The Nintendo Switch is overloaded with shoot-em-ups. There’s an argument to make that it’s the shmup console, as it has so many of the greatest hits of the past as well as new, modern efforts both inspired by and trying to overshadow those greats. And that’s without getting into the fact that there is a $12 accessory built for it that allows you to play vertical shoot-em-ups in TATE mode like God intended.
And yet, this isn’t enough for me. There are shoot-em-ups that Switch owners in Japan have access to, that have not—and often will never—receive an international release. With a little bit of effort, though, “Japanese exclusive” doesn’t have to mean a thing when it comes to shmups: the Switch is region-free for both physical imports and digital purchases. There are already guides out there explaining how to set up a Japanese Switch account and acquire the yen you need to make purchases on that storefront. So, let’s talk about a few of the games you should want to do all of that for, to further beef up your already impressive shmup library.
Just assume unless otherwise noted that the menus for these games are totally or mostly in Japanese, meaning you’ll need to either do some sleuthing or trial-and-error to figure out what’s what within if you can’t read that language.
Aleste is a classic shmup franchise, one loaded with high-quality outings. Exclusive to Japan is the Aleste Collection, which manages to be both underwhelming and satisfying: this release has “just” five games in it, a fraction of the whole franchise that Compile developed in its 21 years. You can focus on how this collection lacks Space Megaforce, that there’s no M.U.S.H.A. here, no Robo Aleste. Or, you can recognize that this still features four of Compile’s Sega Master System and Game Gear shooters, all of which flew comparatively under the radar given the two systems combined to sell about as many units as the Saturn. Aleste (Master System), Power Strike II (A PAL region exclusive SMS game), GG Aleste (GG stands for Game Gear), and GG Aleste 2 are all here.
These titles all play fairly similarly. They have Compile’s signature large arsenals that continually power up as you collect P chips, with the additional custom choice of secondary weapons that could make or break your playthrough. Aleste and co. might seem easy early on, but you’ll later pay for your hubris when the screen is loaded with enemies and bullets. The slowdown that comes from this is a welcome respite that gives you time to react; a real feature, not a bug scenario for throwback shooters.
And then there is GG Aleste 3, which manages to be a throwback, too, but one released in 2020 GG Aleste 3 is not meant to simply mimic the series’ time on the Game Gear, but it actually is a Game Gear title, developed by M2 for that hardware, and released in Japan on a Game Gear Micro variant as well as in the Aleste Collection itself. If you’re into the 8- and 16-bit shooters of the Aleste era at all, then you will adore GG Aleste 3, which pushes what the Game Gear was capable of both artistically and in sheer on-screen action to the point that you would be right to wonder if it actually does play on that handheld.
The Aleste Collection is part of M2’s ShotTriggers series, which dusts off some of the greatest (and rarest) shmups in the genre’s history, and adds modern touches to excellent ports. There are online leaderboards for each of the five games, save states, a challenge mode that lets you choose any stage or boss fight and your arsenal, options for difficulty and lives (which will in turn impact what kind of leaderboard you rank on), and ShotTriggers’ signature “Gadgets.”
Gadgets fill the left and right side of the screen, and do their best to demystify the game you’re playing. The Aleste Collection versions are fairly basic, although it is nice to know if you’ve maxed out your secondary weapons, or how many P chips you need before you upgrade your primary gun, or how many you still need in order to gain a life-saving shield, or how many more points you need before your next extend. You can learn about how the game works and what everything in it actually does by keeping an eye on the Gadgets.
No, no, it’s not that DoDonPachi—where are we on that, anyway?—but it is still DoDonPachi. This particular iteration of Cave’s high-scoring masterpiece was initially an arcade game, and a port was developed for feature-phones in Japan—feature-phones are basically pre-smartphones, and a whole slew of videogames were made for the many different kinds of them. Many of those games can be lost to history despite archivists’ best efforts, and others end up ported and restored in series like G-Mode’s Archives, optimized for consoles but still very much a phone game.
