Picture this: It’s the summer of 2007. You’re a Japanese otaku who sometimes likes to go to the local game centre to lightheartedly play some STGs. The fated August day has finally come, and you bake under the heat of the sun as you stand outside the Tokyo Big Sight, the fabled building where the largest convention of indie works in the entire world is about to start, a 3 day bonanza of manga, music, fanworks, and games. Here you are, at the 72th Comiket.
Once you’re in, you make stops at all the usual booths. First, you go over to the Team Shanghai Alice booth and grab the newly released Touhou 10: Mountain of Faith, excited to try your hand at clearing Hard mode (Lunatic is too hard for you, as of now). Then, you go over to 07th Expansion’s booth and grab the final arc of Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, eagerly anticipating how the story will end, since you couldn’t make it to Comiket last year. Later on you have some extra time, so you move over to Twilight Frontier’s booth, the circle known for making the spinoff Touhou fighting games, and have a look around. Suddenly, you look down at a very peculiar looking cover—
In sharp geometric letters on a blank background, it stares back—Hellsinker.
You ask the guy at the booth what it is, and he responds that it’s an STG created by one guy (he goes by “TONNOR” or “Hiranyon”), and that he requested that Twilight Frontier sell it since he doesn’t want to set up a booth himself. Curious, and with some money to spend, you pick it up.
Who knows what happens next? Perhaps you love the game, and fervently discuss it on anonymous forums and theorize about scoring routes and lore. Maybe you’re quickly put off by the first two stages and miss out on exploring the whole game. Maybe you just play through it once and then leave it like it was any other game.
But in my opinion, the opinion of someone else from over a decade later and half a world away from Japan, is that Hellsinker. has preserved itself as one of the most hidden yet emblematic gems of the Japanese doujin scene. In every aspect it is one of the most unique and cryptic video games ever created, yet its style embodies many of the most notable traits of doujin culture. I’ll be going through some of these aspects and analyzing them in detail.
What is Hellsinker?
This section will be kept short since it’s not the main aspect I want to emphasize, though it is important as an aspect of the game’s uniqueness.
Hellsinker. is a vertical shoot ‘em up (aka shmup, STG, or bullet hell), in which you essentially dodge bullets and kill enemies/bosses with your own shot. Some examples of well known shmups include Ikaruga, the Touhou Project, or the Dodonpachi series.
However, Hellsinker. is far from conventional in its controls; while Touhou and many other well known games only make use of 3 buttons with no special combinations, each of Hellsinker.’s characters has a wide array of attacks and moves activated by combining, holding, or tapping buttons; all of which will prove useful in clearing the game. As well, there are 7 different character setups available for the player, each providing vastly different playstyles and weapon usages.
Hellsinker. also has an extremely unconventional resource system – instead of having finite numbers of bombs and unchanging power levels, Hellsinker. makes use of dynamic gauges known as Sol and Luna, each of which contribute to the power of your main shot. Sol will go down when you bomb (discharge), and Luna will go down as you fire the main shot for a longer time, requiring the player to utilize other tools in their character’s kit to progress effectively. This is just one of many examples of innovative mechanics that you can’t find anywhere else in the genre.
It is also a relatively long game compared to other shmups; it has 8 stages (plus the Shrine of Farewell, a “bonus stage”). While most single-loop shmups take about half an hour to complete, Hellsinker. takes about an hour. This ties in well with the next point:
The Cardinal Shaft: Layers of Discovery
Hellsinker. is designed such that you will likely not clear the game on your first try, despite the game not having overly difficult bullet patterns. The limiting factor is your knowledge and needing to learn how to play the characters correctly. This generates a sense of discovery each time you reach further and further into the game—in that sense, it could also be considered an adventure game.
This works in tandem with the fragmented plot that is given to the player both through the game’s manual and through short visual novel -esque cutscenes within the game (no images, sadly). Supposedly, the setting is a post-apocalyptic world that was caused by a disaster brought about by some previous civilization. The playable characters are part of a multi-national organization called “Graveyard,” and your job is supposedly to infiltrate an abandoned island known as “Paradise” which houses a cloud-piercing tower known as the Cardinal Shaft, as it is suspected to have been involved in the disaster. However, it is guarded by animated yet soulless robots known as “Prayers.” Hellsinker.’s plot supposedly takes place on the third attempt to infiltrate the shaft, and so you must gather your determination and get to the bottom of the mystery…
As such, the game’s design purposefully accentuates the importance of having determination to break through the unseeming surface to reveal greater secrets underneath. The game is deliberately off-putting at the very beginning, with its first 2 stages being filled with bleak and dystopian scenery, uninteresting enemy patterns, and an especially terrible Segment 2 boss.
It could even be an intentional design choice to deliberately “gatekeep” so that only the most dedicated players will get to enjoy the game to its fullest potential. And it would make sense for how cryptic the game is designed to be. TONNOR sometimes describes the manual as the “true final boss” owing to its overly cryptic and confusing explanations of, well, everything in the game.
