Review: Deathsmiles

Just recently I did a feature on shoot ’em up (shmup) games, and one of the main reasons I was feeling shmup fever was due to the release of Deathsmiles for the Xbox 360. Developed by Cave, and published by Aksys, Deathsmiles has actually been around for nearly three years in Japan, so when it was announced that it would be coming to North America, shmup fans like myself were quite happy and surprised.

The game is a horizontal scroller and falls into the bullet hell category. You control one of five different characters that has a tag along familiar through stages packed with macabre style enemies. The gameplay is quite intense and on the harder difficulties it’s extremely challenging, even for seasoned shmup players. The difficulty can be dialed back quite a bit, but honestly the real satisfaction in Deathsmiles comes from getting through the punishing levels with as few deaths as possible.

The gameplay isn’t all that unique, but it does have some nice touches. Rather than multiple lives, the player gets one life and a 3 hit life bar. Bullets decrease the life bar by one, but collisions with enemies only take away 1/2 of a hit. You can pick up items to refill the bar along the way. As you accumulate points, you can increase the 3 hit life bar to 4 or 5, but it takes big scoring to make it happen. For attacks the player can tap the button for a standard shot, hold it for a secondary shot, lock on to have their familiar fire, or fire off a bomb-style attack. As enemies are destroyed, they fire off some smaller bullets (similar to in Ikaruga when dying enemies fire off bullets) that will do you damage, but if they strike your familiar you actually gain points. Also, when enemies are destroyed they’ll typically leave behind an item pickup. As you pick up items, a counter tallies your total. Once you reach 1000 items, you can power up your attacks for a limited time. It’s a simple system, but it all works well.

The story in Deathsmiles is nothing special, but story has never been a focus in the genre. There are two different endings for each character, however, so multiple replays aren’t based slowly on gaining a higher score. I guess there’s enough story dressing on the game to keep it interesting, but there’s nothing truly compelling to make note of.

The style is something that might be a turnoff for some, as it’s pretty heavily anime influenced. Really though, after a few minutes that styling fades into the background as you are jamming your controller stick in all directions to avoid the incoming storm of bullets. While I’m not an anime fan, I do have to admit that it does add some charm to the overall package, but I wouldn’t disagree with anybody that would say that the inclusion of it is a little tough to swallow.

Overall the game is great, even if it is a little expensive. I still feel like this genre can do well, but they need to release these games more often, and they need to hit a better price point. I don’t mind paying $50-$60 for a good shmup, but for such a niche genre they really need to get these down to $20-$30. I would definitely recommend the game without any reservations for shump fans and would advise casual fans to see if they can find it at a lower price. I would caution those who choose to wait that it’s very possible that this game could become quite scarce once the initial shipment sells out.

Overall Score: 8.0 out of 10

A SHMUP brush up

With the release of Sin & Punishment: Star Successor for the Wii and Deathsmiles (impressions for both coming soon) for the Xbox 360, I figured I’d give a brief overview of the shoot ’em up (shmup) genre and point out some of my favorites. The genre itself is about as old as gaming, and it’s one that has managed to survive despite their very distinct and niche attributes. I think the genre survives because it really boils down gaming into its most basic elements: shoot, dodge, advance, repeat to perfection.

As a subgenre of the shooter genre, the shoot ’em up name applies to many types of experiences. There are fixed shooters, scrolling shooters, multi-directional shooters, on-rails shooters, manic shooters, run and gun, and a few oddball types. Let’s take a look at each one and point out some notable games.

Fixed Shooters

Fixed shooters are one  of the earliest variations on the shmup genre. Games like Space Invaders, Galaxian, or Galaga have the player at a fixed point on the Y-axis at the bottom of the screen and the player must move along the X-axis to attack enemies that move across both axes. The screen doesn’t scroll, but there might be multiple levels where variations of enemy types or objects on the screen appear. There aren’t a lot of these shooters being released today, but they do still make appearances from time to time, such as Space Invaders Extreme.

Some fixed shooters allow the player to move along the X-axis or even on both axes, but the screen doesn’t scroll nor does the player shoot in more than one direction (always shoots up or across the screen). Games like Yars’ Revenge allow for both Y and X axis movement, but the player is only able to shoot horizontally.

