I’ve now picked up my fourth bullet hell world record to date (and the third just this year), this time in Hard Mode in the excellent Cho Ren Sha 68k. This is a shmup quite similar to Blue Wish Resurrection in many ways, with a very strong following and is one of the most well-regarded PC shmups currently out there. Most players play “Normal” mode, but I decided that I wanted to pursue the Hard Mode world record instead, both because it makes for by far the more exciting and dramatic visual spectacle, and because the Normal record is so optimized that I would basically just be playing to exercise my skills at precisely memorising spawn patterns and navigating a relatively easy set of bullet patterns, rather than playing to exercise my reflex skills navigating an incredibly challenging set of bullet patterns. The game is longer than most, coming in around forty minutes, and is notable for two elements: return bullets, and the presence of two “loops”, which make it quite distinct from the three previous games I’ve picked up the world records in.
Firstly, return bullets. Whereas in many shmups ships simply come on screen and shoot their bullets, in some games destroying a ship causes it to release additional bullets. Depending on the game and the difficulty, this might be only a single bullet aimed at your ship, a random cloud of bullets, a line of bullets, or some other pattern. In the case of CRS68k Hard Mode, there are two kinds of return bullets. On the first loop (see below for what this means) ships fire multiple lines of long pink bullets roughly towards the player’s location, with the smallest ships firing a single stream and larger ships firing up to six or eight streams simultaneously, which quickly fill up the screen and limit the player’s options, whilst moving extremely swiftly. On the second loop a burst of thick individual bullets are fired in every direction; in some ways the second loop’s return bullets are easier, I think, because although larger, they don’t form the kind of thick bullet-lines that cannot be traversed. Additionally, being close to an enemy ship prevents the return bullets from spawning when it dies, but you actually get points for every single return bullet that spawns. There is therefore a risk/reward element here: being close to an exploding enemy reduces the number of return bullets (and you’ll see me do this a few times), but for each return bullet that spawns, you get more points – and with a tremendously impressive score of 25.5m to beat (which I only beat by 0.1m!) I knew that I had to try to let every return bullet spawn (see gif below for example) that I could allow in order to eke out those few extra points.
“Loops”, meanwhile, refer to the practice of playing through the same stages a second time, but with a difference. In the case of Cho Ren Sha, this means the player plays the game’s seven stages, and then upon completing them and defeating the “final boss”, the player is them reset to stage 1 and plays through all seven again, but with a change to the return bullets and the score given for each spawned return bullet (each individual bullet spawned in loop 2 is worth more than each bullet in the pink bullet chains in loop 1). This means that just being able to maintain one’s focus and composure for the entire period becomes even more crucial than in other games, which tend to take somewhere around twenty-five minutes to play, and by the end of the playthrough I was definitely reaching my limit of mental and eyeball focus without a break.
Lastly, scoring and an additional unusual mechanic. Scoring is simple: kill everything, get bonus points for ships and bombs and shields stored at the end of each level, and maximise the number of return bullets that spawn. Part of this is also a final interesting mechanic – when you kill power-up ships, they will drop three power-ups which spin in a circle. These are shields (which is a binary on/off and protects you from a single hit), bombs (you can have up to 5, they clear the screen and do major damage to everything on screen) and power-ups (which boost your gun), and for each million points, you also get a “1up” appearing here instead of the shield. However, if you sit in the middle and move down the screen with the powerups, they will speed up and after a few seconds you collect all three (see below), which is crucial to maximising points. I’m remarkably bad at this, especially in the first half of the run when I’m still warming up, but you’ll see me do this a lot in this playthrough. As a result, I do think that getting all of these perfectly, and avoiding my one death, would get my score up to around 26.5m or more, but I’m not going to try for that unless someone takes the Hard Mode WR back from me.
Now, on with the analysis! Since the game has two loops, the time-stamps in the sections below below will take you to both of the loops.
