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.