Sure, Blissful Death DX could be seen as more of a curiosity than the previous import in this feature, but Cave are masters of the manic bullet hell shmup, and they go all-in on development effort whether a game is slated for arcade, console, or mobile. If you’re looking for a somewhat scaled down danmaku affair that will cost you just a few bucks—one that doesn’t require touch controls like the existing smartphone ports of it—then you could do a lot worse than this version of DoDonPachi, which is good fun even with its attached weirdness.
If you’re looking for a larger, meaner, even more bullet-filled Cave offering to import, ESP Ra.De. Psi is what you need. The Switch version is another M2 ShotTriggers effort, with Gadgets on the side of the screen that help you discern the game’s hidden mechanics, and it is menacingly difficult. It’s brutal, really, not the kind of game a casual shoot-em-up fan wants to go anywhere near, but instead the kind where the default arcade mode caps how many credits you can use on a single playthrough.
ESP Ra.De. Psi does not feature ships, but instead people who fly around blasting their enemies using psychic powers. A new look and style also brought with it a new scoring system, less demanding than DoDonPachi’s, where you would score more points by, in essence, attacking the biggest foes with your charged attack, while simultaneously chaining together kills of lesser “popcorn” enemies with your standard attack. It’s fine if you just want to focus on not dying, though.
If you get stuck, you can view replays from other ranking players to see how they managed to solve the various problems they found themselves in, or you can try to learn the game bit by bit via the Arcade Challenge mode. If you enjoyed Cave’s efforts that have actually been released on the Switch outside of Japan, like Mushihimesama or DoDonPachi Resurrection or Espgaluda II, then it’s time to strap in and import ESP Ra.De. Psi to complete the vertically oriented set.
If you’re looking for a precursor to the X-Wing series of computer games, for a title that influenced Star Fox 2, and were also hoping such a game was included as an unlockable in the Japanese version of Namco’s Star Fox Assault on the GameCube, then Star Luster is the very specific title you were looking for.
Star Luster received mixed reviews and sold poorly when it was released on the Famicom in 1985, but that’s partially because no one knew what to make of it. It’s played from a first-person perspective, inside the cockpit of a space fighter, and you are tasked with traveling around a map to hunt down the enemies located at various regions marked on your ship’s radar. Destroy each of the ships and the base craft they flew out of, then move on to the next, and do so before your ship runs out of energy or shielding: luckily, the latter does recharge. You’re able to look in all directions, and fly while within a region, too, not just between them at high speeds: this game is extremely advanced for 1985, and ended up highly influential in the genre because of it.
It’s easier to see all of that in retrospect, of course, but now you can nab it for literally a couple of bucks instead of hunting down a rare physical copy. The whole game is in English, too, which makes its lack of an international release both in the past and now even weirder. To actually play Star Luster on your Switch, you need to download the Namcot Collection from the Japanese eShop—don’t worry, that’s a free platform within a platform, a la Capcom’s Arcade Stadium. Then, you can buy Star Luster separately, and it will be playable through Namcot Collection. It’s never easy with this game, but at least it’s inexpensive now.
If Aleste Collection sounds good, then you’re going to want to check out Raging Blasters. It was released in 2021 and was developed by indie developer Terarin Games, which actually has other shmups on the North American eShop, but not this one, despite the entire thing being in English. While previous games Missile Dancer and Gemini Arms focus on one specific weapon type around which the game is designed, Raging Blasters opens things up with a large, Compile-inspired arsenal. The presentation is high, between the actual gameplay itself and its retro art, which will have those familiar with titles like Blazing Lazers and Super Star Soldier feeling nostalgic, and it plays a lot like those, too, especially in how you can change your ship’s speed and pair together weaponry to better take down both obstacles and bosses, while also maximizing scoring.
There is more to it than just “hey, remember these other games?” though. The standard difficulty is fairly welcoming and will give you the chance to learn the game’s mechanics and scoring system—multipliers based on constantly attacking and destroying, as well as in collecting the chips that burst forth from exploded enemies. There are two characters which play the same, and are there for either co-op or Dual Play, the latter of which is for sickos who want to play as both ships at once and attempt to beat the game that way.
Raging Blasters doesn’t have the kind of built-in fan support of the other games on this list, but if you’re into old-school shmups at all, you’d be missing out if you skipped this one. There isn’t necessarily anything new here, but it’s all just so fantastically well done and succeeded in its mission to bring the past to life that you won’t mind this fact one bit.
