A week ago I managed to get the world record in the superb XBLA danmaku game “Score Rush” by Xona Games. The previous record was set several years ago by a Japanese player (for those who don’t know, Japanese players in shmups are equivalent to Korean players in Starcraft, European players in FPS games, or US players in fighting games) and whilst the record was immensely high, I was convinced it was beatable. The game has six difficulties, each of which unlocks after you beat the previous difficulty. At the time he was the only person to ever beat the fifth difficulty, “Insane”, with a score of 1,070,612,083. I became the second person to beat this difficulty after several months of serious pursuit of the record, but with a lower score. After several more completions of Insane but unable to beat this score (for his completion was extremely optimal), I decided it might be easier to become the only person to ever beat the highest difficulty, rather than beating this second-highest difficulty with an even more optimal score. So after a few more months I have now become the only person on the planet to ever beat “Godlike” difficulty, doing so with a score of 1,272,316,741. Technically Score Rush can be a multiplayer game, but nobody has ever beaten Godlike with four players playing simultaneously, let alone with one. I recorded the video, which can be watched below; the rest of this entry is going to an analysis of the record, the design of some of the bosses/minibosses in the game, and some ideas for what record I’m intending to pursue next.
PLAY IT AT 1080P!
The rules are extremely simple. Being closer to enemies does more damage; more damage means a quicker kill, and a quicker kill means more points. Only the tiny number of pixels in the centre of the player’s ship can be hit, the rest is just to make it clearer on screen where it actually is. You have three lives, and three “bombs”, which clear the entire screen. If you collect a lot of powerups you can acquire “smart bombs”, which clear a small number of bullets around the player; when the screen shakes, upon killing a boss or a large enemy, you have a brief moment (approx 1 second) of invincibility. So, without further ado:
The Second Boss (2:20 in video)
The second boss of the game is the first real challenge. Its initial pattern is not too challenging, but as you do more damage to it the boss gains what I call a bullet spam attack – it unleashes a burst of untargeted bullets. In early playing of the game I thought this attack had a double fixed timing – I thought it would always do the attack at a certain point in the fight, and it would always conclude at a certain point in the fight. The trigger for starting and finishing this difficult phase were both, I thought, fixed. The bullets also come from two parts of the boss, making it especially challenging to keep in one’s head the trajectories for two different bursts of bullets with an identical colour.
However, the more I played it became apparent that the AI of this boss, although simple, could be exploited so that it would do this attack at a point where it was as easy as possible to dodge, maximizing my chance of survival. I discovered that after a certain amount of damage has been done to the boss, the boss “flashes” white for a split second. Once you do a little more damage it will then do the bullet spam, and finish this attack once a certain amount of extra damage has been done. Once the attack has concluded there is then a very small damage lull (perhaps 2-5%?) until it then does the attack again. The boss moves back and forth across the top of the arena, so I realized that after the flash and after doing a little more damage, I could wait until the boss was on the far right of the screen and position myself on the far left of the screen before triggering the attack. This meant the two bursts of bullets would be travelling in roughly the same direction when they reached me…
… which makes them far easier to avoid by keeping to the edge. Those fired from the left of the boss will be moving slightly “down” whilst those from the right will be moving slightly more “left”, but they will basically be rushing towards you from the same general direction. My survival rate on this boss climbed from around fifty or sixty percent to the high nineties, and a death to this phase became a rare occurrence. In turn, due to how weapon power works in the game, avoiding an early death meant that my ship would be stronger for the remainder of the game, and that (obviously) I had an extra life to throw away in the challenging later parts of the game. It also become clear that bosses moved onto new phases from the damage done like in other shmups, even if a health bar wasn’t obvious, and this information could be used to my advantage.