A Few Notable Fixed Shooter Franchises: Space Invaders, Galaxian, Galaga, Pleaids, Phoenix, Centipede, Demon Attack, Pooyan, Atlantis

Scrolling Shooters

Scrolling shooters are the type of shoot ’em ups that are most familiar to the average gamer. They come in a few variations, including vertical, horizontal, and isometric. The scrolling shooter is nearly 3o years old, and Defender is credited with ushering in this style back in 1981. In this type of shooter, the screen will scroll either automatically (forced) or by advancing forward or backward through the level. Some of the biggest franchises in the shmup genre fall within this type of shooter. Many shooter fans consider the scrolling shooters to be the most “pure” style of shooters.

This and multi-directional shooters are the most popular forms of the genre left a live today. There is some overlap between the styles, but for the most part they’re easily differentiated.

A Few Notable Scrolling Shooter Franchises: Defender, Gradius, R-Type, 1942, Blazing Star, Mars Matrix, Legendary Wings, Scramble, DoDonPachi, Star Soldier, Espgaluda, Ikaruga, Radiant Silvergun, Guwange, Gunbird 2, Spy Hunter, and many, many, many more.

Multi-Directional Shooters

Multi-directional shooters are still quite popular today, and they are actually the oldest sub-genre in the shoot ’em up family and as old as video games themselves. Spacewar! kicked off the genre back in 1962. It featured two ships that flew around a fixed screen and attempted to shoot at each other. This style is called multi-directional because you can travel and shoot in any direction rather than on fixed angles. Games like Asteroids and Smash TV really propelled the multi-directional shooter genre forward and they were a massive hit in arcades. This style of shooter really took off again recently with the re-emergence of twin stick and touch screen controls. Both the PS3 and Xbox 360 have several games available that fit into this sub-genre.

A Few Notable Multi-Directional Shooter Franchises: Asteroids, Computer Space, Smash TV, Geometry Wars, Bangai-O, Berzerk, Super Stardust, Star Control, Time Pilot, Sinistar, Robotron: 2084

On-Rails Shooters

On-rail shooters are similar to scrolling shooters, but the player movement is limited to a pre-defined path through the environment, and in many cases so is the camera viewing angle. Many on-rails shooters give the illusion of a larger world, but the player is guided down a fairly specific tunnel. Space Harrier and After Burner are a couple of on-rails shooters that really gave the genre its start. Enemies in this style of shooter tend to be larger, take more damage to defeat, and will often remain on screen for longer amounts of time.

A Few Notable On-Rails Shooter Franchises: Space Harrier, After Burner, Panzer Dragoon, Star Fox, Rez, Sin & Punishment, and several Star Wars titles.

Manic Shooters

Manic shooters, or bullet hell shooters, really are just scrolling shooters, but they have a distinct look and feel to them that many people classify them differently. Above I mentioned several manic shooters in the notable scrolling shooter list, as I tend to prefer to conflate the types under one umbrella. But in all fairness, manic shooters do offer a different experience. The biggest difference between a manic shooter and a more traditional scrolling shooter is the sheer number of projectiles that are thrown at the player. Rather than reasonable levels of enemies coming at you, manic shooters flood the screen with both enemies and bullets. The player’s ship (or character) usually has a fairly small hit box, allowing the player to dodge and weave through the non-stop onslaught of bullets. Memorizing attack patterns is essential to surviving bullet hell games.

This style of shmup is definitely the most challenging, and as a result, it’s also the most niche. Gamers that prefer this style of shooter thrive on the constant edge of your seat gameplay and the extreme concentration it takes to survive. Many of these games will offer alternate endings, bonus levels, or other hidden gems for completing the game under certain circumstances, such as no deaths or not using any special weapons. Cave is the current king and by most accounts the pioneer of manic shooter developers; but many will argue that Treasure has a better touch for the genre.

