Liberian Arcades and Bullet Hell

Western Shmups/danmaku and Jamestown+

I wrote an article recently for KillScreen on the frenetic past and shining future of danmaku (aka ‘bullet hell shooters’), heavily featuring a fantastic interview from the creator of an equally great new entry into the genre, Jamestown+.

Unfortunately I could only include so much of Mike’s impassioned interview answers within my word-count but his story and insights were too valuable not to share in their entirety.

Inspirations for the game?

My brother and I grew up in Liberia before the First Liberian Civil War, and the U.S. Embassy there had a little greasy-spoon restaurant with an arcade machine in the corner. The game was a vertical shoot-em-up in which you could upgrade your ship several times, ultimately transforming into a bat (or possibly a dragon?) that shot copies of its own sprite as bullets. So: a bat-thing that fired more bat-things.

Tim and I, all of 6 and 8 years old, had no quarters to put into this thing, but we spent a lot of time staring at the attract mode and wondering what it would be like to play it. It was evocative in a way that might only be possible when you’re a kid, when whole universes might well be lurking behind every closed door, within every coin slot.

We never played that game, but we never forgot it either. No one else has ever heard of it. The U.S. Embassy in Monrovia is long gone, destroyed during the war. A game-by-game audit of every MAME-supported game circa 2001 turned up zilch. But we both remember it the same way, with all the same strange details, and I’m grateful for that because if we didn’t, I’d be quite sure I had made it all up. For us, Jamestown was one last desperate attempt to rescue that mysterious shmup from the prison of our memories; not that same game exactly, but the way that game made us feel as we stared at its monitor, watching the bat-thing dancing among the bullets.

What you were trying to achieve/why did you decide to develop in this genre?

One of our motivations was simple pragmatism: we thought a 2D shoot-em-up, with its prescribed camera movement and limited set of player affordances, would be less challenging to develop and ship than most other game genres. We were wrong about that; as it happens, shmups turn out to be quite punishing from a technical and game design perspective, and that was only the first of many hard lessons on the path to making a shooter we could be proud of.

Beyond that (foolish) hope for expediency and a lifelong love of the genre, the main goal that sustained us through two years of development was our dream of a shmup that was designed to support true cooperative play. Much as we love the classics and even contemporary entries from Cave and the like, co-op has always felt like a second-class feature that was tacked onto otherwise sterling single-player experiences. Those games certainly featured simultaneous play, but not much cooperation. Living as we do in this post-Left-4-Dead, post-Rock-Band world, we wanted to bring a more modern co-op design sensibility to the shooting game genre.

What do you think the timeless appeal of bullet hell/shmups is?

Seconds to learn, a lifetime to master. Anyone can learn to play a shooter, and play it well, because the fundamentals of the experience are so accessible: Dodge, shoot, grab, repeat. All you need is a stick and a couple of buttons. While developing Jamestown, we tested with hundreds of players, many of whom had never held a controller in their hands, and they would start reliably clearing Legendary-difficulty levels within an hour, two tops. That said, an expert player can chase 1CC clears and high scores for as long as she lives and never run out of chances to play just a little bit better.

However, I’m sad to say that I don’t agree about shmups’ timelessness. They may be the granddaddy of all videogame genres, but as their mass appeal waned in the 2000’s, the developers who kept the signal fires lit only did so for an increasingly specific and masochistic sub-niche of gamers.

A friend of mine compares the hard-core shmup audience to those Japanese soldiers who holed up on obscure Pacific islands for decades, completely unaware that WW2 was long over.

At this point, shmups are a hard-line classicist’s genre, and outsiders tend to be driven away by intimidating waterfalls of intricate bullet patterns and problematic representations of teenage girls. To me, it’s one of gaming’s great ironies: that one of the most accessible genres of all time, a genre defined by Space Invaders, has earned an iron-clad reputation for inaccessibility.

Thoughts on the main differences between Eastern/Western games of this nature?

Spot on Ars Technica.

To my eye, the big difference is expertise. The people at companies like Cave have been doing this full-time since we were in high school, and they were doing it extremely well by the time Dodonpachi was released 20 years ago. At this point, they’ve probably forgotten more than we’ll ever know about how to make a good bullet pattern, and it’s a tremendous effort to try and compete on that level from a cold start. We did our best, and in the case of our co-op play I think we actually outpaced our heroes, but when it comes to straight-up shooting, I’ve never seen anyone from the West who can do it the way they do it. Plus, with the genre’s popularity at an all-time low, it’s not like there’s raftloads of new people coming into this space and figuring out how to navigate it well. AAA shmups essentially don’t exist. The sad truth is, making a shmup is a very risky business decision, and I think that’s why the best people making top-flight bullet hells today are the same Japanese developers who invented them back in the 90’s.

That expertise includes a respect for the scale of the undertaking, which also seems to elude many Western developers.

Eastern shoot-em-ups are hand-crafted affairs from stem to stern, with hundreds of unique bullet patterns and meticulously designed bosses and intricate level layouts where every little enemy spawner has been carefully considered against the behavior of several interrelated scoring systems. If you ever manage to beat one, a “second loop” awaits you with YET MORE custom bullet patterns, level layouts, and extra bosses. That’s simply an insane amount of work to bring off well, and I think many Western developers fall into exact the same trap we did initially: let’s make a shoot-em-up, how hard can it be? What we know now is that it’s about as hard as a marathon through a desert of quicksand, and a big reason for Jamestown’s reputation as a more or less “legit” shoot-em-up is that we pushed through to the other side of that desert over a period of two years, instead of doing the much more reasonable thing and turning back.

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