The Nightmare Attack (10:00 in video)
I reached a point where I was rarely dying in the first half of the game (although, ironically, my only death in the world record was actually very early in the run and as you’ll see in the video, I almost restarted because of it!), but one particular phase on one particular boss was killing me over half the time, crippling my world records attempts. This is because when you die your weapon strength is severely reduced, and you are no longer able to use “smart bombs” until you regain full weapon strength, and the section after this boss (which is discussed below) is borderline impossible on the higher difficulties without the ability to use smart bombs, not to mention the aid of the full-strength main weapon for your ship. This boss, Boss D, has three attack phases. The first is shown below – it is challenging, but with some attention to the pattern isn’t too difficult to dodge:
Its second phase is oddly trivial and doesn’t need to be discussed here, but the third phase is a nightmare. It is easily as difficult as any attack of the final boss or the penultimate boss, and although the boss does not do this attack until it is very low on health, it is immensely challenging to survive for long enough until the boss explodes and clears the screen of bullets. Here is a screenshot of the attack:
This attack is highly difficult for several reasons. Firstly due to the sheer volume of bullets, but primarily due to the problems the red bullets cause. Unless they are being fired from the other side of the screen they are sufficiently close together than they almost form a wall, and this blocks off major parts of the screen at once. At the same time, they form “lines”, cutting off the space you have to evade them. I also actually found that very rarely my eyes would for a split-second confuse the red of the bullets and the red of my ship – it would only be for a few frames of the game, but when I was near to those red bullets anyway, it would be enough, and I’ll die from a momentarily lapse in focus from the volume of similar-looking-red-things on screen.
I therefore decided it would normally be acceptable to use a single “bomb” on this phase – show in the bottom-right-hand side of the screen – which clears the screen of bullets. However, as time went by, I found that a similar tactic to the second boss, i.e. waiting until the boss is on one side of the screen, triggering its final phase, and then moving up and down across the other side of the screen, made this attack doable, and in the record video I do not die to this phase nor actually need to use a bomb, though it remains immensely challenging.
The Other Nightmare (11:45 in video)
Even if you survive that nightmare phase, a second nightmare waits immediately after. This is a huge selection of powerful non-boss enemies, some of whom have screen-filling bullet patterns. There are two types of enemy, and it’s worth explaining how these both function before going any further. The first I call the “green B2″, for its resemblance to the stealth bomber of the same name. These fire a cloud of green bullets, and when on low health, fire out blue lines of bullets south-west and south-east of their position (though these later blue bullets are generally pretty irrelevant).
The second enemy I haven’t come up with a name for, but these are much rarer blue enemies. I’d say about half of their total number appear at this point in the game. They have two attacks – they fire blue bullets straight down, and also a small chunk of orange bullets towards the player. They have significantly more health than the B2s (twice as much?) and, when they die, I think the screen shakes for less time, thereby giving you less invincibility, but I haven’t been able to confirm this suspicion. They are therefore basically a version of the green B2 which is “worse for the player” – they have a similarly powerful attack, but they have twice the health, and yield less invincibility.
Between the previous boss and Boss C (the boss before the penultimate boss, as the alphabet “counts down” in Score Rush) a horde of these enemies appear. I have never counted how many, but it is a very large number. The screen becomes filled with bullets no matter how quickly you can murder them, and this is where the screenshake became so important.
In bullet hells there is something known as “U Streaming” – this means moving around the bottom of the screen in the shake of the letter “U”, as this is a highly effective way to dodge particularly thick patterns of bullet. You move along the bottom of the screen as slowly as you can for the aimed bullets to pass by you, then you dash up the side of the screen. This causes the enemies on the other side of the screen, firing aimed bullets, to shift their aim upwards – this will then yield a small but crucial gap in the bottom corner of the screen “underneath” the curve of the U that you can dash through and do the same pattern again in the other direction. It’s hard to describe, but I do it very often in the video. In this part of the game, I had to combine U streaming and using the invincibility each time an enemy was destroyed to have any real chance of survival (and the CPU slowdown from the insane mass of bullets helped a lot). You’ll see me moving back and forth on the screen and cutting across masses of bullets each time I kill an enemy which I know will give me temporary invincibility. The U streaming isn’t perfect, but it’s the only way through. Although I know from talking to the developers the invincibility was only added during screen-shake in order to avoid annoying deaths – “the screen was shaking so I couldn’t see what I was doing!” it is actually essential to the higher difficulties. Although a tool-assisted playthrough of the game could, I do not believe a human could complete the highest difficulty/difficulties without using this screenshake, and this area is the first one where the density of bullets is simply too high to survive without every tool at your disposal. There is also another rationale called “the infinity loop” or “infinity streaming” where you move in the pattern of an infinity symbol laid horizontally across the screen, but this is less useful in Score Rush than other bullet hell games.
