Magic Vigilante

released on Mar 12, 2023

A bullet hell shooter where you can manipulate time to deflect enemy projectiles.

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I've only done one cycle using as many continues as I needed, but I'm already convinced this is one of the best titles of the year so far.

A bold stance, so how can I possibly back it up? Well let's start from the difficulty structuring. A lot of SHMUP fans make a big deal about how finishing a game with 0 continues is proof of 'mastery' of the shmup at the bare minimum. That's when you can then properly speak about the mechanics from the standpoint of effective design or not so of course I'm not there. However I do find myself rolling my eyes at this stance because it's an opinion that reifies away the blunt reason for this to exist the way it does in the first place.

See, in the logic of most SHMUPs be it the Cave games or the Touhou franchise, the principle design approach is that you run in with a set number of lives and learn the patterns, die in the process and generally improve. This is all fine and well, with how short SHMUPs are there's a point to be made that it's in fact the main appeal. However, just taking this fact on its face reads as deeply unserious to me: The genuine reason SHMUPs have a 'continue' design in the first place is absolutely to crunch quarters. The genre is heralded for their difficulty on the idea of continuing through failure so you can master it in the reset, but if you step back for a moment it becomes obvious that the reason it's like this at all is because of a desire to play into arcade nostalgia and life design with a certain commercial process. For whatever reason the genre never adapted to early home console life systems, thereby going through a modular difficulty through the accessibility process from there. It never 'tested' out of itself. The translation to how it plays now is fundamentally awkward. As much as I like most of the Touhou games for instance, I hate the raw feeling of play being halted by a continue moment, that 'halt' is literally there for the player to pull a quarter out of their pocket. In a post-arcade era this has been translated to relaxing and finding resolve but since that resolve is usually on the timer there's generally a sense of panic. This is where Magic Vigilante intervenes, offering a slew of difficulties alterations: a modular life system health system that doubles the starting health, stage select, and most crucially a checkpoint based continue system.

On top of all this the designer even openly notes on the Itchio page that "Default value is 4. If you are not particular, I think the maximum value is fine.) Please use it because it recovers to this value when you clear the stage." Thereby openly encouraging the player to play on easy mode and then scale up from there.

For instance it's clear to me how the trajectory of difficulty scaling would work from here, you would play on 9 health until you get good enough to do a no CC run. Then on 8, etc. This along with the stage select allows the player to treat the game less like an endurance test, and more like a rhythm game. This design structure has more in common with being able to practice different movements in the later Guitar Hero titles or Rhythm Heaven than it does with its other genre contemporaries.

That said, SHMUP experts would probably be quick to outline that this random itchio browser title is just the first game I happened to play that does this rather than the first to actually do so, and I certainly concede to that point in advance. However, there's a fair reason to fixate on it anyway: it has a nice domino effect on the power fantasy approach to the genre here. In my view, games that give modular difficulty and encourage playing on an easier mode encourage the treatment of their world and environment as a power fantasy foremost. With a genre all about the fantasy of overwhelming ballistic warfare and competency being built through twitch dodging complex attack patterns, it's a genre almost entirely built for that power fantasy, yet most safeguard it behind the endurance test and I have to admit that I at least, don't typically associate power fantasies with endurance. I'll cut to the chase and say the lo fi magical girl power fantasy is an adorable approach to the genre. The whole experience has you fighting other magical girls and various bunnies in the meantime. The pixelated visuals and simplification of the enemies as red blobs that shoot out red arrows help keep incredible visual clarity, meanwhile the urban street scroll backgrounds. God these backgrounds are beautiful, they are still pixelated but done with a higher level of pixelation than all of the foreground enemies and characters thus allowing for various scrolling effects to happen without being disorienting. It all comes together with grace, feeling like a hazy dream you'd expect from a Cardcaptor Sakura fan.

Finally I will touch on the play mechanics themselves. This is a horizontal SHMUP which admittedly is not something I play often just because they don't generally get recommended. However if I were to hazard why, its likely that having to keep track of bullet patterns horizontally requires more of your peripheral vision thereby filtering the players who already have good periphery already, or forcing people with weak peripheral vision to glimpse back and forth more putting them at a disadvantage. Whereas, vertical shooters have a much more intuitive sense of tracking since the movement of the eye up and down goes faster. Bullet Hell games in general cause a lot less smooth eye pattern movement in particular, that is to say the eye is constantly jumping between points and the points in a vertical space are far easier to intuitate than a horizontal one. I use the terms 'probably' and 'likely' here because I'm not in fact an eye doctor. However, if you want a hypothetical reference point to better understand what I mean, think of how Tetris is laid out, the blocks fall vertical right? Well we could just think of the 'gravity' of Tetris if the game was played sideways as being a game about 'magnets' instead of gravitational measurement. I think you would agree that this Horizontris would be a lot less easy to measure and account for especially if the screen to do so is very large. Less hypothetically I have tended to find that when I play Pacman it's easier to run away from ghosts vertically than horizontally because I can more easily chart my escape route.

The point of this rather strange illustration here is to point out that if this is in any case true it thus explains the vertical dominance in the genre. Therefore it stands to reason that horizontal bullet hells have to in some way justify it through the mechanics. This is where Magic Vigilante shines most then through its main mechanic: Slow down. You build up a slow down meter through beating enemies that you can hold and after a small delay will allow to to more discretely navigate the bullet patterns. If you hold for long enough, you do a powerful counter attack, but it eats more meter in the process. This slowdown actually lasts for a really long time allowing for the player to fully gauge and process the bullets behind the ones you're currently avoiding. On top of this the boss health bar is actually positioned in 2 places, on both sides of the screen allowing for the player to more accurately assess how much more they need to navigate the wave. Finally, the game fixes this through having a wide range of resolution options so you can make the screen smaller or larger to fit your needs. The result is that it allows for a great sense of playfulness that comes from horizontal patterns, giving the odd sense that you are 'squeezing' through the bullets rather than flying past them.

Combine that with an absolutely adorable enemy design, wherein the player is fighting Bunnies and Mice blobs as mini bosses, and a kicking Progressive Electronic Orchestral soundtrack, and I think you have one of the best SHMUPs staring you down in a while! In contrast to the unfortunately benign droll of this write up, the effect is far more minimalist and gorgeous than I let on. It's also far more difficult than I make it sound to. Give it a shot!