Top down shooters (vertical scrolling) on 8-Bit systems were just great.  The first one I recall playing was that C64 classic Commando (scored by that genius Rob Hubbarb).  It’s your standard gun and run fare – walk “up” the screen blasting apart a never ending wave of enemies.  Bullets would glide across the screen at random so it was best not to stray into their path.  Meanwhile the eponymously named character would single-handedly take apart the enemy army before taking a crack at an enemy officer to clear the level.  The only other weapon the Commando had at his disposal was a grenade (launched by holding down the fire button) which had a blast radius and could even take apart bridges.   

Looking back, the game wasn’t remarkable though it was perhaps the break-out title which began a new sub-genre.  On the back of this title came my personal favourite – Rambo: First Blood Part II which went a step further than Commando and allowed John Rambo a variety of weapons which could take apart the scenery as well as enemy soldiers.  The noisier the weapon, the more enemy soldiers it attracted so you could play stealthily but easily or you could play noisily and ramp up the difficulty.  The less said about the enemy gunship bit, the better. 

Another favourite title of mine was The Ninja on the Sega Master System which was a port of the Arcade Game Sega Ninja.  This title imported a couple of RPG-type elements into the gun n run game by means of the green scrolls.  In order to unlock the true ending, you had to collect the five scrolls which were hidden in levels and could only be unlocked by doing certain things in certain levels.  The music too was so cutesy, you couldn’t help but bop along once you picked up the red scroll giving you better weapons whereby it changed to a faster-tempo tune. 

I even tried to make my own shooters thanks to S.E.U.C.K. – The Shoot-Em-Up Construction Kit released by the lovely people at Sensible Software (y’know, them wot gave us Sensi Soccer, Cannon Fodder et al).  As I recall, ZZap 64, Commodore Format, Commodore Force and then the 16-Bit Mags used to receive many games created with SEUCK software and often crammed them in on covertapes and coverdisks.  My own shooter was of course a space one and being the juvenile 11 year old I was at the time, I tried to make “space-penises” as the main grunt to blast apart.  Sufficed to say, I wasn’t going to submit _that_ particular demo to any magazine. 

The best SEUCK game I played was courtesy of one of the Amiga Magazines – Smurf Hunt.  You were armed with a shotgun and had to walk through the woods gunning down Smurfs before arriving at the Smurf Village to take on Papa Smurf.  What the clincher was for most was the fact that (a) the Smurfs screamed as they died and (b) the amount of blood left behind by a dead Smurf appealed to the sick little kids that we were.  I know that you’re very unlikely to see this on contemporary machines but there is a YouTube video… 

Interestingly enough, you never really saw “bottom-down” shooters where you had to go south on the screen to progress.  Oh there were maze-games such as Gauntlet where this was an option but I can’t think of any specific titles.  You could of course, turn your joystick and TV upside down and try it that way… 

Perhaps the pinnacle of Top Down/Vertically Scrolling shooters came with Xenon 2: Megablast (scored by Bomb the Bass) which had a shop-based approach to power ups, something seldom seen until this point.  Of course the beauty of the game too precedence and Xenon 2 was renown for its appalling ending, as a big two-finger salute to the player. 

By this point, DOS was on the cusp of giving way to Windows which led to a whole other revolution in gaming.  Castle Wolfenstein and then Doom appeared on the PC which really heralded the beginning of the First Person Shooter game allowing to see the game through the eyes of the protagonist and therefore you couldn’t see anything else on the screen unless you were looking directly at it.

There was still a market for top-down shooters but it was on handheld consoles like the Game Boy and Game Gear – the cruder devices needed more hooks to keep people coming back again and again and so these games continued to appear on these machines.  But as the Game Boy became the Game Boy Advance, picking up SNES-like characteristics, so too did these types of game die a second death. 

Of course with the rapid expansion of the contemporary video game market as well as the growth of individual developers, homebrew software and even tablet gaming, top down/vertical scrolling shooters have been granted another 1-UP by the Extra Life Fairy.  If you’re unfamiliar with the genre, download a couple of titles.  They’re easy to pick up but difficult to put down and are guaranteed to see you throwing a controller or two across the room in frustration.