Back to this month's issue
Features
Columns
Reviews
Why I Love...
Bonus Stage
 
   
Jingle Bells, Bullet Hells


Eighty quid well spent.

 

 

Blisterin'
By PaulEMoz

The things I put myself through for you lot.

The new breed of shoot 'em up seems to have split the older generation of arcade-goer in two. You'll find that some have adapted, and can take on the new kids on the block using their grass-roots know-how and tightly honed reflexes. But on the other hand, the bullet hell environment is just too much for those used to a more sedate challenge. There may be a sense of loathing as older arses are kicked squarely from here to Kingdom Come.

I used to fall into the latter category, but I've learned to appreciate the bullet hell game. And with those nice chaps at 505 Games rescuing a few more Japanese games from obscurity and releasing them on the PS2, I thought I'd contrast and compare them with some older PS2 releases, in a kind of round-up. As a result, I've seen more bullets than an Army supplies sergeant, and taken more hits than a porn website. And yet, I've enjoyed almost every minute of it. Here's why.

Note: All games tested on their default difficulty settings.

Raiden III
Suitable for: Anyone
Features: Choice of play types.

Haha! Someone on the development team is a right clever bastard, because they had the idea of including a dual play mode. And yes, dual play means that a single player controls both ships, at the same time. This, of course, is mental, but it's also brilliant, and leads you on to new levels of brain torture. It's the ultimate form of “rubbing your belly whilst patting your head”, in video game form. That aside, Raiden III is great fun anyway, and would be a splendid introduction to the genre for any unsuspecting bullet hell virgin, as it plays not unlike some of the classic shooters of the mid-eighties. If you're a veteran of the likes of 1942 and Flying Shark (and indeed, Raiden), you'll be at home here. You won't find it as soul-destroyingly difficult as the likes of the Psikyo games. But the more experienced needn't worry about lack of difficulty, and the dual play mode is a real challenge, and a thing of great joy. A very fine release, indeed.

Cheapest place to buy: Play.com have it for £11.99.


Fight fire with fire!


Homura
Suitable for: Anyone
Features: Choice of route.

Homura is a very pretty game. As it tells the story of one specific character, unusually you don't have a choice of player/ship/weapon. Not a problem. Homura is an interesting game, as games of this type go. It's difficult, sure, but it may be the perfect buy for the player that's just plucked up the courage to step up a level. There may be thousands of projectiles on screen, but many of them move slowly, giving you time to pick out your escape. With its “reflect” system, it's reminiscent of Giga Wing and Mars Matrix, but you have to work a little harder to learn how to get the best out of it. It's also got an interesting combo system, the Thunder Strike Attack, whereby if you hit “reflect” close to an enemy, you'll strike down everything on the screen for more points. You'll also build your score multiplier, so it's worth learning this tactic and using it often. Tricky, challenging, and very entertaining.

Cheapest place to buy: Play.com, for £14.99


Why are the prettiest patterns usually the deadliest?


Psyvariar: Complete Edition
Suitable for: Anyone
Features: Two game versions, choice of routes, “Buzz” system.

Surely everyone knows this one. It's one of the defining games in the “bullet-hell” genre”. With its groundbreaking “Buzz” system encouraging risk and reward, you'll soon find that Psyvariar demands to be played in a different style to most other shoot 'em ups. Your performance throughout a level dictates how difficult a challenge you'll be allowed to take on in the next, and with the game keeping high scores for each stage, you'll feel a real sense of progression. Easy to get into, but with huge scope for refining your game for higher points totals, Psyvariar is a joy to play. You need this game.

Cheapest place to buy: Gamestation are selling it online for £3.99 pre-owned, but if you pop into one of their stores you should be able to pick it up new for a quid more. Failing that, HMV will probably have some instore for £6.99.


Now that's just rude.

 

Dragon Blaze
Suitable for: Intermediate/Ninja
Features: Choice of characters, random levels.

