Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Deathsmiles (Cave)

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Welcome to contemporary shmup week, where we discuss recent games that have graced modern consoles and can be found on store shelves even now.  Developer Cave, probably best known for vertical shmups including the DoDonPachi series, has only created a few horizontal shmups and Deathsmiles is the only one that saw a true retail release in the US.  Of course it didn’t sell very well, the collector’s edition that comes with a faceplate and soundtrack is still found for about $20 in many retailers, but is still significant as one of the few Japanese shmups to release in the US.  It’s also interesting because it integrates many themes we’ve seen before including the fact that it’s part of the sub-genres cute ’em ups, danmaku (bullet hell), and has color integration like many Treasure shmups.  If you’re into shmups in the least, the content-heavy title is worth picking up at full price, let alone the meager cost found nowadays – on a personal note, make sure you get the Collector’s Edition, it’s so worth it for a few more dollars.

Unlike many shmups, Deathsmiles features four (five in the Mega Black Label version, see below) young witches that you can control as they take on hordes of demonic forces.  Each of these girls are young, between the ages of 11 and 17, each with thier own version of magic (typically elemental) and familiar.  A girl’s familiar will follow them around, blocking bullets and firing counter bullets as well.  In the arcade version the familiar moves opposite the controls that the player uses for the girl (ie: if you move your girl to the right the familiar will move to the left around the girl).  This game has plenty of different modes, power-ups and strategies so definitely look them up online, but the most compelling aspect is that you basically have a 3-bar life counter that is persistent (status carries over level to level) and you get a game over when it runs out.  There are various ways to refill the counter in addition to knowing techniques that can prevent the loss of life (1/2 bar for collisions and full bar for getting hit by a bullet) including knowing the areas on your witch that are invulnerable and using a familiar as a shield.  After being defeated, an enemy releases items and “counter bullets” (yellow in color) that increase your score counter and in turn strengthen your shots and give you optional powers and attacks.  Once you’ve gotten used to the items (and started to memorize the levels) you can delve into the balance of saving and collecting these power-ups.

It basically becomes a game that’s easy to pick up and hard to master, but like all shmups, the process is a blast.  I really dig this game from both a gameplay and graphical perspective, not to mention the variety.  With multiple witches and the ability to pick your path (there are 3 areas, 2 stages each, and they are completed in any order), it will take plenty of time to try out everything and rack up considerable “practice” hours.  There was some value in completing many of the 360 achievements to learn better strategies.  I do urge you to play the game before getting discouraged by the videos on YouTube (or the one I have here to demonstrate gameplay), these guys have played the Japanese PCB either on MAME or an actual cabinet for hundreds of hours.  It’s the shmup equivalent to a Call of Duty game – it’s all they play.  This game is difficult, like all shmups, but with the various options and difficulties, you can tweak gameplay as your skills increase.


The original arcade version appeared in Japan around Halloween 2007 and a follow-up, Mega Black Label version (Cave loves to do “Black Label” versions of most of its coin-ops) was released about a year later in 2008.  This updated version was limited to only 150 cabinets and added Sakura as a fifth playable witch, it added the Crystal Shrine stage, and the extra hard 999 difficulty level as well as some scoring changes.

It was released on Xbox 360 in retail form first in Japan in April 2009.  This version contained the 1.1 update that changed even more about the scoring and added some bonuses like boss counter bullets to ease the difficulty curve.  Version 1.1 also allows you to independently control your witch’s familiar.  In addition there was an Xbox 360 version that updated many of the graphics and adds two difficulties for each level and the ability to replay them over and over.  This meant that you could select 3 different modes: Arcade, 1.1, and Xbox 360 on the main menu.  Shortly after release the Mega Black Label version was added as DLC, which was later included on the disc for the Japanese Platinum version, US version, and European version.  The Mega black Label version also received the updates of the 360 modes, adding 3 new MBL modes on the main menu and thus doubling your mode options to six modes.  As if that wasn’t confusing enough, you can get both regular and collector’s editions of all regional releases (and yes, they are all region locked).  The Japanese and US/NA CE contains Manabu Namiki Selection Deathsmiles Premium Arrange Album that has 15 tracks inspired by the game.  In the US/NA version there was also a Deathsmiles face plate for your Xbox 360.  In Europe it was known as the “Deluxe Edition” and released by Rising Star (in Japan and US it was published by Aksis) contains the same arrange sountrack and a second CD that had various PC-based themes and assets.  An early run of this version had the soundtrack misburned as a data CD containing the files in .wav format that Rising Star would replace with an actual music CD upon request.

Finally it was released worldwide on iOS devices in July 2011 with new touch controls and some special features.  Since I have not played this version, I am unsure what features it contains and what of the various game modes are included.

There was a sequel in Japan on Xbox 360, Deathsmiles IIX, which was also re-released in the North America Games on Demand service for Xbox Live.  This sequel was not regionalized and therefore contains the original Japanese text and voices and can only be purchased for $30 on this service (which uses credit cards and price tags, MS points can not be used).  Most noteable is that this is one of three horizontal Cave shmups (Progear and Deathsmiles being the others) and it’s the first to use polygonal graphics instead of old school sprites.

That wraps up the first day of contemporary shmups.  Come back tomorrow where we discuss one of the most unique visual titles: Rez (HD).

Written by Fred Rojas

March 26, 2012 at 2:52 pm

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