Is Shmup Talent Real?
Exploring Why A “Get Gud” Mentality Is Losing Potential Players
If there is one question that the genre of shmups will force players of all skill levels to ask, it is definitely the question of: “How do I get good at these games?” While there are plenty of other genres and styles of gaming that are as equally intensive and difficult as STG, I feel like none of them are as clear and upfront about the issue of player skill as a shmup. When you play a fighting game, for example, based on your region and player pool, it is perfectly possible that lower skilled players (scrubs, I dare say), could get the impression that he or she is a world class player, even though they would go 0-2 in any tournament. When Smash Bros Melee came back into popularity in 2013, this was an extremely common occurrence. First hand, I can’t even count how many players I met and played against that fell into this description. Some of them met the reality with grace and enthusiasm, others were so salty that they never returned.
This also holds true with speedrunning. Of course, these days where there is a wealth of internet resources for both of these genres, more and more players are getting a clearer idea of what high level play looks like, but subtract the internet and online communities from the equation, and this skill ceiling becomes obscured. In speedrunning, for example, I seriously thought that I probably was one of the fastest Super Metroid players in the world in 2007 (I had an in-game time of 50 minutes … don’t laugh). At that time, I did not know that speedrunning was an actual concept, and I’d never met or even heard of someone else playing the game for speed other than myself. Granted, I feel like, in today’s AGDQ world, this mindset needs to be explained a little. Playing Super Metroid quickly was just a personal quirk of mine, and I had this whole criteria of rules on how this would be done and what counted (no deaths allowed), so even though I was under the misconception that I was particularly skilled at Super Metroid at that time, I had little reason to believe otherwise and didn’t consider it a source of pride or anything. Again, the point I’m getting at is that, without outside resources or communities, the skill ceiling of fighting games and speedrunning is relatively obscure (which is probably a good thing, but more on that later).
With shmups, yes this argument could be applied to them, but not as commonly; shmups are fairly clear with how hard they are going to push the player and just how crazy things can get. Take my first Dodonpachi 1-all for example. After 3 months of struggling and playing the game, I finally managed to get my first 1-all. However, even without consulting any outside resources, I knew this 1-all was just scratching the surface of the genre’s skill ceiling. I was aware that the game wanted me to not bomb, to full chain, to collect bees and never die. All these demands were clear and obvious. There was no hidden meta or anything. Granted, it took me time to grasp the entirety of what all this meant, but it’s not like I could walk around in good faith thinking I had reached top-tier play like I had with Super Metroid or how many people had with Melee. Within the games themselves, shmups are extremely clear about just how skilled a player needs to be, at least compared to other genres.
As a result, I think it is only natural for players of the genre to spend a good deal of time considering various questions revolving around skill: what is required to be good? How do I get good? What is a good score? So on and so forth. As I’ve alluded to above, most of these answers are very subjective and will depend entirely on the perspective of the person you ask. In my case, I would probably use the metric of an average score within a game to define what is good or bad, but other players use only the top scores as a measuring stick. However, one question about player skill that I find particularly interesting to explore is the question of “player talent.” Does talent for a genre exist? Are the top players with the highest scores simply naturally talented, or do they just practice a lot?
To get the obvious out of the way, I think it’s best to identify the fact that this question is a bit of a faux pas (I used the French to save the Shmup’EmAll homies some translation work ). When you talk about a new player or newcomer and describe them as “talented,” that is a compliment because you are basically saying they have a lot of potential ahead of them. However, when you describe a veteran or accomplished player as “talented,” you are potentially downplaying all the hard work they’ve put into their scores and just chalking it up to a passive trait — talent is just something your are born with, right? So in that regard, I think it’s likely that veteran players will not like the idea of “shmup talent,” whereas new players or struggling mid-level players will be more inclined to consider the notion. Also, talented or not, shmups are a genre that is going to demand a ton of time and grinding to succeed in, no matter who you are.
