What is Bullet Hell?

Danmaku Bullet Hell

Bullet Hell 101

Bullet Hell is a sub-genre of video games in which the player has to defeat an onslaught of enemies while dodging an overwhelming number of projectiles. Bullet Hell games in Japan are called “danmaku,” which can be roughly translated as “bullet curtain.”

Bullet Hell games are typically top-down space shooters. One of the most notable examples of the genre is Touhou, a long running Japanese indie series with an enormously popular soundtrack. That said, the genre has picked up enormous traction in the Western indie gaming space. Enter the Gungeon,  Cuphead, and even Undertale take inspiration from the bullet hell genre. But why are these games so popular all of the sudden, and why would anyone willing subject themselves to such torture?

To answer this, we must not explain what is Bullet Hell (as we often do in cases like this). Instead, we must ask…

But “why” is Bullet Hell?

Enter the Gungeon

To explain why people like Bullet Hell games so much, it’s because these games are never as hard as they look. Well, almost never.

Sure, they can be enormously difficult, but Bullet Hell games often give the player heavy advantages to help them survive. For starters, the player’s hit box is often much smaller than the player character themselves. In other words, bullets can graze players without any consequence. Players also have “overpowered” techniques at their disposal to even the playing field. In Enter the Gungeon, players can dodge roll right through bullets without taking damage. In top-down shooters, players are given bombs that completely erase the screen of bullets. All these elements combined makes many of these games very tough, yet very fair.

Most importantly, Bullet Hell games are all about getting into the zone. Even when the screen is bombarded with bullets, they almost always fire in predictable patterns. Bobbing and weaving through tight openings while fighting super hard monsters takes a ton of concentration, but pulling it off is as intuitive as it is rewarding. Games like Deltarune even reward near-miss dodges, which rewards players for playing as risky as possible. Even if Bullet Hell games share few similarities between them, that feeling of the zone is prevalent among all of them.

What are the best games of the genre for beginners?

Jamestown Bullet Hell

Because the Bullet Hell subgenre is so vast, there are a lot of accessible games for beginners to sink their teeth into. Undertale, The Binding of Isaac, and even Cuphead are all good first choices for someone who has never played one of these games before.

However, in terms of the traditional top-down shooter variety, I’d give a huge recommendation for the indie hit Jamestown. Its various difficulty settings means genre newbies can get into the rhythm at a gentle pace. By the time you get into the hardest difficulties, you’ll be fully integrated into hardcore dodging. Fortunately, with a bunch of different ships to choose from and up to four player co-op, you can still stack the deck in your favor when the going gets too rough. Plus the ridiculous futuristic take on the 17th century is hilarious.

Bullet hell games are absolutely an acquired taste. However, with the popularity of the genre nowadays, it’s clear that many gamers have developed the palette required to enjoy these overwhelming titles. Whether you like or dislike Bullet Hell games is perfectly okay, as you should only play the games you enjoy. However, at least now you understand it.

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