What is Bullet Hell? [Gaming Definition, Meaning]

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Bullet Hell, or Danmaku or it is better known in the Japanese gaming community, is the extreme genre of shoot em up games. Literally called bullet barrage, players are bombarded with bullets throughout the whole screen leaving only a little space for comfort and evasion. Hit boxes are limited to 1 pixel for the player and the bullets appear as complicated but yet artistic and intricate patterns. The term became popular through the fan made game Touhou project created by Zun which we will discuss further later in the late 90s, sparking renewed interest in the bullet hell genre. While it may be an obscure genre of game play, we will do our best to showcase the world of Bullet Hell Games to you with some examples!

Shoot em Up Extreme Mode

Shoot em Up was the first style of bullet hell games that was popular in the 90s. Back then, arcade machines were the hit. If you are a 90s kid you will surely remember an iconic game in which you pilot a fighter plane, avoiding bullets and destroying your enemies. Take it up a notch with insane bullet spread and you will have the first instance of a bullet hell games. Of course, we are talking about DonPachi, a beloved game back then!

1. DonPachi

  • Developer: Cave
  • Publisher: Atlus
  • Platform: Arcade, PlayStation, Sega Saturn
  • Released: November 25, 1995

Unlike conventional games of its genre, DonPachi sees the player assuming the role of a fighter pilot undergoing an intensive 8-year programme. This programme is crucial for the pilot to be able to graduate and be part of the elite DonPachi Squadron. As the player, you will be able to command three types of aerial assault craft with different payload (narrowly concentrated shots, side shots or spread shots). You are given the choice of firing your main guns or utilising your bombs. Depending on the choice that you pick for your assault craft, bombs when used, obliterate everything on the screen including bullets or a single concentrated laser shot that deals a massive amount of damage. The game features 5 different areas and ends with a boss fight. Should the game be too difficult, power-ups may be picked up along the way that ranges from life extension to additional bombs. Scoring is relatively straightforward - destroy enemies with points and bonus points will be awarded for every unused bomb. That sounds just about the premise of most manic shooters back in the day now doesn't it?

DonPachi was one of the earliest instances of a bullet hell game. After seeing numerous shoot em up games back in the days, some guy decided that it was time to take it up a notch by introducing an insane amount of bullets such that it was no longer a simple shooting game. With this new element, players will now have to take extra precaution by keeping clear of the bullets and managing their space well, lest they be destroyed by a single bullet. The fast (and often abundant) traveling bullets keeps gamers engaged at all times. Blinking or a lack of focus usually often mean certain death. DonPachi has since then started the trend of what will be known as today as bullet hell games - so much, so fast such that it was hell to escape or weave through them.

Spread Management: Bullet Absorption

One variation of bullet hell games involves the absorption of bullets in order to manage bullet spread for damage control. Of course, if all bullets were able to be absorbed, it would defeat the purpose of a bullet hell game now, wouldn't it? That is why a polarity system was introduced in Ikaruga. With the bullet absorption system, it becomes easier for the player to reposition themselves through weaving through standard bullet spreads and absorbing contrasting bullets. While it may sound easy, managing between two different bullet spreads is no easy feat, as you will have to track between two alternating colours while maintaining the correct polarity for your plane.

2. Ikaruga

  • Developer: Treasure
  • Publisher: Sega
  • Platform: Arcade, Dreamcast, GameCube, Xbox 360, Windows
  • Released: 20 December 2001

Long ago, a powerful man found a source of magical power that is beyond the comprehension of the normal human being. Known as the Ubusunagami Okinokai, this power granted its user an unbelievable amount of strength. When he used the power, a rebel force emerged to do battle with him. Sadly, the rebel force was wiped out saved for one man named Shinra. Crashing into the small town of Ikaruga, Shinra was slowly nursed back to health by the residents. A deep fire burnt inside him and Shinra was determined to rebel against his previous aggressors. The residents entrusted a fighter plane that they built from scratch. This fighter plane was unlike no other, being able to switch polarities, changing its energy source at the command of Shinra. Now armed, Shinra took up arms once again challenge those that had defeated him in the past.

Ikaruga introduces the polarity system. Switching between the two modes of the fighter plane, the player would be able to absorb the correct bullets in order to build up special, stronger attacks. It was a unique implementation of bullet hell games back then and it was praised for its innovation. Even today, it is regarded as one of the best forms of shoot em up games, one that brought a seemingly dead genre back to life. It was through Ikaruga that we realise that bullet hell games are not simply about dodging and avoiding bullets. Above all else, an acute sense of spatial reasoning is needed for the intensity of this game, challenging gamers till this day.

Modern DanMaku: Grazing system and artistic bullets

As Bullet hell evolved over the years, it went through several changes. Grazing became incorporated into bullet hell games. Grazing simply refers to the instance where the bullet narrowly misses the character by a hair line. This system allows for bonus points to be scored in addition to your overall score. Further additions to modern bullet hell would be elaborate and intricate patterns such that they are even artistic in a sense! The most popular bullet hell game to represent this was popular in the 90s and even today and it is none other than the Touhou fan game!

3. Touhou

  • Developer: ZUN
  • Publisher: ZUN
  • Platform: Windows
  • Released: November 1996

Welcome to Gensokyo! A mystical realm where humans and yokais live close together. In the distant past, the yokais would often terrorise villages forcing them to send powerful humans to exorcise them from the lands. This off and on battles continued until the borders between both realms were sealed, separating them. In between the two borders lie Hakurei Shrine which is the final point of contact between yokais and humans. Hakurei Shrine is also home to Reimu Hakurei, a shrine maiden with extraordinary powers. She is often asked to investigate strange happenings in Gensokyo. However, the mischief in Gensokyo is never-ending and Reimu is constantly called upon to mitigate.

Touhou is well-known for its challenging gameplay and originality. Nobody truly expected an indie game made by a single person to eventually become a hit series with its own franchise and numerous spin-offs. Touhou revolutionised the bullet hell game genre with its intricate bullet spread and numerous colours. These bullet spreads are akin to viewing moving pictures and they capture the gamers' attention so much that it may even distract them into running into bullets! When it comes to desperate moments, player's can rely on the grazing system to narrowly shave through bullets. The hit boxes for grazing is usually small, existing in a 1-pixel frame in between the character. The grazing system allows a new perspective for bullet hell games. Players are now able to gamble with chance or if they are skilled enough, slip themselves out of a very tight situation, giving themselves that slight adrenaline rush for dodging very compact bullet spreads.

Final Thoughts

So we hope that you have a clearer understanding of the bullet hell genre of games. If this is your first time hearing about this, we insist that you give it a try! Bullet Hell may sound a bit lacklustre and it may even make you go 'meh..'. However, you will never truly understand the intensity of having literally a thousand bullets flying towards you and the joy of avoiding every single one of them until you try one today! Bullet Hell emphasises just as much on skills and abilities as every other game and is not a game of chance nor luck.

If you have played bullet hell games before, do tell us which one is your favourite. What aspects of the bullet hell genre appeal to you the most? Tell us what is the first bullet hell game you have ever played. It may even be a forgotten classic! Do you recognise bullet hell games as a legitimate skill game? So pick up a bullet hell today and we will see you next time!

Touhou-Koumakyou-game-Wallpaper-500x375 What is Bullet Hell? [Gaming Definition, Meaning]


Author: Araragi

Writing from a little island known as Singapore. It is through my articles that I want to show that the world of anime reaches out beyond the boundaries of Japan. From different age groups to individuals coming from different walks of life, everyone and anyone can be a lover of anime. To quote from Kingdom Hearts, 'There are many worlds out there, but they share the same sky.'

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