More and more, I hear acquaintances saying things like, “Oh, I might have played that game back when I had reflexes.”
As someone whose video game reflexes existed for all of two months during the halcyon days of Unreal Tournament 2004, I’m happier with cardboard. Joshua Van Laningham’s Bullet♥︎ is an adaptation of the shoot-’em-up genre. Frankly, I like it better than any shmup I’ve fumbled through.
Then again, it needs to be said: Bullet♥︎ replicates the genre through smarts rather than being all that close to an actual shmup.
The main similarity is right there in the title. Every round throws a barrage of bullets your way. Put like that, it’s easy to envision motion, perhaps something similar to the system from The Battle at Kemble’s Cascade, with its obstacles constantly inching toward your position. Bullet♥︎ doesn’t go that route. Drawn from a bag, its projectiles are largely static. When drawn, a projectile’s color and number indicate which column and space to place it in. From that moment forward, it will remain in that space for the duration of the play unless acted upon by an outside force. In nearly every case, that force is you, either nudging it around the board or using a pattern to remove it entirely.
This is a heavy abstraction, but it works for a few reasons. For one thing, there’s hardly any upkeep. At no point is there some end-of-round phase in which every bullet slides down one space. Hence the contrast with Kemble’s Cascade, where the constantly shifting boards soon grew tiresome. Bullet♥︎ works smarter by implying motion rather than literalizing it. Projectiles don’t move, but they do cause other projectiles to descend more quickly. Pardon me! Even now I can’t help but describe these things as objects in motion. More accurately, freshly drawn projectiles hop over occupied spaces. If your first draw is a red-2, it goes into the second space of the red column. The next red-2 will hop over it to land in the third space. If anything spills over the bottom, that’s a hit against you. As your board grows more crowded, it comes to resemble a waterfall, providing the sensation of motion without the mess or tedium of awkwardly shoving around entire clusters of tokens.
The same applies to your role as the intended target. Rather than bobbing and weaving between projectiles, you’re tasked with aligning their position to form patterns. Properly arranged, these patterns then remove projectiles from your board, providing some breathing room until the next barrage. The hitch is that Bullet♥︎ swiftly ramps up the difficulty. Its protagonists, who all feature their own patterns and unique abilities, need to learn on their feet or they’ll soon find themselves buried. Unless you decide to stick with the same character over multiple plays, you’re constantly discovering new ways to mitigate that hail of lead. Er, pulsing energy. Whatever.
It almost goes without saying that the folks at Level 99 know how to design characters with fresh abilities and behaviors, and Bullet♥︎’s cast of eight women are a testament to that skill. Everyone has the same suite of actions with a few minor differences: an action for moving projectiles, another for drawing an extra pattern, extra energy for clearing special “star” bullets. Beyond that, the similarities disappear. One character is all about arithmetic, summing the numbers on incoming projectiles in order to hit particular target amounts. Another tries to fulfill enough patterns in a single round, at which point she’ll detonate every 3 on her board. Two of my favorite characters put themselves out there, one as an actual figure dashing around and whacking bullets out of the sky, and another as a sniper whose crosshairs are essential for finishing her patterns. I’m still struggling to master Young-Ja Kim, a wheelchair-bound girl who telekinetically shoves projectiles off the edges of her board.
Speaking of which, it’s nice that Bullet♥︎ takes care with its representation of female bodies. I’m only a class-four prude, which means I don’t mind some cheesecake now and then, but it’s cool to see an eclectic cast that’s alternately comfortable, poised, and, sure, sexy, without feeling like I’m at risk of tilting a family member toward anorexia.
Similarly impressive is how easily Bullet♥︎ switches between modes. Competitive play focuses on removing bullets to fling them at your rivals and be the last woman standing, while cooperative play sees everybody working together to defeat one of the game’s characters transformed into a boss, complete with even more abilities and challenges. The first makes for a tight competition, especially once you realize you can sneak a peek at the colors your foes are struggling with and deliberately send them more of those bullets. Boss mode is zanier but strangely more measured, with players able to bounce projectiles between one another’s boards. Both could have passed for an entire game on their own.
As much as I hate to employ the phase “easy to learn, hard to master,” that’s very much the case here. No matter the mode, Bullet♥︎ is a breeze to learn and pleasant to execute. It’s easy to see how it might have gone another way, especially in those moments when the anxiety ramps up thanks to a crowded board or a ticking timer. Yet its parts come together holistically: the clacking of those wooden tokens (superior to the more affordable cardboard option, I must confess), the pressure of a crowded row, the ability to pause drawing from the bag to solve away a few projectiles before drawing more. Even the time crunch is mild. Players must often race for bonus tiles, but the stakes are such that taking a moment to puzzle through a conundrum rarely portends a misstep. As much as I enjoy timed games, they often cause more anxiety than I’d like. (Space Alert, I’m glaring at you.) Bullet♥︎ is another story. I’d even go as far as to call it relaxing. Not that I’d cop to it if you brought it up in front of elite sniper Senka Kasun or Yakuza enforcer Rie Akagi.
At first, I mistook Bullet♥︎ for a minor Level 99 release, more in line with Temporal Odyssey than Argent: The Consortium or Millennium Blades. While slenderer than their larger offerings, it offers a smart abstraction of shoot-’em-ups that captures that tuned-in feeling of gliding on instinct, while eschewing the constant cleanup and manipulation that a more literal adaptation would require. The result is a colorful and characterful puzzle game with unexpectedly sturdy legs.