I’ve always had a soft spot for shoot ’em ups – whether its a side-scrolling shooter like R-Type, a vertical shooter like Raiden, or a 3D shooter like Space Harrier – I love them all (that’s not to say I’m any good at them, though). I guess it comes from my childhood, playing River Raid on Atari 2600, which is one of my fondest gaming memories from childhood. This love also extends to the ridiculousness that is bullet hell, a genre of shoot ’em ups that blankets the screen in bullets, expecting the player to have careful reflexes and pixel perfect eagle eyes… And nobody makes these games better than the Japanese – and in particular, Cave Co., Ltd (although I’m sure some will cry foul if I don’t mention Treasure).
Credited with the creation of some of the best bullet hell shoot ’em ups known to man, Cave is worshipped by their fans. After releasing several popular shoot ’em ups in the ’90s, they went on to develop Mushihimesama in the early 2000s (it was released to Japanese arcades in 2004). Since then, it has been ported to PlayStation 2, Xbox 360, and now (finally?) to PC, in what seems to be the best of the bunch – if you don’t own the arcade machine, that is.
Mushihimesama (which translates as “Bug Princess”) is a vertical-scrolling bullet hell shoot ’em up set in a world full of giant bugs. In this world, humans have been sequestered in a village of their own, lest they succumb to poison from the bugs. Every 500 years, the village sacrifices a young girl to the bug king, in order to keep up this arrangement. This time, however, the village chooses not to sacrifice their offering, which in turn doesn’t work out well for them. Reco, the denied sacrificial offering and the Bug Princess herself, being the only person in the village that isn’t poisoned, sets off on her trusty bug friend to meet with the bug king. At least… that’s what the story is meant to be. It doesn’t really matter – I didn’t play this game for its brilliant narrative (and I had to do some research to uncover some of the details of the story, to be honest).
Players choose from three difficulties – Normal, Maniac, and Ultra, the latter of which is mind numbingly brutal. In fact, should you choose Ultra, a window pops up to ask if you are “prepared to battle sheer despair”. Take heed, fair mortal, because you will be HUMBLED.
Normal mode is manageable, and is similar to what you might expect from other shoot ’em ups. You might even beat it legitimately. Harder modes, though, are where it’s at, and it has been said that it takes hundreds of hours to develop the skills required to navigate through the web of bullets. What many players aren’t aware of is that the hit box for the player is quite small, as is the hit box for the bullets themselves – often the artwork is much larger, and skilled players can escape from even the worst of attacks (and considering there can be many, many enemies and more than 2000 bullets on screen at a time,, this is not an easy feat). I am not one of them. From time to time, I can pull off a miraculous manoeuvre, but these are few and far between. The good news? The standard arcade mode has unlimited continues… But then again, the point is not to finish the game, but to get the highest score.
There are multiple ship types to choose from (with different attack specialisations) and different power ups to collect, powering up your primary weapons, and also your support. I found myself enjoying a wider spray of bullets, but this comes at a cost to speed and agility. It’s best to give each ship a chance, to see which one suits your play style, and to try out the different kinds of support modes on offer.
There are also 3 game modes – the standard Arcade mode, which feels very close to being “arcade perfect” in terms of visuals and pacing, as well as Arrange mode, which was released with the PS2 port. Arrange mode is Ultra only (selecting Arrange mode bypasses the difficulty select screen) and essentially starts players out with fully upgraded weapons, but removes continues.This means it’s pretty much a crazy hard survival mode, but a bunch of fun as you start with all weapon upgrades. The third game mode is available as DLC, and provides the extremely rare version 1.5 of the game, which was only originally available for purchase for 8 hours on 2 days in 2011 (hence the rarity). It provides new music, new bullet patterns, and switches up enemy placement across the levels. Players can also select MAX versions of each ship type, which are fully levelled, but come with fewer bombs (bombs hit for huge damage and can cancel on-screen bullets).
Bullet hell titles are hard – by their very design they are MEANT to be hard. That said, they can also be immensely rewarding, and enjoyable to play. Unlimited continues can take the stress out of a quiet run through the five levels (each of which contains several minibosses), and the deliberate slowdown that is applied when the screen is awash with bullets can help put players in the zone (not to mention the fact that there is a button that can be pressed in game that will highlight the player’s hit box). In this way Mushihimesama caters to players of all kinds – from those that just want to have fun shooting a bunch of brightly coloured bugs, to those that are chasing the top of the leaderboard.
Is it a game I can recommend to everyone? Well, no. It’s somewhat of a niche genre, but one that is generally enjoyed by most, to some degree. What I can say is that Mushihimesama plays extremely well, is absolutely gorgeous (although the letterboxed window in which you are forced to play doesn’t take up much of the screen), and the music is wonderful. If you are a fan of bullet hell shoot ’em ups, you should have bought this already. If you like games of this type, even only a little, I would urge you to give it a try. It feels just as fresh and enjoyable as I’m sure it did on release a decade ago.