There are two terms that elicit groans from the retrogaming audience these days: Metroidvania and Shmups. Let’s go over these terms and discuss the issue people have with them (as I understand it) and my take on whether they should exist in the gamer vernacular.
Metroidvania is an amalgamation of Metroid and Castlevania. It’s derived from the concept of Metroid – a game in which you need to gain items to unlock other areas to explore – mixed with Castlevania – a forward-progressing action-platformer. Metroid was more of a run-and-gun game and so people felt the need to combine both games to explain titles like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (in which you must unlock cubes to gain abilities to progress further).
This made more sense for that game since the items were usually found in a sort of shrine – much like in the original Metroid game. As Konami made further Castlevania titles that resembled Symphony of the Night, it was handy to have a term that separated these new games (Circle of the Moon, Order of Ecclesia, etc) from the original games (Castlevania, Simon’s Quest, Castlevania III, Haunted Castle, etc).
It’s a very catchy term as well – which means that Metroidvania was prone to overuse or misuse. The main issue with the term is that it starts to apply to games that would be best explained as just Metroid-like. The reason that Castlevania was mixed in the term was because it described Castlevania games that had that Metroid-like level progression style (hitting a wall, going back, defeating an enemy, picking up an item, and going back to the wall to break through).
Castlevania was distinguished by gothic scenery, a melee-style attack, and action-platforming. It never made much sense to use the term with actual Metroid games – like Super Metroid. It especially never made much sense to use it with games like Metroid Prime.
Those games could adequately be described as Metroid games (because they are). And that’s sort of where things took a turn for the annoying here. If the game doesn’t resemble Castlevania then why apply a term with ‘vania’ in it? (Want to know about Castlevania-style games that aren’t Castlevania games? I have an article about that.)
Games like Cave Story and Shadow Complex get flagged as Metroidvanias when the term is better used for games that actually resemble Castlevania’s setting (gothic horror instead of futuristic labs). Instead, Metroidvania is sort of synonymous with Metroid (futuristic cave crawler) at this point and that’s kind of annoying to those that hear it and realize the origin. But no one person can own or control a popular term.
And I guess, from the point of view that the word signifies the gameplay over the setting, Metroidvania is appropriate to use – especially with the term changing over time with the gamer population. When you have developers using the term to describe their products and, with it becoming so ubiquitous that it appears in news articles, I guess it’s now past the time to change things (at least from this being common vernacular).
Shmup is a term that’s short for ‘shoot’em up’ (which is short for ‘shoot them up’). It’s very catchy, but it’s not really descriptive at all. I guess the only thing one could derive from a game being called this is that it involves shooting a projectile of some sort. This term is sort of the ‘tofu’ of gaming terminology – meaning that it only derives meaning with what you put with it in the sentence. There are just so many types of shooters – all of which are different: vertical, horizontal, rotational, bullet-hell, run-and-gun, on-rails, etc. (I created a primer that describes various types if you’re curious).
In general, I think most people associate ‘shmup’ with shooter games involving a spaceship (or some sort of aircraft) over the typical run-and-gun games (like Contra). So in this regard it mostly means ‘space shooter’. I don’t think many people would use the term to describe games like Gunstar Heroes or Megaman.
The reason that many take offense to the term is the laziness of it over the ambiguity. Honestly, how much harder would it be to say ‘shooter’ instead of ‘shmup’? So this is sort of a hip leet-speek (or I should write ‘1337 speak’) version of the common term. To latecomers, this probably seems normal gaming-speak (the parlance of our times) – with the perception that the older crowd are just being hipsters.
But I think what the complainers really want is clarity. Why use a term that doesn’t mean a lot? Why not call things what they are? If it’s a vertical space-ship shooter then why not refer to it as such? If it’s a run-and-gun platformer then use that to be very clear what kind of game it is. With just a few more syllables one can project, with pin-point accuracy, the idea they are conveying.
So does this mean that I’m against using ‘shmup’? Not at all. I actually love the term. But I also like when it’s actually used correctly – i.e. ‘Billy doesn’t like the RPGs; he likes those darn shmups.. All the shmups..’ That’s fine. This means Billy like a wide variety of games.- all of which involve shooting projectiles across the screen.
In the end no-one can really make the call about which terms are correct and incorrect to use. These terms take root in our nerd culture (I wouldn’t call it popular culture since I don’t think the common person would get either of these) and grow to be what they are via the Internet. I guess – in the end – I’m more annoyed by the complainers (and the misuse of words that they’re groaning about) than I am the words themselves. ‘Metroidvania’ and ‘Shmup’ are both great words. Each rolls off the tongue quite well and both are – for the most part – pretty self-explanatory in what they mean. Now they may be a bit too pervasive for my taste, but I wouldn’t banish them outright like others would.