The Sony Playstation was the hands-down winner of the 5th generation console wars between the Sega Saturn and N64. Objectively, based on sales, there was no comparison. It wasn't my favorite console of that generation, but it had a great library nonetheless. There were several cross-platform entries, but that's OK. Several of these are Japanese exclusives, but they can be played with other means today.
Raycrisis and Raystorm
Another Darius game in a long line of Darius games, G-Darius makes the leap into 3D (actually 2.5D as it is still side-scrolling) with mixed success. The Bosses are larger than life and look good, but almost everything else doesn't. The gameplay is traditional Darius gameplay, except for the new capture ball that you can through at enemies (usually mid-bosses), and force them to fight on your side. A novel tactic that was explored in Darius Gaiden, but put to greater use here. Overall its a fun Darius game.
From what I can tell, this is a near arcade perfect port of R-Type. There are a couple of home ports of this game, but I think this is the best, it looks great through RGB via scart. I am terrible at this game and nothing has changed. Both R-Type and R-Type II are on this port, and some options are selectable at the onset as well. I wish I were better at this game, as I feel my enjoyment of it is limited due to its punishing difficulty. Its a great game, I just have some kind of mental block where I die at the same point over and over again. One day I'm going to practice and try to get through it. One day.
Gekioh: Shooting King
This game is a fairly straight-forward game. Known on the Sega Saturn as Shienryu, the localized name doesn't do it any favors. I can't see it flying off the shelves with a name like that.
Anyway, its a very competent 2D vertically scrolling shooter, with some very nice effects. When enemy ships are hit, they trail downward, venting smoke all the way until they impact. This is impressive for a sprite-based game. The lightning weapon is equally as impressive when powered up; it jumps from enemy to enemy as it dispatches them one by one. Also present are a typical vulcan that widens with power ups and missile salvos. The character of the bombs also change, depending on which weapon you have. Control is smooth, and speed up capsules are available. Its a fun, lesser-known title.
This is a tweaked and refined version of Raiden II, with more options and more advanced scoring mechanics. Specifically, you can choose from three levels: Alpha (training), Beta (5 stages), and Charlie (8 stages). Stages are remixed in the later Charlie level from the original Raiden II. It's kinda like the special champion edition hyper fighting version of Raiden. If you liked the earlier Raiden games, you'll like this as well.
In the Hunt
A unique game in that there are very few submarine-based shoot'em ups. Without doing too much digging I can say this is the best one. Developed by the same team members as the Metal Slug series, the detail oozes from every pore. The love that went into the character sprite design is unparalleled. For a traditionally slow moving vehicle like a submarine, you might think that the level of action would be muted, but think again. There is so much going on at one time, it can be difficult to focus. Each torpedo, depth charge, missile, and explosion is laden with follow through animations, giving the game a level of animation that is inspiring. This can lead to some slowdown, as would be expected, but its a worthy tradeoff.
The first Zanac game on the NES was a difficult game. Even for its time, it was pretty impossible without a turbo fire setting. Zanac Neo, found on the Zanac X Zanac collection, shows its heritage in that regard. The visuals are fantastic, and the music is modernized with a trance - electronica grove thing going on, its reminds me of the music in Lumines. Like the original Zanac game, power ups are numbered, and you can level each one up if you collect them consecutively. It was developed my Compile, and similarities can be gleaned here and there if you follow the genre. I had more fun after I notched the difficulty down a bit.
The Parodius series originated as a spin off of Gradius. The power up system and difficulty are the obvious give aways. The stage and enemy design is laden with choices that make you wonder what the programmers were smoking. There are multiple releases for the Playstation, but they were Japanese exclusives, like many games on this list. They are worth tracking down, as they are definitely unique, and a refreshing departure from the usual grim shoot'em ups out there.
Once you get used to Parodius, the next step in weird shooters is Harmful Park. This game takes place in a theme park setting and builds stages around them. Roller coasters, zoos, candy shops, haunted houses all make for colorful and active scenery. Oddly, there is a wedding chapel scene where a distraught groom's tears spray out and kill you. Makes sense. The weapons are as random as the stage design, employing pie throwing, shooting potatoes, and an sundae explosion. You can acquire a jello shield, becoming encased in a jello mold (like in The Office). If you die, you respawn automatically, which I much prefer. You'll likely die a lot as you get distracted by all of the random background happenings; its worth it as the game design is some of the most inventive ever seen in a shooter. This game is prohibitively expensive, it may be the most expensive shoot 'em up on the system, so find another way to play.
Thunder Force V: Perfect System
The Thunder Force series cut its teeth on the Genesis/Mega Drive, and the jump to 3D was inevitable for this platform. The action is still primarily side scrolling, with polygons in lieu of sprites. I find the visuals to be a step back, as the sprite work in the previous entries was so good in comparison to chunky polygonal shapes. Aside from the newer visuals, the gameplay is largely the same. Some of the typical weapons remain, but a new entry is the game-wrecking Free Range weapon. It's a little hard to use at first, but master it and you can take down bosses in no time. This was originally released for the Saturn.
