Danmaku

Danmaku Unlimited 2

So this was my first step on the way down the rabbit hole called “Bullet Hell”: Danmaku Unlimited 2, easily available on Steam (current price: EUR 4.99). There are versions for Android and iOS as well, but because I don’t really have a gaming phone, I will focus on the PC version here.

What I like…

The first thing that catched my eye was the music. Wait, that sounds wrong. Anyway, the soundtrack by Japanese indie band Blankfield is what I like best about this game. I suck at categorizing music, but it’s some metal industrial thingy. Look, it has electric guitars in it. The entire soundtrack is on Spotify and probably other streaming platforms, so just judge for yourself. It is loud, it is fast, it is exciting.

Danmaku Unlimited - Trance Mode

And so is the game. You essentially have three attacks on your hand: The basic shot, which you will use all the time. The beam, which destroys enemy bullets and transform them into a higher score modifier. And lastly, Trance Mode, which gives you a huge boost to damage and score modifier for a while, but needs to be charged by “scraping” bullets – i. e. bullets hitting your ship but missing the hitbox (which is, as per Bullet Hell conventions, smaller than the actual ship and displayed as a big glowing dot). Using those special attacks at the right time is crucial to getting a good score and adds another layer of complexity over merely beating the game without dying over and over. The pacing is tight, enemies don’t take too much time to eliminate and bosses don’t stay at the same pattern for too long, either.

That being said, Danmaku Unlimited 2 is very forgiving when compared to other Bullet Hell games. Usually, you have three to five lives and if you get hit just once, you die. In Danmaku Unlimited, a single ship can take up to five hits before exploding on the sixth one, and you can have five lives – giving you the ability to eat thirty bullets in a single playthrough! You do have to give up a lot of firepower for that, but even in a balanced build, you still can take way more damage than in other games.

But that does not make the game easy: It makes up for that in the design of its bullet patterns. They are varied, creative, good-looking and hard – especially those of the later bosses (or “Valkyrias”). My personal favourites are a couple of patterns where a handful of bullets “eat” other bullets and clear your path through another, nigh-undodgeable pattern.  But of course, those vaccum cleaner bullets will still damage you if you hit them.

I played through the first three levels just now just for this one screenshot. Not sure if fail or win.

I played through the first three levels just now just for this one screenshot. Not sure if fail or win.

…and what I dislike

When I played this game first, I found it overwhelmingly good. Today, I am a bit more ambiguous on it. Yes, I still like it and yes, I still recommend it, but there are other Bullet Hell games I like better.

My quarrel with the game is that it looks a bit bland. The backgrounds are completely forgettable and the enemies somehow all look the same. The game does have a high level of visual clarity, which is certainly a good thing, but it does have some disadvantages. Also, the sound effects don’t really give you the feeling of sitting in a space ship and shooting other spaceships, but rather sound like shooting a Nerf blaster at a concrete wall. Believe me, I am an expert on shooting Nerf blasters at concrete walls. Especially in contrast to the great music, those sound effects just are a bit… meh.

Still, it is a really good game. Just not the best one I ever played.

A word on smartphones

Danmaku Unlimited 2 is actually a port of an earlier mobile game version – and it doesn’t feel like that for a bit. It looks great on the big screen (with the issues I mentioned before) and works great with both keyboard and gamepad controls. That history does, however, take a bit of an edge off my earlier criticism, because clearly a high degree of visual strategy is far more important on a smartphone.

And yes, the game actually works on Smartphones! I gave the demo a whirl and even though my phone lacks the power needed for a decent gameplay, the controls actually feel far more smooth than I expected. I still think touch controls are not really the way to go for games like this, but if you are a mobile gamer, you might still want to check it out. Otherwise – I recommend getting the Steam version. For five bucks, you really get a good game with a lot of long-term fun included.

Next game to be reviewed: Crimzon Clover WORLD IGNITION.

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Welcome to Bullet Hell!

For some months now, I’ve been playing a bunch of Bullet Hell Games. For those unfamiliar with the genre: It’s a subgenre of 2D shoot’em ups, characterized by a whole bunch of bullets being on screen all the time. These games require pattern recognition, concentration, dodging skills and some memorization. Also, they are totally awesome and you should play them, which is why I will review every single game of the genre I played so far in the coming days. But first of all, I’d like to tell you why I, personally, like the genre so much.

They are hard, but not frustrating.

