Shmups may have reached peak popularity during the early 2000s, with gaming hardware allowing for more particles onscreen. The genre on home console goes all the way back to the NES days, and while the platform may not have had the processing power for bullet hell, it still gave gamers plenty of stylistic shooters. The latest indie shmup release Hell Blasters feels like it was made for the NES, if the NES somehow had a SEGA Dreamcast processor.
Starring a duo of heroes named Summer and Winter, this is a surprisingly story-heavy game with its own dedicated story mode filled with dialogue and plenty of animated cut-scenes. These cutscenes feature some great pixel artwork and a surprisingly clever sense of humor in its writing. This game really does go out of its way to create a lore and setting, and what’s even cooler is how aside from the main story mode, the game’s arcade mode has numerous unlockable endings depending on what character you use, the difficulty setting, and even the number of continues.
Speaking of difficulty settings, Hell Blasters may just be among the first games to officially include a “game journalist” difficulty setting. Yes, it’s a step below the easiest setting. And yes, I tried it. No, I didn’t use it the entire time. Maybe.
The core gameplay is largely familiar and doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel too much. There’s the scattershot, the concentrated fire, a screen-clearing bomb attack, and somewhat unique to this game is the Hell Blaster special attack which comes in handy during boss battles. The animated tutorials in the story mode explain the play mechanics and their nuances nicely.
While the game has strong key artwork, the actual in-game graphics and presentation are kept simple. Using defined pastel colors, simple enemy designs, and the traditional pink dots for the enemy bullets, this is as practical as it gets from a shmup design standpoint. Sure, it can feel visually underwhelming, but the simplicity of it all makes the gameplay feel that much more effective, and not to mention the menu design is sleek and efficient too.
Aside from the aforementioned story and arcade modes, there’s even an arrange mode where the difficulty adjusts based on your performance, a feature found in a few classic games in the genre like Battle Garegga on SEGA Saturn. There’s also a score attack mode and a practice mode. In short, there are several ways to experience the title. The story mode, in particular, allows players to experience arcade mode stages in bite-sized segments.
The game design is a bit all over the place at times, and while the boss battles can be quite cool, the enemy and bullet patterns can get a little too crazy sometimes, even on normal difficulty. Sure, you could always play these games like a journalist, but then are you really even playing a game anymore?
Hell Blasters doesn’t reinvent the genre template too much, but it provides a decent enough package for fans of indie shmups. The story mode alone might be worth a look for fans after a classic gaming experience, and it’s one area the game does a great job of taking seriously in both presentation and gameplay execution. The core shooting experience itself is nothing too remarkable, but various modes of play and difficulty settings can make this an inexpensive shooter to jump into occasionally, and works nicely on the go when played on Nintendo Switch.
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