Salamander 2 (Salamander Deluxe Pack) (import)
This collection features Salamander, Life Force, and Slamander 2. Life Force and Samander are essentially the same game, except that Life Force adopts the collected-power-capsule method of weapon upgrading, like Gradius. Both Salamander games were unreleased stateside. The real treat here is Salamander 2. The graphics and stage design take another step forward in the series, and it is one of the most enjoyable games to play in the Gradius-Salamander lineage.
The fourth installment in the series also takes the leap into 3D. While most early 3D visuals don't age well, I find these more palatable than those in Thunder Force V. The gameplay is definitely R-Type, with newer features like adjustable speed, and a charge up system for the force pod. It is not as punishing as the previous entries, but still its not easy. It is a nice refinement of the series.
Gradius Gaiden (import)
By this point in time, the Gradius franchise is well established, and the gameplay is fairly predictable to those who follow the series. What makes this game stand out is the beautiful attention to detail in visuals. The stage design, enemies, and bosses all were lovingly designed, as if to make a statement with the first entry in the the 32-bit generation. Being a gradius game, it is just as difficult as you would expect it to be, but you will enjoy every death as the game is much more appealing to look at.
The Raiden Project
This is a collection of arcade versions of Raiden 1 and Raiden 2. Both ports are nearly perfect, with the addition of customizable button configurations and difficulty. This is a great choice for beginners due to that last feature. Having both games is a treat as well, since the first is a classic and the second improves upon the gameplay by adding a new weapon type, the purple toothpast laser, and a new scatter bomb. Just as you would expect, it is twice as fun with a second player. I had a hard time deciding between this and the Japan-only follow up, Daiden DX. Raiden Project just edged it out due to it having both games.
Darius games up this point were just average. The previous entries were OK, good enough for some casual play, but not really cracking anyone's lists of the best shooters. Darius Gaiden is in my opinion, the first Darius game to garner such attention. The screen bursts with color; this is the most visually appealing game in the series. The music is some really strange space opera on acid, as if alien fish teenagers were congregating at a rave near the edge of the universe, flailing glowsticks all about. The bosses are bigger than ever, and their demise is followed by a blinding screen flash. The outlandish screen sucking bomb is immensely satisfying to drop, and I regret every time I die not dropping them sooner. The difficult curve is appropriate, and you won't mind playing it over and over again as it is that funky.
Donpachi & Dodonpachi (import)
Donpachi, one of the first games produced by developer Cave, made the blueprint for how to make a bullet-hell shoot'em up. The different firing styles add a now-taken-for-granted gameplay strategy of alternating between concentrated fire and weaker, wide shots. Many people play games like these for high scores or one-credit clears (1cc), but I'm content to just play and enjoy the game as it comes. I haven't 1cc'd any shooter, and probably won't anytime soon, but I appreciate these all the same.
Soukyugurentai Obushutsugeki (import)
One of the few Playstation appearances from Raizing, the developer that produced the excellent Battle Garegga for Saturn. This game makes use of a secondary plane attack, as in, being able to target enemies in the background and fire at them with homing lasers before they come to the fore front and pose a threat. The standard weapon is fine, but the real fun is trying to string together as many targeted background enemies as possible.
I champion this series at every opportunity. To me, it is a near perfect shooter for all levels. The adjustable difficulty allows players to learn at their own pace. The variety of planes, each with their own attack patterns, charge shots, and bomb attacks adds a lot to replay value. The control is tight with the perfect amount of speed and maneuverability. Lots of color, realistic sprite design, imaginative bosses, and fine tuned amount of chaos make for one of my favorites. The two-player co-op adds tremendously to the fun factor. Parts 1 and 2 were released in Japan, whereas only part 2 was released in North America, but it was titled as "Strikers 1945" despite being the sequel.
The most intriguing entry on this list is also Squaresoft's only foray into shoot 'em ups. The developer that is renowned for RPGs tried its hand in the genre, and hit it out of the park. Clearly inspired by Blade Runner, the dark visuals, futuristic vibe, and rock'n techno music all contribute to a moody, serious, and challenging game. Its visuals are are 2.5D, with polygons instead of sprites, but 2D side-scrolling. This can be good or bad, and I think this is best case scenario for early polygons.
Bosses are all oversized technical monstrosities, many of which transform and are dismantled piece by piece, making for satisfying battles. The primary mechanic in the game is controlling the weapon arm. Certain enemies carry weapons that can be captured after their demise. These weapons act as a secondary weapon, but in most cases are more powerful/useful than your main weapon, this is probably intended. Why Squaresoft did not follow it up is a mystery to me, perhaps they wanted to have a perfect track record for the genre, maybe the team that made the game got fired, who knows? I I think its one of the best in the genre, and even one of the best games on the console.
I do have issues with Sony's attempt at a d-pad, and find it sub-par. When I play any kind of 2-D game on PS1 I use the Sega Logistical Services Saturn pad, made for PS1. I also pull out the arcade stick here and there, but the Saturn pad is my controller of choice.