The Circles (14:00 in video)
After surviving boss C, we move onto a really interesting enemy, which I shall call the red circles (fascinating name, I know). These fire a circle of bullets aimed at your position. The circle originates on points around their diameter but they are all aimed at a single point, which is where the player is. This results in an interesting bullet pattern which varies depending on how close to the red circle the player is, as shown in the diagram below:
If the player is positioned below the arrow when this enemy fires, its bullets will follow this pattern. The closer they get to their target they will clump up, then become akin to a line, and then open out again the further they get from the player’s original location before despawning once they move off screen. I think this is an interesting pattern, and one I haven’t seen in many other games – the bullets from an enemy don’t generally “change” their orientation to one another mid-flight, though a few shmups do use bullets which spawn bullets of their own (Blue Wish Resurrection, another game I intend to pursue the record in, does this). Once you get past Boss C, a number of these spawn on both sides of the top of the screen, along with a special enemy in the centre that fires out lines of bullets which are aimed towards you, but only track slowly. In my view this is one of the most interesting combined patterns in the game, though it is hard to fully understand it in screenshot form:
This area encourages you to think about the bullets coming at you differently to much of the rest of the game. Much like some of the bosses who fire “clumps” of bullets which effectively take up a portion of the screen rather than a single, point this area feels like the bullets are abstracted into two parts – the lines from the central enemy, and the closing/line/expanding groups of bullets from the circles. You can see some of the clumps from the red circles around this screenshot – some are clumped, some have formed into lines, whilst others have expanded after missing their initial target. You’ll also note that I try to stay around the middle of the screen in this part in order to encourage the red circle bullets to clump up early – a line is much easier to dodge than a circular cloud, and one can mentally consider it to be “one object” with rather more ease in this hectic part of the game. This phase requires moving back and forth within the lines transcribed by the central enemy (the large red circle in the middle/left of this screenshot) and avoiding the thick groups of bullets created by the smaller red circles, and then cutting back across the streams when the circles are reduced to lines.
The Penultimate Boss (15:25 in video)
If you survive the red circles, you make it to Boss B, the penultimate boss of the game. This boss is highly challenging – its first phase is difficult, its second phase is difficult, its third phase (happily) is a cakewalk, but the fourth phase is akin to the bullet spam attack on the first boss, except… vastly more difficult. The phase here I want to talk about is primarily the first phase, for it is by far the most interesting pattern. In this phase the boss fires two main types of bullet – the blue “rhombus” chunks of bullets in the picture below, and also turrets which fire two lines of yellow bullets with a slight gap between them.
After a few moments this creates an interesting pattern, visible at the bottom-right of that screenshot – the blue chunks are vertical lines of bullet whilst the yellow, even though they are fired as lines directly at the player, are each fired at a slight angle relate to the player, causing them to “rotate” on their axis the lower those lines of bullets get down the screen, resulting in them eventually turning into horizontal lines. This is reinforced because the sheer volume of bullets means that an optimal strategy for this boss is continually moving back and forth in order to get the bullets to spread out a little more; however, this constant movement results in far more horizontal lines of yellow bullets than moving slowly from side to side would otherwise create. The interaction of these blue and yellow bullets is somewhat tricky to describe, but I think watching the video presents it well – you can see them combining to block off certain areas or produce challenging lines (and sometimes right-angles and chevrons) that move across the screen, even though the bullets that make those up are fired separately. This first phase of this boss really uses the screen in an interesting way by producing two types of bullet pattern, one of which is changed based on the player’s movement, and requiring a slightly different form of movement to other bosses as temporarily “line” structures appear and disappear on the screen as you fight the boss.
This, meanwhile, is a screenshot of the final phase of this boss, which is the other contender for the hardest attack in the game. I normally survive this phase without losing a life or bomb, though in this instance I used a bomb – I did have an escape route from the situation where I chose to bomb, but with two lives and three bombs left at this point, this was by far the best run I’d ever had, and I didn’t see any point in taking an unnecessary risk at this point.