Second Boss (4:50 and 28:45)
The second boss is indicative of much of this game, which is to say that there are lots of “secrets” and hidden attacks and optional enemies and whatnot that spawn or appear depending on the player’s actions. You’ll see here that I spend very little time in the first phase actually shooting the boss, aside from defending myself against the missiles which are very fast and weirdly dangerous if you don’t attack them. Once I’ve waited long enough, extra little ships spawn, which are worth killing to boost your points score. There are actually even more ships that can spawn if you wait longer, but I didn’t do that in this run, mainly because – sigh – I simply forgot; however, if I find myself having to come back and improve this record, this is somewhere I can get an easy optimisation for another 100k points or something by keeping it alive a little longer.
Fourth Boss (11:00 and 34:50)
The fourth boss has always been, for me, the decider between a good and bad run; if I die here I normally reset. Rather than a single ship, the fourth boss is a selection of half a dozen identical ships that drift onto the screen from alternating sides, and consist of many components – a core, wings, and guns on those wings. This multi-component nature is what makes it so difficult on Hard Mode, because every component gets return-bullets, and the player is certainly encouraged to maximise the number of components they destroy in order to boost the points they get from the boss. I use a bunch of bombs, which are certainly not perfect but more than good enough to keep playing with, especially on the first loop – as I say, any playthrough where I don’t just outright die against this boss is very good. There are a few particularly hairy moments in both of these bosses where I’m trying to hold out against using a bomb for as long as possible, and I have to say I think the previous WR holder is quite a bit better than me at this boss; if memory serves, their record is hit- and bomb-less on one loop, and one-hit and bomb-less on the second loop, which is amazingly good and better than I do here.
Fifth Stage (12:10 and 36:00)
The fifth stage is particularly difficult due to the presence of the large multi-component ships that drift slowly down screen, and have numerous rapid-firing guns as well as a central core that needs to be destroyed. They put out a lot of bullets which wall off large areas of the screen very quickly. Equally, once you have killed the central segment, they then take quite a few seconds to actually explode, which means that by the time they explore they’ve moved even further down the screen, which means that the return bullets will come on from the side of the screen and be even harder to dodge than bullets coming from the top of the screen. You’ll see that I just don’t kill quite a few of these enemies for these reasons, and instead hide on one side of the screen or the other in order to slowly lure their bullet streams down one side of the screen. Even after completing the stage 4 boss, I often screw this stage up, but it goes well here.
Fifth Boss (14:15 and 38:10)
I think the fifth boss is the most well-designed boss in the game. Basically, it has five “conveyor belts”, and along each conveyor belt a bunch of hexagonal segments spawn and slowly slide along until the belt is full. They then open up and fire bullets at you, and every single hexagon also fives return bullets when destroyed; alongside these challenges, the core of the boss fires spirals of pink bullets, and then fast-moving circles of purple bullets as you do more damage to it. In this first stage you therefore want to kill as many of the hexagons as possible to maximise your points; once you’ve done enough damage to the core, any remaining hexagons self-destruct, and the conveyor belts “close up” and the boss shifts onto a new phase. Here, again, you want to destroy the “coverings” on the conveyor belts before killing the main boss, and it shifts to a sequence of more precise and predictable, but generally faster and more extensive, attacks. In terms of killing the covers before destroying the boss, I do better in the second phase than the first, pushing the boss to its later attacks and therefore getting more points out of it. It’s a tough boss, but a really interesting one and a lot of fun to play, and one that really rewards the player’s skill. Again, I could get a few more points here if I made absolutely sure to skill all the segments, and the “covers”, before killing the boss.
Sixth Boss (17:45 and 41:40)
The sixth boss was an issue for me for a long time. It is hard to really optimize it and stay close to its relatively small hitbox, although by this point I had found a fairly reliable timing system for being very up-close, whilst the “splurge” attack of bright purple bullets is very tough and fires in a very weird pattern that I find quite difficult to see. The second attack with the three sweeping patterns of long pink bullets is also tough, but then once you destroy the first phase, the real boss begins. The first attacks of dense blocks of pink bullets are hard to dodge and make it tricky to stay close to the boss to maximise damage (although I do my best here) and then an incredibly fast sequence of attacks starts, which I do partly from rote-learning and partly from reflex. It was these final sequences of attacks that sunk so many playthroughs – I had a lot of attempts that died at this boss on the first loop – until I figured out how to handle that attack, and how to speed up the first boss to minimise the number of times I have to face that weirdly-angled bright purple attack.
