Interesting stuff all round, cheers. Lots for me to think about. (Edit: Haha. I started my reply at about 7am so just seen the intermittent, I'm skipping it!)
I'd say a couple of things to 'defend' my approach (without being defensive) are that, first of all, knowing a route in any of these games is a hell of a long way from actually pulling it off - at least for me. That's what I mean about 5% learning where the bees are or where the big enemies appear or which side the wave of popcorn comes from or when you need to point blank stuff before it comes on screen. That knowledge comes pretty quickly and while there's typically a tiny bit of randomness in Cave games with spawning extra enemies, you're basically getting the same fixed challenge every time. So my conclusion is to respond to that with the best possible strategy and execution I can.
That takes me fucking ages
! I am not inherently good at these games but I'm persistent and I really enjoy them. I think the execution is the hardest thing by a mile, but it's also the most exciting and satisfying and I really enjoy the tiny incremental progress. (As an aside, while Dark Souls is probably still my favourite game, I find many of the bosses stressful and they bring me little satisfaction beyond relief, I enormously prefer the incremental progress of tackling the areas in-between.) Another thing I really like is that throughout the hundreds of attempts, you do develop a feel for the game and its mechanics which goes way beyond simply repeating someone else's inputs. For some people, maybe they could watch 'how it's done' and within an hour they've managed to copy it. Bingo. That's not the case for me, though, and to be honest, I doubt that's the case for most people even with a videographic memory. You have to develop the feel more than anything else. Once you have that, you're able to adapt on a micro level, both to dodge bullets and deal with the randomness and also to adapt to your mistakes and variations and so on. Remember me going on about scrolling my phone with a tap tap tap tap tap tap rhythm? I realised it's not tap dodging, it's the rhythm of the bloody chain meter, tapping before it breaks...Brrrrr!
I totally agree with KSub's point, therefore, that using an established route is fundamentally about learning why and developing that feel for yourself, rather than producing a Xerox run. And as I say, I think that both developing that feel and understanding the nuances are absolutely essential even if you ultimately produce a similar-looking run. Every single little section and transition needs your fingerprints all over it or it won't happen. Without being critical of the chaining guide, nor exaggerating my creative input, there are a couple of bits where I felt it could be done better or where I learned something subtle along the way that I tried to optimise, and I definitely improved on those sections. The very last section with the two big ships and the three remaining bees is probably the best example. I didn't like the idea of collecting the bees and then destroying the enemies because you're missing out on the extra combo bonus points of the last two ships. It's just not satisfying even if the points are negligible. After umpteen failed attempts I asked for advice on the shmups forum, nobody replied, so I had to figure it out. Was that 'discovery' extra satisfying? Hmm. Not really, nowhere near as much as pulling it off.
That said, painting-by-numbers is a great way to describe that process and I think it's absolutely fair. I might add a bit of shading or use slightly different tones but the overall picture is very similar. What's different, really, is that I've
learned a lot, relatively quickly, about how to use light and colour in finer detail and I can then apply that elsewhere. Also, you raised the question of whether DOJ is such a strict game that a free form approach is even possible. Again, I think painting-by-numbers is a perfect analogy because no matter who we're talking about, Prometheus, Jaimers, or the WR guys from Japan, the outlines are very similar, but there are more creative flourishes and the details are more refined. Basically, they have the feel and understanding and skill to optimise beyond what I can hope to do.
In short, though, I do
think that DOJ is one of the strictest Cave games and that a route is absolutely essential if you're collecting all the bees and trying to chain the stage. It seems designed rather prescriptively, so whatever route you try to take is mostly going to fall into a very well-worn groove. Maybe that's part of the appeal for me in that it's easier therefore to experience what it's like to play fairly near the highest level (on stage one!). I'm obviously not saying I'm at the highest level but I now know a little bit about what it feels like playing at that level of intensity (again, on stage one!). "Jaimers91? Fuck that shit! I'm Jaimers92!" Am I interested in copying routes in Futari or Espgaluda 2 or Ketsui or Rolling Gunner or Progear? Nah, no chance. I'm happy to freestyle it and just enjoy the ride, for the most part, and learn from playing and experimenting. But for DOJ, Ikaruga, or probably the original DDP? I think there's a way to approach them which ultimately depends on learning to execute a strict plan, and the execution is by some distance the important part.
Also, from a purely practical point of view, I feel like I want to make the best use of my time
playing it (see what I mean about refine refine refine?) and while that might sound like an entirely joyless approach, I've found that I get the most out of these games with a goal in mind. And if I've decided on an end point, I'd rather head straight for it and bang my head against all the obstacles in the way than pootle around until it comes to me. I know that's probably a major personality thing more than anything else! Maybe a sense of the fleeting nature of time and fading dexterity? Maybe the institutionalisation of the 'outcome-focused' workplace? Maybe it's the reassuring structure of the shmup continuum where time in = progress, unlike the constant firefighting and treading water at work where the same cyclical issues arise and every step forward is a step back in another direction. Maybe I'm talking bollocks.
Anyway, I know this is incredibly self-indulgent but I do find the topic really interesting and yours and KSub's insights got me thinking more. I'm also fascinated about these games and why they've gripped me so much. On some level, though, is all this just convoluted delusional justification for robbing someone's route and standing on the shoulders of giants? God's honest truth? As I said in the first place, not in the slightest!