Furthermore, I’m not a cultural expert or anything, but I do think that certain cultures are going to find this idea of “shmup talent” more distasteful than others, the Japanese scene immediately comes to my mind. In all my years of following gaming, especially fighting games and recently shmups, I have always been interested to hear what Japanese players think about skill. I’ve heard the topic discussed with them dozens and dozens of times at this point, and never, not once, did any of the players endorse the idea of talent. Every single time, whether it’s shmups, Tekken, Street Fighter, insert game here, the Japanese players have said that talent does not exist, that only hard work and study are the factors at play. Americans, for many reasons I don’t feel like getting into, are much more culturally inclined to believe that an in-born “talent,” or an inherent disparity between players, exists as a factor. Of course, not all Americans think this way, but I’m just saying that the concept of natural talent aligns with our culture, but perhaps less with Japanese culture. Again, I’m not an expert on Japanese culture by any means, but this is a trend I’ve noticed among many different player responses over the years. As for our European homies, I have no clue so I won’t even try to guess at what their outlook might be.
Thinking it over, I ‘ve debated whether or not to keep this section about my impressions of the Japanese players’ attitudes towards the idea of talent — as I’m projecting off of interviews and stuff, but I can sense that the topic will be brought up in the comments of the article anyway.
Before going further, I do think it’s important that I try to give some kind of definition of what I believe “shmup talent” to be. In my eyes, shmup talent would be defined as simply the rate at which one player improves compared to others. It’s like in an RPG where one character levels up faster than another, even though they are given the same amount of XP. Funnily enough, shmup players tend to have a sort of unofficial XP count already in place: hours played. So, in an effort to make this as objective as possible, I would say that a player that achieves a specific score in a lower amount of hours played than another player who achieved the same score (given the two have equal access to learning resources) would be considered “more talented.” With that said, I do want to recognize that there is a mass tangle of different factors at play (like legacy skill) that would also influence one player learning faster than another, but that’s not the focus of this article. I’m saying, in a completely controlled, hypothetical scenario, if one player appears to be able to learn and accomplish hiscores faster than another player, and they have completely equal backgrounds, then the first player could be considered more talented. So the question becomes, does this factor of talent actually exist? Or is it always going to be other circumstances like legacy skill or access to resources that make the difference?
If I had a clear answer I’d be posting this article in a scientific journal or something. There is no clear answer, but this article would be very boring if I just left the conversation here, right? So, what I will now do is make my case on what I think the answer is, but remember, I’m aware that which answer a person chooses is just a matter of personal philosophy and really says more about the person’s outlook on the world, rather than the topic itself.
If you picked up on my foreshadowing, I think it’s easy to guess my opinion on the topic. Personally speaking, I feel that “shmup talent” does actually exist to some degree. In the grand scheme of things, I’m not exactly sure how much of an impact it has on a player’s overall skill level, but I think I have a perspective that is interesting to consider, even if you completely disagree with the idea. So don’t get too salty and quit reading yet. Also, if you are a veteran player reading this article, keep in mind that I don’t think that ALL accomplished players are naturally talented, some players (like myself) are just stubborn grinders who stuck it out — which I think is really cool. Also, I’m not a person who glorifies hard work as the greatest character trait of all time, I think people being able to strategically apply their natural talents is a very interesting skill unto itself.
The first thing that needs to be said is that, in general, I feel that most players downplay or underestimate their natural talent for something. Some players are modest to the point to where it’s almost insulting (I have a whole outlook on this that I’ll have to explain sometime, but anyway). If you are a struggling mid-level player, you are probably naturally talented at the genre to some degree. Even though it doesn’t feel like it to me, I’m sure that I am naturally talented at shmups, at least compared to the general gamer population. As I said before, shmups hit hard right from the start, and so anyone who is still playing the games and improving is more talented than they give themselves credit for. Plus, I think that, when people consider shmup talent, they only think of the person’s raw dodging skills. As badass as raw dodging is, it’s far from the most important shmup talent. If I can pat myself on the back for a second, I’d even say that, of all of the aspects of the genre, one of my strengths is my raw dodging skills. Much more important, and I think most players will agree on this, is the player’s skills to identify visual/audio cues, recognize and create routes, implement study, predict patterns, and incorporate ideas from superplays. If a player is able to do all of these things more quickly and efficiently than his peers, I would argue that this is talent, even though people don’t generally view studying as a talent, for whatever reason.
