Originally marketed in Japan with bottles of tea labeled as “Windia’s Delicious Urine” — the ostensible excreta of Deathsmiles’ central protagonist — one has to wonder what exactly Cave’s aspirations were for this entry in their shoot-em-up canon.
A 2009 bullet hell shoot-em-up (or ‘shmup’), Deathsmiles is an eccentric pastiche of broomstick riding heroines battling the forces of darkness through fiery caverns and over Ye Olde English shipyards. Its roster of ‘Lolis’ (or ‘Lolitas’, for those less au fait with anime lexicon) are a group of female witches aged 11 to 17 that occupy Gilverado, a Halloween-themed world filled with dragons, wizards and giant, satanically possessed cows. Each character’s weapon and orbiting spirit familiar offer different advantages for survival and scoring, and shot types can be alternated between a faster (but weaker) laser, and a slower, more powerful cannon. Holding both buttons engages your familiar’s homing properties, allowing them to target anything within a specific range.
Deathsmiles is one of Cave’s more polarising titles for all but casual players. An incredibly easy default game, it’s been the maiden one-credit clear trophy of many a shmup rookie. Its real challenge lies within its complex scoring parameters, and, while it’s an experiment of mixed results, it proved popular enough to spawn a sequel, Deathsmiles II X, also included in this package.
The horizontal aspect is visually beguiling, allowing the world of Gilverado to breathe full-screen. Your Lolis can fire forwards and backwards at will as enemies stream in from the left and right extremities; a fun mechanic that keeps you on your toes as you lay waste to all manner of ghouls, demon pigs and giant orcs. The stages are nicely visualised, with the fire cavern and its two-headed dragon being particularly enticing, some nice foggy atmospherics in the graveyard, and an impressive velvet-draped, castle-raid finale. While the presentation is nice and the backgrounds beautiful, it does suffer from some crude pre-rendered sprites; and Arcade Mode is obsolete unless you’re planning to play it on a CRT. Thankfully, its ragged edges have been dramatically overhauled by Normal Mode’s high resolution upscaling — although one can only guess, with some certainty, how much better the game would have looked were it wholly created using traditional pixel art. Still, bosses are wonderfully macabre — if rather easy — with Mary the Giant cow and the thundering Tyrannosatan finale flexing art director Junya Inoue’s wilder side.
Elsewhere, there are options galore for game parameter adjustments (that you should never touch) and screen adjustments. For some reason an empty pixel sliver bands the display when adjusted to full widescreen, which really sets the OCD off. Thankfully, Deathsmiles II’s native 16:9 aspect doesn’t suffer from this issue, but a patch for the picky would be welcome. A lazier issue is that Deathsmiles II’s replay function is inexplicably devoid of options to speed up footage.
Deathsmiles is made purposely easy for the casual player, with a clever system that allows you to freely moderate its difficulty. Its six initial stages can be visited in an order of your choosing, each with a choice of rank. Rank 1 is kid’s stuff, 2 isn’t much tougher, and 3 is a notch up. As you become familiar with layouts and bosses, it’s fun to wean yourself onto higher ranks; but if you take on Rank 3 five times, you unlock ‘Death Mode’, triggering swarms of ‘suicide bullets’ (additional homing fire released by destroyed enemies) for the remainder of the game.
It’s still nowhere near the bedlam of the Donpachi series thanks to generous hit-boxes, appropriate slowdown, and powerful weaponry; but ‘Gorge’, the optional, adrenaline-soaked EX stage that precedes the majestic Hades Castle finale, steps things up a gear. It’s here that your orbiting familiars become indispensable, acting as a suicide bullet barrier to see you through the carnage.
Deathsmiles is a superbly rewarding survival game, and if that’s all you’re looking for, you’ll have a blast. Scoring, however, is a polarising affair. It’s incredibly deep, typically convoluted, and reserved for experts only — and genre aficionados targeting the upper echelons of the scoreboard may find its structure frustrating. To score, destroyed enemies drop crowns that shatter when they hit the ground, breaking into tiaras and then skulls, increasing in overall number but with successively lower point denominations. Different enemies will drop larger point icons depending on which shot method is used, adding to the learning curve, and you hoover them all in automatically within a certain proximity. During this vacuuming process you build a secondary meter that, when maxed out, can be manually triggered to induce a ‘fever’ state for a brief period. During this state the number of score drops multiplies into a screen-filling cascade, and, while this is the most enjoyable part of the game — blitzing everything and sucking up a tornado of shiny ingots — you won’t be able to compete with higher scores unless you learn to perfectly execute a ‘recharge’ before the fever ends.
To pull this off you need to deduce the optimal moment to enter fever mode, and then, just as the counter reaches zero, nuke a huge swarm of enemies, absorb a wave of skull icons, and instantly recharge the meter. It’s so difficult to pull off that even when you could have sworn you had it exactly right, it’s still prone to failure — and video observation barely helps.
Compounding this, there is a cumulative score multiplier — nixed by either a death or exiting fever mode — that requires suicide bullets to thrive. It demands months of practice to pin down, a repetition not helped by slightly simplistic enemy patterns early on, and you need to ride out Rank 3 stages and Death Mode to make the most of it.
Like so many Cave shmups, Deathsmiles received a re-tooling known as Mega Black Label, also included here. Its new character, Sakura, is one of the coven’s most enjoyable additions; while the introduction of Rank “999” — darkening stage backgrounds and upping enemy fire to a full-on purple haze — offers an exhilarating but nigh-on impossible experts-only pitfall.
Mega Black Label mixes up the core game by increasing the multiplier’s score ceiling while reducing death-related penalties. You can also induce multiple fever modes per stage and command a greater number of point drops and recharge opportunities. Its complex re-arrangement means that some still swear by the vanilla version; but MBL’s greater sense of action and flow will likely feel more natural to most, and its brand new EX Stage, the Ice Palace, is a standout moment.
The console exclusive “1.1” Mode again rebalances the scoring system and its penalties, and adds features like suicide bullets for bosses during a fever state. It’s difficult to say why the game needed a third rebalancing, but those with a deep understanding of the original may find its tweaks rewarding.
The sequel, Deathsmiles II X, has a suffix that translates to “Hell’s Merry Christmas”, which tells you all you need to know about its festive horror theming. Uniquely Cave’s only fully polygonal shmup, it has a nice aesthetic flair despite being visually akin to a PlayStation 2 game. It’s got even younger Lolis, one Trap, and a consistently bizarre set of enemies, but is nonetheless a very enjoyable, manic shmup experience. Often overlooked compared to its predecessor, its crazy scoring mechanics are really fun to toy with. Stage lengths and bullet pattern densities are closer to Cave’s usual works, and, while many familiar systems remain — including routes and stage ranks — the new force field system and its enormous, bombastic, screen-ripping bullet cancellations are freshly alluring.
Here, fever mode can last for the majority of a stage, and on Rank 2 or above draws ambling blue suicide bullets toward you. Once these bullets enter your magical sphere they can be repelled back across the screen, reaping glittering destruction as they go. Recharges are still a thing, but they’re now far simpler to pull off, and converting the play-field into a cyclone of shiny points is a spectacular rush. It also features a great antagonist in the form of Satan Claws, and a host of quirky boss battles. It’s hard to say why, but there’s something more immediately relaxing about Deathsmiles II’s pacing.