Love arcade action? How about bullets being disgorged on your screen faster than you can keep up with? Think the term "bullet-hell" is a misnomer? Then try Matt Roszak's fun, frantic vertical shooter Bullet Heaven on for size. Fly and blast your way through bizarre and adorable but very, very deadly hordes of enemies with unlockable characters, powerful upgrades, power ups, and more. Set to a trance-like soundtrack courtesy of music maestro HalcyonicFalconX and featuring characters from Epic Battle Fantasy, it's a crazy, twitchy, blast-a-millisecond throwback to shoot-em-ups of yesteryear. And we wouldn't have it any other way.
Control is fairly simple; your character follows your cursor, and you click to shoot. Left clicking fires your default weapon, while double-clicking activates your sub-weapon; more powerful, but slower to charge. (Check out the controls menu to see an alternate setup using the [arrow] keys if you prefer.) Characters also have a limited number of bombs that can be triggered with the [spacebar] for massive area damage. You can also press and hold the [shift] key to "focus" your character, moving more slowly, while lets you sneak in and around between incoming fire more easily. While you'll begin fairly weak, as you progress you'll gather coins you can spend between levels on a variety of invaluable upgrades. (Note that there's also an extensive "Options" menu that will let you mess with the settings to increase performance or disable specific annoying sounds or even activate cheats, as well as enable or disable auto-fire and auto-focus.) While the different characters all control the same, some are better or worse than others, depending on your perspective. Do you favour speed over power? Concentrated fire over projectiles that spread out around the screen?
Although things start out simply enough, the sheer amount of enemies and projectiles onscreen quickly progresses from "manageable" to what we're going to scientifically call "redonkulous". Surprisingly, the game doesn't really feel unfair or impossible in spite of this, largely due to the fact that your hitbox (the place on your character where an enemy can score a hit) is literally only one pixel, lying at the tip of your cursor when it's directly over your character. (Hold [shift] to focus and see this pixel for yourself.) This means you can pull off some truly hair-raising evasive maneuvers, even when the screen is full to bursting with death.
Analysis: I have a weird relationship with any genre that requires any sort of skill or reflexive manual dexterity, and this is especially true with shooters. I'm typically uncomfortable with anything more demanding on my ability to aim and stay alive than Super Metroid, so games like, say, Team Fortress 2 are basically out of my range of ability no matter how much I might want to be friends with them. The one exception to the rule, however, lies with vertical shooters, and bullet-hell shoot-em-ups in particular. Some Rain Man part of my brain takes over and I enter a trance-like state of pure enjoyment. Throw in some pulsing ambient music and lava-lampish projectiles and you basically have a recipe for unproductivity for yours truly.
Bullet Heaven is like the perfect trap to snare people like me; frantic and challenging, yet oddly hypnotic and lovely. The backgrounds are fairly monotonous, but in a game where the screen quickly becomes cluttered with fatal eye candy, more detailed environments would just have proved a disastrous distraction. What's nice is that the variety of enemies you encounter feels genuine; it's not a parade of foes that behave identically with just a palette swap to try to make them distinct. Different enemies shoot different projectiles that behave in different ways, from the orange jellyfish that spits homing golden orbs that break apart into numerous others as they track you to monstrous bosses that vary their attacks the more you damage them.
The downside is that the farther you progress, the more time you'll probably have to spend grinding the almighty dollar to purchase upgrades. The bosses tend to have such an obscene amount of health that whittling them down becomes a test of endurance more than anything else, so unless you've gained enough cash to dump a herculean amount of levels on your damage or your rate of fire and damage, you'll be blasting for a long, long time. Another potential issue is that it can be difficult to keep track of your character in the maelstrom of bullets (both yours and your enemy's) that appear onscreen. Just remember that speed isn't always the answer, and keep your eyes glued to your character; that one-pixel hitbox is the only thing that really matters, and once you've upgraded the Magnet ability, the cash will come to you anyway.
While Bullet Heaven doesn't do anything that really sets it noticeably apart from other titles in the genre, it does prove that bullet-hell shoot-em-ups aren't ready to be consigned to the dusty, unused corner of the arcade just yet. (Which is lucky because where I come from an "arcade" actually means "laundromat with Pac-Man and Contra".) It won't be for everyone, but for those of us with a song in our hearts and a Gatling gun in our hands, it's a fun and fast call to arms.
Thanks to Chris for sending this one in!