Death Will Smile Upon You
When classic shoot ‘em ups like Ikaruga and new, HD titles like Söldner-X 2: Final Prototype are sold for cheap via download services, a $50 retail product such as Deathsmiles becomes a questionable purchase. If one were to judge solely on playtime, they’d see a game that lasts 20 minutes. Calling that a pittance isn’t an exaggeration; it’s fact. In most shoot ‘em ups, the underlying value comes from challenge and replayability, two things Deathsmiles delivers. Developer CAVE Co., Ltd. and publisher Aksys Games have some of the most original themes and mechanics seen in the genre, making a game that transcends the insanity of its predecessors. If dodging and weaving a Gothic Lolita girl through torrents of bullets and giant cows doesn’t sound crazy, then you probably transcended the insanity of your predecessors too.
Deathsmiles utilizes a traditional, horizontal-oriented design similar to the R-Type series. Your character is tasked with shooting waves of enemies and dodging their bullets or obstacles as the screen auto-scrolls. Basic assists such as smart bombs in the form of Summon Magic and a familiar (comparable to an Option from the Gradius series) are around to lighten the load. It sounds simple, but what makes Deathsmiles unique is the characters’ ability to fire in either the left or right direction. While it might not be much, this small tweak results in bullet patterns that seem impossible to dodge. The game's cover is plastered with four innocent-looking girls, but what's truly indicative of the experience is the former part of its namesake: the word "death". It takes roughly twenty minutes to beat thanks to infinite lives, but if it's your first time playing, you'll most likely see the "Continue?" screen more times than you care to count. In fact, I probably spent more than $50 worth of arcade tokens simply trying to master the easiest difficulty level.
As much as I paint a grim picture of the game's complexity, it does a lot to facilitate newcomers and those wishing to improve. The arcade mode sports difficulty levels 1 through 3 and the option to choose the first six stages in an order of your choice. There's also a training mode which allows you to pick a stage and customize the difficulty to your liking. Additionally, the manual does an excellent job of explaining the nuances, outlines routes with higher survivability and gives numerous tips on how to score efficiently. For thrill seekers or masochists, the disc includes Mega Black Label, an edition of Deathsmiles with a new character, an extra stage and the level 999 difficulty.
This game is a convincing value for its challenge alone, but the replayability is just as extensive. Beyond the inclusion of the original arcade release and Mega Black Label, each game type is split into three separate modes. The normal Arcade Mode is a port featuring the same graphics and settings of the arcade cabinet, the Version 1.1 Arrange Mode allows control over the familiar and the Xbox 360 Mode is a graphically enhanced version of the Arcade Mode. With four separate characters (five, with Mega Black Label), two endings for each and achievements attached to those endings, there was more than enough to keep me busy.
A few caveats hamper this exceptional value, and they’re mostly derived from the presentation. The loli-inspired characters and setting are a refreshing change from the space themes endemic to the genre, but what Deathsmiles lacks is visual clarity and smoothness. The sprites and backgrounds are reminiscent of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night’s, and they rarely exceed that level of quality. The frame rate also slows to a crawl when the action gets too hectic; almost to the point where I think it’s an intentional effect. Perhaps both aspects of the presentation are justified given how many bullets can be on the screen, but considering it’s on the same console as a remastered Ikaruga, I highly doubt it.
Also on the negative side of things is the story. Shoot ‘em ups normally boil down to “fire at everything and go”, but the narrative Deathsmiles conjures only opens it up for criticism. Windia, 13-year-old girl from London mysteriously disappears in a bright flash, and ends up in the land of Gilverado, an early 20th century backdrop where magic and supernatural elements run rampant. After living peacefully with a man named Dior and other Lost Children, monsters appear out of nowhere and begin attacking Gilverado’s citizens. As either Windia or one of the three other Lost Children—a German 11-year-old named Casper, a French 14-year-old named Follett or an American 17-year-old named Rosa—you’re tasked with destroying the monsters and rooting out the source. The game tries to weave a cohesive tale and comes up with a poor construct that, at the very least, answers why you’re controlling a girl as opposed to a spaceship.
Deathsmiles isn’t the best shoot ‘em up available, but the package makes up its value provided you’re someone that loves a constant challenge and online leaderboard chases. When all is said and done, this game shows how small innovations can take an age-old genre and invigorate it for modern consumption. It capitalizes on the old quarter-eating mentality of its arcade forebears and adds a unique and inspired craziness.