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Thursday July 27, 2017
Curtains of Death - The masochistic thrill of danmaku
by Andi Lennon | Jul 6, 2017 | Comment Now
Pain and Pleasure. Indivisible...
Curtains of Death - The masochistic thrill of danmaku

Bullet Hell. It doesn’t sound that appealing right? Not a place you’d particularly want to visit. An inferno of lead, perhaps the streets of Baltimore, perhaps the trenches of Ypres. But what if the bullets were bright pink orbs that unfurled in dizzying waves like the demented etchings of a tilted Spirograph? What if they were accompanied by a seizure-inducing rainbow of explosions, lasers, coins, flowers, mushrooms, stars and assorted unending galaxies of pixelated miscellanea and pulsating beams?

Sign me up. Fire me up. Prop me up.

‘Danmaku’ loosely translates to ‘Barrage’ or ‘Curtain of Fire’ and could scarcely be a more appropriate nom de guerre for this most hardcore of genres.

And the undisputed master of this genre is Cave.

The first vertically scrolling shooters were quite utilitarian in their approach. Patterns were rudimentary, difficulty escalated in fits and starts as boss encounters bled into new levels and cabinets hungry for coins pushed their hardware in the urge to process ever more projectiles.

And those projectiles were orange.

Xevious, 194X, Truxton, Blazing Lazers, Raiden. Each building on the frantic pace that ever hardened veterans demanded as they weaved through increasingly complex bouts of fatal geometry. White knuckled joystick jockeys doomed to RSI. Then along came Batsugun.  

Developer Toaplan was no stranger to the genre before this envelope-pushing endeavour. No-one had ever seen so many sprites in play at once before. It was a pure sugar rush, laced with cyanide and as hard as a jawbreaker. But it was only after Toaplan’s demise, when several of its former employees founded the immortal Cave, that they stubbornly unleashed Donpachi upon a world rapidly transitioning to the third dimension and the genre truly emerged fully-formed.

The appeal of these games is narrow but easy to define. Adrenaline. Sensory overload. Primed for the sensation-seeking personality type as well as the mathematical perfectionist. Engaging both lobes of the brain in one weird hybrid.  Spatial awareness. Don’t fucking blink.

The sheer thrill of avoiding such an initially overwhelming stampede of patterns is the primary lure. Keep an eye on your hitbox, chain waves of enemies, use bombs wisely. Don’t fucking blink. But the secondary scoring mechanics of these things beggar belief in their sheer complexity.

At the surface layer it’s a spectacle that can’t fail to hypnotise. Almost Zen-like as the player navigates into a space of calm amidst chaos, but under the hood lies a ridiculous amount of leeway for mastery of scoring systems that reveal the high-score-chasing apex of the elite scene.

Not that I have a clue about most of the intricacies. My grail is a three credit run, then a single CC run.  Seemingly impossible but completely within reach, less about memorisation than about mastery of your physical and mental connection to the game. Acceding to its demands, its rules. Controlling your breathing. Finding the zone. No-mind. Zen. Not fucking blinking.

And holy shit they’re beautiful. Highlights of the genre like Espgaluda and Mushihimesama are sheer eye candy, deeply psychedelic in their treatment and presentation of bio-organic forms and biomechanical foes.  A session with one of these games will leave their imagery seared into your eyes for hours after your sweaty palms have realised how hard they were gripping the stick and let slip into a renewed realisation of the room you were actually in, as afterburns of colour and light form tracers in your periphery.

You can blink now.

Available on numerous platforms, and one of the only genres that truly works on iDevices (seriously- the Cave ports are amazing on iPad), what was once the secret bounty of importers and purists can be found on consoles, Steam and of course MAME, democratising what could be an even more niche pursuit than it undoubtedly is. Good for three minutes or an hour. It will engage you like few other genres. Either that or you’ll cower and dribble in defeat as your wrist locks up in tandem with your rictus jaw.

Maybe pack some visine.

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