News: Bullet Hell or Bullet Heaven? The Case of Trouble Witches NEO

Bullet Hell or Bullet Heaven? The Case of Trouble Witches NEO

The Xbox 360 is America's video game system. It was designed in America, it has better market share in America than anywhere else, and it has the most overtly macho game catalog of any console. For many Xbox fanboys, gaming heaven is shooting hordes of really well-animated things in the most intuitive way possible. Trouble Witches NEO - Episode 1: Daughters of Amalgam, released last week on Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA) for $10 by Japanese developer Adventure Planning Service, is a typical Xbox 360 title, aimed squarely at the console's target demographic. Like Gears of War 2:

Does Trouble Witches NEO compare?

Nope.

I've finished one playthrough of the game and am hankering for more, but can't believe that it was released for the Xbox 360. It's got a lot going against it. First of all, it's a bullet hell shoot 'em up. These games arose in the mid '90s when shoot 'em ups (shmups) were declining in popularity. Their makers started using insane difficulty and visual spectacles to impress their hardcore gamer audience. That was more than a decade ago, and big publishers seldom release bullet hell games anymore outside of their traditional homeland of Japan. There, the Xbox 360 accounts for just 7% of the console market, and thus doesn't attract very many Japan-targeted releases.

Secondly, this game absolutely oozes otaku culture. Dragonball Z looks like Cheers! by comparison.

The playable characters and bosses are all anime cartoon witches with different themes, like Sailor Moon, only more childish. Yes, more childish, but just as awkwardly sexualized. I can't think of an American game that features a meek, possibly underage female shopkeeper whom, while shopping from her, the player can prod with their cursor, making her complain or get titillated depending on where they prod, until her older sister comes in and kicks them out. I read about that while doing research, tried it out, and had to scour my body with a steel wool loofah before resuming play. That said, the aesthetic is straight out of one of the countless high-school-girl-themed manga popular in Japan—and it pulls it off. The dialog is so pitch-perfect and the graphics so charming that the odd characterizations stopped bothering me after a while and the story became oddly immersive for a shmup.

The graphics feature beautifully drawn sprite characters overlaid on simple, clean 3D backgrounds. The backgrounds animate smoothly and add a sense of rapid horizontal movement to the game that makes it even more frantic. The color palette is anime-vibrant as well, never shying away from trading realism for color. Kandinsky's ghost approves.

The dialog is so over-the-top, one of two things is probably true:

  1. The game is translated faithfully, and its original writers were some big-time otaku.
  2. The American translation team, probably even bigger otaku, decided that rather than try to Americanize the dialog, they would embrace the aesthetic of the game and translate the script to match that aesthetic.

Whatever happened, the dialog is copious, bombastic, and quintessentially Japanese. It will be hilarious to anyone who likes anime or manga at all and does a passable job conveying the character's emotions and motivations to anyone paying attention.

A well-played run through Stage 1. Note the magic shield use and aforementioned timid shopkeeper.

Whatever the case, this is a good game and deserves its US release. The clouds of bullets the enemies dish out are frustrating and seemingly impossible to dodge at first, but once you get the hang of finding the spaces between the bullets, dodging them becomes like navigating a dynamic maze and is very satisfying. The game has a shield mechanic that allows you to slow down bullets in a certain area, destroy the enemy that fired them, and make all the bullets still in the shield area turn into coins.

The coins are used at the midlevel shops (staffed by the poor aforementioned shopkeeper) to purchase cards that grant temporary power-ups and stat increases like extra shield power and lives. The game offers infinite continues, so don't worry about the lives. I used about 30 continues on my first playthrough and that's with years of experience in bullet hell games. This game is hard, but getting good at it feels amazing.

If you're an old-school gamer and want to try a high-quality new take on this classic genre or are an adventurous Xbox 360 owner with $10 and an open mind, take a chance on Trouble Witches NEO. Beat it at least once, and don't worry if you die a lot. By the time you reach the end, you'll be amazed at just how heavenly bullet hell can be.

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