Deathsmiles ReviewJason Venter
Everything changes. In the late 80s and early 90s, it seemed like you couldn't walk into a video store without finding a bunch of shooters available for rental or purchase. The genre was white hot and crammed full of recognizable names from Gradius to R-Type, Thunder Force to Darius. Many great titles never even saw release in North America, but it didn't matter because there was almost always a brand new one to play and another two or three just around the corner.
Here in 2011, you might charitably call the scrolling shooter a dying breed. The more realistic will call it a dead one. Aside from the occasional release that most people don't even realize came and went, North America seems entirely willing to forget that the genre ever existed. That's a shame, because a whole lot of people are missing out on some pretty great stuff... stuff like Deathsmiles.
Developed by Cave, a company that North American publisher Aksys Games calls "the modern masters of shmups," Deathsmiles can in general terms be described as "another horizontal shooter." That's a somewhat deceptive description because the screen also scrolls vertically--almost entirely in a new stage that's exclusive to the home version of the game--but it's a starting point. Stages typically advance in an uncomplicated fashion from left to right and enemies tend to arrive from the right side of the screen... but they're not above appearing on the left side, either.
Because enemies can come from any direction, your character (not a ship, but a girl in her early to late teens, depending on which one you choose) can fire magical bursts to both the left and right. Attacks along the periphery are handled by circling familiars that hammer away at enemies that come within range, and you can either issue forth a steady stream of magic that slows your movement or you can mash the button and gain maneuverability. It's also possible to press the buttons that typically would fire in both directions at once, an action that--if you have charged up enough magical energy by collecting it from fallen enemies--can then be used to activate a hyper version of yourself that packs even more firepower. Also, naturally, there are bombs that obliterate pretty much everything on the screen or inflict hefty damage to stage bosses while granting your chosen hero a moment of precious invulnerability.
Stages tend to be short and there are no checkpoints. You can continue as often as you like, on the very screen where you died, as long as you don't mind your score resetting. Running afoul of a stray bullet or brushing against a monster isn't the end of the world, either. Characters are able to withstand three direct projectile hits before you are forced to continue, and brushes with enemies tend to do even less damage. You tend to replenish a single bomb if you lose a section of your life meter, so less capable players can die and repeatedly spam bombs as a way to quickly get through the game.
Of course, surviving the game isn't the entire point. The fun comes first in getting better at avoiding death, so that a continue per stage drops to a continue every other stage and then eventually you may even be able to clear the entire game without continuing at all. The game also makes a big deal of score and will track your performance and save footage so you can show off replays if you like, a sure sign that you're expected not only to demolish every monster in sight, but to do so with such flair and daring that you maximize the number of points that your heroics are worth.
Not everyone is going to be obsessed enough with Deathsmiles to care about pursuit of the high score and self-improvement, but there's plenty of great stuff to keep even the casual shooter fan grinning. The game unfolds over the course of around eight stages, each one more beautiful than the one before it. We've come a long way from the days where a black screen and some weak textures and tiles counted as unique, too. Here, you'll find lush backgrounds--forests, mountains, lakes, magma and castles--and monsters that twist and turn every which way as they either fill most of the screen with their massive girth or blanket it with undulating waves of bullets. This is bullet hell bliss.
The variety of characters is also welcome. The arcade game featured four unique girls, all of whom are represented here. The black label version of the game also adds Sakura, a character who will be familiar to anyone who plays through the "Arcade" mode of the game.
Speaking of modes, there are a lot of them to the North American release of Deathsmiles. Modes and options are one of the things this game does best. You can choose an Xbox 360 version of the game, or the arcade version. The main difference is that the former has enhanced visuals. It appears to be the same general artwork, only it has been substantially cleaned up so that the pixilation is less noticeable and the gorgeous assets have the chance to shine. The arranged versions also include the aforementioned extra stage, complete with a thrilling boss battle at the end, but you don't have to access that vertically-oriented stage unless you want the punishment.
The game's settings can also be tweaked to your satisfaction. For instance, you can choose which wallpaper you would like to frame the play area (the game doesn't take up the whole screen). It's also possible to zoom the screen a bit, or to independently adjust the zoom on the horizontal and vertical axis so that wallpapers are unnecessary. Some of the settings more directly impact the game's behavior as you play it, as well. If you don't want to go for achievements (which are disabled when you start making gameplay changes), you can increase or decrease the game's difficulty and the number of hits that you can withstand, even the amount of damage that brushing against an enemy will inflict.
Since so much of the experience can be modified to your liking, there's very little that Deathsmiles doesn't do just right after a little bit of tweaking. Some of the menu navigation is a bit sloppy and the sometimes creepy plot--which resolves around scantily-clad little girls battling monsters for their elderly patron as they navigate an alternate dimension--would probably be creepy if anyone stopped to think about it or if it even made any real sort of sense. The game's rich online capabilities are also for naught, now that the game has come and gone from most stores, so mostly this is a game that you'll have no choice but to play alone.
Ultimately, what shmup fans should have no trouble remembering is that the 80s and 90s have come and gone. We're no longer living in an era where there are a lot of scrolling shooters, and Deathsmiles is made of great stuff that would keep it near the top of any reasonable list at this time and any time. If you miss the genre or if you're just looking to try it out for the first time, consider Deathsmiles the ideal starting point.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.