In my opinion, a natural insight and vision for how the games function, an “instinct for the genre,” you could say, is probably the strongest talent of them all. If you get how shmups work, how to breakdown the scoring systems, how to dissect the stage designs, this is going to get you much further much faster than just someone who has quick reflexes.
I’ll try to give a tangible example of what I’m talking about. In a recent episode of the podcast I interviewed both Kiwi and Moglar, two up-and-coming players who have been achieving impressive results in a short period of time (at least relative to what I’ve witnessed so far). Naturally, I was very fascinated to talk to them about their learning experiences and backgrounds with shmups. During the interview, I peppered them with all these different questions about their practice routines, their resources, their prior experiences and so forth. To my surprise, at least during the interview, neither player reported any need or desire to consult outside resources. Yes, they both said they looked at replays for routing ideas, but neither reported any particular moments of confusion or frustration with the genre. After that interview, I couldn’t help but feel that these guys “get shmups,” that there is something about them that seems to fundamentally understand the genre and how to play it. I got the same impression after interviewing Jaimers.
In my own experience learning the genre, I would say that things did not go nearly as smoothly. To be honest, I had little to no idea about what to do, or how to view the games. My best approach was just to try and sit mid screen as much as possible and try to route from that position. Needless to say, there was a long period of time where I struggled to understand why players were doing what they were doing and how they came up with their strategies. My style of routing ended up being finding ways to setup manageable (but still risky) reaction dodge situations and then to identify points of the run where I could maximize strategic bombing. As a result, the playstyle I developed and my understanding of the genre was limited to where I could occasionally get away with what I was doing in a first loop situation, but did not stand a chance in more difficult levels.
What happened to me after that initial learning period and grinding out a fairly lucky 1-all (just watch how wild my dodging is in stage 6), is that I hit the wall, and I hit it hard.
Jump to 16:30
It felt like getting the 2-all was just a dream, that such a high level of gameplay was beyond my limit. “I just don’t have the talent,” I thought, “I’ll just continue getting 1-alls in Cave games. It’s fun and something within reach.” So, from that point, I worked on the Dodonpachi DaiOuJou 1-all with plans to try and clear Battle Garegga after that. It took me another 6 months or so of fairly consistent play to get the DOJ Black Label 1-all.
(Sorry for the crappy video quality, no recording equipment at that time other than obs on a mediocre laptop).
And so on, I was completely happy with the idea of getting these survival clears and running a humble podcast. However, two things came along that pushed me into wanting to play for score and “get gud”(a goal I’m still working towards). And if you’re wondering what all this has to do with shmup talent, hang in there; it’s all relevant.
The first thing that got me motivated was my interview with Jaimers for my podcast. I had become a bit of a fanboy of his after watching many of his impressive replays and was nervous and excited to talk to him about his process of learning and playing shmups. As an interviewer, I started to feel that the disparity between our skill levels was pretty ridiculous and if I was going to continue to bring on other super players in the future, I wanted to be able to have the experience and ability to relate with them a little more. The second motivating factor was when I started the video index and spent hours and hours logging other people’s scores. After a while of doing that, I started to feel like, “Hey, I want some scores on this thing too, scores that won’t always be right at the bottom of the page.”
From then onward, I started to play shmups and study them much more intensely. I pushed my gameplay out of the safer manageable sections of the 1st loop, and ended up spending hours and hours and hours just getting wrecked over and over in the second loop. I think that, because I do a podcast and create content, there is a general impression that I actually don’t play shmups very much (maybe not, but that’s what I assume), but that’s definitely not the case. Over the past year and a half, I’ve averaged around 12 – 15 hours of shmup practice per week, but anyway.
