One of the most influential and recognizable video games ever made is the 1978 arcade classic Space Invaders. The game was developed by Tomohiro Nishikado and gave players control of a spaceship to fight against endlessly descending waves of aliens. Space Invaders seems incredibly basic by modern standards due to its simplistic controls and repetitive gameplay. However, it was one of the first games to provide a skill-based challenge that no other medium could deliver. Its massive success and popularity ignited the rapid growth and technological advancements that led gaming to become a multibillion-dollar industry.
Despite the success of Space Invaders, its top-down shooter gameplay seemed to fade almost immediately from mainstream gaming. Platformers and fighting games quickly replaced them as the dominating genres of the console and arcade markets. However, its simple premise laid the foundation for the niche bullet hell genre of games, which has developed a large cult following and has seen constant releases from small game studios and independent developers. The genre has undergone a long and hectic journey from its humble beginnings of Space Invaders to its unusual return to mainstream gaming.
The Shoot’Em Up Era
The success of Space Invaders inspired a wave of similar games from other developers, with the most famous examples developed by Namco. Although the developer is best known for creating Pac-Man, Namco first found success in 1979 with Galaxian. The game shares many similarities with its inspiration, using the same premise of the player at the bottom of the screen fighting against rows of alien combatants. Galaxian differs, however, in its aggressive and unpredictable enemies that dive bomb the player. Furthermore, the game lacks the defensive cover found in Space Invaders, forcing players to carefully evade bullet fire throughout the entire game. In addition to its faster and intensified gameplay, Galaxian boasted better visuals, sound design and challenge than its predecessor.
In 1981, Galaxian received a greatly improved sequel titled Galaga. The game refined even more elements of its forerunners while working to make the experience even more exciting and accessible — additions such as the shooting-gallery-inspired challenge stages provided risk-free skill tests between levels. The game’s new Boss Galaga enemy also presented a new challenge in its ability to abduct the player’s ship. While this counts as a death for the player, they can use extra lives to destroy this enemy to recapture the ship. The rejoined ship will attach to the player’s current vessel, allowing the player to fire from two guns at once. However, shooting the captive ship will destroy it, creating a risk-reward mechanic that adds strategy to the game’s fast-paced, reaction-based gameplay. The innovations of Galaxian and Galaga led to the establishment of the shoot ‘em up genre (a predecessor to bullet-hell games) and proved that these games had plenty of room for innovation.
The shoot ‘em up genre would experience its first drastic transformation in 1982 with another Namco title named Xevious. While the game was similar to Namco’s earlier shooters, each level focused on flying to a specific goal rather than shooting every enemy. Xevious permitted players to move vertically and horizontally to dodge enemies and obstacles. While it is a seemingly simple change, it created a new type of challenge for the genre by placing a greater focus on evasion over simply attacking. Shoot ‘em ups released after Xevious would follow and expand upon this new formula. The most notable example is Capcom’s 1942, the first shoot ‘em up to feature power-ups and a boss battle at the end of every level.
Although shoot ‘em ups were gradually evolving, it struggled to compete against other genres in the ’90s. The revolutionary nature of early fighting games and first-person shooters attracted thousands of players. In contrast, shoot ‘em ups appeared dated due to their often-simplistic visuals and gameplay. Despite this shift, the genre continued to thrive in the Japanese market and amassed a moderate following among Western gamers. As a result, shoot ‘em ups changed to cater to the hardcore tastes of its small but dedicated fanbase.
The Early Danmaku Era
Shoot ‘em ups adopted a new approach that tested experienced players. Enemies in these shooters were noticeably more aggressive, as their numerous projectiles often filled the screen. Players needed precision to evade chaotic onslaughts while using power-ups and different weapons to their advantage. This shift towards higher difficulty and complexity led to the new age of shoot ’em ups being relabeled as danmaku (barrage) or bullet hell shooters.
The first game considered a proper bullet hell title was Batsugun in 1993. It adhered to the Xevious-inspired formula of shoot ‘em ups from the late ’80s but presented a massive increase in speed and difficulty. The game also exhibited greater complexity by allowing players to control different ships and collect power-ups to upgrade their weapons. Batsugun’s energetic and brutal action was unmatched when it launched, and it received heaps of critical praise for its arcade release. Although later rereleases received a harsher reception compared to Batsugun’s higher quality successors, there is no denying the impact the game left in its creation of the bullet-hell genre.
