(Note: The Bullet Hell shooter genre is typically called 弾幕 (danmaku) or “Bullet Curtain”. For the very cute pun made in the title of this feature, the “dan” kanji typically used for “danmaku” was substituted with another “dan” kanji (談), meaning “conversation”)
This features was decided upon right around the time that the editorial department established the “Famitsu Shooting Friends Party”: A gathering for no other purpose than to discuss shooting games. When we get together, we have but one purpose! So we called in ZUN, the creator of Touhou Project, as a special guest to talk with us until morning at a bar. What are the origins of the Bullet Hell shooter? What significance do the bosses have? What are the revolutionary titles in the world of shooting games? We’re bringing you these in-depth conversations, and more.
Famitsu Shooting Friends Party Part 1: Guest – ZUN
ZUN: The creator of Touhou Project, as Team Shanghai Alice. He loves shooting games and drinking.
Dedeo: He’s proud of his high score of 24,000,000 points in Radiant Silvergun, but prefers horizontally scrolling shooters.
Fujikawa Q: Loves Ikaruga so much that he buys it everytime it gets ported to a new platform, and his outfits are usually monochrome.
Kaze no Iona (Iona of the Wind): He’s worried that if the Arcade Archives port of Darius II doesn’t come out soon, he’ll just end up buying the arcade cabinet himself.
Hanzoumon Arata: Likes bad side-scrolling shooters. He plays music from “Summer Carnival ’92 Recca” when he wants to pump himself up.
Nishikawa Kun – An oddball that when he was young, asked for an ESP RA.DE. arcade board for his birthday. His favorite game is Battle Garegga.
What Are the Origins of the Bullet Hell Shooter!?
(Everyone) Cheers to the future of shooters!
(Dedeo) Wow, I didn’t think we’d be able to get you to come here with us ZUN!
(ZUN) I knew I would as soon as I heard I’d be able to drink! It’s been pretty hot today, and I took a bath at home beforehand. So I’m really riding high on this feeling of drinking a beer just after I’ve gotten out of the bath (Laughs). So let’s talk about some shooters!
(Fujikawa) That’s ZUN for you, completely prepared (Laughs).
(Nishikawa) Since he’s here, I’d like to start with asking ZUN about Bullet Hell shooters!
(Iona) It’s a huge genre now, after all. Did that name come to be as a result of the increased number of enemy bullets throughout the evolution of the genre?
(ZUN) There were a couple of reasons that Bullet Hell shooters came about. The hardware that older games were built on couldn’t support anything like that, and so there just weren’t many bullets on-screen at once.
(Hanzoumon) When a lot of bullets would get on-screen in Gradius, the game would really slow down, wouldn’t it?
(ZUN) Right, right. That slowdown brought about a new type of game, but since the response in shooting games made after that was to really up the level of difficulty, it didn’t tend to be done by increasing the number of bullets, but rather by rather by increasing the speed. Avoid them before you get hit was the idea behind handling those fast moving attacks.
(Iona) In games like Truxton (Tatsujin) there weren’t that many bullets on-screen, but a lot of them would just head straight for you.
(Dedeo) You really had to try to memorize those patterns.
(ZUN) On the other hand, if the games had been easier then it would have been a problem for arcade owners. Because everyone would just be able to play through the whole game on one coin. Arcade games should of course allow players to have fun, but I think another one of their points is to “defeat the player” while doing that.
(Hanzoumon) I like bad side-scrolling shooters, but I also like easy shooters quite a bit too!
(Nishikawa) It was really easy to clear Vimana, for example (Laughs).
(Fujikawa) Those sorts of games get popular because you’re able to play them for so long.
(ZUN) As the hardware became more capable, the number of bullets on-screen increased naturally. The volcano stage in Gradius III was basically Bullet Hell. Even though it had incredible amounts of slowdown (Laughs)
(Hanzoumon) Because the slowdown was so bad, I remember being able to last longer despite the difficulty.
(Iona) Yeah (Laughs). Being able to take advantage of that in the balance adjustments was quite a discovery.
(Dedeo) Shooting games that have been reissued on modern hardware have had artificial slowdown added into them, to replicate the same difficulty levels from back then.
(ZUN) The evolution of hardware really has had an effect on trends in games, hasn’t it? Being able to display a lot of bullets on-screen without any slowdown and just scattering them all over the place brought about Bullet Hell shooters. The first game in the genre to actually be called that was Battle Garegga in 1996.
(Dedeo) Looking at it now, there really weren’t that many bullets on screen. But back then I was so mesmerized by the boss Black Heart’s winder attack! I got shot down by it right away though (Laughs Bitterly)
(Iona) Even though the flow and patterns of the bullets were very alluring, it was also used to great effect. Isn’t that a strong point of the Touhou series?