What I am getting at is this: In the grand scheme of things, in the world of super players and world record holders, the concept of shmup talent becomes less and less important. In fact, I would say that the concept of talent is completely nullified by stronger factors like time, persistence, resources, community, legacy skill, all those sorts of things. So that, when a top tier player is asked about shmup talent and if it is important, it makes sense that they would say no, because at that level of play whatever inherent understanding you may have had coming into the genre has been bypassed by all the focused study and practice.
However, at the ground level, at the stage where people are first coming into the genre, I think denying that certain players do come into shmups with a stronger inherent understanding of how to play the games is problematic. Remember what I wrote about at the start of the article? Shmups are not like speedrunning or fighting games, there is no easing into this genre really. Sure, you can do what I did and spend some time getting survival clears, but the games don’t obscure how far you need to push to get to top level play. From what I’ve observed, I feel like this tends to cause uneasiness in players that never feels quite comfortable. As a result, I think a lot of people tend to burn out and eventually leave the genre. There is no middle ground, you either proceed towards chasing high level play, or you stay at the entry level and play casually. As I mentioned in my own personal story, staying at the point where I was focusing only on survival clears was sort of a middle ground, but it started to feel kind of empty and the difficulty wall I was facing at the time seemed impossible to get past.
As a result, what I think often happens is that the naturally talented players, like Kiwi and Moglar, are able to proceed past this difficulty wall and enter hiscore-oriented play without too much interference. I’m not in their position, but I imagine their wall will come later on as they pursue higher and higher scores. In regards to myself though, and the large number of players who do struggle with highly demanding gameplay in the beginning, this might be where our shmup journey ends. For me, I can say with complete confidence that, had I not been running a shmup podcast and constantly been brushing elbows with higher skilled players who took an interest in my gameplay and wanted me to succeed, I would have moved on a long time ago. I wouldn’t have quit the genre or anything, but it would be on the backburner as I focused on competing in fighting games. I probably would have just continued working on CAVE 1-alls as before. Again, I don’t think there is anything wrong with playing for survival clears if that is what the player enjoys, it just seems that it is difficult to maintain interest in survival only clears over time.
My conclusion is that, ironically, the players who are naturally talented and able to start moving into higher achieving gameplay early tends to be the players who also receive the most external motivation from the community as well. For example, I went out of my way to talk to both Kiwi and Moglar and bring them on the podcast because I was so impressed by what they are doing, and rightly so. Talking to up and coming players is often extremely interesting to me because you can vicariously experience their ambition and progress. Plus, it makes you reconsider the existing scores and status quo, so players like Kiwi and Moglar are very important to have around. If you think my idea is that we should ignore the naturally talented players, you can put the pipe down now. What I am getting at is that, as of today, I feel that the shmup scene tends to have a bit of a sink or swim mentality when it comes to new players. We celebrate the ones who swim, but kind of ignore the ones that are struggling — maybe they progress, maybe they drown, I guess we’ll wait and see.
The issue of providing that extra boost to struggling players is a complicated subject that I plan to follow up in another article or podcast in the future. But tying it back to the idea of shmup talent, rather than just denying that it exists outright, I think we should try and be more aware of how it can be mitigated. For me, I was able to proceed due to social support from the guests I talked to and the feeling of being in a small spotlight. Obviously, not everyone is going to have their own podcast on the genre (that’s really not necessary), but I do think that if all players, not just the top players, start taking a little bit of an interest in each other’s shmup goals and stuff, that’s going to go a long way towards helping players push through the wall and get that skill they need to have an enjoyable time playing these games. However, if we continue downplaying the idea that some players are going to struggle more than others, and continue this sink or swim mentality, then we’re going to be stuck in this trend of low player counts occasionally alleviated by naturally talented players who are able to enter the genre and thrive all on their own.
What’s ironic is that, over time, the players who struggled early will become less and less distinguishable from the players who are naturally inclined towards shmups, especially if they have built up a set of skills to push through difficulty spikes and oppressive gameplay.
Hopefully I haven’t offended too many people.
Thanks for reading!