By Kris . February 17, 2012 . 5:30pm
Despite my shmup enthusiast friends’ excitement over the series, I’ve never played any of the Donpachi games before. While Cave’s particular brand of bullet hell has been made more easily palatable to me before by combining it with various mechanics like Guwange’s bizarre bullet-slowing shikigami mechanics (and even more so by the much easier control scheme in the XBLA version’s Arrange Mode) and Deathsmiles’ level-by-level difficulty selection, the Donpachi series appeared as straightforward and brutal as Cave’s games could get.
Despite the somewhat ominous name, Dodonpachi: Blissful Death turned out to be much more inviting and enjoyable than I initially expected.
At its core, Blissful Death is about navigating through oceans of bullets and maintaining a high combo count. Combos are maintained by destroying a number of enemies in short succession or by concentrating laser fire on a single enemy. To accomplish these goals, you’re given two different shot types: shot and laser. “Shot” will fan bullets out across the screen, making it easier to destroy smaller enemies. “Laser,” on the other hand, will concentrate all of your firepower directly in front of you. While proper chaining is maintained by switching shot types and dodging bullets as differently-sized enemies appeared onscreen, I personally found it easier to simply use the laser for both little and big enemies, in part because the iPhone controls made weapon switching a little slower than it might have been in an arcade.
Regardless, the higher your combo counter goes, the more points you gain per enemy destroyed. There are also various bee icons hidden throughout the game that will multiply your combo count by 1000 and add it to your overall score.
Naturally, it wouldn’t be a shmup without some screen-clearing desperation weapon, and Dodonpachi has a few. Pressing using a bomb in shot mode will (naturally) fire a bomb that covers about a third of the screen and eliminates all enemy onscreen bullets. Using a bomb in laser mode, however, makes your beam burst into flame, encase your ship, and tear through any enemy bullets it touches. It also gives you brief invincibility, which I found lovely for bosses.
If you use the laser weapon enough to fill the “Hyper” gauge at the top of the screen, you’ll be rewarded with a little token that allows you to use your weapon’s hyper mode. If you have any of these hyper mode tokens (which will trail behind your ship), the bomb button will activate a giant, screen-massacring version of whichever weapon you have equipped. These also wipe the screen of bullets when activated, and lead to some obscenely high combo counts.
If you’re shot while you have either a bomb or a hyper stocked, you’ll survive, you’ll either enter hyper mode or launch a bomb, and all of whatever your ship launched will be depleted. While this sounds somewhat harsh (especially if you have five bombs stocked) it encourages careful bomb use and frugality.
While I initially didn’t use my bombs and hypers and just expected that they’d activate if I got hit, I eventually started strategically using bombs to keep myself alive through tougher patches of certain levels, but I’d always keep one bomb with me, just in case I couldn’t dodge a stray bullet.
If you’ve never played a shmup on iPhone before, you might be surprised at how well Blissful Death controls. Your ship will fire automatically, and movement follows your finger as it slides along the screen. No matter where you put your finger on the screen, your ship will emulate your finger’s movement in relationship to the initial point of contact. I actually found this method more responsive than an arcade stick. Since the speed and direction are controlled by the way your finger moves, I found it easier to dodge in and out of curtains of bullets.
One of the issues I had with this particular setup was the proximity of the shot change, bomb, and auto-fire on/off icons. While this was primarily due to my obscenely large thumbs, I found myself occasionally tapping the point onscreen that deactivated my weapons when I wanted to launch a bomb or go into hyper mode. I eventually overcame this issue after playing a bit more, but it was a bit annoying at first. I still can’t switch weapons quite as quickly as the game wants me too though, and I’ve dropped a few combos because of it.
While all of this might sound a bit intimidating, Cave seems to have set the game up to ease beginners into bullet hell. First and foremost is the fact that you only start with one credit. While this seems somewhat cruel at first (given Cave’s love of filling the screen with bullets), the iOS port’s normal difficulty is pretty gentle at first. On my first attempt at the game I actually made it to the fourth of five stages before I died.
While the single credit worried me, I was determined to push forward, even if I had to beat the game without any continues.
After I first saw the “Game Over” screen, I was kicked back to the main menu and informed that I had unlocked practice stages one through four. In addition, the next time I started the game, I was given a tutorial that explained how to amass chain bonuses… I once again died on stage 4, but this time I had a higher score and was rewarded with a extra credit. I now had an extra three lives at my disposal!
Well, as it turned out, stage 4 and 5 were a lot tougher than I thought they would be. I’d beaten stage 4, but couldn’t even get to the boss of stage 5… But I did unlock the stage in practice mode! My time with the game was marked by this challenge-and-reward progress. Every time I’d fail, I’d be encouraged to start again with the knowledge that every failure could give me a few more lives and let me see a bit more of the game.
The way that Cave slowly rewards the player with continues and practice stages is a very clever way to adapt an arcade experience to a cell phone. Often I play console ports of arcade games and simply muscle through the challenging sections by exploiting the infinite continues that the game gives me. Dodonpachi: Blissful Death’s credit staggering not only forces the player to become better at the game to advance, but it makes the pacing more appropriate for a portable game.
Whereas I’m willing to sit down and go through the entirety of a shmup on a console, I found myself playing practice levels in Blissful Death whenever I had a spare moment between classes. When you’re limited to six lives, a bus ride home can become multiple attempts to clear the game. Within four days of downloading Dodonpachi: Blissful Death, I was able to clear the game without continuing on normal difficulty—something I’ve never done with a Cave shooter before—all because it was structured in a way that forced me to learn.
Between making players earn their credits and various difficulty tweaks (although the original arcade difficulty is available in the game as “hell mode”), Cave has done a great job of adapting what would traditionally be considered a “hardcore” experience into something that’s just fun to pick up and play. Dodonpachi: Blissful Death is a kind teacher teaching a difficult subject: it makes you work, but you feel all the better for it when you finally succeed.