There are two of these Toaplan Arcade Garage collections, both ShotTriggers releases. The first Toaplan Arcade Garage features Tiger-Heli as well as its sequel, Kyukyoku Tiger, known to North American audiences as Twin Cobra. These are ports of the helicopter-centric, military-themed arcade originals, with all the ShotTriggers touches already mentioned. The Gadgets are at their most useful, as Tiger-Heli gate kept secret 10,000-point vehicles behind choices like whether your last shot was a multiple of 16. There is also a map Gadget, which shows off what enemy types are in an Area, where items are within that Area, and whether you’re approaching one of those secret bonus cars and have to start paying attention to the shot counter Gadget on the other side to reveal it.
Tiger-Heli and Kyukyoku Tiger are extremely old-school, but also ahead of their time: Tiger-Heli introduced the idea of a limited-use bomb that would wipe out enemies in a shmup, for instance (as well as sizable score bonuses for not using said bombs), and has two kinds of options to pick up to flank your chopper and bolster your attack. While neither is a bullet hell experience, given they are arcade games from the ‘80s, you can also see the foundation upon which Toaplan would build its short-lived shmup empire here, one whose last gasps was 1993’s Batsugun, the proto-bullet hell experience.
The second collection features another two vertical shmups, Hishouzame and Same! Same! Same!, which switch from choppers to World War biplanes, and are also known as Flying Shark and Fire Shark internationally. These are even more difficult than their helicopter cousins, with more involved scoring systems and additional secrets, but similarly worth the effort it will take for you to master them. Each Arcade Garage selection features a Super Easy Mode, too, which was designed to allow people to learn these brutal old-school experiences with a little less stress.
Toaplan closed down in 1994, with its ex-developers opening up a number of new studios (like Cave) both shortly before that closure and in its aftermath, while also bolstering the ranks of Taito—the original publishers of many of Toaplan’s shooters, including these ones—right before they made some of their greatest contributions to the shmup space. So, if you want to experience both a taste of some genre-shaping history and games that remain just wonderful to play decades later, bolstered by M2’s particular touch, then one or both of the Toaplan Arcade Garage collections are for you.
The only real downside is that the various console releases of each game are locked behind DLC if you buy digitally, which will run you another $15 per collection to rectify. Unless you just have to experience the differences between every console port, though, you can just get away with the superior arcade iterations.
History lesson! Compile eventually stopped focusing on shmups, then closed down in 2003. Some former Compile devs formed MileStone Inc., and then kept making shmups, like 2005’s Radirgy, which also has a number of sequels, and 2007’s Karous, which was the last officially licensed release on the Dreamcast. MileStone would also close, and from its ashes rose RS34.
With MileStone shut down, RS34 picked up the Radirgy license—a new Radirgy released in North America in 2021, even—as well as that of MileStone’s Illvelo series. Illmatic Envelope Swamp is a new entry in the latter, and it’s far different from anything else on this list, and probably any other shmup you’ve played.
It’s full of the kind of colorful, artistic weirdness both MileStone and RS34 have utilized, but the real shift is that, while your loops are relatively short like any other shmup, you won’t actually see all of the game until you play it again and again and again. There are 100 stages in Illmatic Envelope Swamp, and you won’t unlock them without successfully completing missions and collecting items. Missions are things like “destroy X number of foes with Y weapon” or “collect appropriately labeled keys,” and even though the mission words tend to be in Japanese, there’s plenty of art to act as your guide, and videos to dispel some of the mystery are a Google search away.
It’s a twin-stick shooter, where you utilize “Dolls” with the right stick if you choose to separate them from your ship, which you always control with the left. You can turn autofire on and off with the left trigger, so you can focus just on movement, or you can stop firing in order to let a shield pop up to absorb potential damage. The Dolls can work like melee attacks, you can tow them or anchor them behind your ship, and you can control them separately. You’ve got a lot of options there, no pun intended. It’s definitely a little odd for a number of reasons, but it’s a lot of fun, and a game you can go back to a ton before you ever manage to truly complete it.
Marc Normandin covers retro videogames at Retro XP, which you can read for free but support through his Patreon, and can be found on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.