Rapid Fire Round – Bullet Hell

Heil, fellow Flashists. It’s time for another Rapid Fire Round, and this time we’re exploring the weird little sub-genre of shoot-em-ups called denmaku, curtain fire, barrage or simply Bullet Hell. Bullet Hell was originally invented by the Japanese, who decided that videogames should not just be a form of entertainment, but some kind of brain-melting, eye-twitching Herculean goddamned quest. As the name suggests, there’s a lot of bullets on screen. Like, seriously, a lot. So much so that, compared to other shoot-em-ups, the main part of your concentration is not on shooting down enemies, but navigating a way through a ridiculous pattern of bullets. These games sometimes have complex scoring systems, based on combos or ‘grazing’ bullets (sometimes you need to be shot at a point directly at the middle of your ship, and ‘grazing’ a bullet with a wing or somesuch actually gives you more points) and are frequently unforgiving, killing you witha single hit. Unfortunately, this genre is not exactly well-represented in the Flash format, with many of these games being impossible-to-find Japanese PS2 imports that you have to remortgage your house and suck off the guy behind the game store counter in a back alley to get ahold of. However, I’ve tracked down a few that might draw your attention.

Frantic

Biff McKraken, space pilot extraordinaire, could not explain his sudden craving for hula-hoops

Biff McKraken, space pilot extraordinaire, could not explain his sudden craving for hula-hoops

Important stuff out of the way first: Frantic is awesome. It’s possibly one of the better attempts at a Bullet Hell shmup available in the flash format and one of the slicker flash shoot em ups out there. Using either the keyboard or mouse (I recommend mouse) you control your ship through an ever-escalating series of levels. Don’t worry about shooting, it’ll fire automatically, leaving you to concentrate on finding a path through the enemy fire. With each enemy you kill, you fill up your adrenaline bar on the left-hand side and clicking the mouse button or pressing space will activate a powerup. The fuller your bar, the more potent the powerup, from a shield that converts and bullets that hit you to health, to a screen-clearing special attack. In addition, each enemy killed leaves behind a gold coin, collecting these gives you money to upgrade your ship between levels by purchasing up to 4 upgrade cards. These cards can increase your damage, fire rate, add sidekicks with special weapons, even give you a small chance to double your earnings each level. Having to pick between 4 of these cards forces you to consider what powerups you really need.

The graphics are clean and crisp, although a little sterile. Simple designs on both your ship and the enemies, but this is necessary considering how busy the screen can get, and the explosions are quite pretty. Most importantly, there’s very little slowdown and the action stays smooth throughout. The boss fights, in particular, are good fun, with the screen soon filling with bullets from every side, leaving you to try and navigate a precarious route through them.

Frantic is a polished and enjoyable shooter with a lot to recommend it, the only issue being that of questionable replay value. After a few levels, there just doesn’t seem to be quite enough depth to the game, and there’s little to make you come back to it once you’ve played it through. That said, your first run through is so much fun you won’t really mind. This is one to play, but not necessarily to bookmark

4/5

Danmaku Legend 2

The Space Federation's brief flirtation with loading their guns with flower petals proved disastrous

The Space Federation's brief flirtation with loading their guns with flower petals proved disastrous

Danmaku Legend 2 is something of a classical Bullet Hell shooter. It embraces a lot of features of the genre such as the weak and strong firing styles. Tap the Z key and your ship will use it’s weak firing mode, a weapon that usually has a wider spread. Hold down Z and your ship enters strong firing mode. Your weapons is stronger, but with a narrower focus. On top of this, your hitbox displays as a red dot at the middle of your ship. Let bullets ‘grace’ your ship all you like, but don’t let them touch that red dot. As your ship grazes bullets, it increases your ‘RF’ gauge, allowing you to fire a Repulsion Field with X, transforming enemy bullets into score-boosting pickups. The X button is also used to fire your smart bombs when the RF gauge isn’t full, and in addition you can hold the C key to use just your weak firing style. Confused yet?

