Deathsmiles: Limited Edition Review

By Gus Mastrapa - Posted Jul 02, 2010

Deathsmiles's challenge and complexity will be instantly appreciated by the shoot-em-up faithful, but the uninitiated may have a hard time grasping its subtleties.

The Pros
  • Faithful recreation of cult arcade game
  • Wildly imaginative setting and enemies
  • Subtle innovations to the shooter formula
The Cons
  • Outside the arcade there's no motivation to play flawlessly
  • Deeper gameplay elements aren't well explained
  • Xbox controller doesn't cut it - you'll need an arcade stick

Playing an arcade shooter like Deathsmiles on your Xbox 360 is a bit like watching an epic movie on your iPhone.  Sure, you’re experiencing the game from start to finish, with very little lost in translation. But in taking Deathsmiles out of the arcade (where it's known in Japan), one vital element -- the value of your invested coin -- is removed from the equation.  Though it's competent enough, Deathsmiles suffers on consoles because there’s no consequence for simply hitting “continue” every time you’re face to face with “game over.” 

Of course, this problem only crops up for those uninitiated in the cult of the shoot-em-up, or shmup, as its devotees affectionately call the genre. And the likelihood of a total neophyte picking up Deathsmiles is infinitesimal. No, this arcade port of Cave’s 2007 side-scrolling arcade shooter, is aimed squarely at denizens of the Shumps forums at System11.org.  And anybody there will tell you that that the proper way to play Deathsmiles is to pretend that you’re on your last quarter every time you sit down to play. Approach it as if your lives depend on it and the game will reveal to you its secrets.

Ghosts and Goblins

Like most of the new breed of Japanese shooters, there’s depth and creativity buried beneath the bullet hell of Deathsmiles.  You play as one of a handful of anime-styled gothic lolitas -- each accompanied by their own magical familiar. The magical land of Halloweentown is under invasion by evil magics and its up to you to swoop through the skies and shoot rampaging spooks, skeletons and jack-o-lanterns out of the sky.Deathsmiles: Limited Edition Review

Deathsmiles puts players through a grueling bullet-ridden trial, filled with imaginative boss battles and increasingly overwhelming onslaughts of enemies. Visually, the game is a treat. The enemies are simultaneously kooky and creepy. And the journey through graveyards, haunted forests and, eventually, into the depths of hell, is a doozy. But the story, especially the sparse the bits of dialogue that resolve the plot, is fairly shaky. But all that’s forgivable, because the real narrative of Deathsmiles comes in the escalation of danger, the reveal and defeat of diabolical boss monsters and growing intensity of the flower-like bullet patterns.

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Bullets For Baby

Deathsmiles introduces a handful of subtle tweaks to the shooter formula.  Players have two fire buttons: one that aims right, another for the left. But this binary decision isn’t the only one to make. Like many shooters of its ilk, Deathsmiles also features two intensities of attacks, a rapid fire and a more powerful one that slows the character down. It may seem counter-intuitive, but sluggish movement can be beneficial when the screen is awash with deadly bullets.Deathsmiles: Limited Edition Review

But the game truly gets interesting when it gets way deep.  Shoot an enemy and it drops rewards that charge up a power meter that, when maxed out and triggered, jacks up the player’s points.  The risk and reward of chasing these bonus drops and deciding when and where to cash in your bonus is the core of high-level Deathsmiles play.

More evident, perhaps, to new players is the character’s familiar, a flying buddy that can help kill enemies and collect pick ups. Controlled with the second analog stick, these allies can also help deflect “counter bullets” that certain downed enemies fling back your way.

Learning to Love The Shmup

As an arcade port, Deathsmiles is more than faithful. The game embellishes various classic arcade versions with a mode create specifically for the Xbox 360.  And though the game takes the time to put players through a cursory tutorial, it doesn’t go the extra mile of turning the shooter curious into believers. Sure, there’s an achievement that rewards players for making it through the game on one credit. But Deathsmiles really ought to tell you why it’s cool to play that way.Deathsmiles: Limited Edition Review

And that’s the reason why ports of arcade shooters will only ever be appreciated by a narrow few. Because the rest of the world, those who don’t hang out in the right online forums, have a friend with a Japanese arcade cabinet in their rec room, or own a good arcade stick for the Xbox (an absolute must for precision play of this game) will have to learn to love Deathsmiles on their own.  And game that kills you every three seconds can be hard to love.