Unfortunately, Batugun’s success was not enough to save its struggling developer, Toaplan. The company was forced to file for bankruptcy a year after the game’s release. However, several former staff members of Toaplan moved on to form a new game studio named Cave. In 1995, the team developed a spiritual successor to Batsugun titled Donpachi. Along with refining the gameplay of its predecessor, Donpachi adapted to skilled players by awarding more points for defeating multiple enemies in a short period while simultaneously increasing the enemy’s difficulty. The game also provided a surprisingly dark and captivating story, with repeat playthroughs revealing the truth about the player’s mission and the enemies they kill.
The growth of bullet hells would eventually lead to one of the best games in the genre: Ikaruga. The game was developed by Treasure in 2001 and served as a spiritual successor to the studio’s equally excellent 1998 shoot ‘em up, Radiant Silvergun. However, Ikaruga differs from many other bullet hells with its polarity mechanic. Players can switch their ship between white and black polarities for different effects on enemies and their bullets. Ikaruga is still regarded as the pinnacle of the bullet-hell genre. Its puzzle-like gameplay and carefully crafted stages work together to create an experience unmatched by any other bullet-hell title. However, at the time of its release, no one realized that the game would also represent the last hurrah for the era of the sci-fi bullet-hell.
Touhou and the Redefined Danmaku Era
Team Shanghai Alice’s long-running Touhou Project is one of the most iconic bullet-hell series and has become a symbol of the entire genre. The first entry was released in 1997 by the creator and sole member of Team Shangai Alice, Jun’ya Ota (who works under the pseudonym of ZUN). The series originally started as a Breakout-inspired puzzle game before adopting the bullet-hell format for its sequels.
Touhou didn’t receive much attention until the 2002 release of its sixth entry, Touhou Koumakyou: The Embodiment of Scarlet Devil. This incredibly polished bullet hell embodied the experience and practice ZUN received from working on the previous titles. Along with its fast-paced, challenging gameplay, the game demonstrated ZUN’s talent for creating memorable soundtracks and a storyline that focused on its characters more than most other bullet-hells. Even with Ikaruga being released less than a year before this entry, Touhou quickly began to dominate and redefine the bullet-hell formula.
Most Touhou games share the same basic mechanics. Players possess a basic attack and significant damage special attacks called “spell cards” that change between characters. Stages are designed like many other bullet-hell games but encourage the use of both evasive and offensive tactics through their distinct mechanics. Destroyed enemies release items that provide points and strengthen the player’s basic attacks when collected. Players are also rewarded with extra points for performing grazes or near misses. Touhou’s mechanics are much simpler than its predecessors. Still, they work in tandem with the unrelenting stages and formidable boss battles to create a formula that has entertained fans for over two decades.
Touhou’s most influential and distinguishing factor is its storytelling. The two decades of mostly sci-fi bullet-hells allowed Touhou’s fantasy setting and anime aesthetic to stand apart from its competition. Most entries follow Reimu Hakurei, a priestess who investigates supernatural occurrences throughout the fictional world of Gensokyo. Each game’s plot is simple but focuses on a different member of the extensive cast of characters. Touhou’s creative lore and characters have inspired numerous fan-made works, including games, comics and multiple animated series.
The sudden popularity of Touhou changed the expectations and appearance of the bullet-hell genre. Rather than presenting spaceships and alien threats, new bullet-hell titles adopted Touhou’s cartoonish appearance and easily understandable mechanics. The difficulty of these titles also grew to match the intensity of Touhou, plunging the genre into further obscurity, for better or worse. Ultimately, the traditional bullet hells popularized by Batsugun had not entirely disappeared, but they were quickly growing into a significant rarity.
An Unusual Resurgence
The Touhou formula still dominates the bullet-hell genre, but it has reintroduced many of the mechanical complexities of older titles while also becoming more accessible in difficulty. As a result, the bullet-hell genre has seen a recent revival in mainstream popularity, albeit oddly. Instead, many recent popular games in other genres have found creative means of repurposing traditional bullet-hell mechanics.
Indie games like The Binding of Isaac and Enter the Gungeon blend bullet-hell combat with a roguelike design. The integration of fast-paced bullet-hell combat in small, tightly designed arenas creates consistently fast-paced and tense action. Similarly, Undertale combines bullet-hell projectile-dodging with a JRPG combat system to create an uncommon blend of reaction-based and strategic combat. Neither of these games follows the traditional bullet-hell structure, but their use of its mechanics offers new experiences rarely seen in any of the genres they combine.
The bullet-hell genre is not as prominent in the gaming industry as it once was, but its influence is still felt to this day. Without it and its shoot ‘em up forebearers, the entire medium of video games would be drastically different today. Fortunately, the support from long-time fans and newcomers alike will ensure the genre continues to thrive in current and future generations of consoles.