A Few Notable Manic Shooter Franchises: Ikaruga, DonPachi, Radiant Silvergun, Ikaruga, Guwange, Mars Matrix, Strikers 1945, Castle of Shikigami, Espgaluda, Touhou

Run and Gun Shooters

Run and Gun shooters can also fit within some of the other categories, depending on their execution, but the one characteristic that sets these apart from the rest is that they’re typically games where the player controls a character or vehicle that is on the ground. These shooters can incorporate on-rails gameplay, vertical or horizontal scrolling, multi-directional controls, and even elements of bullet hell gameplay. The run and gun style of shooter is also one that’s been around for a long time. The games may have small bits of platforming mixed in with the shooting, but it’s the shooting that is the main focus in these games, by far. Arcades and home consoles in the 8-bit and 16-bit era saw practically endless releases of run and gun shooters. Today there are still releases in this style of shooter, but they’re nowhere near as common as they used to be.

A Few Notable Run and Gun Shooter Franchises: Contra, Gunstar Heroes, Metal Slug, PN.03, Alien Soldier, Rush’n Attack, Gun.Smoke

Oddball Shooters – The rest of the genre

There are so many sub-genres within the shooter genre that it would take many pages of text to cover them all, so I’ll just lump what’s left under “oddball shooters”. It’s not that these are particularly weird, it’s just that they’re not as prominent as the other types. In addition to the types mentioned above, you also have Tube Shooters, such as Tempest. Tube shooters are rarely seen, but they offer some nice action. Cute ’em Up shooters are even more niche, and are typically a style of manic shooters; with the main difference being in the style and aesthetic. Cute ’em Ups are generally extremely colorful, incorporate a heavy amount of cutesy art and sound, and will often times be full of innuendo. It’s rare to see a game of this nature come to the West, but they’re widely available on PC for imports for those interested. There are even more types than these, but they’re quite niche or outright experimental.

Shoot ’em ups are not nearly as prominent as they were back in the ’80s and ’90s, but they’re still all part of a relevant genre in gaming. It’s not very likely that a shmup is going to be topping the NPD charts or sweeping the game of the year awards any time soon, but many of the games that do owe their existence to many of the roots laid down by the shoot ’em up genre. Early first person perspective games like Atari’s Star Wars were the first logical step that eventually lead to games such as Wolfenstein 3D, a pioneer in first person shooters. Games like Robotron: 2084 were inspiration for not only modern day twin stick shooters, but also other frantic experiences such as Dead Rising.

If you’re interested in getting your feet we with shoot ’em ups, it’s usually best to start with the old classics and work your way up to the more current offerings. Games like 1942, R-Type, Gradius, Robotron:2084, and Contra are all amazing games to see how likely you are to enjoy the genre.

How the Nintendo 3DS works, what it looks like

Stereoscopic 3D has been around for a very long time. Many of us had toys that used the effect when we were kids in the form of a View-Master. The way the 3D works is that two nearly identical images are presented, one to each eye. Your brain combines the images into a single image, which creates depth in the single image. The reason the depth effect works is because each image is slightly different from a perspective standpoint, and when the image is fused in your brain, both perspectives are preserved, making the scene look alive.

Below I have a good example piece. To make it work you’ll have to cross your eyes until you see a 3rd image between the two. Focus on that 3rd (middle) image and it should come into focus. You may have to get closer to your monitor (10 to 12 inches) to make it work. If you do it correctly, the image should clarify and show depth to it. Try it now.

Now, the 3DS works in the same way, but the cool thing with Nintendo’s technology is that the LCD screen sends the images to your eyes without you having to do any headache-inducing eye crossing. The result is a constant and moving image that has a great sensation of depth. The slider for increasing or decreasing the 3D effect is simply affecting how much the two images vary from a viewpoint difference, making the fused image seem more or less pronounced in its depth.

The price of motion control for PS3 and 360 owners

Ever since the Wii became a runaway success, it was only a matter of time before Microsoft and Sony would join the game. I didn’t think it would take this long for them to enter the ring and duke it out with their own motion control systems, but E3 2010 showed that both companies are taking this fight quite seriously. The funny thing about motion controls is that they’re aimed at the casual market; a market that takes cost into consideration as a very high determining factor. So, both Sony and Microsoft have laid out their battle plans. If they are to make strides into the casual market, price is a big deal. Comparing the two is interesting, so let’s take a look.