The first thing that strikes you about Dragon Blaze is how lovely it looks. It has a very distinct style, although as you'd maybe expect with a Psikyo game, the sense of familiarity looms large. Of course, you've got the standard power-up tokens, but you've also got the steep, steep difficulty curve. That being the case, a beginner may think they're coming along quite nicely, but by the time they hit level three they'll be in tears and if they make level four, they'll realise that this is a game they'll never, ever complete. As an added note, the Dragon Blaze disc has the peculiar effect of making my PS2 sound as though it's about to either take off or explode, so I may actually stick to playing this in MAME. If I feel like being punished and humiliated, that is.

Cheapest place to buy: Yours for £8.99 at Play.com. If they have it in stock.


Pink bullets. And you think you're hard?


Mobile Light Force 2
Suitable for: Intermediate/Ninja
Features: Choice of characters, “Tension Bonus System”

Back in the mists of time, when people knew little about the games coming out of Japan, it seemed easy to just chuck anything out on the PS2, repackaged for the West, and hope that nobody noticed what they'd done. That's how Mobile Light Force 2 came about. You would think it's the sequel to the PS1's Mobile Light Force, but that game was actually Gunbird, and this game is actually Castle Shikigami, or Shikigami No Shiro. And it's good fun, despite the lack of effort shown in the conversion. It would have been nice, nay, wonderful to have translated dialogue, but that's completely gone, removing a lot of the enjoyment. Still, for cheap it's not bad at all. Just ignore Charlie's Angels on the front cover, because you ain't gonna see them anywhere in the game.

Cheapest place to buy: Probably ebay, actually. It's tough to track down these days. You might find it used in an indie store, though.


Play your cards right, and you'll make it through alive.


Castle Shikigami II: War of the Worlds
Suitable for: Intermediate/Ninja
Features: Choice of characters, choice of weapon types, “Tension Bonus System”.

Castle Shikigami II is a great laugh. It's also a better game than its predecessor, being slightly more serious and more polished. In some ways, it's more of a collect 'em up than a shoot 'em up, depending on how you play it. It's certainly a lot easier if you play it as a standard shooter, but if you want the really big points you're going to have to use the secondary weapon a lot, and that makes things considerably tougher. The characters are a bit weird, the weapons are great and, in taking advantage of the “buzz”-style Tension Bonus System system, the gameplay has an extra dimension. Almost tragically, the hilariously-translated in-game conversations are missing from the PAL conversion, which is a big loss. If you can, get hold of the US version, which includes these. If not, it's still great value.

Cheapest place to buy: Both Play.com and Amazon UK have this one for £9.99. If you're in the mood for a quest, though, you might find it instore at Woolworth for £7.99.


Death comes in many forms. But often, the form is glowing, swirly projectiles.


1945 I & II: The Arcade Games
Suitable for: Nobody, really
Features: Two games, choice of ships.

If you're a veteran of mid-eighties arcades who likes nothing more than to waste a few ten pees on 1942, and are looking forward to the next few sentences, you may want to just skip ahead. These games will hurt you, badly. Oh, sure, at first things will seem just fine. The first couple of levels are enjoyable, and you'll reminisce about bygone days on seafronts, getting a shooting percentage of 96% with smells of the sea and hotdogs filling your nostrils. But then, things will take a turn. As you get further into the game, you're almost certain to lose lives, and very often. The speeds at which things fly around and spew out bullets are frightening, and only those with the most incredible of reflexes will survive. Lesser mortals will just be enveloped by feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and may well get to the stage where it feels pointless carrying on. It's at that point they'll discover that high scores aren't saved, and all that torture has been for nothing.

Cheapest place to buy: If you still like the sound of it, Gamestation have this one for £4.99.


If only the whole game was like this.


Gunbird Special Edition
Suitable for: Ninja
Features: Two games, choice of characters, random levels.

