Behind the clips and the colourful light guns lies a shooting subgenre that is its own special circle of suffering. Bullet hell games, called danmaku or literally barrage in Japan, shoot hundreds of projectiles at the player. Sometimes the bullets come in different colours and shapes. Often the only safe space on the screen is the one you occupy–and that changes by the second.
But chaotic as bullet hell games may look, there is a method behind the madness of every wall of white hot projectiles coming your way. Dodging successfully is less about adapting on the fly, and more about recognising patterns blooming in the bullets, calculating where the next hitbox will be.
A Gauntlet Few Can Survive
It’s almost hypnotically beautiful, if you can get over the initial wave of frustration and urge to scream.
Most people don’t. Takahashi Meijin, a legendary arcade gamer who can mash a button 16 times a second, classifies shooters as games where enemies fire a “reasonable” number of bullets.
There’s nothing reasonable about the hail of hellfire you have to face in Dodonpachi or Batsugun. Bullet hell’s difficulty has certainly set it apart from the majority of games in the shooting genre, but it’s more popular than ever, with the indie gaming scene chock full of bullet hell games, from Enter the Gungeon to Housemarque’s slick and polished third person neon firework display, Returnal.
In this guide, we’re going to look at some classic arcade bullet hell games.
Up For The Challenge? Then Set Thrusters To Full
Radiant Silvergun is a 1998 title from developer Treasure. Some fondly remember it as the game that revived the shoot ‘em up genre, which by the late ‘90s was saturated with lookalikes and clones. Gamespot called it the “finest example” of a shoot 'em up on any platform.
Ships, shooting, and swords–Radiant Silvergun has it all
And it certainly looked that way. Aside from finely tuned controls and firing mechanics, Radiant Silvergun used 3D polygons and distortion effects to give its levels an illusion of depth and scale. It also gives you a weapon you normally wouldn’t see on a shoot ‘em up: a sword that absorbs certain enemies and bullets. Once fully charged, you can slash and cleave through everything within reach.
In Batsugun, players control one of six Skull Hornet pilots fighting against an invading military threat. The game gives players a choice of three types of aircrafts: Type A’s with the typical scatter shot bullets, Type B’s with straight lasers, and Type C’s that combine both. Ships can be upgraded as you go, increasing their power.
Fighting curtains of fire with curtains of fire
Released in 1993, the game is hailed as one of the earliest true bullet hells. It’s the last game to come from Toaplan, a developer known as the master of scrolling shooters and the ones responsible for arcade classics like Grind Stormer, Twin Cobra, and Truxton.
You can’t talk about bullet hells without developer Cave and DoDonPachi. Manic gameplay that never lets up, a hail of bullets that shower your entire screen until it’s nearly impossible to see where your ship begins and where the projectiles end, a tagline that literally translates to “Dying is Good”–DoDonPachi is the very definition of bullet hell.
This is fine
The game bears obvious stylistic and gameplay influences from Toaplan games. Not a surprise, as Cave was founded by developers from Toaplan after the latter went under, essentially making the DoDonPachi franchise a continuation of the legendary developer’s shoot ‘em up legacy.
Bee Storm: DoDonPachi II
Despite its name, Bee Storm: DoDonPachi II isn’t a Cave bullet hell. It was developed by Taiwanese developer International Games System (IGS) after acquiring rights to create another DoDonPachi game.
Nothing beats the buzz of hundreds of near misses
In terms of art style, boss sprites, and animations, a lot of Bee Storm takes from the original. Even the story springs from the same lore. But what makes the game incredibly important in bullet hell history is what its success led to. Impressed with the performance of DoDonPachi II, Cave re-entered the arcade gaming scene with Dai-Ou-Jou.
DoDonpachi Dai-Ou-Jou (DOJ) is the sequel to DoDonPachi. Released in 2002, the game enjoys a few improvements from then more modern hardware. Increased frame rates translate to smoother gliding across the screen, which is great when you’re always a hair’s breadth away from eating a bullet.
Brighter, smoother, and ten times meaner
The polish is paid for with an increase in difficulty that’s brutal even for bullet hell games. The bullet density and enemy aggressiveness increases as you rank up. There’s a hidden second phase of the game where you meet the true final boss, only accessible after the player completes all the levels and has either died less than two times, used less than three bombs, or collected at least three 2x Bee icons. Not for the faint of heart or short of patience, DOJ resides in the most unforgiving circle of bullet hells.
Unlike most of the titles on the list, Capcom’s Giga Wing is a vertical shooter that uses a horizontally oriented screen, increasing the size of the play area as well as the number of enemies that can swarm.
The wider the screen, the hotter the hellfire
The larger screen translated to seemingly thousands of different projectiles and enemy ships coming at you from all angles. Reviewer Jim Preston of NextGen calls it a game that should be “packed with bottles of both Visine and Excedrin”. There's logic and patterns behind every bullet hell game, but even the eagle-eyed have to squint hard to find it in Giga Wing.
True bullet hell games have a learning curve steeper than most casual players can scale. Gamers who want to cut their teeth on something a little more forgiving can try out games that can dish a considerable amount of firepower without covering the screen in nothing but projectiles.
Darius Gaiden Silver Hawk
Although technically not considered a bullet game hell by hardcore fans, Darius Gaiden Silver Hawk lands on the list because of its beautiful graphics and near bullet hell difficulty levels. It’s a great practice game for the likes of DoDonPachi.
One rung on your way down to bullet hell
Darius Gaiden is also one of the games credited for inspiring the Touhou franchise. Touhou games are PC-based bullet hells that were made when a developer looked at DoDonPachi and thought there weren’t enough bullets.
Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams
Starships and fighter planes are staples of bullet hells and shoot-em-ups. Sega’s Cotton gives the genre a cute and fantastical twist by flying in a witch on a broom. Nata de Cotton, the game’s protagonist, weaves and shoots her way through monsters on her quest to get candy.
That must be some really bewitching candy
But don’t let the fairies, pink hair, and the cutesy premise fool you–a game for kids this game is not. Cotton, like any good shoot ‘em up out of the arcade era, is no pushover. At times, it gets strange, with gothic bosses that won’t look out of place shambling inside a Castlevania game.
Bullet hells may not be for everyone, but that doesn’t stop the siren call of the hail of multicoloured bullets calling those who’ll dare. If your idea of a good time is ludicrously tiny hit boxes and hundreds of bullets raining down on your ship, then this hell might just be your heaven.