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An Insider Look into the World of Competitive Bullet Hells

What the under-appreciated art of the shoot 'em-up says about competitive culture and what makes an esport.

Header image, from Everyday Shooter, courtesy of Queasy Games

"Shoot-em-ups" or "shmups" are a classic genre of video game, but also, these days, one of the least well-understood and appreciated. Their age and simplicity are easy to confuse with crudeness, and even though almost every video game player has encountered one of these games, few players even understand how they are meant to function or what they truly demand of skilled practitioners.

Dr. Mark R Johnson has firsthand experience of this, having collected four world records in the genre to date, in addition to his academic work as a games scholar studying competitive gaming. Alexandra Orlando is a games scholar and critic, whose writing focuses on live streaming and eSports and draws on her experiences in the industry as a player, team manager and tournament organizer.

Together, they'll explore this rarely-seen world of competitive shmups, and shed some light on the place of these games in contemporary gaming culture by drawing on their experiences and insights as both researchers and active members of the competitive gaming and eSports communities.

Getting the World Record

Johnson: When I got my first world record high score in a "bullet hell" or "danmaku" game, the game in question informed me that I'd just dodged 196,318 bullets over the last twenty-four minutes. This took place around a year and half after I had first downloaded it— Score Rush on Xbox Live Arcade—and assumed I could get the world record with a bit of effort. Having retired from professional poker play, and having long-ago left any kind of competitive multiplayer video gaming behind, this struck me as an opportunity to make something of a return to competitive gameplay, and test myself against a very new kind of interactive challenge.

To get the record I watched videos on YouTube to learn the strategies of top danmaku players, I read design analyses of the genre, and I anonymously browsed the internet's largest "shoot-em-ups" or "shmups" forum (of which bullet hells are the most challenging kind) for tips and ideas.

This taught me not just about the game, but about the communities of players who enjoyed bullet hells, which included a few Western players and a surprisingly high percentage of women. This was highly distinctive from, and outside of, the corporate eSports umbrella.

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all .gifs courtesy of the authors

Sooner than expected, I was getting closer and closer to the score needed until one January day, the perfect run came together and those numbers slid across the screen. Emboldened, I took those skills to other danmaku games. A year after that, a second world record joined the first. Then a third and a fourth. Now, as I approach retirement from this genre defined by its hyper-fast reflex gameplay—at the decrepit age of twenty-seven—I find myself reflecting on the games, history, and culture that brought me to this point. 

In bullet hells, players control a small avatar—normally a ship—and are tasked with weaving their way among complex patterns of projectiles. In most cases only the smallest center of the ship—sometimes as small as a three-by-three grid of nine pixels—is the actual "hitbox" which can take damage from hostile bullets. This gives the player the ability to evade bullet patterns that appear (at first glance) to be too thick to move through, and means any hit is an undeniable hit, for it must strike the dead center of the player's ship.

However, I soon found that focusing on individual bullets or one's ship is a recipe for death. Instead, I came to center my eyesight about a third of the screen above the ship, treating each bullet as a component of an ever-shifting geometric maze, rather than individual threats. Much of the daunting nature of these games is lost when a player understands this kind of visual perception. When it finally truly clicked for me, my scores skyrocketed overnight.

As simple as the core mechanic is (don't get hit), the scoring systems are famously byzantine, and can entail killing combos of enemies, certain colors of enemies, collecting drops from enemies, killing enemies within short periods of time, "grazing" bullets, killing enemies up close, using numerous weapons or modes of fire, or some exponentially more complicated combination of the above. 

"I came to center my eyesight about a third of the screen above the ship, treating each bullet as a component of an ever-shifting geometric maze"

But there is much more to these games beyond their mechanics. They also show us what competitive gaming looks like beyond the typical eSports and speedrunning. As I come to the end of my danmaku tenure, their characteristics help me understand the community I've been a part of for the last few years, and how best to position it within the far wider world of video gaming that, ordinarily, forgets danmaku games even exist.

High Scores, Recording, Broadcasting 

Orlando: High scores have always been the bread and butter of the bullet hell community. They mark the gap between someone playing on their own and someone playing with a thought to all others who play. Some high scores are worth "more" than others—the world record in a challenging game played by a million has substantially more social capital than the record in a simpler game that only 10,000 people play. 

High scores were originally shared through the circulation of "superplay" DVDs (and before that VHS tapes) purchased in Japan, or through mail order. A player could purchase a range of different kinds of playthroughs—not just absolute high scores, but also playthroughs using different ships or play styles, such as a "pacifist" run for a game like Ikaruga where one can complete the game without ever killing an enemy. Such unusual playthroughs are made appealing by the player's movement through the game in aesthetically pleasing ways, rather than "just" achieving a high score.

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Nowadays, the community has migrated superplay videos over to sites like YouTube. Most noteworthy superplays can now be found there, as well as recent highscores from every danmaku game with a sizable community. However, unlike other online competitive gaming communities, danmaku play has stayed away from live streaming. The culture has always had an air of anonymity to it: players go by their usernames and there are almost no big stars or community personalities. Even in-person arcade play is often alone, or at the most performed with a small clique of viewers. 

Day-to-day danmaku practice is far more repetitive than practicing a competitive eSports game, or even a speedrun. Shmup players will often restart stages over and over after even a single error, as that one mistake—at the highest level of competition—is enough to lose a world record attempt. Such play inevitably requires the player's full attention, reducing the opportunity for ongoing commentary or community engagement. Danmaku games are almost nowhere to be seen on Twitch, and remain present primarily on YouTube and its video-sharing cousins.

