Aww look, Sabrina: The Teenage Witc... OH MY GOD SO MANY BULLETS!
The scrolling shooter. Back in the mid 80's and early 90's they were pretty hot, but now it's all about FPS, RTS, and GPS. Like most of the gaming industry, I've long since moved away from games like Life Force, Einhänder, and Gradius to boom headshots but every now and again, I'll revisit. That time is now with the release of the first legitimate Cave title on North American consoles, Deathsmiles.
Deathsmiles was originally released for Japanese Arcades in 2007 and has undergone several different revisions. Instead of just picking one version and going with it, Cave was kind enough to separate each one and include them on the disc. This allows you to experience each change to the formula going back to the original Arcade version, up to the most recent Mega Black Label. Within each version of the game, you'll also get to select a difficulty level on a per-stage basis (with the exception of the final two stages). While they certainly could have just picked one version and released it as an Xbox Live Arcade title, I'm glad they went the full package route.
At the start of your game, you'll get to choose one of four different teenage "witches" (five if you're playing the Mega Black Label version) each with a familiar and a different attack style. The differences between them mostly cosmetic and related to the story. You get a button that will fire to the right, a button that will fire to the left, and a bomb button that'll unleash a screen clearing attack. Holding down both right and left attacks will create a circle around you and you'll auto target specific enemies within that radius. While holding down any attack button, your movement speed will be slowed slightly, so it's in your best interest to let off on the firing once in a while. Lastly, while you're fighting baddies, you'll collect items which eventually allow you to turn on a sustained power attack until your item count drains out.
Playing the game is simple in concept but extremely tough to master. You choose your stage and difficulty, then fly from left to right blowing away a ton of creatures who all unleash a plethora of projectiles at you to the point where if you're fighting each stage's end boss, the screen is almost filled with them. If any bullets hit the core of your body, you'll lose one of your three life units while running into an enemy will make you lose a half unit. Dropping all three units will force you to continue which resets your score. So, while you can get to the end of the game while continuing over and over, your score will be terrible. To assist in avoiding projectiles your familiar can absorb them granting you safe passage, but unless you're playing v1.1 or above you don't have direct control over them. Despite being a bullet hell title Deathsmiles really has a great "pick up and play" feel to it.
There's a story here as well although it's ancillary for sure. If I understand it correctly (which is difficult to do), the girls have been drawn into this other-world dimension and have been given special powers to fight demons, of which you do for nine or ten levels depending on your path. You'll eventually meet Sakura who informs you that her dad is the cause of all the problems and you're off to defeat him. While you can 'beat' the game in about a half hour, the main draw is to constantly improve yourself and score, hopefully at one point being able to get through all the levels, on MBL 999, without continuing. Other features include score attack mode with full Xbox Live Leaderboards to show of just how terrible you are against the rest of the world and Xbox Live Player Matches (even though I could never get into a game).
Graphically, Deathsmiles is presented in the same aspect ratio as the arcade which by default is not widescreen. However, Cave has included the option to stretch the image to fit your display which doesn't decrease the playability or quality of the graphics. There's usually a lot of stuff happening on the screen but sometimes you'll experience a bit of slowdown that seems to emulate what could happen on certain arcade hardware. Due to that fact when playing on MBL 999 there's more going on and the slowdown doesn't happen nearly as much, it appears to be intentional and is pretty awesome anyway. Once you quit out of a game you'll even have the option to save an entire replay of your session to watch at a later time with full VCR controls.
Manic shooters really have a niche audience and generally I'm not one of the people who plays them but Deathsmiles is one hell of a game. The amount of modes included really helps make it a more accessible experience for players of all skill levels. If games like Ikaruga piqued your interest but turned out to be just too hard to get anywhere in or even if you loved something like Geometry Wars, Deathsmiles will certainly offer the stepping stone you'll need, as well as the required difficulty for seasoned players.
- Fast, frantic, and most importantly, fun.
- Adjustable difficulty makes it a very accessible bullet hell shooter.
- Options, options, options!
- Menu interface is a bit clunky and unintuitive.
- Not a large community online for multiplayer games.