The Geek Chic 2D Resurgence continues.
Every geek culture has its own even geekier subculture. It’s one thing to dump hundreds of hours into your World of Warcraft character, but it’s another thing entirely to ask people to call you by your character’s name in real life.
[image1]Being a 2D shooter fan carries some of the same stigma. We’re the uber-geeks shelling out for expensive import titles, buying fancy arcade sticks, claiming that Xevious was more seminal than Super Mario Bros., investing in Japan-only consoles to play region-locked games, continuing to post scores in relics like Galaga, and discussing minor scoring revisions between arcade releases that we’ve never even seen. Deathsmiles may help bring us back into the mainstream.
The release of Deathsmiles is a significant event for shmup fans. It marks one of the very few times that shooter legend Cave has released one of its titles in North America. No longer confined to drooling over pixilated Youtube videos of games we’ll likely never play, we can now get up close and personal with a work by the Beethoven of bullet hell.
Even if it isn’t Cave’s best, Deathsmiles stands head and shoulders above the vast majority of recent shooters, above even the recent spate of quality twin-stick shooters on XBLA and PSN. It shows just how much subtlety and craft go into designing bullet patterns, unique scoring systems, intuitive shooting mechanics, and overall pacing. It takes more than merely competent design to make a game that you want to replay over and over again. Deathsmiles isn’t a game you play just to get to the end. Like all good shooters, it’s a game you play to master.
[image2]Deathsmiles is a side-scrolling 2D shooter. Those who may associate the bullet hell sub-genre more with top-down vertical scrollers—like Ikaruga and DoDonPachi—will see just how naturally the genre translates to a horizontal orientation. The mechanics are deceptively simple. You have a weak and a strong fire button, each with a right and a left direction, and you’re aided by a character-specific familiar who rains down additional fire on your targets. Think “walking down the street with your fire-breathing dog”, and you’ll get the idea.
Collect enough item drops from enemies and you can enter a power-up state where you can earn more points. However, certain attacks in the power up state will burn through your banked item counter more rapidly than others. How you time and balance your power up states is the key to high scores. Since you can also choose which order to play the levels, you can select levels based on how you best want to capitalize on certain levels’ spawn patterns.
The North American release also includes six total variations on the original arcade game, each with subtle changes to the scoring and power-up systems that radically change your overall strategy. Arrange mode in particular changes the game drastically, tailoring the game much more to the 360’s dual-analog controller.
It’s clear why Cave chose this as their first game to localize for the North American market. It’s one of the most beginner-friendly games they’ve made. The ever-elusive “one-credit continue” playthrough isn’t too difficult to achieve on the lowest difficulties, even for relative newcomers to the genre. Liberal use of intentional slowdown during high-density moments also makes it much easier to navigate the chaos of enemy fire. You’ll feel like a badass in no time as you weave in and out of clouds of bullets, and unlike most games in the genre, Deathsmiles doesn’t seek to frustrate you endlessly with insanely difficult opening levels.
[image3]As accessible as the gameplay might be, however, the style and artwork behind Deathsmiles might be off-putting to some folks. You play as one of four young girls (five, if you include Sakura in the three Black Label modes) whose ages—11 to 17—and risqué attire put them square in the middle of the Japanese “Gothic Lolita” style. Luckily, the game doesn’t focus on this too much, and you won’t find any gratuitous panty shots along the way. Other than the embarrassing boxart and a few brow-raising endgame sequences, it’s just a silly backdrop to the crazy on-screen action.
Some might also be surprised to see that this isn’t an “HD” update. Though the 360 and Arrange modes both kick up the resolution considerably over the arcade original, all six modes maintain as much visual fidelity to the source material as possible. While the original arcade game is only a few years old, you’ll instantly spot the lower resolution. This is done purely for fans, plain and simple. Newcomers might be disappointed by this fact—especially considering its $50 asking price—but this is as close to an at-home arcade experience as you’ll find this side of a MAME cabinet.
Every 2D-shooter fan needs to have this game in their collection. Shmup releases of this caliber are extremely rare outside of Japan. Hopefully this is the title that convinces Cave to push more titles into the international marketplace. With the recent release of Cave’s ESPGaluda II on iPhone, recent word of Guwange possibly coming worldwide to XBLA, and now Deathsmiles getting the full-package treatment, Cave is ideally positioned to bring the genre back to the world stage in a big way. If 2D fighters and 2D platformers can make a comeback, there’s no reason 2D shooters couldn’t do likewise.