At the end of this paragraph, open a new tab on your browser, go to your preferred online retailer, type in “DeathSmiles” (one word) and click the first link that is returned from your search query. Next, click the “buy” button, enter your payment details and hold tight. Following the prior instructions will net you one of the most endearing shmups released in recent years.
Cave’s brilliant shooter finds its excellence within refinement, the kind that is only to be found in the most niche of genres, the honing of a simple concept, executed upon perfectly. In essence nothing more than a side scrolling shooter, the kind we saw invented with Defender, find its feet with Scramble, to mature and rot with R-Type Final. Since Irem’s masterpiece in 2003 the genre has catered more and more to the needs of a slowly dwindling audience obsessed with the next challenge, a position players of the Guitar Hero and Flight Simulator series’ know all too well. With any struggle or threatening levels of competition comes natural selection – Darwin taught us that – and so shmup makers began to appease its fans with a new type of sub-genre, the Bullet Hell Shooter. Characterised by staggering numbers of enemies and bullets on screen at any one time, the ultimate goal being high scores and a dominance over the self; to implement intense concentration, unflinching patience and the deftest of hand-eye coordination under extreme gameplay conditions.
DeathSmiles very much belongs to the Bullet Hell genre, lulls in its bombardment of action come rarely, life sapping projectiles are fired at you from every angle at every opportunity, forming the most intricately detailed and beautifully geometric patterns of electric purple death. Inventively designed enemies are thrown in your path constantly, all consistent with the overall theme of bishōnen inspired fantasy horror; demonic bats, hulking giants, ferocious mongrels and ghostly apparitions against a variety of locales that include everything from hellish caves to haunted woods to luscious ballrooms. Nestled amongst these Symphony Of The Night stylings is the purest moe, very young teenage girls with magical powers and the cutest faces, brought together by a mysterious benefactor named Dior to live together, after they each experience near death experiences. Their relationships border on the sapphic, or at least the art that accompanies this gorgeously presented Deluxe Edition makes that suggestion, never quite treading into full on eroge territory.
This allusion to sexuality isn’t just a trite inclusion for an attention grabbing front cover design, nor a cheap concession to the Otaku that inhabit the game centres of Akihabara, it is in reality a very deliberate exercise in cohesive design. Your hit box – the area within your avatar that counts as being struck by bullets – is a heart, the most vital organ and a symbol of love, it is also the single most vital aspect of the systems of play in effect. The girls may be mature enough to be beginning to grasp their primal desires of reproduction, yet their hand drawn frames look fragile and young, a presentation that invokes the desire to protect and with it the reinforcement that this is an objective that should be at the front of your mind at all times while playing. That delicate yet brave exploration that initial sexual encounters are charged with is here too. As you become more confident in your abilities, when you can get through the campaign with just a handful of lives, when you know enemy patterns like the back of your hand, you begin to take risks, experiment with higher levels of game intensity and character specific traits. You’ll save bombs for later levels, start to find ways of capitalising on enemy attacks rather than fear them and be seriously thinking about hitting the customisable leader boards the title has to offer.
Though the game itself is not the hardest shmup out there (it’s not even the hardest shmup Cave has made), it’s these leader boards where the really top players meet, squaring up to compare insanely high scores across the variety of game modes this edition of DeathSmiles has to offer. Included on the game disc are the original (and elegantly ported) arcade release, an Xbox 360 mode that ups the visual fidelity to bring the best out of the 2D art design, 1.1 mode is a rejigged edition of the previous – albeit with altered controls – and the Mega Black Label DLC, granting access to an additional character, level and end of area boss. Note that I wrote “game disc” earlier, as this stunning collection from Rising Star stuffs two more discs into the package, one filled with items for your desktop computer such as high resolution wallpapers, the other being the complete soundtrack.
With all of these game modes, with all the top quality action and bonus content, plus achievements that are so perfectly pitched as to encourage players of every level to improve and you’re left with an enviable end product. If this was a full price release it would be worth every penny, but its positioning within an economic range best described as “budget” – prices of under £20 at the time of writing – makes it an irresistible offering. Another superb release from the publishing house, a rare opportunity to own a truly hardcore title on a western home console, a thematically innovative shooter amongst a generic throng of Japan only alternatives: DeathSmiles is a must buy.
But you read my opening paragraph, so you already have, right?
MLG Rating: 9/10
Platform: Xbox 360 Release Date: 18/02/2011
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a physical copy of DeathSmiles Deluxe Edition for review purposes by the promoter. The title was reviewed over the course of four days on an Xbox 360 Pro. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.