Even if you’re a newcomer to video games, you’ll have no doubt played a shoot-em-up before, something like R-Type perhaps, or if you’re a little more seasoned, something like Exolon on the ZX Spectrum, Silkworm on the Amiga, or one of the many classic arcade titles such as Xevious, Space Harrier or even Space Invaders itself.
You may also be wondering where all the modern shoot-em-ups are, as the genre has seemingly dried up over the past decade or so. The thing is, the genre has evolved and where US and European gaming markets concentrate on the first-person-shooter or cinematic thrillers such as Grand Theft Auto and L.A. Noire; Japan has taken the shoot-em-up under its wing and come up with something truly astonishing.
Known as ‘Danmaku‘, often translated as ‘bullet barrage’, ‘curtain of fire’ or more commonly ‘bullet hell’, this is the direction shoot-em-ups took in the mid-90s, turning the emphasis from blowing up baddies to avoiding wave upon wave of enemy fire. The majority maintained the basic template of the shoot-em-up – set in space or a fantasy land, preset waves of enemy ships and big, end-of-level bosses – but as well as shifting the game’s emphasis, they upped the difficulty level by ten, or in some cases, ten thousand.
If you’re wondering, in a Top Gear manner, how hard can it be, then this video should give the uninitiated an idea of what bullet hell really means. Now, before everyone runs away, they’re not all so difficult! They’re also not all confined to Japan either, and the humble iPhone has several excellent examples of bullet hell gaming.
We’re going to compare two of the very best, and do our best to convince shoot-em-up fans to embrace this exciting genre!
You’re thinking that you won’t be able to enjoy Espgaluda II because you missed Espgaluda I, right? Don’t worry, if you like this you can seek it out elsewhere, but in the meantime concentrate your efforts on beating this one! Espgaluda II comes from Cave, a legendary development team recognised for kick-starting the genre, and showcases everything one needs to know about bullet hell.
Yes, there is a plot, but it’s so inconsequential to the game, even Cave has left it off their iTunes page! You take control of one of three different characters, each with their own special weapon, and are sent straight into action. Enemies come at you from all angles, and although the game eases you in slowly, it doesn’t take long until you’re battling truly massive baddies!
The key to understanding Espgaluda II (and every other bullet hell game) is not to expect your entire ship to avoid bullets, but only one very specific part of it. In Espgaluda II’s case, it’s the tiny green dot at the centre that you must weave through the barrage. If you should get hit, the Guard Barrier is activated, where a bomb is detonated and the screen cleared of bullets; but this effect lasts only for a moment.
Each destroyed enemy drops green gems which are automatically collected, and can either provide points at the end of a stage, or go towards your ‘Awakening’ mode, where bullets are slowed down, then turned into points-boosting gold gems when you deactivate Awakening. When stripped right down, Espgaluda, and bullet-hell games in general, are simply high-score challenges.
You control your character using the tried and tested finger-swipe method, but as the actual play area is smaller than the screen itself, your finger never gets in the way, resulting in one of the very best touch control systems you’ll ever use. While there is the option to control the Guard Barrier, firing and everything else yourself, sensibly, Cave has included a simplified mode where all you need to do is tap a button to activate Awakening, leaving you free to avoid a fiery death.
Playing Espgaluda II is pure sensory overload, with masses of enemies, beautiful bullet patterns, gigantic explosions and ridiculously powerful weapons filling almost every moment. Add in an excellent soundtrack (something of a Danmaku genre staple), great graphics and incredibly smooth action – a real achievement given the amount going on – and you’ve got a fabulous, five-star shoot-em-up that’s also surprisingly accessible, even if you’ve never heard of bullet hell before now.
Danmaku Unlimited’s developer, Sunny Tam, may not have the same historical connection to the genre as Cave, but his dedication, artistic prowess and technical ability more than makes up for it. Citing ‘doujin‘, or independent, danmaku games as a major inspiration, Danmaku Unlimited goes in a different direction that Espgaluda II, and does a great job at highlighting how the genre can differ from game to game.
While Espgaluda has an instantly recognisable anime style to it, Danmaku Unlimited goes for a more traditional sci-fi shoot-em-up look, and feels more modern for it. The attacks are very different too, with concentrated, high-speed bullet attacks in complex, stunningly intricate patterns; recalling some of the later Touhou Project titles.
Like Espgaluda, you have a special weapon at your disposal, this time called Danmaku Trance; but with no way to slow-down or alter incoming fire, the game feels a little more difficult – as the jump from the comparatively simple Easy mode to the considerably more challenging Normal mode proves. Oh, and forget about the Hard setting until you’ve completed the other two!
Collecting stars left behind by enemies is slightly harder here, as you need to position your ship close to them in order to pick them up, and when the screen’s covered in bullets, this isn’t easy! One of Danmaku‘s most interesting game mechanics is ‘bullet graze’, where the closer bullets pass by your ship the more bonus points you earn. These points turn into virtual currency with which you can upgrade your ship later on.
The almost neon-bright graphics are stunning, plus the music is superb – and both are easily on a par with Cave’s Espgaluda II. The touch controls are good too, and despite the game running fullscreen, there are no problems with your finger blocking the action. What’s even more impressive is the game’s overall smoothness, particularly as Sunny wrote his own game engine.
They may occupy the same genre, but Espgaluda and Danmaku Unlimited are quite different to play, with Cave’s title feeling considerably more arcade-like, and Sunny‘s coming across like the more hardcore of the two. Perhaps not surprising given the games that inspired it.
That’s not to say beginners will find it too tough, as the Easy setting keeps things sensible until you’ve powered up your ship, making the transition to the Normal setting a little less jarring.
Danmaku Unlimited is a brilliant piece of game design, with addictive, exciting gameplay and a difficulty level which should keep even experienced players occupied for a while. It absolutely deserves the same five-star rating as its better known counterpart, Espgaluda II.
As both games have free Lite versions to try-before-you-buy, if you’re at all intrigued by bullet-hell games, you should download them both now. However, if you’d prefer to jump in to the full games straightaway, you won’t regret spending your money on both Espgaluda II and Danmaku Unlimited. Careful though, as once you’ve played a bullet hell game, no other shoot-em-up will ever feel the same!