“Bullet-Hell” named, presumably, because being fired at with a screen-breaking, brain-shredding number of insta-kill bullets, which dodging induces finger cramp, eye watering and semi-frequent blackouts is someones idea of hell. Yeah, mine too. Being Scottish, however, I tend to face my fears with a large wooden stick and a hot cup of tea. And, in this case, I’m quite glad I did.
Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony is one of these “Bullet-Hell-Stop-My-Eyes-Are-About-To-Ignite” style games. You attempt to shoot everything on the screen as you trundle upwards, while simultaneously dodging about forty-million laser bolts all the way. This game is tough, in the same way demolishing a building with a slice of wet toast is tough. You are not defenceless, however. Your little ship has a primary and secondary attack, plus something called “Vaunt” – an ability you gain once you have collected enough gold dropped by vanquished enemies. Activating Vaunt does three things: it grants you a shield that turns every bullet it touches into points and protects you for a brief moment, it boosts your weapons power, and it gives you a score multiplier. The entire game hinges on using this ability well, and it’s not easy to master. However, difficulty aside, Jamestown has a few hooks to keep you in for the duration.
The story itself is novel; set in the 17th century and, brilliantly, on Mars, the idea is that rather than the Americas being the “New Frontier”, the Red Planet fits the bill slightly better, and has been colonised by the British. The Spanish are there too, but with another not-quite-historical twist: they are allied with the native Martians. You play Raleigh, a prisoner of His Majesties Pleasure and recent escapee of the Tower of London, who has legged it to Mars in an attempt to clear his name by finding the lost Roanoke Colony. All this is told through some beautifully drawn SNES-style cut-scenes between stages and the whole setting is sheer steam-punk joy – merging steam-locomotion and sail-ships with interstellar travel, aliens and lasers.
Each level is a little work of 16-bit perfection; there is so much detail going on behind all those bullets. British Redcoats marching against brass-armoured martian troops, the shattered terrain breaking away to distant vistas of mountains or airships. But you are way too busy dodging and shooting to notice all of that. The enemies themselves are something special; the Martians, all brass and clockwork, each with a particular motif and style. The Mars flora, for example, are Venus-flytraps spraying globules of instant death, and strange tree-pustules that burst like firework, unless you can kill them quickly. The only real disappointment with the designs were the Spaniards themselves by being a tiny bit too futuristic in comparison to the others, but I’m nit-picking here – the game is a joy to look at.
In an attempt to coax people out of their comfort-zone, you will never finish this game on “normal”. There are five stages, three of which you can complete on the “normal” difficulty. The fourth, however, requires you to finish the first three on “difficult”, and the fifth requires the rest finished on “legendary”. This almost killed me. I can understand the intention but it was a tough one to beat, though it is by far the best way to see the appeal of “bullet-hell” as a hole.
It’s not about beating it, it’s about beating it with the highest possible score. You have to avoid dying, use your “Vaunt” at the best possible second, and maintain your score multiplier as long as you can. You have to learn the enemies firing patters, develop the peripheral vision and the reflexes needed to dodge everything. On higher difficulties, the term “Bullet-Hell” barely does it justice, and if that isn’t bad enough, the highest difficulty – so mighty it must be purchased from the “Shoppe” – Judgement, introduces Vaunt-proof bullets. Jamestown only has five stages, but you could easily spend the next year striving towards the kind of perfection that only this genre inspires.
While still tough in the way all “Bullet-Hell” games tend to be, Jamestown is the first time I have ever felt compelled to finish one. The setting, the graphics, the way it drives you to want to beat it, all kept me playing long after I normally would have thrown in the towel. It can get tedious with dying and restarting frequently, sure, but this game taps into that little nerve of those of us who remember gaming in the 90s – the “just one more try” impulse.