Shmups vs the Metal

There is so much overlap between shooting games and heavy metal music. It’s kind of crazy. I want to talk about why.

shmup or album cover? You decide!

Shared Origins

Both metal and shmups are rooted in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Both of these decades were audacious in their own ways, but the 1980s were a bit more gregarious and standout more in the collective imagination. As such, even outsider culture like heavy metal was subject to its clutches. Hippy and biker aesthetics, a tough working class ethos, and the obtuse fashions of the early punk movement coalesced into what became the standard issue heavy metal uniform.

But before this kind of standardization took hold, even dark and underground metal acts were big.

The LA glam scene is not completely at fault here. Those displays were a symptom of the times. Everything was big, from hair and makeup to design. Coming out the bright pastels of the 1970s and into the post-punk world of the 80s left a style that was iterated upon a thousand times, like copies of copies, but remained centered on an audacious and over-the-top feeling. The hippy movement, disco scene, and optimism of the 1980s can be pointed to as germane to these aesthetic.

In tandem with or because of the bright colors and eye-popping styles of the time, the emergence of the arcade contributed to its visual pollution. Flashy, backlit games and neon lights drew in unsuspecting humans along with their quarters and etched the aesthetic into all of our minds, even if we were too young to understand. Cycle after cycle of product shed their influences and solidified as a commonly accept aesthetic. Compliment this with exaggerated nostalgia and you have what our collective memories hold as the ’80s.


The bombast of the 1980s, from the blowouts of housewives to the intensity of Bay Area thrash bands, fastened itself to both heavy metal and shooting games and then enveloped the militaristic fantasies of the Cold War.

With the Vietnam war fresh in the minds of westerners, especially Americans, and the lingering imagery of World War 2 forever imprinted into the psyche of Japan, popular culture continued to duplicate military motifs like, as I said, copies of copies, until this image detached itself to become its own thing. Rambo, Chuck Norris, Top Gun, Star Wars, Transformers, and the like captured or were rolled into the combative impression many experienced during this time of nuclear threat and Cold War aggression. “Rugged,” conservative leadership in the West like Reagan and Thatcher deepened this impression with the tough tones of their respective approaches and pressed the reactionary element of society into a further state of combativeness.

The results included bands with names that echoed certain atomic war and logos that resembled movie titles; games about cyborg POWs and heavily armed cops blasting drug cartels. And we should never underestimate the influence of Miami Vice.

It’s hard to overemphasize the point that this aesthetic quickly spilled over into its own bucket. Most musicians and game developers did not think through the imagery they were choosing: it was simply “baked in” to society at the time. It was the vibe. In the same way that we will one day look back at bands that use fonts for a logo or facial tattoos with confusion, few artists of this time period (the late 1970s through the early 1990s) were overtly aware of the broader cultural and historical influences upon their design choices. They were just following what felt cool or correct.

Naming Conventions

Nuclear war and celestial metaphors, again having solidified themselves into the collective consciousness of genre culture, became the hallmarks of both heavy metal bands and shooting games. Aggression and speed were also the name of the game at that time as bombastic, combative motifs distilled themselves down to their essences and became both supply and demand.

This distillation resulted in naming conventions that are still attached to both heavy metal and shmups. Some are overt and wear there influences on their sleeves in bands like Toxic Holocaust and album titles like Killing Is My Business… and games like Blazing Lazers. Others are more subtle, like biproducts of their age that carry the ring of militaristic scifi without the obvious labels. I’m thinking of games like Zanak that, while certainly made up and transliterated titles, instantly evoke space ships and mushroom clouds. Active names like Striker and Grind Stormer and Exciter and Overkill project a sense of force and destruction. Any given name in either medium could be interchangeable as each seems to be about inertia and movement.

International Appeal

Both shmups and heavy metal are hugely small. I will elaborate on this oxymoron subsequently, but part of what I mean is that these genres encapsulated dispersed population of fans across the entire globe. A cursory or casual involvement in either medium will quickly put you in contact with influencers, journalists, producers, and fellow fans from almost all corners of the world.

I again point back to the formative years of the 1970s and 1980s and begin with Japanese-U.S. relations.

In the years after World War 2, the United States had a hefty interest in Japan, economically and politically. Our government invested heavily in Japan after its sack during the War to promote U.S. economic interest and to have an ally within striking distance of the U.S.S.R. and communist China. The following decades saw more trade between our countries but with an industrial focus. For both cultural and economic reasons it was not until the 1980s that trade in cultural goods and popular electronics made the average American aware of what Japan was about. Since then, with Japan moreso than many other countries, the United States has imported and exported both product and culture.

Our relationship with Europe is and was a bit more seamless. While the shmup has only ever had a small following on the eastern end of the Atlantic, music has been traded back and forth for decades.

The internet then escalated matters and made it unbelievably easy to accrue games, music, and much more from anywhere in the globe, putting micro pockets of fans in touch with each other to create a hugely small demographic. That demographic is, mostly, white dudes of a certain age. I point this out merely to help make my point regarding their similitude: the majority of people who like shmups look like the majority of people who like metal.

Underground Resistance

Rob Zombie, in the Headbanger’s Journey documentary, said that heavy metal is “So fucking huge…but nobody knows about it.” Metal and other extreme genres of music have demonstrated an impossible resistance to market forces, growing and seeping through all cultures in the last 40 years. This is what I mean when I say “hugely small.” Being extremely niche, it appeals to a small percentage of the population but, apparently, has an appeal the supersedes culture.

Much of the same can be said about shmups if not retro video gaming as a whole. The difference with shmups is that while triple A games come and go according the ebb and flow of market interests, shmups and arcade gaming keep a steady if small beat.

So while their importance to overall trends and sales will invariable come and go, the nucleus of dedicated fans and producers will always exist in the worlds of underground music and the shooter game.

This list may be incomplete, but it’s a start and it’s fascinating. For myself, as a perhaps unhelpfully massive fan of both, I see trends and notes that speak to me. Perhaps it’s good to see why we like things.

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