I have heard of Bullet Hell (or Danmaku – Japanese for “Bullet Curtain”) before, but quickly got the impression that it was for really good video game geniuses, and I do not consider myself one of these. But it turned out it actually is possible to play them without a diploma of gaming handed out by Dark Souls U. Yes, all of these games are really, really hard and even on the easier difficulty settings, beating a game on the first try is not something that’s going to happen. The elusive 1CC Run (beat the game without using Continue) and the even more elusive No Miss run (which is a non-indicative term for not being hit even once) are completely out of reach for hacks like me.

But even when getting smashed in the face, I found I still enjoyed every second of it, because usually there was a sense of progress. With every run, I get better and reach something I haven’t reached before. Got to chapter 4 for the first time, learned how to use my least favourite ship, no-missed level 2, and so on. And after twenty hours, I was actually able to 1CC Crimzon Clover on Novice difficulty. Yay me.

Also, the games are easier than they look – your ship has a tiny hitbox, and you usually don’t need to focus on single bullets – just on the lines, cones or circles in which they move. And once you’ve gotten the hang of a level, you can make it a lot easier by saving up your special attacks for those enemies that give you trouble, or evade their danger zones entirely.

A whole bunch of stuff happens in them.

With all those ever-changing bullet patterns on screen, “popcorn” enemies that explode after just one or two hits, your high rate of fire and at least one special attack in every game in the genre, those games never have a boring moment. Well – some of them have, but I will come to that later. Also, these games are all about presentation – there is, apparently, a law stating that they have to have awesome art and awesome soundtracks and lots of explosions with lots of noise. The soundtracks can be in any genre – orchestral arrangements, industrial metal, trance, anything really.

They are highly diverse.

Not just music-wise, Bullet Hell games are “anything goes”. They do have a certain formula, yes, but each has their own approach to level and boss design (multistage? multiple hit zones? focused on popcorn or on minibosses? timed bossfights?), to special attacks (beams, rockets, firepower boosts, shields) and to their visual style, and all this means that Danmaku Unlimited 2 and Crimzon Clover (two games I am going to review) are about as similar as Team Fortress 2 and Modern Warfare.

And they have a plan.

Sorry, but I couldn’t resist making that lame joke. Anyway, that’s about it. If you haven’t played Bullet Hell stuff before, I hope I could make you a bit more interested, and I certainly will try to get you to buy some stuff in the next days.

(Title Image: Danmaku Unlimited 2. Review incoming tomorrow.)

Game Jammin’ and so on: It’s alive!

…aaand the game is online. In fact, it has been since Monday (one day later than I wanted it to) and you can play it at Kongregate. Finding good names is always hard for me, so it’s called “Snipe’em up”. Enjoy!

What I’ve learnt: Integrating social APIs is far easier than I feared it was – or, at least, it is with the Kongregate API. Unity is awesome, but I knew that before. Getting visibility (and, thusly, feedback) on Kongregate is pretty hard, unless you actually make it to the very top of the rankings. This looks a lot simpler on other browser game platforms, like Newgrounds and Armorgames, and I might actually go elsewhere with coming games.

On the technical side, I’ve finally gotten some practice with Colliders, something that doesn’t come up too often in my main project, and got some new ideas on how to structure code, especially for very small projects that don’t need much reusability.

And finally, on the game design front, I had some time to ponder how the Danmaku genre works, which was interesting. I’m pretty new to this genre, which I only checked out a couple of weeks ago because slowbeef talked about it on Retsutalk and it sounded interesting and far less hard than it was, so I got Crimzon Clover WORLD IGNITION on Steam. It’s actually a fun journey for me and I feel like I’m getting better all the time.

But enough talk about good games, let’s go back to Snipe’em Up. What would I do different if I had more time? Some nice pixel art instead of the quick&dirty shapes I’m currently using. I suck at pixel art, but could probably manage something acceptable for those few sprites I need in a game of this scope. And the music isn’t really what I wanted to have, but I had to go with what I could got. So, have some epic orchestra music with your black&white GIMP brushes.

Anyway, since I don’t have a usable idea for my next project (with a slightly bigger scope, this time – maybe about one month), I might as well try my hand at a better looking, smoother, longer and more varied Snipe’em Up II. We’ll see. My other ideas are a Horror Metroidvania Thingy, or maybe a purely sprite-based 2.5d train driver arcade game in the style of Densha de Go!. But so far, neither of those two really seems like the right game for me, because both would require substantial amounts of artwork and my artwork sucks, like I said before.

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