Shoot ’em ups used to be nice. Diving through the teeth of an enemy armada in a game like R-Type was certainly a challenge, but at least the developers were kind enough to toss in a weakly alien fetus to abort at the end of the first stage. Modern Japanese shooters are a different beast. The shoot button has become a lost relic, abandoned for a ceaseless barrage of ammunition. Why would you ever stop firing? There are often more bullets on the screen than there are places without them. The onrush is relentless.
Hyperactive shooter PicoPicoFighters practices the hardline virtues of masochism. It doesn’t give you a moment to blink, much less to consider that its pixel art is irreverently chunky. The action is so nail-biting that I played for days without realizing that its stages lack music. The expected chiptune soundtrack has been forgone, replaced by the endless drumming of guns at a blistering 300 BPM. I timed how long it took me to lose three men if I started a game and did nothing: 10 seconds.
Bullet-hell isn’t exactly the word. It’s true, at times—especially during the boss fights, when pitted against heavily armed hulks that must be disassembled scrap by smoldering scrap—bullet patterns spew forth, spiraling and cascading. But Fighters is twitchier than traditional danmaku, such as Kenta Cho’s rRootage and Cave’s DoDonPachi Resurrection (two excellent bullet-hell shooters that can be had on iOS). Those bullet-hells require precise and extremely focused movement through mandalas of dizzying projectiles. Fighters is more frantic, scattershot even.
Played in quick bursts, the game is short, consisting of four brief stages. Yet the experience feels thorough, in part because, despite many attempts, I can’t get past the third stage, and partly because the entirety of a TurboGrafx-16 shooter has been compressed into 10 minutes of manic bliss. I scrub my finger across the touchscreen so spastically that people give me strange looks as I wait in line or wait on a pizza, blasting gung-ho shrapnel and space debris that drift across the edge of the screen—enemies you can’t identify but seem like they belong in a shooting game set in space.
The options contain a “Trace” feature that saves replays. These are artifacts to cherish, proving you survived in this batshit vicious place for even a few minutes. I watched as my ship plowed through spinning blue disks and stylized TIE fighters, stricken by how incredibly fast the game moved, as if it were an old-school shooter running at twice the speed. The stage-two boss was toast, but I had taken serious damage. I passed the mechanical snakes, the blue squares; but as I crossed the channel, a swarm of alien ships crushed me immediately.
PicoPicoFighters isn’t nice. It doesn’t have time to be.