If you read our review of Omega Five, you'll know how delighted we were to see a proper old-school shooter appear on Xbox Live Arcade. Of course, it's not by any means the first to do so. This is a service which launched with Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved, and has since played host to Mutant Storm: Reloaded, Small Arms, several Metal Slugs and Jetpac Refuelled. The PS3, meanwhile, is developing its own collection through the PlayStation Network, with titles like Super Stardust HD, Everday Shooter and Blast Factor. While they're not likely to abandon the likes of Halo 3 and Uncharted for such simple fare, many console owners are rediscovering the delights of the straightforward shoot â€˜em up.
Of course, you could argue that the genre never went away. While the rest of the world was hooked on Gran Turismo 3 and Halo, a sizable number of hardcore gamers were getting stuck into games like Treasure's Radiant Silvergun and Ikaruga and the various titles produced by the shoot â€˜em up specialist, Cave. Several factors, however, have come together to revitalise interest in the genre right now. First, services like Xbox Live Arcade and PSN have built a platform and demand for simple, inexpensive pick-up-and-play games. Retro-flavoured shooters are ideal, as they're not complex or expensive to produce, but - if they're packed with good ideas and addictive - are compulsive enough to make people go beyond the demo and buy the full game. While there are some gamers who will prefer to play straight ports of vintage originals, there are plenty of others who want to play something with the same feel, but with modern HD sound and graphics. The likes of Geometry Wars and Super Stardust HD show how successful this approach can be.
Meanwhile, in the background, a strong underground scene has been developing small-scale shoot â€˜em ups, often called â€˜shmups' and distributing them online as shareware or even freeware. Names like Kenta Cho, Omega and Shanghai Alice have become legendary, the former known especially for producing strange and beautiful abstract shmups featuring glowing vector graphics and innovative game mechanics. The influence of this scene is even spreading into the mainstream games industry, as indie coders are picked up by mainstream software houses or games - such as Omega's Every Extend - are reworked for new console platforms.
And while this scene has historically been dominated by Japanese teams, Western developers - many inspired by Kenta Cho or Geometry Wars - are now getting in on the act. Some of these come a little too close to their inspiration, as Mark Incitti found out when his excellent Geometry Wars-clone Grid Wars had to be pulled from the Web after pressure from Bizarre Creations. However, there are still some excellent games to be found out there (and you can still find Grid Wars with a quick search on Google).
The good news is that the free availability of these shmups means that you don't have to cough up for a new console or an Xbox Live Arcade game to play a great shoot â€˜em up today - all you need to do is fire up your browser and start downloading. We've selected a few blinders and classics for you to start with, but take a look at specialist sites like Shoot the Core and Shmuptacular if you want to see more. Some of the pages linked to may be in broken English (or even no English) so prepare for a little work, but the results are worth it. Also, think carefully about investing in a proper dual-stick joypad if you want to get the best from the games. We'd recommend an Xbox 360 controller or any decent clone (Windows should pick it up and work with it automatically). Ready? Head off and fire away!