We live in an age where videogames are more complex than ever; offering their players sweeping narratives, motion captured cutscenes and all manner of incredibly advanced chicanery that bolsters the basic gaming experience. We expect, nay, we demand embellishment at every opportunity as well as increasingly intricate contrivances that allow developers to take the action out of our hands.
Classic SHMUPS (shoot 'em ups), however, sit at the opposite end of the gaming spectrum. The genre is literally nothing but gameplay as it places no barriers between the player and the game's raw mechanics - and nowhere is this more evident than in the hypnotic depths of Bullet Hell. Over the next few hundred words, we're going to explain our complex love affair with the niche - and why we keep coming back to vicious sadists who punish us without mercy.
In case you're unaware of what the term means, Bullet Hell (or Maniac Shooters) refers to a sub-genre of 2D shoot 'em ups that developed in Japanese arcades during the early nineties. Two dimensional games faced stiff competition from the influx of 3D titles that offered more visceral experiences... and thus a number of influential arcade outfits like CAVE and Toaplan decided to make their games more visceral by throwing enormous amounts of incoming bullets at players in complex patterns. Dodging through these intimidating and intricate formations is akin to guiding oneself through a labyrinth, demanding split-second reflexes, nerves of steel and a photographic memory from players. Especially when suicide bullets raise the level of challenge to unbelievable extremes.
The phrase "bullet hell" gets bandied around a fair bit these days, and it's often completely wrong. If there isn't a point in a game where a full half of the play area is completely covered by enemy firepower - and where incoming bullets actually form discrete walls and mazes that need to be weaved through - chances are that you're just playing a regular garden variety SHMUP. There's no shame in that, and we love shooters of all kinds, but we're looking for something much more primal.
When you descend into a Bullet Hell SHMUP, you're engaging in gameplay in its purest, most concentrated and truest form. Every and every tiny movement is immediately and fully translated into the movement of your ship or character (or overtly sexualised teenage witch), creating a unique connection with the game experience that's impossible to find in any other genre. You're not just a spectator: you're in the game. You are the game; the most important part of a ruthless set of mechanics. If games an be likened to a clockwork mechanism, Bullet Hell SHMUPS make you the pendulum... rather than placing players on the outside and only giving them the option to move the hands.
For my money, DoDonPachi, Ikaruga, Score Rush, Deathsmiles and their ilk are better for the soul than any amount of mediation, massage or spiritual healing. Pure reflex and instinct takes over after a while, clearing your mind of all confusion and anxiety. It is, in fact, a deep and meaningful form of meditation in and of itself. These days, high score runs tend to be self-improvement rather than competition with others, meaning that it's possible to enter a zen state of pure gameplay nirvana.
Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that Bullet Hell shooters delight in dishing out punishment (not to be confused with Sin & Punishment, which isn't technically a Bullet Hell shooter). CAVE and Treasure have humiliated me so many times, demanding a level of competency and physical prowess that my untrained mind and spongy human body is simply not capable of. My thumbs are calloused and bruised. My retinas are seared by swirling projectile patterns. My larynx is irreparably damaged by cursing and swearing after countless 1CC runs were scuppered by a single suicide bullet.
And yet I keep coming back for more, and will do so with submissive glee when CAVE's archetypal shooter DoDonPachi Resurrection hits the Xbox 360 this November. The feeling of finally besting a boss, beating a high score or completing a singularly implacable level delivers a feeling of genuine, uncomplicated joy. Not to mention an emotional reaction that's on a par with the most tear-jerking storylines. In an age where gaming is more complex and contrived than ever before, we need Bullet Hell shooters to ground us in what our medium is really all about: tight mechanics, art direction and placing us directly in the experience, not proxies.
In other words: games used to be all about gameplay. And to find gameplay heaven, you'll occasionally need to descend into Bullet Hell. That's why we love it.