It's time for a brief history lesson. Shoot 'Em Up fans may skip ahead to paragraph two, but you should be aware that Cave originally unleashed Deathsmiles into unsuspecting Japanese arcades back in 2007. Telling the story of four worryingly provocative girls that found themselves lost, Alice In Wonderland-style, inside an bizarre fantasy world, Deathsmiles soon cemented itself a reputation for being a SHMUP veteran's wet dream. Rising Star have finally managed to bring the "Deluxe" experience to Europe... and it's about time too.
Deathsmiles' cult status is partly derived from the kooky (if slightly creepy) characters and premise, but this is just the icing on a cake baked from true mechanical perfection. Manoeuvrability is key in any shooter, and Deathsmiles delivers responsive pixel-perfect movement with an emphasis on weaving through insane amounts of incoming firepower. Each trigger allows players to direct their shots either left or right in order to instantly counter spawning foes, and a targeting mechanic allows single enemies or bosses to be punished ruthlessly if you get close enough. Oh, and there's also a smart bomb. There's always a smart bomb.
Crucially, each character's hitbox (the active part of each sprite that takes damage when it connects with a projectile) is brightly-coloured and extremely small; allowing players to slip through the hails of bullets that will be headed their way at all times. This little point is frequently ignored in modern shooters, and it's great to see that Deathsmiles Deluxe has been treated with due care and attention.
This may sound like a cushy setup, but Deathsmiles is a true bullet hell shooter. This term is often incorrectly used to describe normal, garden variety SHMUPS, but there are moments in Deathsmiles that blanket almost the entire screen in enemy firepower. Even my Indie-honed reflexes were frequently found lacking; so trust me, you'll need every shred of practice and luck to make it through alive. The addition of infinite continues serves to completely unbalance the difficulty curve, though. We'll get onto that later.
Luckily players can choose their difficulty on-the-fly as well as choosing the order in which to attempt each level. With four characters (each packing unique fire modes), several endings and differing enemy placements depending on difficulty, there's actually a fair amount to see. Same-screen and online cooperative functionality helps to round out the multiplayer part of the package.
The original arcade mode is present in all of its pixelated glory, but the Deluxe edition contains a few more modes that bring some nifty new features to the table. The Xbox 360 mode adds a stunning HD facelift to the original campaign (along with a new level), but the meat of the package is to be found in the Arranged Mode. Along with the new visuals and a tweaked scoring system, players can finally take direct control of their familiar using the right thumbstick. This tiny character used to act as a simple turret, but now adds a powerful new dimension to the action thanks to the ability to absorb enemy projectiles.
As mentioned above, Deathsmiles Deluxe has been treated to a slew of graphical improvements. The new HD sprites are absolutely stunning, and finally allow the jawdropping, sumptuous art design to fulfil its potential. The game world has been realised with a degree of anarchic imagination and painstaking detail that's rarely seen in the genre. Ghostly dancers and monolithic magic cows have never looked so beautiful! Deathsmiles Deluxe is a feast for the eyes, though be aware that resizing the play area to fit the screen can cause major slowdown in pitched battles.
Deathsmiles Deluxe ships with the original soundtrack and a host of desktop accessories spread over three discs... but it's worth noting that Rising Star have overlooked the most fundamental way that a 2D shooter can provide value. Progression and reward. Every mode, character and even infinite continues are unlocked from the very start, meaning that there's little incentive to keep playing beyond attaining high scores. Character biographies, a bestiary and backstory information are also all surprisingly absent. SHMUP veterans (such as myself) will delight in sampling every character, scoring scheme and difficulty level on offer... but casual consumers will feel that they've seen everything Deathsmiles has to offer within the first hour or two. Since there are infinite continues, there's no challenge beyond self-discipline!
In fact, it's probably worth taking a moment to discuss this common phenomenon in greater detail. Developers take note: there is no point creating an insanely difficult game with infinite continues. It's a complete contradiction in terms. Instead, we'd like to see studios creating slightly easier (but still challenging) modes of their classic shooters that are balanced with finite continues. Perhaps points and high scores could unlock credits for the next run? AfterBurner Climax got it right, for the record.
Either way, don't let this little rant put you off. The quality of the gameplay speaks for itself, though it fails to reward your hard work with anything more than high score bragging rights.
- Near-perfect SHMUP mechanics
- Unique, hectic and anarchic experience
- Sumptuous visuals and art design
- Infinite continues?
- No unlockables?
The Short Version: Deathsmiles Deluxe is the definitive edition of an arcade classic and arguably the finest side-scrolling shooter on the Xbox 360. Niche appeal, an odd difficulty curve and deceptively poor value make it difficult to recommend to most gamers... though frankly, I'm going to do it anyway. Deathsmiles will spank you raw, but you'll have a massive grin on your face in the process.