(ZUN) It’s a bit embarrassing to say so myself, but I was actually the first one to do that sort of thing. I started Touhou Project right around when Battle Garegga came out. I liked games where bullets were just scattered everywhere at random, so I did my own take on that.
It’s Not Just About Shooting! The Allure of Bullet Hell Shooters
(Dedeo) Touhou really surprised me at the time with bullet patterns unlike any I’d ever seen before, and plenty of “bullet curtain” type patterns.
(ZUN) There were curving bullets, bullets that changed speeds, and all sorts of stuff like that. I actually don’t think you could really find bullets like that in just about any other game. And I think the reason for that is that typically bosses are just aircrafts or tanks.
(Fujikawa) Definitely! At that time there were a lot of shooting games where all of the enemies were mechanical.
(Nishikawa) Since they were tanks, it would have been perplexing if bullets came out of the gun turrets not in a straight line (Laughs)
(ZUN) I thought that if humans can shoot out bullets using magic, then anything goes. So that’s why the bosses in Touhou games are all humanoid.
(Hanzoumon) I see! How did you think to make Bullet Hell so alluring?
(ZUN) It has roots in Darius Gaiden. You could say that game was an example of Bullet Hell. You can’t clear it if you don’t get rid of the bullets with the Black Hole Bomber (Laughs)
(Dedeo) The giant clam’s bullet patterns huh… I felt like there’s no way you could evade those. But the bullets were long and narrow (they had a specific orientation) and those patterns sure were beautiful.
(ZUN) That’s right. And because the bosses in Darius Gaiden weren’t aircrafts but rather science fiction robots themed around aquatic life, no matter where bullets came out from it wouldn’t feel out of place. So I thought that allowed for really great bullet patterns. That game was a big influence on me.
(Hanzoumon) It’s really great that the personalities of the enemies can be reflected in Bullet Hell’s patterns. It’s like the bullets being fired can be characters too.
(ZUN) It’s easier to think about it that way. When you think about it not as just a pretty bullet pattern being alluring, but rather as this character shoots these bullets because they’re a certain way, you get something really good. Around the same time ESP RA.DE. came out and had you fighting with humanoid style esper characters. The bullets were in the shapes of hands and such, and there were many that had very well thought out designs. I had the same way of thinking in regards to everything being well thought out. I personally think that it was a very revolutionary time for shooters, in which the way the way that the industry thought about them changed, including Touhou.
(Dedeo) ESP RA.DE. was so good! I played that one a lot, and I always used J-B 5th.
(Nishikawa) I played as the guy on the volley ball team (Yuusuke Sagami). Getting a good score had to be done in such a particular way, and you couldn’t clear the game if you rushed to get a high score. It was really tough…
(Iona) Yeah. A lot of Bullet Hell shooters give the impression that they’re very difficult, but actually a lot of them can be played for the first time fairly smoothly. It’s when you try to go for score that you start really making mistakes.
(ZUN) I know what you mean! Since you don’t know anything about the stage layouts and enemy attacks on your first play, you might keep on evading fire with bombs when things get dangerous and manage to make it to the later stages. But then after you get used to playing that way, you get about two screens in and don’t have any more bombs left to use (Laughs)
(Everyone) That definitely happens (Laughs)
(Fujikawa) Ahh, can we have more beers?
Do You Re-Spawn Right Where You Died, Or Back At The Beginning Of The Stage?
(ZUN) Speaking of high difficulty shooters, Gradius III was extremely difficult. I heard that it had a 3D level, so I excitedly went off to play it. I couldn’t make it up to that stage (Laughs)
(Iona) That was stage 4, right? If you could make it up to the Moai heads in stage 5, you were seen as an expert.
(Hanzoumon) The bubble stage was really rough…
(ZUN) It was merciless right from the first stage. Once you get shot down, it’s really hard to make a comeback. I gave up quite a few times.
(Nishikawa) There definitely are too few power-up items, and you won’t be fully powered-up even if you get all of them right up to stage 2…
(Fujikawa) Speaking of comebacks, there are two types of shooting games: Ones that re-spawn you right where you died, and ones that send you back to a check-point. Which do you like, ZUN?
(ZUN) I absolutely like re-spawning right where you die. The Touhou series does that as one of its fundamental features. I’ve never once found the so-called “Recovery Pattern” of having to get all your power-ups back again to be fun (Laughs). I put up with it because I want to get further in the game, but it’s the most de-motivating factor for me personally.
