The shmup isn’t so much a dying breed in the West as it is a dead one. The ‘bullet hell’ genre was a big deal during Sega’s console-days of yore, but their intense popularity waned after Ikaruga put everything that had come before (and seemingly after) to shame. Japan are still nuts on the idea, though, and every now a great one comes our way and reminds us of those heady days. I had a particular penchant for Deathsmiles, a ‘shmup dressed up as a magical-girl anime, so when I saw the booby-ladies adorning the character select screen of Ghost Blade HD, I wondered if it would be a similar mini-resurgence for me and the genre as a whole.
Ghost Blade HD is a by-the-numbers shmup, replete with a whole host of often ‘optional’ trimmings that genre diehards will be thankful to see included (such as image rotation to make full use of your screen’s real estate – but please don’t be turning your flatscreens on their sides). For the unintiated, the bullet hell genre is one where you control a small avatar flying around an autoscrolling level, taking out swathes of enemies and avoiding a hailstorm of incoming fire, often with seemingly no way to escape a grizzly, one-hit death. Of course, there’s always an escape: your avatar’s hitbox is always much smaller than the avatar itself (you just need to figure out those boundaries), you can usually one of your limited bombs to clear the screen and weaving in-and-out of seemingly random bullet patterns once you’ve learned their pathways becomes second nature.
The genre is one that, once you ‘get it’, its easy to jump from game to game and build up a skillset that translates neatly across them all. Consequently, it also often feels a little hemmed in by its own hyper-define rules (even the visual aesthetic and gamefeel of these titles feels quite homogenized). Ghost Blade HD doesn’t do anything that really breaks out of that mold, but that doesn’t stop it from being a solid and fun return to form for relapsed genre fans such as myself, and a very good entry point for complete novices.
It’s accessible to newcomers because of its Novice difficulty, which automatically uses your bomb stock whenever a bullet touches you. If you run out of bombs the next hit will kill you, but until then it’s like you have a lifebar in a game that would usually only provide punishing one shots. This affects a lot of things when it comes to scoring extra lives and keeping your combos going, but ultimately it means that newcomers are going to be able to get to grips with the game and beat it fairly quickly before tackling the ‘real’ difficulties of Normal and Hard.
When you reach those lofty heights you can put all the tactics you’ve learned to good use. The game is a modestly challenging one (compared to the shmups of my youth, at least), with some neat tricks up its sleeve. My favourite unique hook is larger enemies who fire different coloured shots at you. Certain bullets are ‘temporary’, whilst others are permanent hazards. Kill the enemy who fired these temporary bullets and they’ll dissapear and instead become points bonuses, meaning that going toe-to-toe with bigger enemies – ignoring certain projectiles because you trust you’ll be able to kill the attacker before his shots reach you – often works out in your favour. It’s a game of chicken that works really well to give Ghost Blade HD a unique pulse, and it was a system I dug once I started playing dangerously.
The campaign is rather short, but its designed to be played over and over again so that brevity is offset somewhat. That said, even by shmup standards Ghost Blade HD is a brief experience. You can elongate your playtime by getting to know the ins-and-outs of the three available ships and their respective playstyles (though why anyone would play as a ship other than Ghost is beyond me, she’s the namesake for a reason) practice your craft in the training mode, face off against a fairly brutal score attack mode or even pal around with a buddy in co-op.
For me, Ghost Blade HD stumbles the most in its presentation. The screen is a mess all of the time, and whilst pathfinding through an array of bullets is part of the challenge, the game throws so much distracting nonsense at you that this becomes a herculean task for all the wrong reasons. Every time you blast a base, find pickups or earn point-scoring stars (all of which happen constantly, by the way) their large, garish icons fly towards you. Oftentimes my entire screen was full of gold stars, and I would struggle to pick out my ship flying around in it, let alone the tiny bullets hurtling towards me. In a game where you’re alert for any incoming projectiles, this constantly muddies the waters in regards to the real threats. Visual confusion should never constitute genuine difficulty, much like rote pattern memorization shouldn’t equal skill. Sadly, the game demands both.
The soundtrack is mostly standard anime/sci-fi mashup fare, with only a couple of real standouts. Stage 3 – the aptly titled ‘Orgasmic Stride’ – is where the game’s score really comes into its own. It’s an alien, clangerous piece that is somehow melodic despite the mechanical wails. I really liked it.
“Ghost Blade HD” is by no means the glorious return of the shmup, not for Western tastes anyway. It doesn’t mix things up enough to regain the attention of gamers who have already outgrown or been outpaced by the genre. That said, I had a really good time with Ghost Blade – albeit an overly familiar one – once I settled back into that familiar trance required to excel at such titles. It can be visually confusing at times, but when you’re in the zone, weaving in and out of a rain of bullets and impressing anyone that walks past the TV set, little else matters.