Seventh Stage (19:20 and 43:15)
Whew, the seventh stage! This is just total madness throughout, and yet, weirdly, the denser the screen is in bullets, in some ways the easier I seem to find it. Perhaps because there are so few safe areas at any one time that my brain has to process a smaller number of possibilities? I’m not sure. Either way, these stages went really well both times, even if I had to use bombs pretty often to clear out the screen and pick up more powerups. The final segments of this stage is one of my favourites, with the spinning triangular ships that tumble down the screen and spew out bullets; they look completely wild, but they’re actually one of the easier parts of the stage, and once I get here I know I should get to the boss without any more hits/bombs being expended.
True Last Boss (47:45!!)
The “final boss” – the massive thing that drifts above the screen before properly coming in to fight, and has three components – is tough, but not actually that tough as long as you kill off one of the side segments before it does the attack where it “traps” you within a funnel of bullets. The True Last Boss (TLB), though – whew. This guy appears when you beat the “final” boss on the second loop; the final boss drops to the bottom of the screen, it explodes, your score comes on screen… and then this amazing music starts playing and the true last boss rises from the bottom of the screen. This guy has three phases, each harder than the last. The first phase restricts the player’s movement, fires these sweeping “shotgun” blasts, lines of bullets that overlap and can be hard to track, and a range of overlapping bullet blasts from various angles that (if your ship is at full strength, which mine was) shouldn’t last too long. The first phase is scary when you haven’t really played the boss much, but not too bad once you know what’s coming.
The second phase is much harder, due to two main attacks – these six overlapping streams of rapidly-fired densely-packed pink line bullets (at the start of the gif below) and the splurges of light purple bullets that sort of “tumble” down the screen in the second phase, and also overlap. This second part is made even harder at the end when massive volumes of bullets are pumped out on both sides of the boss, too many for anyone to dodge, which are basically designed to limit how much of the screen the player can actually move within. A very hard phase, and the six-sweeping-pink-lines phase came very very close to hitting me towards the end when I rushed to the right-hand side of the screen, but happily that didn’t happen, and the tumbling bullets phase went well.
The third phase then appears, which is totally bananas. It basically bounces around the screen firing thick lines of bullets, even thicker lines of bullets that track you, and spinning whirls of bullets with only the tiniest gaps between them, as well as just firing out mad bursts of different-sized bullets all over the screen at extremely high speed. I’m honestly amazed I didn’t lose a life here, as I think this is the first playthrough I’ve ever had where I didn’t lose a life on the TLB. However, in fairness and in the interests of reasonably objective reflections on my own play – I definitely got lucky on this phase. Sometimes this final phase trolls you terribly and the boss just sits at the bottom of the screen, or jumps back and forth more rapidly than it does here, so I definitely got a relatively pleasant final phase. The previous world record holder in Hard Mode, if memory serves, had a pretty rough time with the moment pattern of this guy, so that certainly helped my attempt just a little bit. Nevertheless, the TLB is always super-difficult irrespective of how the final phase behaves, and although I used a few bombs, I’m very happy with my performance here, and it’s a very visually striking conclusion to the run.
So, er, I really wasn’t planning on getting this record so quickly, and so I hadn’t really given a lot of thought into what game I was going to play next. I’m considering Warning Forever, maybe Patriot Dark, maybe returning to my Xbox 360 and getting the world record in Decimation X3 (the previous game from the guys who made Score Rush), or maybe competing for the Western records in some of the super-high-competition classic danmaku games, like Ketsui or one of the DoDonPachi series. We’ll see. See you all next week!