Spend a decent amount of time in arcades, and you’ll inevitably hear musings about ‘playing close to the code’.
It’s an abstract notion that might not stand up to detailed analysis, but it captures what makes true arcade game forms so compelling. To play close to the code is to experience intimacy with a game’s systems, without cut-scenes, narratives and camera angles muddying the waters. It is to interact almost directly with the mathematics and structures that are a scoring-focused arcade game’s very foundation.
And bullet hell shmups offer an opportunity to get closer to the code than most. Because while their focus is on dodging swarms of bullets and downing enemies with a billowing stream of gaudy ordinance, to play one is to interact with meticulous, elaborate scoring systems where combo metres, multipliers, rank counters and item values interplay like elements of a numerical Rube Goldberg machine. Boss fights might be a focal point, but the real battle is with the invisible systems behind the pixels. So whether you want to score, survive, or simply play a game as its designers intended, you’ll have to get ‘close to the code’.