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Bullet Time: Design & Skill Spectrum

I've been playing Bullet Time by Terry Cavanagh every day for the past week. It's a Shoot 'em Up (SHMUP) that only takes minutes to win it big or seconds to realize you don't have what it takes. Not only has it won a place in my favorite SHMUPs of all time (sitting side by side with games like Ikaruga, Bangai-O Spirits, Everyday Shooter, and Defeat Me), but the game is a perfect example for explaining solid design, how game tempo affects the skill spectrum, and why taking play to the next-level isn't obvious.


Anti-spam design? No need. 

  • I always appreciate when games find ways to encourage players not to spam their shots when they have infinite ammo. Ikaruga uses enemy counter fire on normal and hard mode and a chaining system. Bangai-O Spirits features a BOOST mechanic during which players cannot shoot creating a tradeoff between speed and offense.  Similarly, in Everyday Shooter, players slow down when shooting. 
  • Bullet Time successfully forgoes any kind of anti-spam design. In fact, players constantly shoot a stream of rapid bullets. Because you're constantly firing, you're constantly killing enemies, which is generally a good thing. However, the purple enemy puts caution back into play. Shoot this enemy and it explodes with counter fire (like in Ikaruga) filling the screen with bullets. Dealing with these purple bullet bombs is enough to encourage players to control where they're firing and when. 


Uneven Bullet Time

  • Unlike other games that slow down time, in Bullet Time only bullets and enemy movement is slowed after activating the BULLET TIME mechanic. Think of it as giving yourself a relative speed and fire rate boost. Also, enemy fire rates from the red and blue enemies stay the same (according to real time) thus filling the screen with more bullets than normal. This uneven bullet time makes the mechanic much more interesting and versatile. Rather than simply slowing down the game allowing players to augment their reflex and dexterity skills, the actual challenges change due to a tempo change and a gameplay dynamic.


A Wonderfully Tuned Powerup

  • Picking up little green orb powerups give players a temporary firepower boost. Every destroyed enemy has an equal chance to drop this powerup encouraging players to destroy instead of avoid. Using the spread shot makes killing easier which increases the likelihood for enemies to drop another powerup. Fortunately, Terry Cavanagh tuned the drop rate just right so that players experience a wide range of random powerup drop occurrences. 


Well Rounded Enemy Design 

  • There are only 5 enemies in the game. Together they are designed to create enough contrary motion to threaten every space on the screen. By taking up unique design space without much overlap, each enemy is unique and layers together well with each other. To put it simply, the enemies are balanced between how much health they have, fire power, speed, movement, and counter fire abilities. And because Bullet Time enemies are randomly spawned, having a lot of emergent counterpoint combinations is key to keeping the "same level" fresh for a long time. 


When I first played Bullet Time I didn't realize I had a BULLET TIME mechanic. So my first impression of the game was that the game tempo was just a bit too fast. The combination of the small screen, the types of enemies, and the number that were spawned at once was a bit overwhelming. I was dying after only a few seconds of playing. Then I read the instructions more carefully and everything came together. By using the BULLET TIME mechanic I could slow down the game to buy myself more time to see and think or to pull of tight evasive maneuvers. Doing so helped me survive longer and develop my knowledge skills faster. So here's how the skill spectrum breaks down...



  • Speed. The ship moves around very quickly. To get a finer degree of control, quickly tap a direction. 


  • All of the information described above.
  • The actual hitboxes of the ship, bullets, and enemies. (They can be slightly smaller than they 
  • appear)
  • Memorizing sweet/safe spots.
  • Learning which combinations of enemies are the most dangerous.


  • Playing on one's toes against randomly generated challenges.
  • Shifting between the normal and slow mode due to the uneven bullet time design. 


  • Momentary and peripheral vision are a very important skills for Bullet Time. Being able to see the entire screen in an instant will give you the most time to think of a strategy and adapt.
  • Keeping track of all the moving elements requires dynamic visual acuity and sharp eye movement reflex skills. 
  • Fortunately, using the BULLET TIME mechanic augments reflex skills across the board. 


  • Most of the timing challenges are external. You can see your ship, your buttons, enemies, and enemy bullets all moving around the screen. The relative positions change the timing organically. 
  • The yellow and blue enemies can move off the screen and still be a threat. In these cases, internal timing comes in handy. 
  • Finally, because of the uneven bullet time design, going in an out of bullet time creates a degree of acceleration/deceleration timing challenges.


I hope you take some time to play Bullet Time even if it's just to experience how changing the game tempo with the BULLET TIME mechanic affects the skill spectrum. At this time my record is 105.66 seconds achieving the second highest rank in the game, demigod. Stepping up your game to this level and beyond requires a deep understanding of the game and at least an intuitive understanding the skill spectrum. If you think just staying alert and moving around will eventually get you there, then you're most likely in for an uphill battle made harder than necessary.

The skill spectrum is flexible. As I've described in great detail here, many lacking skills can be boosted with knowledge skills. The most effective way to do well in Bullet Time is not by sharpening and focusing on one's dexterity, reflex, and timing skills. Rather, by discovering certain sweet spots where bullets and enemies are the least likely pass through, you can greatly reduce the difficult of the challenges. Learning how to move into these spots and when to temporarily move out of them frees up the pressure of constantly using your reflex and timing skills. 

By simplifying the game using sweet/safe spots, you can turn choice reflex challenges into recognition or simple challenges. In this way, you can use knowledge to help you react faster to danger. If you think this strategy breaks the game, know that acquiring and organizing the information needed to develop these strategies isn't easy. To do so, one must understand the game as completely as possible, which includes understanding everything I've described above. And even when you choose these strategies, because of the solid enemy design you'll still have to adapt within the strategy. Because there are so many combinations of challenges you can randomly confront, you will eventually encounter "new" combinations. At these times, being able to switch to a more reflexive, adaptive strategy is key. Therefore, playing to win doesn't simplify or reduce Bullet Time. Rather, it fully embraces it. 

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