taking damage long enough, the Danger passes and as long as your healthbar wasn’t emptied by the last hit you took, you’ll return to a state where you can take another hit and be put into Danger, rather than being put into the ground. Take too many hits though, and you’ll eventually run out of health and thus be put into a permanent state of Danger!
The uniqueness doesn’t end there though. Area 88 is an airbase staffed entirely by mercenaries, and that means you have to pay for your weapons and aircraft. You’ll start out with a basic F-4E, but you’ll be able to upgrade to better planes capable of mounting various special weapons as you earn cash. That cash is also used to purchase special weapons on a per-stage basis, with any special weapon ammo you don’t spend being refunded back at its full cost, so there’s no reason to skimp on your weapons: Worst case scenario, you don’t use them and get the cash back. This does mean however that earning money is vital to your success, which means killing as many enemies and finding as many hidden bonuses as possible: New planes are NOT cheap.
You also get a tactical map you pick your next mission from, and you get a small degree of freedom in how you tackle the first few stages. Although three of these missions are actually enemies approaching Area 88 to launch an assault: A submarine and two air squadrons. If any of these enemies reach Area 88, you cannot play any other mission until you deal with the threat to the base. You can also opt to hit enemy convoys, which don’t pay much, but are very easy missions and are repeatable as new convoys will show up on the map as you kill the current ones.
Every stage has its own enemies and boss to worry about, meaning what works well in one stage may not work well in another. Some may be easier with an anti-surface setup, others will benefit from heavy firepower directed straight ahead. One boss in particular which can sod right off requires a lot of upwards firing weapons.
If one thing in particular stands out though in the case of UN Squadron, it’s the music. For an early near launch title, Capcom really knew how to work with the Sony based audio processor the SNES was equipped with, it has some of the best sounding music of any game on this list with some great guitar and saxophone work in particular that warrants a listen. Enemy Airforce, The Canyon, and Ground Carrier are probably my favorite tracks of the bunch, but they’re all good.
Music courtesy of The Cartridge Twins on Youtube.
A Fastrom SA-1 hack is available for this game too! https://github.com/VitorVilela7/fastrom
SPACE MEGAFORCE/SUPER ALESTE
I’ve saved what is easily the best for last here. Space Megaforce (AKA Super Aleste in Japan) comes from a company that didn’t have a lot of fame in the US at the time, but is very much a big name in shmup history: Compile. Compile is known for being the tech wizards of the area, often pushing the hardware they developed games on to their limits, with the games still running impressively despite. While most shmups on the SNES have a degree of slowdown, it’s virtually non-existent on Space Megaforce. Compile focused heavily on not only making Super Aleste look good, but also making sure it was optimized and kept at full speed for an incredible shooting experience.
The story of the game is the usual: Aliens invaded Earth, go blast them all. What makes Super Aleste so special is the aforementioned incredible performance of the game, but also its fun weapon system. You have 8 different weapons you can pick up in Super Aleste, and each can be powered up to become even stronger, and all of them have alternate firing modes accessed by tapping or holding a dedicated button. This gave each weapon multiple functions, giving a new layer of depth not often seen in shmups as every gun could work in more than one way. You also have access to a good ol “Smartbomb” that wipes enemies and bullets, perfect for panic situations.
One thing that does set Super Aleste apart from other games is its lives system, which is a bit on the odd side. You get normal extra lives, but also a certain number of “Gold” extra lives. Any extra lives that are gold allow you to respawn right where you died, but dying on a normal, non golden life sends you back to the last checkpoint you reached.
As for the gameplay itself, this is good ol fashioned vertical shooting, something Compile is a bit of a master of. Every level features plenty of things to blast, plenty of chances to pick a new weapon and power-up your ship, and in many cases offer unique terrain based challenges to overcome. These can include mazes of alien structures where you have to blast weakpoints to clear pathways, or caverns where you have yield to enemy craft as they dig tunnels you can then traverse through. There’s also a few mode 7 levels where the level itself is a giant alien fortress you will attack from different angles as you try to take it down piece by piece, eventually destroying its main structure to bring it down entirely.
The soundtrack isn’t quite up to the level of some of the other games on this list, but ti gets the job done. At the end of the day though, whether it’s the western Space Megaforce, or Japanese Super Aleste, this is one shmup you owe it to yourself to try if only to see what can happen when a developer who is a master of the craft puts out a title on a system that had been known for less than optimized shmups.
So there ya go. Need some good shmups on the SNES? I’d say these are the best of the best, and lord knows it’s not an easy system to find good shmups for considering the competition. Now get out there and blast some aliens!