(Hanzoumon) Even if you have extra lives, the whole thing can be ruined depending on where you make a mistake. Of course there’a sense of accomplishment in struggling your way through that, so I can’t really say that there’s nothing to it at all.
(Dedeo) Darius is an interesting example. It has checkpoints when you play with only one player, but with two players you re-spawn right there in the same spot you died.
(Nishikawa) Whenever I play Darius I always put a coin in the second player side, and just leave that ship there to take advantage of that.
(Iona) I didn’t know you could do that (Laughs)
(ZUN) Systems that just send you back like that break my heart. And then losing all of your power-ups when you die is very difficult for me to deal with.
(Fujikawa) Speaking of power-ups, I love Fire Shark (Same! Same! Same!). Power-up management was really fun in that game.
(Dedeo) But in Fire Shark the difficulty would really increase as you powered-up, and clearing the game became very difficult (Laughs)
(Fujikawa) And that’s why it helped to be so powered-up!
(ZUN) I was really impressed by the power-up system in Raiden. It was difficult to get yourself fully powered-up, but I’d see it on the attract mode screen and aspire to get there.
Shooters Were Supported By The Influence Of Salarymen!?
(ZUN) Also speaking of power-ups, I fell in love with the Raiden II’s plasma laser at first sight. It wasn’t terribly effective, but that curving laser sure was cool looking. Salarymen on their way back from work would often use nothing but that weapon, so they used to call it the “Salaryman Laser” (Laughs)
(Fujikawa) A phrase like that wouldn’t be used anywhere outside of shooters!
(Dedeo) I called it that too (Laughs). Shooters were very popular in the 90s: They were easy to pick up and play, and I got the impression that they were popular with the salarymen. Just because they could play them so carefree, without having to think about too much.
(Hanzoumon) Nowadays when salarymen wander about in arcades, they hardly ever play the shooting games.
(Nishikawa) I guess that time has passed.
(ZUN) Arcades nowadays are less places you go to just to play games in general, and more places you go to play games that can only be played in arcades. Because you can easily play a lot of well made games on your consoles at home, or on your smart phone. The form that shooting games take has changed as a result of that, but the cultural surrounding them isn’t going away. The game rules are simple, and you start feeling like the game is fun almost right away. There are a lot of people making them because you can feel that fun in them. And because there aren’t as many people playing them, most of them are inevitably made as indie games now.
(Dedeo) And that’s probably better suited to the way things are today. Games can be sold as downloadable titles now, so it’s much easier to market small games that way.
(Fujikawa) So if you want to make a hit indie game, you should target salarymen…!?
(ZUN) Yeah…that’s a tough one isn’t it (Laughs Bitterly).
(Dedeo) An indie shooting game aimed at salarymen is way too narrow of a target. I would like to see it though.
(Hanzoumon) I don’t think they’d even take notice of it these days (Laughs)
Shooters and “Rapid-Fire” Culture
(Dedeo) I like games that let me just hold down the button when I’m shooting.
(Hanzoumon) But when it comes to games where you can just hold down the button to continuously fire a laser, there are a lot of cases where rapid-firing the regular shot is stronger.
(ZUN) Also it was also often the case that the arcades themselves would install a rapid-fire button into the cabinet as a service to the customers, when it wasn’t originally there.
(Iona) I definitely noticed arcades using rapid-fire buttons in the 80s.
(Nishikawa) Has the culture of having to rapid-fire with your hand already disappeared from the history of shooting games?
(ZUN) Probably because rapid-firing being fun is a way of thinking that’s disappeared. The basic way of thinking about games was that the game responding because you hit a button in of itself was fun. So the phenomenon of more bullets appearing the more you rapid-fired was interesting. Nowadays a game responding because you hit a button is a given. So most people don’t want to be bothered to have to keep rapid-firing.
(Iona) Back then high scores used to be separated into with rapid-fire and without rapid-fire (Laughs)
(Dedeo) Yeah they were! (Laughs) I wonder if there were a lot of people who saw it as cheating?
(Fujikawa) I think there were! Back then I always wanted to say things like “Apologize to Takahashi Meijin! Just use your fingers already!”. Of course I don’t think that way anymore, but…
(Hanzoumon) Depending on the game, you might have even been given rapid-fire automatically as a power-up. I think rapid-fire was such an important thing that it was even included in the systems themselves of some of those games.
(Nishikawa) There were some of those, but which ones had that again?
(ZUN) Thunder Blaster did. I think it was around the time that game was made that systems started incorporating rapid-fire culture into them. Nowadays you just take that for granted.
(Fujikawa) Rubbing your finger rapidly across the button to get rapid-fire is something you can only experience in older games…
(Iona) The skin on my finger started peeling off at one point.
