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Danmaku (弾幕, "bullet curtain" or "curtain fire"), also known as "Bullet Hell" in English, is a Japanese term for "barrage", as in a barrage of bullets. They are shoot 'em ups similar to regular shooting games, but focus more on weaving through complex patterns containing anywhere from dozens to hundreds of bullets; the genre is considered the hardest genre for a shoot 'em up.
The comparison often used is that bullets in traditional shooters are aimed at the player, fast, but relatively infrequent. Bullets in danmaku games tend to be slower, but much greater in numbers: depending on the attacks, enemy bullets can be scattered all over the screen, covering the major part of the playing field. They aren't necessarily aimed at the player, and can be aligned indiscriminately, or in movement-restrictive patterns. The patterns themselves can be intricate and complex, giving the barrage a beautiful, if deadly, nature. The danmaku genre has attracted many fans who enjoy either the inherent difficulty, the beauty of the enemy attacks, or both.
See General Strategy for a bit of general advice for playing this type of game.
The term Danmaku shooting game has an equivalent English term popular in some circles: Bullet hell. There's also the term Manic shooting game, which can be used synonymously with the previous, although some shmup enthusiasts insist that these two terms denote different shooting game subsets that don't always overlap.
In this context, "bullet hell" denotes a high density of enemy fire that doesn't always require one to move or react fast, but rather to be calm and precise in order to navigate the bullet mazes efficiently. The examples of such games are the Touhou Project games, Mushihime-sama, Espgaluda, DeathSmiles (all three latter by Cave), etc.
"Manic", on the other hand, denotes high gameplay dynamics where reaction times are rewarded (as opposed to slow/methodic dodging) due to extremely frantic nature of the games. The examples are Raiden Fighters series (Seibu Kaihatsu), Dangun Feveron (Cave), Battle Garegga (Raizing).
There are numerous games that fully adopt both approaches, though, like DoDonPachi DaiOuJou (also by Cave). Same could be said about some of the Extra stages in the Touhou Project games.
Usage in Touhou
Danmaku plays a big role in the Touhou Project. In a typical game, the complexity of bullet patterns start of rather easy in the first, and as the player processes onto the next stage, they get harder to dodge. The Extra stage tends to have the most complex patterns. The complexity also depends on what difficulty the player wishes to follow: Easy, Normal, Hard and Lunatic. As obvious, Lunatic is the hardest, right from state one it involves serious madness of danmaku.
The player can touch the outer layer of a bullet and gain points; this is called grazing.
Danmaku also play a major role in the spell cards used in the series. They show what pattern the spell card holds and gives indication on how that spell card can be completed without losing a live. Danmaku tend to also play in the fighting spin-offs: Immaterial and Missing Power, Scarlet Weather Rhapsody, Touhou Hisoutensoku and Hopeless Masquerade. Although danmaku is used, they aren't as complex as the shoot 'em up games and are very easy to dodge due to game facilities.
It should be noted that danmaku fights aren't for the sake of killing each other – it is a girls' play-fight. The beautiful danmaku with plenty of useless bullets is verification of the fact that opponents don't really want to kill the player, and in the archives, ZUN has said that if they truly wanted to kill, a ratio of 10:1 bullets wouldn't be necessary.
Of course, danmaku fights also exist outside of games, mostly in the manga, where there's no player to control the fight and it's based on a story of who wins or loses. In Silent Sinner in Blue, Sakuya Izayoi stopped time to evade Watatsuki no Yorihime's attacks, but since the point came up that there was no opening for her body to pass through the danmaku, she was defeated. Of course, danmaku without openings is fundamentally unfair and considerably makes a game almost impossible to beat; it can be said that it can be harder than Lunatic mode, but there've been no official statements saying it's against the rules of the Touhou Project. ZUN has however said that he could only get away with putting Yorihime in a manga.
Impossible Spell Card however contains a lot of spell cards that are considered impossible to dodge, and therefore indicate that these are breaking such rule. However, since the player can a trophy if they cleared all spell cards without cheating (i.e. using any items), then the spell cards are still at a degree of being defeatable and are still following the rules.
Usage in Seihou
Danmaku also plays a big role in the Seihou Project. Just like Touhou, danmaku starts of easy on the first stage and hardest to the last, along with choosing a difficulty. The differences however is: there tend to not be as many danmaku on the screen, the speed of the danmaku is faster, and there isn't a use of the spell card system. Also, grazing on bullets is more important than Touhou and it's instead called evading.[ ]
Danmaku fights tend to be a bit more vigourous to the extend of literally killing each other due to the power of machinery, but it doesn't seem like that in Kioh Gyoku. The danmaku sometimes are literally bullets and other dangerous weaponry like a flame-thrower used by Gates. There are, however, danmaku that appears to be similar to Touhou, such as Hirano Sakurasaki that doesn't use machinery and relies on spiritual power like Reimu Hakurei.
Usage in Project Blank
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Again, Danmaku has got a big role in the Project Blank series. Similar to Touhou and Seihou, Project has complex bullet patterns; they tend to be fast, but has the screen covered in bullets. Again, it doesn't have the spell card system.
Like Seihou, danmaku tends to be a bit violent in terms of killing, again due to the use of machinery.
- Perfect Memento in Strict Sense: Draft of Spell Card Rules
- Silent Sinner in Blue: Chapter number needed
- ZUN's reply to messages on the former Gensou Bulletin Board 3
- Symposium of Post-mysticism/Interview