With the pseudo-resurgence of euro-shmups thanks to NG DEV TEAM with Last Hope, Fast Striker and Gunlord, SideQuest Studios with Söldner-X: Himmelsstürmer 1 & 2, and Digital Reality with Sine Mora, I feel that some clarity may be needed to try to explain what exactly a euro-shmup is.
A bit of history may be beneficial though before tackling the definition because it will allow to gather elements of what we are trying to define. It could be argued that the first instances of European-developed 2D shooters date back to the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The systems of choice for European coders of the time were generally Commodore-branded personal computers, such as the 8 bit C64 or the 16 bit Amiga. Coders from all over Europe (mainly from the UK, Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and Italy but also from France and later from the Czech Republic and Hungary) tried to replicate the arcade feel of Japanese coin-ops at home, with various degrees of success.
The reason is simple: very small teams tended to focus more on the technical aspect of their games, delivering often futuristic rendered visuals which looked definitely ahead of their time compared to their Japanese counterpart. The European template for a 2D shooter would always put graphics, and audio on top of the list, while gameplay would almost always be relegated to second place.
||X-out on the Amiga was an early and beautiful Euroshmup with many of the typical features like a shop, underpowered weapons and an excessively punishing difficulty
It must be said that the obsession of delivering the best possible looking product resulted in some of the most artistically accomplished shooters of the time.
The obvious graphics fetish European teams had would often translate into the implementation of several beautiful layers of smooth parallax scrolling, the use of a rich color palette with elegant gradient backgrounds and later on, a wide-spread use of rendered sprites and backgrounds often coupled with beautiful but excessive use of the much hated debris.
The music also traditionally played a relevant role as European teams would often offer Techno/Progressive electronic soundtracks sometimes composed by big names in the music industry. An interesting example of this is the Japanese developed shooter Biometal. It had its original soundtrack replaced by one composed by the Techno band 2 Unlimited when it landed in the west.
All of the European audio-visual extravaganza often came at the cost of unbalanced gameplay which manifested itself in the form of an almost constantly underpowered arsenal, flat, unimaginative and excessively fast enemy waves/ patterns which left little room for reaction and required mostly memorization and a bit of luck to be dealt with.
The floaty handling of the ship simulating an aggravating inertia effect would also be something to remember with dread.
Also, we shouldn't forget the collision detection which would most of the time be unforgiving or poorly implemented, with the concept of hit box not even existing.
To offset some of these issues, a life bar would often be implemented.
Japanese developers have always had another approach focusing primarily on the gameplay system and on the balance, making sure it feels right and only subsequently they would focus on the graphics and the audio.
An interesting and eye-opening story is the localization of Team 17's X2, the sequel of Project X for the Japanese market. It was released by Capcom in Japan after re-balancing some of the broken gameplay mechanics!
||T-Zer0 or Trauma Zero was exclusively released on CD for AGA Amigas. It features beautifully rendered graphics, a good techno soundtrack (if you can manage to get it to play off the CD, am this trying to this day damn it!), boring attack patterns and well, you get the picture.
Americans shouldn't laugh too loud though because they seem to have developed almost no traditional 2D shooters and the one which pops to mind is the dreadful Atari Jaguar exclusive Trevor McFur in the Crescent Galaxy which embodies all the traits of the worst euro-shmups out there...
If games such as Turrican and Rendering Ranger should be considered Euro-shmups may be up to debate but for the purpose of this article, I will consider them as such. It is no surprise then that when NG DEV Team used the term Eurostyle Platformer to define Gunlord, some people may have felt shivers down their spine. A suicidal way of promoting a game?
I even read on this thread over at the shmups.com forum that some people interpreted the term euro-shmup as derogatory!
The truth of the matter is that by looking at most of the 2D shooters developed in Europe, with some notable exceptions, the track record isn't very favorable in terms of the objective quality of the gameplay, with the fun-factor being almost non-existent when going back and playing many of these games today. The test of time hasn't often been kind although some of these shooters still have high prices attached to them because they sold poorly and are now very rare even in Europe.
It should be said though that things have been improving steadily with recent examples such as the Söldner-X games, Gunlord, Dux, Sine Mora, Sturmwind and NEO XYX proving that Europeans can develop entertaining traditional 2D shooters without giving up on the trademark graphical push.
It will take time but the stigma associated with European 2D shooters may get erased sometimes in the (hopefully not too far?) future.
Interestingly, since a few years now, the responsability to keep the euro-shmups flame alive seems to have been taken by Germany, as most old school traditional 2D shooters released in the past years until today have been coming out of Berlin, Munich etc. Respect for that and respect to them, may they continue to keep the European legacy alive and may they refine the formula day by day to finally meet and maybe surpass the Japanese masters of the genre, as in NEO XYX which is the pinnacle of euro-shooters out there today...
For now, it appears that the move to the third dimension with FPSs series such as Serious Sam (Croatia), Kill Zone (Netherlands) and Crisis (Germany) prove that European Software Houses know how to create fun shooting mechanics framed within some of the best graphics around, at least in pure 3D!