(Dedeo) Same here. When I used my nail to run across the button while playing Truxton, my nail broke and I got a blister on my finger. So I couldn’t play anymore until all that healed (Laughs). By the way, it looks like this place is about to close, so…
(ZUN) Huh? We haven’t talked nearly enough yet!
Boss Characteristics Liven Games Up
(Dedeo) Don’t worry ZUN! We here at the “Famitsu Shooting Friends Party” don’t know the meaning of the words “last train”!
(Fujikawa) That is to say, now we’re at a bar that’s open until morning. Let’s go for a second loop!
(ZUN) We’re talking about shooters, so there has to be a second loop (Laughs). Of course our conversations will get more in depth too.
(Hanzoumon) I…I’m worried I might not be able to keep up!
(ZUN) Ahh, speaking of second loops, there’s a particular boss that comes to mind. In Aero Fightesr 3 (Sonic Wings 3) there’s a boss that destroys the National Diet Building or something, these tiny little tanks just appear on the second loop. They’re very fast, and very brutal (Laughs). It really made me laugh.
(Dedeo) I remember that! (Laughs) The characters were like a ninja and a robot or something, I really liked that one.
(Nishikawa) And a dolphin named “Whity” or something (Laughs)
(Iona) Shooters came from an era where they couldn’t get by on just game-iness alone, so unique characters like that were important.
(ZUN) In the 90s that was absolutely true. Psikyo’s Samurai Aces (Sengoku Ace) and such brought about many unique characters, like Koyori and Aine.
(Dedeo) I still really like Marion from Gunbird, even now. She’s cute, and is very easy to use.
(ZUN) The characters themselves can be fascinating, but that uniqueness should be displayed front and center in the game. Of course the games that we’ve mentioned up until now have had fun stories and some interesting characters, but it could be better.
(Fujikawa) How should one go about emphasizing the characters…with character direction? Weapons?
(ZUN) There’s no need to obsess over the player characters, because the important ones are the enemy characters. The game will shine because the enemies have personality.
(Hanzoumon) It’s true that most of the shooters that are regarded as being famous have bosses that really stick in your mind!
(Nishikawa) This is the case with the Darius series too, but R-Type really sticks in my mind for this as well. The Dobkeratops.
(Fujikawa) When it comes to bosses that act as highlights of the game, I think that all started with Xevious’ Andor Genesis.
Bombs and Extra Lives Are Resources For Score
(Dedeo) When it comes to the particulars of certain games, the difference between how bombs work is a big one. There are bombs that are used for emergency evasion, and there are bombs that are meant for firepower and take a bit to explode, like in Raiden.
(Iona) Back then there weren’t many cases of bombs being used for evasion purposes. You’d save them until a really tough enemy appeared, and then unleash them like some kind of special technique.
(Hanzoumon) In Exed Exes when you pushed the button, all of the enemy bullets would disappear from the screen.
(ZUN) There are games where you get to choose what type of bomb to use. A lot of them are for emergency evasion though, don’t you think?
(Dedeo) Personally I don’t like bombs being incorporated into the game’s scoring system! When you’re told that you don’t get any kind of a bonus for using bombs, doesn’t it make you want to use bombs less?
(Fujikawa) Even though you should use them if you don’t want to die, regardless of whether or not it increases your score…
(ZUN) No matter what the game, it always comes down to a matter of how to best use bombs and extra lives as resources for increasing score.
(Nishikawa) Battle Garegga is the epitome of games that are actually about resource management.
(Dedeo) It’s a very mysterious game for someone who doesn’t know how it works. You just start self-destructing all of the sudden. And just when you think “Huh, did I mess up?”, you see the message that says “Rank Up”. Yeah, it’s a difficult game to explain (Laughs)
The Next “Conversation Hell” Is Already In The Works…!?
(ZUN) Wow, I sure did a lot of the talking tonight, but has everyone else been having fun?
(Dedeo) Not at all, it was a lot of fun! Shooters really are great, aren’t they?
(Fujikawa) I hope we can all do this again next time too.
(ZUN) By the way, Namiki Manabu (The composer for Battle Garegga, etc.) loves these kinds of conversations too. Next time I’d like to involve him as well, so we can get some shooting soundtrack talk in.
(Hanzoumon) I’d really love to hear that!
(Nishikawa) That’s a great idea. It’s decided then!
(Iona) We have to make a heartfelt call to him then.
(ZUN) (Laughs) Also I was wondering if we shouldn’t have a conversation like this not just about shooters, but about fighting games too…
(Fujikawa) How many connections do you have!?
And The Deep “Conversation Hell” Continued Until Morning…