TONNOR’s writing style is often joked about, as he uses a lot of archaic language and unorthodox grammar (doubly confusing when translated into English), which leads to a lot of confusion about the true meaning of the story. But if interpretation is the ultimate challenge, then bring it on…
Spirituality and Machinery
This game pulls no punches when it comes to sinking the player into a cryptic, surreal, and at times psychedelic world. As mentioned earlier, the player is immediately given the image of a mechanical and abandoned world through the stage backgrounds and giant mecha-like bosses. Special attention is paid to the graphic design of the text and UI, most notably found in the use of a completely original font that emphasizes a sharp and blocky texture that is simultaneously unsettling. There is also an inexplicable obsession with the use of Morse code, present from the main menu to the boss warning sirens to the game over screen. A far-future world, broken and electronic, is evoked through the exposition; what secrets can you, the cyborg rejects, discover in the Cardinal Shaft, the imposing relic of the past?
As it turns out, the design and meaning of the game is not only linked to the notion of a technological future, but also spiritual meaning that harkens to the past. References to spirituality, animism, and the afterlife are littered throughout the game, prompting the player to think further about the secrets they are uncovering.
Here’s a flurry of examples: The names of the gauges in gameplay are Sol, Luna, Stella, Terra (the Sun, Moon, Stars, and Earth), which invoke astrological ideas rather than technological ones. The bosses that the player encounters are called “Prayers.” Why? They are former humans that have gone insane and lost their spiritual meaning, hardening into hulking mechs, eternally Praying for release from the world, and attacking anything that comes near. (It is also a possible metafictional reference towards the word “Player”.) Stage designs and backgrounds within the Cardinal Shaft often invoke feelings of sacredness and importance, such as the cathedral-like Segment 6, or the Shrine of Farewell.
There are countless examples of such references to the belief systems of previous humans, one of which involves karma as one of the central plot points (I’m being vague to avoid spoilers). I could say that the game is based on Buddhist beliefs, but I think it goes further than that—it is not any one belief from the past or the future, but a spiritual-technological hybrid design that almost creates a whole new world, partially human and partially robotic. A cyborg world, it would seem. How fitting.
A Mesmerizing Soundscape
Music is yet another tool that is used to truly set Hellsinker. apart from the rest. When I first heard the soundtrack of this game, it was simply on YouTube, not while I was playing the game. To be honest, I thought “Wow, this sounds kinda old and lame for electronic music. The writing also sounds really amateur and doesn’t use proper theory.” However, I developed an entirely new viewpoint when I played the game through with the music.
The obvious point I’m about to make is that the game synchronizes the music with the progress of each stage, correlating each section of different enemies and backgrounds with musical changes, but it goes even further than that. It’s as if the music changes emotions with the characters as they encounter new obstacles and enemies, such as the transition between a slow, steady paced flight through a massive cathedral to a determined dash in a 7/8 time signature, with signs of doubt and uncertainty hidden within the rapidly resolving and un-resolving melody.
As much as the sound design is extremely 2005, with simple synths and lack of hard-hitting compression, every track has a high degree of subtle details. There are many background sounds that are not easily heard without careful inspection (such as faraway vocal sounds or sound effects that tie in with the story), and the mixing is heavily manipulated to create a sound spectrum that emulates the space that the player is in. Most notable of these is the heavy use of stereo manipulation, such as in the very first segment that has a melody jumping from left, center, right, left, center, right…
And while the music is very clearly dated and not as professional, that’s one of the points that makes it so… doujin. The early trance style and the irregular writing in tandem with the visuals of the game conjure up images of notable surreal Japanese culture surrounding other shmups like Treasure’s Radiant Silvergun, rhythm games such as BMS (Lunatic Rave 2), or other similarly surreal and abstract anime culture (think Akira?). It provides a real insight into the universes that can be created within a single mind.
Emblem, Symbol, but Not an Icon
I can’t really call Hellsinker. “iconic,” because it’s really not that well known. But with the massive surge in popularity of doujin works (including RPG Maker, something I have talked about previously for The Vault) that happened in the mid-late 2000s, I can say that Hellsinker. is an embodiment of many of the traits that people found in other works of the time. It’s a true look into the unbelievable and surreal world born from a single mind, something that takes and gives inspiration, and lives on for others to uncover. It’s a multi-artistic project that spanned at least four years of work. It’s a person that never asked for publishers, monetary incentives, or contracts; just someone that wants their story to be heard and their game to be played by those that can appreciate it. A niche within a niche, Hellsinker. stands, just like the Cardinal Shaft on the island of Paradise, as a mysterious territory that most humans know little about.
That’s why doujin culture—and by extension indie culture—is, in my opinion, the most vibrantly human type of artistic expression there is.
Check out a remix I did for one of the pieces of music for this game! It can be found here.