Deathsmiles combines the best of Cotton, CAVE, and cowbell.
As in Cotton, players guide an airborne bullet-witch across a horizontally-scrolling tapestry of beautiful nightmares. Four cute heroines comprise Deathsmiles’ main cast, from Windia (the pure-hearted one) to Rosa (the big-breasted one). It’d be easy to pin this best-selling shooter’s appeal on the “gothic lolita” designs of the main characters; the style is certainly popular in Japan . . . and spreading. I prefer to attribute Deathsmiles’ appeal to its blend of bullet-hell action, picturesque 2D artwork, and fanciful soundtrack.
At the beginning of one level, winged demon beasts descend upon a train and abduct several hapless passengers. Fortunately, shear-wielding heroine Casper happens to be in the vicinity and eliminates the demons with a quick fly-by. As she zooms away, the grateful passengers below wave in appreciation.
The next train is outfitted with hostile gun turrets.
Deathsmiles is filled with many such memorable moments. Enormous cyclopean fiends, reminiscent of Ghosts ‘n Goblins, patrol the ballroom balconies. Inside the palace, twirling dancers launch pulsating bullets with every pirouette. Why is cute Follett fighting dancers? Because she crashed the demon lord Tyrannosatan’s castle during a formal party, that’s why! And now ALL DANCERS MUST DIE.
Vertical specialists CAVE hadn’t released a sidescroller in a long while, and their efforts to create something different proved successful. The Cotton-esque tree boss, his scowling face embedded within his mighty trunk, wouldn’t be nearly as menacing if viewed from above. The hairy details of beastly mutts bristle in a way that “DonPachi of the Undead” couldn’t have matched. The in-your-face artwork screams LOOK AT ME! I’M PRETTY! in a way that distant, bird’s-eye views rarely can . . . and they’ve actually put the game into high-resolution just for the Xbox release.
Since this is a CAVE game, there are scads of bullets, and there is a scoring system extending beyond “kill everything for points”. Similar to the popular DonPachi series, each girl wields two primary attacks: tap the shot button (or use autofire) for swift peltings. Hold the shot button for a powerful but narrow laser stream. Every character’s familiar — fairy, dragon, owl, or bat — matches its master’s selected attack. In the spirit of Section Z, each underage cutie can aim her magical assault to the left or right. The core scoring system is intuitive: small enemies give more points when killed with weaker shots, and large enemies give more points when killed with the stronger laser beam.
Deathsmiles makes excellent use of the left/right aiming mechanic. Ghosts and vultures flock from both sides of the screen, with a few demon dogs and trolls mixed in. Although I could survive by attacking indiscriminately, I had more fun flipping left and right, alternating rapid-fire shots with laser beams, taking advantage of the “weak foe/weak shot, strong foe/strong shot” scoring system to rack up points. There’s even a hyper assault, which causes every fallen monster to spill loads of score-inflating loot. Newcomers can play for a few hours and feel good about their progress; hardcore point-hounds are rewarded for mastering the game’s many nuances.
In case you’re wondering how poor Rosa’s busty body could possibly avoid all those purple pulsating pellets, keep in mind that bullets only hurt if they pierce her feminine heart. It’s easy to locate Rosa’s heart because it flashes orange and it’s shaped like . . . a heart. Deathsmiles kindly provides a visible hit-box, making potentially brutal sequences a bit more manageable.
Something else that makes Deathsmiles more accessible to the not-ridiculously-hardcore gamer is the ranking system. When selecting a stage, players can also select a difficulty level from one (easy) to three (die die die). The game isn’t generous enough to let chumps skate through entirely on the easiest setting, but this does allow more time to learn the basics. Many CAVE games mercilessly drop players straight into the snake-pit. In Deathsmiles, we’ve a chance to look before leaping.
Evoking nostalgic memories of Gaiares’ cruel executioner Death Ghetto, the boss of Hallowe’en Town — Deathscythe — attacks with scythes. What you wouldn’t realize from the photo is that the reaper’s slicing attack is exclusive to the harder difficulty setting. Sure, easy mode makes the game more accessible, but stick to that and you’re depriving yourself of bullets, opponents, and harrowing new encounters.
Then again, discovering the differences — some subtle, others not — between each rank is part of the experience. Play on the hardest difficulty often enough and you’ll actually unlock an extra level. You’ll also unlock the dreaded “suicide bullets”; dying enemies explode into clouds of shrapnel.
It’s clear that CAVE put a lot of care and attention towards creating an appealing and engaging new world with fresh experiences. During a harrowing boss encounter, a witch flew above me, dropping fireballs. Meanwhile, eyeball creatures swarmed from both sides of the screen. It was a horizontal/vertical double-team! It was also a hell of a lot more clever than just filling the screen with projectiles. Deathsmiles may have borrowed concepts from Cotton and Section Z, but it fashioned those ideas into something different and oh-so-definitely CAVE.
. . . and you’ll soon be able to play it. Not only is Deathsmiles coming to US shores later this year, but it will include the Mega Black Label mode that Japanese gamers had to pay extra to play. Like true professionals, those jam up guys at Aksys are even selling a limited edition that contains more goodies than the Japanese limited edition (at less than half the price). There’s never been a more inviting opportunity to experience the wonders of CAVE.
As for the cowbell, I’ll leave you to discover that yourself.