Abandon All Hope: Entering the Bullet Hell

Arcade gamer (photo by W.J. Andersen, CC-BY-SA 2.0)
Arcade gamer (photo by W.J. Andersen, CC-BY-SA 2.0)

The Decline of the Western Arcades

The technological advancements over a past few decades has done a lot for gaming as a medium. Better consoles and computers meant that games could become longer, more complex and better looking. It also meant that more people became able to afford high-end gaming systems. Everybody wins, right?

Not exactly.

While I don’t miss the times when computers were weaker and more expensive, it’s impossible to deny the influence the situation had on the video game industry. That’s how the arcades worked—an owner would buy dedicated, powerful machines, and players would ‘rent’ them for a few game sessions (or, in the case of systems like PlayChoice-10, for a set period of time). For this to be profitable, a specific kind of game was needed: something relatively short, simple, and difficult, so that it could be played many times in a day (preferably by different players), learning the basics wouldn’t take too much time, and beating the game would require a lot of credits (in order to speed through the game by spamming continues or to repeatedly replay it until you’re able to play without needing to spend).

When home gaming systems became powerful enough to handle arcade-perfect ports of popular games, arcade gaming started to decline. People buying the games wanted them to be longer and easier—not necessarily casual, just beatable by a sufficiently dedicated player, instead of only those who know the whole thing by heart. The RPG and adventure genres became much more mainstream than in the times of microcomputers, while action games changed from something that an experienced player can easily complete in one sitting to something designed with saving and reloading in mind. Arcade game design lost the fight against designs intended for the console and personal computer.

The Shmup Niche

This was all unfortunate for the fans of shmups (shoot-’em-up games), as those were made almost exclusively in the arcade style. (There’s an interesting and often unfairly hated category of ‘euroshmups’, or computer-style shoot-’em-up games, although that’s worth a separate article). As time passed, one of the most popular and iconic genres got pushed out of the mainstream.

The genre didn’t die, however. It was kept alive by an extremely dedicated fanbase it acquired before arcades went out of fashion. (This decline took longer in Japan, which until just a few years ago still hosted quite a few arcade shoot-em-ups on arcades.) The fact that such a fanbase existed was no blind luck; when a few years earlier the arcade market became dominated by one-on-one fighting games, shmup developers decided to focus on the hardcore audience.

This is how the bullet hell genre was created. The shmups had to use new technology to give experienced players exactly what they wanted. Players wanted to be challenged, so the games had to be difficult, while still being possible to complete without continuing. Players wanted to initial their high score, so the games had to include a scoring system that emphasizes risk versus reward or requires a deep knowledge of the levels. Players wanted everything associated with the arcades, so the games had to be fast-paced, flashy, loud, short, filled with explosions, and relatively simple.


So, what is a bullet hell game and why should I play it?

The most obvious answer to the first question would be that a bullet hell game is a shmup in which the enemies fire a lot of bullets at the player. A more informative description would go something like this: a bullet hell game is a shmup subgenre that evolved in mid-to-late 1990s (although there were some early examples, like a very rare 1992 NES game, Recca), in which games the challenge is focused more on avoiding enemy fire than on shooting them, avoiding collision with terrain, and/or choosing the right power-ups. The games are difficult, often require exploiting certain tricks (the most well-known one being that the player’s ‘hitbox’, the area actually detecting collisions, is made intentionally smaller than the sprite, allowing the player to navigate through seemingly impossible attack patterns), and have complex scoring systems. As with many other arcade games, the aim is to get a high score and complete the game without continuing.

The second question might be trickier to answer. After all, bullet hell games were made for hardcore shmuppers. It seems that starting from the more traditional shoot-’em-ups like Gradius or R-Type would be the more logical option than jumping into something like DoDonPachi. Actually, I’d recommend playing traditional shmups only after playing a few bullet hell shooters. The reason why Ikaruga, games from the Touhou Project series, and most of the titles produced by Cave are a good starting point for people who wish to get into shmups is that they’re difficult without really being frustrating. In most bullet hell games, there isn’t much penalty for dying—the player respawns in the same spot, and the loss of power-ups is usually minimal.

Additionally, while the goal is to play the game without continuing (something known among arcade gamers as ‘1CC’—a one-credit clear), you’ll still see most (sometimes all) of the game if you keep inserting coins. Compare this to something like Gradius, where dying means loss of all (or most) power-ups and restarting from a checkpoint, while continuing is either not allowed or means starting from the beginning of the stage. Bullet hell games might be harder to actually 1CC but they’re also more forgiving for those just learning to play them. Too, they usually have autofire so you can just hold down the ‘shoot’ button instead of tapping it repeatedly.

Is Bullet Hell Dead?

Gradius, a non-bullet hell shmup.
Gradius, a non-bullet hell shmup.

It probably isn’t, but it’s quite obvious that it’s lost popularity in recent years. Popular developers Raizing and Cave stopped making arcade shmups, focusing instead on licensed console games and mobile games respectively (although the latter is apparently working on a new mobile shmup), there hasn’t been a new Touhou game for a while and both the console and PC markets are filled with either re-releases or low-budget indie titles.

As great as many of those games were, it seems that what turned many players off was the lack of variety arising directly from the genre limitations and the hardcore audience focus. The genre’s games can differ based on seemingly minor things like scoring, power-up systems, and attack patterns, but there are a lot of games and only so much one can do with those variables. It’s also important to note that there’s a limit on how many bullets one can throw at the player before the pattern becomes physically impossible to dodge without dying.

Bullet hell shooters are extremely streamlined, and the inherent danger of streamlining is that you remove all the options. While the genre might not have literally run out of new things to do, it seems to have a lot of trouble giving experienced players (the very same ones it was created for) something surprising. That’s also one of the reasons you should play these games—another game of the genre won’t surprise a veteran, but it will definitely satisfy a newcomer looking for a challenge.

There are a lot of great titles to play before you get bored of the genre or decide it’s not for you—and when you do, there’s a whole world of non-bullet hell shmups for you to discover. After you realize how different DoDonPachi, Ikaruga, and Battle Garegga are from each other while still being about flying in one direction while shooting, you can still be surprised what Radiant Silvergun, later R-Type games, or even the infamous ‘euroshmups’ did with the shoot-’em-up genre.

[Editor’s note: it’s worth mentioning that even seasoned shmuppers will probably get a kick out of the new mechanics introduced in last year’s REVOLVER360 RE:ACTOR, which we’ve reviewed. It transduces the elements of the 2D genre into a 3D world.]

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Further Reading

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I play games (I have a preference for old, weird and difficult ones but that's not the rule) and write articles about them that are sometimes a bit too long. Sometimes I also do things other than gaming, I swear.

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