You might think a ceaseless torrent of advertisements and shameless self-promotion is what powers Xbox LIVE, but it's actually the base thrill of competition holding the service together. Deathsmiles understands such sentiment: it thrives on egging people into toppling the best efforts of others, but there's very little chance a side-scrolling 2D shooter, and one that doesn't even run in widescreen let alone high definition, will capture the affections of a sizeable crowd.
That doesn't mean it's not worth playing, however. I have no idea why the game's called Deathsmiles, but its kaleidoscopic carnivals of projectile dangers and addictive scoremongering neatly combine to make a compelling game for anyone with even the slightest touch of OCD. For a game with only eight short stages and infinite continues the large majority will be dissuaded by the diminutive length, not to mention the tedium that comes from being so inexperienced you simply drop continue after continue into the difficult later stage, but there's definitely plenty of interest to be had for those dedicated to unearthing its delights.
Such as how the game is riddled with a bevy of sights and sounds you're unlikely to see elsewhere. Not many titles have you fighting a colossal horned cyclops that spits out pink globules of raw danger, or a cow called Mary who conjures up cuboids of indescribable peril and then chucks them at your head, and I can't think of one other game that gives you an indestructible owl accomplice that can slaughter hundreds, absorb bullets, and wear a little red bowtie like a pro.
You fly around the screen as one of five (depending on which of the three versions you choose to play) scantily clad young female witches, one of which is thirteen years old. We'll sidestep that issue entirely, I think. These girls might be delicate and waif-like, but they each sport the destructive power of a thousand thermonuclear bombs and will immediately put that destructive potency to good use in clearing out vast screens of enemies.
Unlike Cave's usual repertoire, Deathsmiles scrolls horizontally instead of vertically. Firing left and right is handled by individual buttons, with a more destructive but slower laser attack also available when holding down said button, and another button mapped to your cache of screen-clearing bombs for when you back yourself into a corner. If you fancy something a bit more complex, holding down both attack buttons will initiate a powerful homing attack that eats into your high score. Occasional scenery can also be used to shield yourself from attacks, but in most instances you'll just accidentally blow it up along with everything else.
The trick, as it always is with these games, is not simply to clear the level but to claim a high score while doing so. Style is rewarded with buckets of desirable points, and perseverance breeds the skills required for clearing stages on the higher difficulties, which in turn gives you more opportunities for score grabbing provided you can avoid zooming straight into one of the hundreds of enemy bullets peppering up the screen at any given time.
Deathsmiles' scoring system is also thrifty shopper's wet dream: it's all about getting added value from everything you do. Like jewellery-stuffed piñatas, enemies pop into sprays of crowns, tiaras and rings when destroyed, with certain enemies cashing out more sparkly goods based on whether you take them out with your regular bullet streams or fancier, bulkier laser. The game describes virtually none of this, however, so you'll need to hit up the internet to work out what enemy is best killed by what.
Collected items tally up a number at bottom-left of your screen, and when this hits a cool thousand you can choose to activate a powered-up mode where you accrue a cumulative set of bonus points from everything else you knock down, all while your item counter rapidly ticks back down to zero. Deft use of this tactic, if you hadn't already guessed, is the real key to massive high scores.
It's not a particularly friendly game. Very few of the fussy mechanics are ever adequately explained, though European publisher Rising Star Games has produced a guide for registered members of its community website. Deathsmiles is a stubborn game that puts the onus of understanding the ropes onto the player, leaving you to decipher and unravel everything that's going on in your own time. It might come as a bit of a surprise, then, that it's easily Cave's most accessible shmup in years, with far less complex bullet patterns than many of its contemporaries and a more forgiving life bar.
The European version comes with its own Xbox LIVE leaderboards, so at least you don't have to worry about the upper echelons being populated by impossibly talented Asian players who can probably play blindfolded and without fingers. Instead they'll just be topped off by some dude named Barry who lives in Cheshire and is unimaginably better at the game than you or anyone you've ever known.
But maybe you're not convinced. You might dismiss this as yet another attempt at cashing in on pretty much the same bullet hell formula which made Cave the talk of anyone still interested in the arcade scene way back when in 1997 - you know, back when the arcades were callously and inevitably lingering towards death like Trinity at the end of the third Matrix film. You might say that Deathsmiles isn't even as good as quintessential shmups like DoDonPachi and Ikaruga, and you'd be right.
But you'd be missing out on all the little details which make the game so charming. Cave might be a bastion of impenetrable difficulty, archaic design, and indecipherable mechanics, not to mention ten years behind the curve in terms of technology, but the infrequency and scarcity of the genre means Deathsmiles still feels as unique today as DoDonPachi did fourteen years ago.
And because of its relative simplicity compared to the rest of its ilk, Deathsmiles is the perfect Cave shooter to bring to the European market. It will still be far too difficult for most, but the game is one of the developer's most accessible titles to date, and while its jagged 2D art and unpopular genre will never grant it more than an extremely niche audience, the few who are interested will be more than satisfied with both the game and Rising Star's commendable publishing efforts.