Japanese developer CAVE is the most prolific creator of what has been called danmaku shoot ‘em ups. Danmaku roughly translates to “bullet curtain,” but the genre is more commonly known in English as manic shooters or bullet hell. If you’ve never heard the terms, you’ve probably seen them in action. They’re usually characterized by huge swathes of neon-colored bullets swirling in complex patterns raining death on your tiny avatar.
CAVE is not only the most prolific developer of these kinds of games, but also one of the best. Unfortunately, most of their games have never been released in the West and a lot of them haven’t even been released outside of Japanese arcades. One such game is 1998’s ESP Ra.De. (pronounced “esprade”).
What an introduction!
Taking place in the year 2018 (hey!), ESP Ra.De. follows three high school students with psychic powers who are fighting against a powerful psychic known as Mrs. Gara and her minions, The Yaksa. This evil empire plans to take over the world, and the three young protagonists are having none of that.
Each playable character uses slightly different attacks. Yuusuke Sagami shoots a concentrated burst of fire with his pyrokinetic abilities, Jb-5th has a fires wide blasts of dark energy, and Irori Mimasaka summons a green energy bird that fires lasers in front of her in a pattern dependent on when the wings of the bird are flapping.
Just your regular trio of high schoolers with psychic powers.
As you can see, from the get go ESP Ra.De. sets itself apart by featuring human characters flying and shooting lasers from their hands. (Well, mostly from their hands, Irori uses the energy bird, but you get the idea). Also, in place of a bomb item, each character can bring up a force field that will make the them invincible until a meter runs out. At that time, a psychic blast will destroy anything on screen and wipe out all enemy bullets.
In most CAVE shooters, you have two modes of fire: a normal shot and a concentrated shot. The normal shot is weaker and allows the character to move around at normal speed, but the concentrated shot is more powerful and causes the character to move more slowly. This speed trade off can be utilized to dodge through the hail of bullets. ESP Ra.De. ditches the concentrated shot (though you can still move slowly by holding down the fire button) and instead introduces what’s called a piercing attack.
Get ready to dodge some blue.
This special piercing attack does extra damage, but must be used strategically. A bar at the bottom of the screen depletes while it is being used. When the bar is empty, it cannot be used until the bar refilss. Thankfully, this only takes a few seconds.
Racking up those points
Since the shoot ‘em up genre is a product of the arcade era of high scores, CAVE has taken great care to create some of the most complex and mind-boggling scoring systems ever crafted by man, and ESP Ra.De. is no exception. You may need a degree in mathematics (possibly theoretical physics) to keep up with this explanation. Here we go!
That piercing attack mentioned earlier is actually used to affect score and multipliers. Killing enemies with the piercing shot creates power-ups, but you can create more power-up items by increasing your multiplier. You increase your multiplier by killing enemies with both the normal shot and the piercing shot. When the enemy is killed with the normal shot, the multiplier is increased by the amount of shots from the piercing attack that actually hit the enemy.
Look at all the fancy flashing numbers.
Therefore, you need to build up your multiplier by using the piercing shot and normal attacks and then collect power-ups by killing other enemies with just the piercing shot. If that’s not complex enough, after your character’s power bar at the bottom of the screen is filled from collecting power-ups, enemies will start dropping orange blocks.
The orange blocks are for points, but are also used to refill your shield gauge (which allows you to use the screen clearing attack). Additionally, when you’ve collected 200 orange blocks (indicated on screen below your health icons), they will start disappearing. While they are disappearing, enemies can now drop “E” items which also restore your shield. When the blocks reach 0, the process starts over again.
CAVE has taken great care to create some of the most complex and mind-boggling scoring systems ever crafted by man.
Have you wrapped your head around the scoring system, yet? No? Well, don’t worry. You’ll have a lot of time to figure it out, because you will end up dying a lot in this game. It’s not the most maniacal shooter that CAVE has ever devised (that honor goes to either Espgaluda II or Ketsui), but it’s pretty difficult.
The rarest of the rare
Trial and error are par for the course for these games though. It’s all about practice and memorization. There’s a thrill to figuring out the patterns in the stages and mastering them. The complexity of the games shooting and scoring systems allow for flexible play styles as well. Some players will want to get right up in enemies faces, alternating their piercing and normal attacks, other players will want to hang back and give themselves time to recognize bullet patterns and dodge.
It also helps that the backgrounds are gorgeous and there are some really fantastic settings to blast your way through, including a school, a shopping mall, and a scientific facility, just to name a few. There are also some memorable moments, such as the final stage where you find an army of blood-thirsty, psychic little girl clones guarding Mrs. Gara’s mansion. The final boss is also one of CAVE’s most devious and gruelling creations.
It gets way crazier than this.
The music is a typical mix of blood-pumping, pulse-pounding techno. It fits the action, and there are some standout tunes, but it isn’t one of CAVE’s most memorable soundtracks (check out Mushihimesama or Dodonpachi Dai-Ou-Jou for some more inspired ear candy).
So now comes the ultimate question. How do you play this game? This game had a very limited run outside of Japan, and only in arcades. There has never been a home console port. Even if you have an arcade setup, hunting down a PCB board is nigh impossible nowadays, so the only sure fire bet is emulation.
It’s definitely a game that’s worth playing if you’re interested in the bullet hell genre. Fire up that MAME arcade emulator and get shooting.