The graphics are servicable, but lack character, with all the spaceships looking a little generic. Also, the game unfortunately suffers form a little slowdown in places. The game itself is tough, as bullet hell games should be, with you struggling to work your way through some of the more punishing boss fights (although there is a more forgiving easy mode). The grazing system, choice of ships and greater depth to the game should grant it a little more longevity, although this might depend somewhat on how enjoyable you find it to watch your ship continuously blowing up.

4/5

Flash Ikaruga

Sorry. No. I can't tell what the fuck that thing at the top looks like. Demented armoured horse maybe?

Sorry. No. I can't tell what the fuck that thing at the top looks like. Demented armoured horse maybe?

Ikaruga is one of the modern daddies of the Bullet Hell genre. Originally available on Gamecube, the game has now been re-released on XBox Live Arcade and is well worth your MS points. It’s the combination of a beautifully simple but effective combat mechanic and horrible ball-bursting difficulty that makes it like liquid crack to a certain breed of videogamer. Namely, ones that hate themselves and want to suffer. This is something a little unusual, a demo of sorts for the game released in Flash. Unfortunately, it’s extremely short, with you battling only the boss of the first stage, but it preserves almost everything from the game.

The graphics are good, they’ve done a fine job in converting the polygons and special effects of the oroginal to flat sprites for Flash. There’s a great deal of slowdown unfortunately, even on quite powerful computers, so it’s a good thing there’s a number of options for lowering the detail and improving performance.

It’s the game mechanics where Ikaruga truly shines. Your ship is constantly in one of two polarities: light or dark. When in a light polarity, you do double-damage to dark enemies and can absorb light bullets, increasing your special gauge at the bottom of the screen, but get hit by even one dark bullet and it’s over. When in a dark polarity, vice-versa. Z fires your main weapon, X switches polarity and C fires a number of homing lasers, depending on how full your special gauge is.

It’s a shame that the game itself is so short, as it’s only in the full version that you get to see many of the uses the mechanic is put to. Here you find yourself weaving through hails of bullets, switching polarities to avoid destruction. It’s fun, but won’t last you more than a few minutes.

What I’m basically saying is get Ikaruga on Xbox Live. You bastards.

3/5

Fat Cat

Crush the bourgoisie! Save the worker! Seize the-oh sorry, not THAT kind of fatcat

Crush the bourgoisie! Save the worker! Seize the-oh sorry, not THAT kind of fatcat

Another review, another excellent game from Nitrome. The bastards. This time I’m cheating a little as Fat Cat isn’t, in the strictest sense, Bullet Hell. It also has has elements of an incredibly frantic puzzle game and is, without a doubt, the most original game here. With your W, S, A and D keys, you control the eponymous fat cat, a slow lumbering thing with little offensive capability of his own who is disturbingly fragile, a few shos and it’s over. With the mouse, however, you control a small owl. The owl can fire with a click of the mouse button, is impervious to harm and can pick up objects by moving the owl over it and holding the mouse button. These objects include blocks that can be used to clear a path or smash opponents, the fat cat himself or cake powerups, which can be dragged to the slower, less agile fat cat. Feed the cat enough cake, and pressing the spacebar will unleash a devastating laser beam, obliterating enemies and obstacles before it.

What this boils down to in practise is you will constantly be using the owl to protect fat cat. The owl can absorb bullets, stopping them striking the vulnerable cat, and you’ll often find yourself frantically trying to use the owl to clear a path for the cat, dragging blocks, taking down enemies and stopping bullets. The game is satisfyingly hard, and allows you to come back to any stage you’ve completed previously. The graphics are a little blocky, but have a certain charm to them. Overall Fat Cat is a delightfully challenging game with strong Bullet Hell elements, the boss fights in particular proving very tough and the dual control gimmick can sometimes make you feel like your brain’s sliding out of your ears. Thoroughly recommended. But not to the weak.

5/5

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