Why is this a Special Edition? Well, because it includes both Gunbird 1 and 2. However, what's not very special is the lack of any kind of save/load feature. It's maddening, because the Gunbird games are both pretty good fun, although they do escalate a bit too far into madness as they progress. They're a lot like the 1945 games in that regard, in that you'll start off at a merry old clip, only to be pounded mercilessly into submission by about the third or fourth level. If you've got freakishly excellent reflexes and don't mind writing your high scores down in a battered old exercise book, this release is for you. The rest of you may want to just try it in MAME.

Cheapest place to buy: Online, it's Amazon, for £9.97.

But if you fancy it, it might be worth popping into HMV, as they usually have a few copies for around six or seven quid.


Yep, it seems like a mis-match to me, too.


GigaWing Generations
Suitable for: Anyone
Features: Choice of ships, choice of routes, “reflect” system.

This is, quite frankly, insane. The scoring system is mental to the point where it may as well not be there. It just means nothing. On the other hand, if having a high score makes you feel good about yourself, but you're crap at shoot 'em ups, this is ideal, because even if you're rubbish you should manage somewhere in the region of 750 trillion points on your first game. And that's not an exaggeration. Fans of the series will like the familiarity of little things like the sound effects, but may be a touch disappointed by the game itself. The graphical update serves to do more harm than good, and although GigaWing Generations is quite enjoyable, it doesn't quite feel the same as earlier iterations. Definitely cheap enough to merit a look, though.

Cheapest place to buy: Both Play and Amazon have this one for £8.99.


Would you consider eleventy squillion points enough of a reward for coping with that?


Sol Divide
Suitable for: Beginner
Features: Choice of characters, choice of “storyline”.

This is quite an intriguing game, although it's not really a bullet-hell game. Nor is it, as you might think, a videogame debate as to the worth of Mr. Campbell in the England back four. Instead, it's sort of a Role Playing Shoot 'Em Up. It's a horizontal scroller, and you “fight” mythological beasts by means of bullets, sword or magic. Defeating them rewards you with power ups, magic or extra health. And it pays to work out which type of magic works best against which foe. Normally with a game, I don't like to continue at Game Over, preferring instead to progress as far as possible on one credit. To its credit, Sol Divide actually had me using continue to see how the story panned out. The action itself isn't exactly fantastic, but Sol Divide is an interesting title, nonetheless.

Cheapest place to buy: Care to guess where, and for how much? Yes, Play.com, for £8.99.


Purdy


Samurai Aces
Suitable for: Beginner/Intermediate
Features: Choice of characters, random levels.

Sometimes, you have to wonder just who names a game. I would have bought this ages ago, but, being called Samurai Aces, I thought it was a beat 'em up. Instead, it's a really fun shooter. It's ideal for anyone that's put off by the thought of screens filled to the brim with inescapable enemy bullets. There are still a fair few of them thrown around, but it's far more forgiving than other Psikyo efforts, such as Gunbird or Dragon Blaze. Perfect for the bullet-hell beginner, it gives you something that you can have fun with whilst building up the courage to tackle something a little more heady.

Cheapest place to buy: Again, it's at Play and Amazon for £8.99.


So where are all the swords, then? Eh?


Tengai
Suitable for: Beginner/Intermediate
Features: Choice of characters, random levels.

Tengai is a rare beast, in that it's a Psikyo game that scrolls horizontally. Packed with the flavour of ancient Japan, it has you picking from five of the usual types of characters, who proceed to fly, Crouching Tiger-style, into battle against all kinds of colourful enemies. The game is laden with huge, distinct foes which really give the game appeal. The characters and power-ups are thankfully made to look more Oriental in this game. Tengai is charming and forgiving enough to make it appealing to all but the most useless of gamers. I really like this game, it's well worth checking out.

Cheapest place to buy: Play again, for that familiar price of £8.99.


Begone, flying wheels o' death!


Steel Dragon EX
Suitable for: Beginner
Features: Two games, choice of ships in “Evolution”.