Are Danmaku Games an Esport?

Orlando: There are several reasons why danmaku games haven't become eSports. The first is undoubtedly the lack of face-to-face competition. There's less room for the human drama we see in eSports tournaments, since danmaku players are always playing against the computer. One danmaku player could be pitched against the other to achieve the highest score in that particular event, as is done at speedrunning marathon events, but even then, such "races" rarely seem to achieve the same compelling spectacle as an eSports match.

So much of the appeal of competitive spectacles lies in that direct human-versus-human battle, where the actions of one human directly affect the other and affect the wider competitive community as a whole.

Community development is also an issue. Both my experiences in, and research on, this community have shown something of a broader popular stigma towards danmaku. Many believe these games are only for Japanese players, who are perceived as the "Gods" of these highly mechanical games. Games scholar Todd Harper, in his book, The Culture of Digital Fighting Games, uses the term "Asian fast hands" to denote this idea in the fighting game scene rife with the fetisishization of highly skilled Japanese players.

In turn, without arcades in the world beyond Japan to practice in, and with many games released only on Japanese consoles, it becomes simply harder to access these games. This reinforces the notion that this is a quintessentially Japanese genre.

Because they lack the same degree of direct competition and a truly international community, danmaku games haven't become eSports. Nevertheless, eSports set our understanding of competitive players and competitive games. Although it is hard to see how danmaku could achieve this status, it does shed some light on why games which are eSports have merited that title, the money, kudos, and visibility that goes with it.

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Are Danmaku Games Like Speedrunning?

Johnson: On the surface, danmaku and speedrunning appear similar, perhaps more so than danmaku and eSports. You compete for a world record in a singleplayer game, not against any specific individual or team, but against whoever currently holds the world record. Speedruns and high scores both have "optimal" or "perfect" states, where the shortest possible time is achieved (often called a "Tool-Assisted Speedrun"), or the highest possible score is achieved. These two central similarities—the form of competition, and the form of play—made me think that danmaku is very similar to speedrunning.

As it happens, however, this is far from the case, and a closer look at both speedrunning and danmaku quickly showed me why. Firstly, speedruns are far more accessible to the ordinary gamer than their danmaku cousins. Even if one is unaware of what speedrunning Ocarina of Time entails, for example, many gamers are deeply aware of the game itself. Part of the appeal of speedrunning is seeing a game one knows well being "broken," played in a new way, and transformed into a very different visual and gameplay experience.

By contrast, most players have never seen most shmups before, and have no existing emotional connection to the games in question. The games won't change either. Some more of the visual excitement and interest of speedrunning is therefore not at all present in competitive danmaku play.

"The only way that someone will ever beat my scores is by playing the game—the exact same game—better than me."

Secondly, the goal posts are forever shifting in speedruns. A new glitch is discovered, or a faster route through a game's challenges is uncovered. When this happens, all previous runs suddenly cease to be "competitive." Although this makes it perhaps more infuriating for players, it adds a richness for viewers, who might always be able to see something new when they come back to watching speedrun competition after a period away. 

In danmaku, by contrast, the goal posts do not change. The only way that someone will ever beat my scores is by playing the game—the exact same game—better than me. The only way I'll get another record is by finding a game that I play better than anybody else.

The Demographics of Danmaku

Just as danmaku is quite distinctive from both eSports and speedrunning, I've come to learn that the demography of shmup players, with regards to gender, and geography, is also quite unlike other competitive games. In the first case there is a noticeable demographic of women with world-record or near-record high-scores in the genre, such as Kamui, the record holder in Battle Garegga, considered one of the most impressive high scores out there. This is similar to rhythm games, another Japanese genre, where high scores and competitive play is also dominated by female players. Exploring the culture of danmaku and rhythm games and gender in Japan is for another article, but it highlights a clearly important factor to danmaku play. 

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Geography, meanwhile, shows us a genre still heavily dominated by Japanese players, Japanese companies, the Japanese arcade scene, and numerous releases that can only be played on Japanese consoles. At the time of this writing, it's fair to say that I'm one of the five-or-so best non-Japanese players to play the genre. However, if we took a global ranking across the genre, I would guess that I might just about sneak into the world top 100. We Western players are something of a rarity, and have little contact with our Japanese comrades. In turn, the difference in skill means that Japanese players rarely observe even the best Western competitors, contributing to their limited status in the greater pantheon of competitive gaming. Danmaku is distinctive and fascinating, but this same distinctiveness has perhaps limited its wider appeal.

The Lure of Competition

Johnson: When I first started pursuing the world record in Score Rush, I had no real idea what danmaku games were. As time went by and I inched towards that first record, I started to gain some appreciation of their complexities, their relationship to other competitive games, and their distinctive historical and cultural elements. As I found myself transferring skills from one game to the next and collecting further records, I became increasingly fascinated by this community.

Their relative inaccessibility (and lack of profitability) compared to eSports and speedrunning and their geographical constraints have limited their wider visibility. And yet, they are in other ways surprisingly inclusive across boundaries that many competitive games struggle to cross.

Danmaku games represent a certain kind of skilled gameplay stripped down to its most central elements. They require physical reflexes, good eyesight and strong decision-making abilities, but they also need perceptual leaps for those wanting to become the best players of the genre.

Far from being relics of the past, competition remains fierce and the release of new games is a regular occurrence. Although many might seem intimidating at first glance, they are certainly no less challenging than any other kind of contemporary competitive games. While eSports take center-stage, and streaming continues to reach tens of millions, danmaku players are unlikely to stop their competition any time soon; but probably without the spotlight.

After all, distractions can only ruin the run.