Editorial | 3/27/2012 at 1:22 PM

Co-Op International: Bullet Soul

A Japanese shmup with lots of soul (and bullets)

Welcome to the second edition of Co-Op International. Here I discuss co-op games that have not been released in the US. This will include current gen games as well as classics. We hope you’ll enjoy learning more about Japanese games – please let us know in the comments section!

Shoot-em-ups lend themselves well to co-op play. Why take on a huge armada of alien ships all by your lonesome when you can bring a friend along? Bullet Soul is a Japanese shoot-em up for Xbox 360 that supports 2 player local co-op. Unlike last month’s featured import game Onechanbara Z: Kagura, this one is region free and even available cheaply through Games on Demand, making it a prime target for import fans.

Most modern shmups come from CAVE, makers of the Dodonpachi series as well as Akai Katana.  This one, however, was developed by a scrappy little team at Tachyon Inc. and published by 5pb. That said, unless you’re a huge genre fanatic, you’d be hard-pressed to find a difference in quality between Bullet Soul and CAVE games. Actually, the fully-polygonal graphics most closely resemble Treasure’s Ikaruga – not exactly pushing the hardware, but still pleasing to the eye. But there are still kajillions of bullets to dodge, so bullet hell fans will be right at home.

Every shooter needs a gimmick of some sort. Bullet Soul’s claim to fame is that when an enemy dies, any shots it fired beforehand turn into harmless grey puffs. Thus by killing bad guys quickly, you can clear the screen of incoming fire. It’s a simple system that makes Bullet Soul less frustratingly hard than most games of this type. Of course, bosses pack the screen with hundreds of bullets, and those only disappear whenever you knock a piece of the boss out. It’s still tough, but not ludicrously so - high praise for a modern shoot-em-up.

Bullet Soul also has a fairly-well developed ranking system. Whenever you beat one of its five stages, you’re awarded a bronze, gold, or platinum medal based on your performance. To get those platinums (and their accompanying Achievements), you’ll need to discover a high number of the stage’s hidden bonuses. These come from destroying certain objects and defeating enemies and bosses in specific ways. As a non-expert shmup player, I didn’t expect to ever see a single platinum. But I managed to score two on my own and another by following a guide, which surprised and pleased me to no end.

Earning platinums and reaching the game’s second loop (by clearing all five stages without continuing) can be made even more reasonable with the game’s DLC. Two packs are available, each costing 400 Points. Version B is a retuning of the main game that adds an awesome fourth selectable character named Loop, and reduces the platinum requirements for each stage. Version B comes with several extra Achievements, plus you can earn all of the main game Achievements while in Version B mode, so it’s a must-have. The second DLC, Caravan Mode, is a two-minute scoring challenge (a concept made famous by Star Soldier in the eighties). I enjoy the short, contained Caravan level, plus it packs more Achievements as well.

It wouldn't do to import Bullet Soul and not run through it in co-op. A second player can join in at any time during the main game (normal or Version B), but the other modes – Bancho (stage select) and Caravan are single-player. As with many games developed in Japan, the second player here does not earn Achievements. The first player can at least earn them during co-op games, unlike in CAVE titles. Both players have to select different ships, so you can’t just steamroll through the game with two Loops. Still, it’s good fun to run through the game in half an hour with a friend. Continues are unlimited, somewhat alleviating the stress of trying to differentiate between your own shots and the countless enemy bullets.

There are lots of good reasons for shoot-em-up fans to import Bullet Soul. The fame, the power, the armfuls of women... These are not those reasons. But the game's production values are up there with any non-Konami shmup, complete with a catchy intro theme. The ability to select any stage to practice on and actually earn Achievements while doing so is quite handy. To that end, the Achievements are well-thought out and almost all can be obtained by mortal men – I currently have over 1100 of the title’s 1500 total GamerScore. It could even be a conversation starter when friends notice an unusual game on your GamerCard. If you enjoy shmups and don’t mind paying more than XBLA prices, don’t miss Bullet Soul.

Cultural quirks: Anime-style character art and typical bullet hell gameplay are the only quirks of note.

Chances of coming to the US: Low. Very few retail shmups make their way to our shores, and Bullet Soul is lesser-known than CAVE titles.

Language barrier: Low. The main menu is entirely in English, though some prompts - like when the game asks you to upload your score or save your replay - are in Japanese. I do wish the Achievements were in English, but you can find translations and tips at TrueAchievements and Xbox360Achievements.org.

Difficulty of importing: Low. The game is region-free so it will play on any Xbox 360 console. You can import it from Play-Asia, though it’s pricey. Bullet Soul is also available as a Games on Demand title in Hong Kong for 1680 Microsoft Points. The optional but highly-recommended DLC is 800 Points in total. To go the Games on Demand route, you’ll need to create a Hong Kong Xbox Live Account and add some international points to it. All told, the downloadable version should cost around $33 without DLC or $44 with DLC.