Four girls, five girls if you count Sakura who is playable in Mega Black Label, are about to gun down the Halloween-themed army of Hell. Welcome to Deathsmiles.
How did the girls get in this mess? Glad you asked because Deathsmiles has a lite back story. These lost girls were whisked away from the real world to Gilverado, which is like Victorian-era Earth with magic… and Tyrannosatan. Between battles with mad cows and bullet barfing dogs there are a sparse number of story scenes where the girls speak. Aksys gave each character a unique voice. Casper, the death magic wielding chibi-reaper, is from Germany and sneaks in a bit of German when she talks. Rosa, the oldest of the bunch, is from California so she says things like “ohmigod”. I could have sworn Windia, the wind magic user with an owl, said “What the deuce” at some point too.
Story is a small fraction of Deathsmiles. After all, this game is a horizontal shooter. Deathsmiles begins with players choosing a character and then selecting a stage. You’ll go through all six levels plus a final chapter, but the path is up to you. Cave made a player-friendly design choice, especially when Deathsmiles was an arcade game. Players can practice, for example, the volcano level without having to beat five other levels to get through it. The volcano stage in Deathsmiles is neat-o too. The screen scrolls down while enemies pop up from all directions. Usually, flying eyeballs and birds just fly in from the right and left in Deathsmiles. Watch out for that minotaur behind you, Windia!
You can’t hug the left side of the screen and that keeps players on their toes. Windia is prepared for pincer attacks because she can attack enemies on the left and the right without turning around. The A button is for firing left and B is for shooting on the right. In typical Cave fashion, you move slower when holding either button down, so let go if you have to evade an approaching purple dot. Hold both buttons down and a targeting circle appears. Windia and her owl automatically lock on to any enemy with in the circle, which allows players to focus on dodging bullets instead of aiming. Auto-targeting drains items, which you want to boost your score. Crowns, particularly the giant glowing variety, are worth a ton of points. Monsters explode with those when Windia activates super mode, but you need 1,000 items before you can do that.
So, there’s a tradeoff, but for people who haven’t touched a shooter since Gradius or players trying to complete Deathsmiles with one credit, points aren’t as precious. They just want to get through the game without feeding Deathsmiles virtual 100 yen coins.
Another reason why Deathsmiles is well balanced is selectable difficulty levels. Newcomers can start out at level one. Veterans can load up Mega Black Label and pick level 999 for a real fight. Shot down enemies splash counter bullets, a single hit kills you, and there’s much more to dodge in this mode. Mega Black Label also includes the Ice Palace, an extra stage. You also get Mega Black Label 1.1, a recent expansion pack with a super crown and Bloody Jitterbug waiting at the end. These expansion packs were sold as DLC in Japan, but Aksys put them on-disc.
In addition to a faithful arcade port, Cave added Xbox 360 specific features. Play Deathsmiles Ver 1.1 and you can control your familiar, Windia’s owl or Follet’s dragon, with the right analog stick. You can also save replays, view leaderboards, and play with a friend over Xbox Live. While Cave cleaned up the graphics (click here for a comparison), Deathsmiles is played in a window. All modes are bordered with bones when played on a widescreen TV.
Cave’s shooters are usually thought of as insanely tough games. Deathsmiles is challenging, but it isn’t overwhelming unless you want it to be. Actually, it’s welcoming, thanks to features like auto-targeting and selectable difficulty levels. A wide group of gamers can enjoy a bullet hell shooter and that’s something shooter fans and first-timers should smile about.