The Switch just got the perfect introduction to one of gaming's richest genres
Take one look at any shmup in full flow and it's no wonder that this remains the most intimidating of genres; cascading curtains of bullets, flotillas of enemy ships and somewhere, almost imperceptible, in all that chaos is you, the lone fighter ship taking on impossible odds. You can trace the genre back to the inky black void of the arcade from which modern video games were born, from Space Invaders to Scramble to R-Type, and sometimes all that's seemed to have really changed is those odds you face have become greater and greater still. Stare into the face of a modern shmup, and it can seem like so much colourful noise.
When you're in on the secret, though, these can be some seriously sublime games, and there's probably been no better game to lift the veil on all that brilliance than Danmaku Unlimited, which saw its third installment recently release on the Switch. It's a game cast in the diamond cut, hard-edged mold of Toaplan and its successor Cave's 'bullet hell' games - 'danmaku' translates from Japanese to English as 'barrage' - while it's also infused with the doujin spirit of devs such as Kenta Cho and Hikoza T Ohkubo. Danmaku Unlimited is, effectively, the work of a single developer - one Sunny Tam - and it's a game that benefits from that more personal touch.
To play Danmaku Unlimited is to be in the presence of a learned enthusiast who's keen to share their passion with you - it's a game that goes to great lengths to open the thrill of the shmup to all. It's like spending an afternoon with a persuasive friend, taking you through everything that makes the genre special and laying it all out in simple, easy to parse terms, and all that warm enthusiasm is infectious after a while.
And so Danmaku Unlimited 3 isn't a cruel game. There are no power-ups, as such, that cruel moment when your progress is stripped away by a single mistake entirely absent; instead, you start off at max power, with all the the tools always at your disposal. It's an incredibly easy to read shmup, too - that all-important hitbox on your own ship is a glowing core, making it explicit what will kill you and what won't. And it opens up the technique of grazing - in which you fly as close to death as possible - to all. Indeed, Danmaku Unlimited 3 makes grazing a core part of its play, with grazed bullets chainable and used to power up your own spirit meter which will unleash a truly lethal barrage of your own when topped up.
It makes for a beautifully considerate shmup, and one that's full of similar details. In the default Spirit Mode, bullets of downed enemies are turned into orbs that can be consumed to fill up your spirit meter (you can opt to play a more hardcore variant in Graze Mode in which bullets remain lethal). It makes for an empowering breed of shmup, one that'll see you working your way through the various difficulty levels to get to Danmaku Unlimited 3's more dangerous heights.
No matter what level you choose to engage with Danmaku Unlimited 3, though, it's always a delight - a stripped back, thoughtful and accommodating shmup that's still got a fair set of fangs to bare when it wants to (and that comes complete with a brilliantly punchy rifftastic soundtrack from Japanese artist Blankfield). It's the perfect way to engage with a genre that's flown close to perfection more times than most.