Shoot ‘em up games started innocently enough. Spacewar shot it’s way onto PCs back in the 1960s, and after Space Invaders was released, the rest was history. Galaga and Galaxian would go on to further popularize the genre, and R-Type and Gradius would modernize it.
Most people won’t believe it, but Shoot ‘em ups started as casual games. I mean, who hasn’t played Galaga?! That wouldn’t last long, however, because once Eastern game studios got their hands on the genre, they changed it forever. Shoot ‘em ups were no longer heaven; they were absolute hell.
In the 1990s, Japanese developers experimented with a new genre, often termed “manic shooter”, “maniac shooter”, “curtain fire shooter” or “bullet hell”. The project was intended to impress players with absolute mayhem, which was kind of the same approach Team Ninja took with the new Ninja Gaiden re-imagining on the Xbox.
The first ever bullet hell shooter was named Batsugun. The industry was creating a new niche with help from previously established games like R-Type; hardcore shoot ‘em ups. While Batsugun was fun shooter, it wasn’t as maniacal as it could have been, and that got developers thinking: “what can we do to push the genre?”
After the company who created Batsugun collapsed, Cave was formed, and would forever change shoot ‘em ups in the eyes of hardcore gamers. Cave would go on to create the first proper hellish shooter; DonPachi. Cave had done it: they had successfully popularized the genre no one in their right mind should truly love, and even marketed DonPachi to the United States. It was history from there for the bullet hell sub-genre.
A few years later, Japanese developer Treasure would take this idea and master it. Radiant Silvergun was created in 1998; a game that many shoot ‘em up die hards still consider to be the best game ever made for its genre. Radiant Silvergun did something that many shoot ‘em ups refused to do: present a perfect learning curve. Radiant Silvergun would start off easy, and then progressively turn harder and harder, until it’s impossible for anyone but the most dedicated of souls.
While many Western gamers never got the chance to play Radiant Silvergun (it was a Sega Saturn import!) almost everyone has heard of its spiritual successor, Ikaruga. Released for the Dreamcast, Gamecube, and as one of the best sellers on the Xbox Live Arcade, Ikaruga is a household name bullet hell title (perhaps the household title). Ikaruga cemented a game mechanic that had only been used by Treasure themselves in a few unpopular games; polarity switching.
The player not only has to dodge curtain fire, but also has to change polarities from dark to light constantly. If the enemy shot dark shots, you could absorb them as dark, but they did double damage as light, so there was incentive to dodge and shift constantly. Ikaruga successfully revived hardcore shooters in America, and now there are a decent amount of titles available on the Xbox Live Arcade, such as Triggerheart Excelica, and Omega Five.
Before Ikaruga was popular, Geometry Wars Retro Evolved tapped into Westerner’s homes like no other title. While it may seem tame at first, eventually, it turns into a bullet hell title, and was a steal at $5!
My fellow shoot ‘em up fans and I are waiting with baited breath for Treasure to finalize a Radiant Silvergun Xbox Live Arcade remake. Treasure would make history by globalizing their work of art, and perhaps would inspire more developers to do the same. Shoot ‘em ups aren’t for everyone, but there are a multitude of die-hard fans, and they eat them up like candy.
No doubt, these popular shooter games are definitely fun, but there is a bullet hell game that holds a special place in my heart. Part of the Japan-based Touhou Project, Perfect Cherry Blossom is one of the best bullet hell games out there. Why do I love bullet hell? Probably because of the euphoric high you get when you’re dodging fire that’s pixels away from killing you. Simply put, I love it because it’s an action game and a puzzle title all in one.
Perfect Cherry Blossom forces you to think quickly, as well as plan out a long-term method in order to dodge the curtains of fire thrown at you over the course of the game. The best part of Perfect Cherry Blossom is that the boss enemies can use “bombs”, an element found in many shoot ‘em ups to be the final attack of player characters.
There is nothing wrong with casual games in any sense of the word, I’m just glad developers are still making difficult ones. While the difficulty of many high profile current-gen titles may disappoint me, I can always go back to reliable shoot ‘em ups for a challenge. If you haven’t had some face time already, bullet hell is a genre that you need to experience. It will improve your hand-eye coordination bar none, and make you better at games in general. If you haven’t experienced the prospect of hundreds, perhaps thousands of bullets on the screen at once, check it out.