An Ode to Bullet Hell…

When people are trying to grapple with the question of whether or not video games are art, they often come up against the problem of “fun” and whether a video game needs to remain fun in order to be playable, or whether it can forsake fun briefly in order to make an artistic statement.

Bullet hell games are certainly not art, but for many people who don’t have that masochistic “challenge gamer” complex inside them, they take fun and beat it down with the gamer’s own shattered ego. I love ’em though.

They’re sometimes called “manic shooters”, but “bullet hell” seems to be a far more appropriate to me, because it summarizes both what the game looks like and how the player ends up feeling by the end of it. These games are a subgenre of scrolling shooter games, such as raiden, 1942, and the infamously parodied zero wing. Oh yeah and if you take one hit you’re fried… none of this life bar bullshit, and certainly none of this regenerating life bar bullshit.



Look at that! That’s from progear, in case you’re curious. It’s made by our beloved Capcom.


They’re called bullet hell because at any given time there are usually hundreds of bullets and obstacles for the player to be dodging. Often the bullets are made to fire at the player in artful patterns, such as expanding rings or strange wave like formations. They can be quite enjoyable to look at actually, even though they’re enraging as hell to play. There are a few games that fit into this genre available on consoles, and a few available on PCs, but most of these games can be found in arcades.

Because of the sheer amount of shit flying around the screen at any given moment, bullet hell games do a couple things that most shooters don’t to make it easier on the player. Firstly, they tend to make the space in which a bullet needs to hit your sprite in order to actually kill you much smaller than normal shooters. This space is called the “hitbox”, and some games even go so far as to demonstrate where the hitbox is in relationship to your little ship before the game begins. You can see the screenshot that I took above demonstrates the scale of the hitbox. I’m quite clearly overlapping with several bullets, but none are touching the hitbox. They also tend to throw the player a bone and give them some type of “bomb” attack that can only be used a few times, but is capable of clearing the screen of shots for a few seconds.

Another characteristic of bullet hell games is they tend to have very strange and complex scoring systems. I think designers realized that the people who were actually going to play these games are the type of people who have trained themselves to blink without closing their eyes. You know what I mean, score junkies. This means nothing to a casual player, but usually the game involves some type of difficult scoring combo system in order to ensure that a serious player consistently puts themselves in harm’s way in order to score big points.

If you want a challenge, and you have access to these types of games, I definitely recommend them. Consider it training for the most elegant bullet hell game ever created… Ikaruga. But more on that later…


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October 2008
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