Steel Dragon EX is not a make-your-own-band game based on the Rock Star movie. Instead, it's the arcade game, Steel Dragon (although having said that, I can't find any reference to an original Steel Dragon arcade game!), and a new, flashy updated version, Steel Dragon Evolution. Unfortunately, it's not very evolutionary, taking much from existing shmups, chucking them into a big melting pot, and seeing what comes out at the end. And what comes out at the end is too easy and dull, and somewhat soulless. I have to say, I much preferred playing the old-fashioned “original”, which is a lot of fun, and much more worthy of your time. Unfortunately, despite what the instructions say, I couldn't find a way to save my high scores on the original game, which (of course) is a huge blow. A disappointing package.

Cheapest place to buy: Amazon.com. £9.97 to you, squire.

Unless you don't mind used, in which case it's £7.99 at Gamestation.


Ikaruga? Not even close.


XII Stag
Suitable for: Intermediate/Ninja
Features: Scoring progress chart.

XII Stag is quite tasty when played as a straightforward shoot 'em up. However, to get the best out of it, you have to learn techniques which enable you to destroy enemies approaching from the back and sides. Unfortunately, you're going to feel more like you've played an hour of Activision's Decathlon by the time you're finished. Remember when you played Wizball, and you had to waggle the 'stick to activate a power-up? It's a bit like that. When you've got enemies on either side of you, you have to kind of waggle to activate your Side Attack. It gets you some big bonus points, but it's a bit cumbersome, and you might well find yourself reverting to the old faithful, namely, the fire button. Play it that way, though, and you'll struggle to get far. XII Stag is a definite attempt at advancing the vertically scrolling shmup, but it's not entirely successful. It feels a bit gimmicky, and you really need a proper arcade stick to play it properly. Sometimes, when something isn't broken, it really is best to just leave it alone.

Cheapest place to buy: Difficult to get online, although Gamestation are doing it pre-owned for £3.99.

But if you want it new, trot into your nearest Virgin. They should have a copy, and are selling it for £4.99.


XII Stag? But there's not an antler in sight!


Gradius V
Suitable for: Anyone.

And so we come full circle. Gradius (or Nemesis, depending on the mood you're in) was one of the games responsible for blasting the popularity of the shoot 'em up through the stratosphere. Although the shmup went Missing In Action for a while, now that there's something of a resurgence, Gradius is back to show these upstarts just how it should be done. It's not just one of the best shooters on the PS2, it's one of the best games on the PS2. More forgiving than earlier Gradius games, at least in terms of allowing you to progress after you lose a life, but still very, very challenging. Gradius V is still a thing of great beauty, and an absolute joy to play. You must own it.

Cheapest place to buy: Gradius V is almost a collector's item at this point. Ebay is a decent bet, but you can get it pre-owned at Gamestation for £12.99.


Sob. The beauty makes me weep.


R-Type Final
Suitable for: Anyone.

After all that, we have something of a postscript. R-Type Final is just what it says – the end of an era. And when all's said and done, it's a pretty decent way to bow out. You wouldn't think it from the incredibly dull first level, though. But thankfully things do pick up. There's plenty of decent action to be had, but the real cherry on the cake lies in the museum. There are up to 99 fighters to unlock, from all kinds of shooters past. There's little more absurd than taking on the might of the Bydo Empire with Mr. Heli, but now it can be done. The museum is a tremendous addition to the package, and although the action isn't as good as some other games mentioned here, R-Type Final is still a title that no self-respecting arcade fan should be without.

Cheapest place to buy: Also difficult to find, but Gamestation are listing it for £4.99 new. But they're out of stock. They've got it pre-owned for £7.99, though.


Purple is such a relaxing colour, don't you think?


Summary

Ow! My eyes! I'm crying bloody tears here, after playing through that lot. I know a lot of bullet hell games may frighten the more dyed-in-the-wool eighties shooter fan, but a few of these are easily accessible to all, and once you get started you may well find yourself wanting more extreme punishment. Besides, in these days of epic quests and the like, these games refreshingly eschew the twenty-hour game in favour of some of our favourite traits: the gaming thrill quick-fix and the high score. You owe it to yourself to keep this type of game alive.

December 2006

Comments

Back to this month's issue