Killing The Final Boss (19:20 in video)
The final boss is pretty tough and two things of note. Firstly, it is the only boss that actually moves in any real way. Other bosses technically drift slightly from left to right, but this boss moves a lot around the map. At first I thought it was random movement, but upon close investigation, I discovered its pattern is not random, though I think it is designed to appear random in the hope that keeping track of the bullets and avoiding its patterns won’t leave the player with enough time to notice it always moves the same way. It follows the same pattern each time – after spawning on the middle left of the screen, it then moves in the following sequence: middle left, top right, middle, top left, middle, top right, middle left, middle right, top left, middle, top right, middle right, top, middle, top left, top, top right, top, and then back to the middle. If you have not defeated it by the end of this sequence (on the higher difficulties there is no way you can kill it fast enough), the boss will then just remain in the middle of the screen and slowly drift up and down between the central thirty percent of the visible area.
Discovering that this sequence was fixed proved to be a huge advantage. Many of the bosses attacks are made significantly more challenging by the fact it moves so rapidly around the screen; very difficult patterns of bullets can be created if the boss decides to move during particular attacks. Many of the bosses bullet patterns, when combined with its movement, can produce lines of attacks that are tricky to dodge and can easily push the player into a corner if you don’t know which way the boss is going to move. Memorizing the early parts of this pattern allowed me to always position myself in such a way that the next move the boss made would have a low chance of causing too much difficulty – if I knew the boss would dart to the right next, I would position myself on the middle of the left side of the screen so that I couldn’t end up stuck in a corner.
As you fight the boss it changes its attack patterns several times, but one I’ve always rather liked is the pattern shown in the screenshot above. It fires chevrons of light blue bullets with a few small streams of yellow bullets. What makes this interesting, however, is that your dodging of one burst of yellow bullets affects what the next stream of yellow bullets look likes. This phase actively encourages you towards making smaller, more precise dodges, because the yellow bullets are aimed. If you’re making huge dodges, the next wave of yellow bullets will be fired over a wide distance because they are aimed towards the player’s location when they fire. Some bosses therefore encourage wild dodges and lots of movements around the screen, whilst other bosses like this one encourage smaller and more precise dodging. I appreciate the difference, and it’s quite interesting when one first figures out that you need to deliberately dodge one wave of yellow bullets carefully, so that the next wave of yellow bullets is as easy to dodge as possible. In this case I reached the final boss with two lives and a bomb left, by far the strongest I’ve ever got there on this difficulty, and completed it without losing a life or needing to use a bomb (though had I used the bomb “aggressively”, i.e. to deal extra damage, I could have stacked up a couple million extra points).
Conclusion and Future Records
So there you go – I’m now a danmaku world champion. I don’t anticipate this beating beaten in a long time, if ever. The previous WR has stood for over a year, and despite the very significant sales of the game, I feel confident nobody else is going to trump it any time soon. I’ve been the only person putting up scores recently, and whilst I’m hoping this post will achieve some popularity, I’m confident in that record sticking, especially considering how bloody difficult that highest difficulty is to complete. The reason I put so much time into it is, partly, what I discussed in my past entry about playing poker. Twice now I’ve been within a heartbeat of reaching “the big time” in a game – first competitive Counterstrike when I was younger, and then poker in my early 20s. Although in neither case I “gave up” because the game itself was too hard, I have felt as if my days of high-level gaming competition were over. I needed to get this to prove to myself that’s not the case. I was tempted to quit a few times, but it had become some kind of psychological requirement for me to actually get this record.
Now I’ve got one, I’ve decided I’m going to pursue some other bullet hell world records. I think “Danmaku Unlimited 2″ and “Blue Wish Resurrection” are both very viable possibilities, and potentially “Cho Ren Sha 68k”, though I think that one will be the most challenging of the bunch. Competitive multiplayer gaming doesn’t really interest any more but competitive singleplayer gaming really does, and since speedrunning isn’t really my thing, it’s going to have to be high scores. So: I’m going to be taking a break from bullet hells for a little while to relax, code URR and get some more academic papers published, but once I’m done with the break and back to playing, watch this space, my friends – for the only thing better than being a danmaku world champion, is being a multiple danmaku world champion.