Microsoft Kinect Options

If you already own an Xbox 360 system

  • Kinect – $149.99 (free unannounced game included)

If you are buying an Xbox 360 for Kinect

  • Xbox Elite 250GB System  + Kinect – $449.99
  • Xbox 360 Arcade System + Kinect – $299.99

The real advantage Microsoft has is that for multiplayer you only need one Kinect peripheral, and you won’t need to buy multiple controllers or attachments. The base price is the same price for one person or a whole family to get playing. Gamestop has confirmed that Kinect will include a free game, but they haven’t said what game that is at this point. It’s highly likely that the bundled game will be something very simple, so most buyers are going to want to pick up something such as Kinect Sports, Kinectimals, or Child of Eden to really get started with the Kinect experience.

Sony PlayStation Move Options

If you already own a PS3 and a PlayStation Eye camera

  • PlayStation Move Controller + Navigation Controller + Game – $119.99

If you already own a PS3 but no PlayStation Eye camera

  • PlayStation Move Starter Bundle + Navigation Controller – $129.99

If you are buying  PlayStation 3 for Move

  • PlayStation Move Console Bundle + Navigation Controller – $429.99

Prices of Move Accessories

  • PlayStation Move Controller – $49.99
  • PlayStation Move Navigation Controller – $29.99

Now there’s something important to point out here. Some Move games will require two Move controllers to be used to fully experience the game, so really you’d want to buy a second controller if you’re serious about playing the full library properly. In essence, you should add an additional $49.99 to each bundle above. I added in the price for a Navigation controller even though Sony says it’s possible to use a regular PS3 controller. It will be less than ideal to try to grip a PS3 controller with one hand, however, and I don’t see many people opting for that. Like the Wii, to get more players in the game, you’ll need additional controllers. Some games could require up to 8 Move controllers for 4 players, but at minimum 4. For a full 4-player experience, it could cost as much as $279.99 to get playing, even if you already own a PS3. I would wager that most 4-player games will not require two Move controllers per player, however.

When you price things up, the Kinect price tag seems higher, but for new console owners the PS3 cost of entry is significantly more, especially when you start adding in multiple players. For those that own consoles, the same is the truth unless you’re planning on playing solo.

What I gather from pouring over the numbers is that despite price of the 360 and PS3 systems getting into more family friendly realms, neither one can realistically compete with what the Wii offers. Right now the is $199.99, which includes the system and two games. Obviously adding in the additional controllers to get up to 4 players brings up the price, but you’ll still come out significantly ahead by going the Nintendo route. With the economy how it is, Sony and Microsoft have a huge uphill battle to make the public see their offerings as a good value.

Gaming Setups Hall of Shame – Part One

I’m probably going to take some crap for this, but I think it’s worth it. Before I dig into this piece, let me explain my methodology for choosing those found in this piece. Every once in a while you’ll see a message board thread inviting the community to share their gaming and/or home theater setups. Eager forum users time and time again step up and post their pictures while proudly stating, “this is my setup!” Well, if you’re going to put yourself out there, I’m going to be the jerk that saves your picture, shares it with an audience, and ridicules each and every one of your missteps. To be fair, however, I don’t make fun of people for having poor setups due to financial constraint; everybody is judged according to how well they did within their financial means.

Note: I’ll be adding to this as the need arrives. If you find worthy submissions, email them to me at jar155 [at] gmail dot com.

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Surround sound only works if, you know, it SURROUNDS YOU. Unless this gamer is planning on pressing his nose against that LCD display, there’s absolutely no possible way that he’s going to benefit from a 5.1 system. In fact, it’s going to sound as confusing as all get out when footsteps that should sound like they’re coming from behind come from in front of you and up in the air. Ridiculous. This is like that time when I thought I’d be clever and use a bar of soap to wash my hair instead of shampoo so I could just start at the top and work down. Well, actually, it’s nothing like that, but both things are pretty stupid. At least my decision was recognized and never repeated. This chump actually is proud of what’s going on in the pic above.

The madness continues after the jump…
Continue reading Gaming Setups Hall of Shame – Part One