DeathSmiles Review: Shmup Complex

Little girls. In frilly dresses. Shooting things. Yep, you're about to read a DeathSmiles review.

The game's developer Cave is no stranger to shooters, specifically of the manic side-scrolling type. Cave is to shooters what Square Enix is to role-playing games — an icon of the industry. The rigor, dedication and love puts in its titles has created a die-hard fan base, a very niche fan base. While other developers have raced to try to follow current generation fads, Cave continues to think deeply about 2D shooters and create dazzling games.

DeathSmiles is a side-scrolling horizontal shooter, which is something of a rarity for Cave as the studio tends to favor vertically scrolling shooters. Cave's first attempt at horizontal side-scrolling shooting was 2001's Progear, published by Capcom. DeathSmiles begins in Halloween Town and takes players through a Gothic Lolita bullet hell. Enemies fly in from the right and left, and players toggle between shooting left with the controller's "A" button and shooting right with the controller's "B" button.

Originally released in Japanese arcades in 2007, is the Xbox 360 version of DeathSmiles worth the 3 year wait?

Loved

Right, Left, Right, Left: My favorite thing, my absolute favorite thing about this Cave game and pretty much every Cave game is that they are fun. There is a giddy craziness to their titles, an energy. Nothing feels sloppy or half-baked. Cave, it seems, is always trying to figure out how to create each 2D shooter slightly different. The side-scrolling element is largely new territory for Cave, but the studio doesn't stop there. They added the ability to shoot right and left, and that opens up the game. It's a very simple mechanic, but it works well. The art style and characters, a team of little girls in Victorian dresses, might put off some players, and some players might only be interested in this game because of the design. The real draw here is gameplay — whether that be in short bursts or longer play sessions.

We're Going To Slow This Down: One of my other favorite things about playing Cave shooters in arcades is the slowdown. There are moments when I wonder how the heck I'm going to make through the hailstorm of projectiles flying at me. And the arcade game begins to slow the action down as it crunches processing all the bullets, and it ends up being incredibly cinematic. I'd argue that slowdown in Cave shooters is one of the most cinematic moments in all of gaming. You feel for those very brief moments that reality is crawling to a halt as well. Cave reproduced that slowdown as an "effect" in DeathSmiles. It is slightly different than what you'd get on the arcade cabinet in a Japanese game center during the middle of August, but the fact that they have included this not only shows how Cave understands its own games, but its players.

You're Not Good At Bullet Hell Games: I don't think I'm a *great* player by any stretch, but I really, really enjoy the genre. Shmups may be insular, but Cave has made every effort to create an inclusive shooter. The "Xbox 360 Mode" is not very difficult. After clearing it, they can try the Ver 1.1 Mode, a new mode for the Xbox 360, or the harder Mega Black Label Mode. The neat thing about the Xbox 360 Mode is that the version has improved graphics. Cave, however, has also included an Arcade Mode with the original graphics. Stages can even be set on difficulty levels that range from 1 to 3. There is a great deal of variety here in modes and difficulty. With DeathSmiles, Cave isn't gazing at its own navel, but looking out and onward.

Do You Like Achievements?: This game has a bunch, and not just hard ones, either. Simple ones. For those looking to beef up their Gamerscore and do it quick, this is a title you might consider picking up.

Yes, It Is A Retail Game: Okay, for all intents and purposes, DeathSmiles should be a digital download, an Xbox Live Arcade game. It is not. It is a full-on retail packaged game. Cave and its U.S. publisher are doing everything they can to give the game the most bang for the buck by releasing it as a Limited Edition version. Besides being packed with the new console-only gameplay modes (and a new character!), the game comes with a soundtrack CD and an Xbox 360 faceplate. Some might still balk at playing US$49.99 for the game. Others won't even blink.

Cave did the Xbox 360 port of DeathSmiles in-house. Previously, the company ran into problems with buggy games when outsourcing its arcade to console ports. There's a real attention to getting this right on Cave's part, and DeathSmiles is stuffed with extras. Even years after it was originally released in Japanese arcades, DeathSmiles is still a truly enjoyable 2D shooter.

DeathSmiles was developed by Cave and published by Aksys Games for the Xbox 360 on Jun3 29. Retails for US$49.99. Review copy was provided by the developer for reviewing purposes. Tested all modes, completed Arcade Mode.

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