Welcome to The Shmuptake, an occasional column about the history of the shoot ‘em up, aka the “shmup.” Here’s an introduction, and here’s an archive of every column so far.
Can a game be a shoot ‘em up if you don’t actually control the shooting? That’s the question raised by Galaga Wars+, an Apple Arcade homage to one of the original shmups. The mobile platform isn’t all that accepting of the most basic shooter mechanics; tapping a touchscreen simply isn’t as responsive as jabbing buttons. To account for that, Galaga Wars+ has your ship fire automatically and nonstop—as long as you’re holding your finger on the screen. Picking your finger up won’t even kill you; it just triggers the pause screen. You literally can’t play the game without keeping your finger glued to the screen. If you don’t actively participate the game simply ceases to exist.
Is that antithetical to the shooter? Does Galaga Wars+ interrogate the very idea of shmup? Am I quoting the pretentious text on an art museum label I saw this week? (I can’t answer the first two, but I can respond to that last question with a resounding YES.) When it comes to the genre’s most central and basic mechanic, Galaga Wars+ flips the shoot ‘em up on its head; it’s also full of so much else that you expect to find in a shooter, though, which is where the waters get muddy. Is this a shmup? Is it a shmup-like? Does it really matter?
In Galaga Wars+, you’ll shoot down waves of flying insectoid foes. You’ll collect a variety of power-ups that boost your weapons or your defensive skills. You’ll do so much of what you’ll do in traditional shoot ‘em ups—or at least a rough mobile facsimile of it all. You’ll get a taste of the stress you expect from a shmup, and a glimmer of the satisfaction you feel when you successfully weave your way through waves of assholes trying to bomb the hell out of your shit. Your guns will get stronger, your lasers will stretch all the way across the screen, and you’ll destroy all manner of dickheaded ambushers trying to blow up your buzz. It definitely captures the high wire tension that defines this kind of game.
But: you don’t actually shoot. You literally just touch the screen, sliding your finger across it to make your ship move out of the way of bullets and bug ships. When you grab a power-up, it doesn’t last until you die, because that would make this whole house of cards collapse in on itself; it has an invisible timer, at which point you revert back to your standard peashooter. You don’t even have multiple lives, in the traditional sense; you can unlock ships and characters from different Namco games, and each one gets exactly one life during a play. When, say, your Galaga ship blows up, you can restart at that exact point with the ship from Xevious or Galaxian, assuming you’ve already unlocked them with the credits you can earn on each of the game’s 11 stages (you can’t access all of those stages from the start; you have to unlock each one by first surviving until you reach them, and then spending some of the coins you earn in each game to officially open them up for good). And since this is a Galaga game, you can rescue ships captured by the enemy; once per level, a captured ship will be flown across the screen and back by its captor, and if you blow the latter up, your buddy will sync up with your main ride for a limited amount of time.
Still, and again, for emphasis: throughout all of this, the only way you shoot is by keeping your finger on your phone screen.
This makes Galaga Wars+ easier than most traditional shooters. The only reason it might feel tougher at first is because you begin with a single life until you earn enough credits to start unlocking additional ships. You don’t need the kind of hair trigger reflexes required in most shmups, at least at first, and at least when it comes to shooting; in the earliest levels, you’ll be able to dodge most bullets and ships without issue. At higher levels the timing gets trickier, especially as more and more bullets fill the screen. And every even-numbered stage has a two-stage boss battle that gets more complicated the deeper you get.
Galaga Wars+ is ultimately a defensive game—first, foremost, and almost exclusively. You don’t actually shoot, even though your ship fires constantly. That means you’re focused throughout on dodging anything that comes your way. Sure, you’ll have to blow shit up to progress, but that tends to happen naturally when your ship constantly spits out bullets and missiles. Since you don’t have to worry about firing your weapon, the most important part of Galaga Wars+ is steering clear of whatever destructive nonsense comes your way. In Galaga Wars+, not getting shot is so much more important than actually shooting anything. Which makes us wonder, again: is Galaga Wars+ actually a shmup? Or is it, perhaps, some new, mutant genre, something adjacent to the shooters and shmups of the world, but where defense is thoroughly more important than well-timed offense?
I don’t know. I’m on vacation, and this bar is closed. Apparently the one next door is still serving. Have a good night!
: 2021 Developer and Publisher
: Bandai Namco Platform
: iOS / Apple Arcade
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.