Originally sold in Japan with bottles of tea labeled “Tasty Vindia Piss” – purported to be the feces of the Deathsmiles protagonist – it’s worth wondering what Cave’s aspirations for this entry were in their shooter canon.
Deathsmiles is an eccentric stylization of heroines flying on a broomstick, fighting the forces of darkness through fiery caves and over the English Ye Olde shipyards. His list of “Lolis” (or “Lolita”, for those who are less au fait with anime vocabulary) is a group of female witches between the ages of 11 and 17 who inhabit Gilverado, a Halloween-themed world filled with dragons, wizards and giant Satan-possessed cows. Each character’s weapon and spinning spirit familiar offer different benefits for survival and scoring, and the types of shots can be alternated between a faster (but weaker) laser and a slower and more powerful cannon. Holding both buttons activates your friend’s homing properties, allowing them to target anything within a certain range.
Deathsmiles is one of the most polarizing Cave games out there for all but casual gamers. Incredibly simple to play by default, this was the first clean single credit trophy for many newbies. Its real problem lies in its difficult scoring parameters, and while this is an experiment with mixed results, it has proven popular enough to spawn a sequel. Deadly Smiles II Xis also included in this package.
The horizontal aspect is visually mesmerizing, allowing Gilverado’s world to breathe in full screen mode. Your Lolis can shoot back and forth at will when enemies attack from the left and right limbs; A fun mechanic that keeps you on your toes as you take out all sorts of ghouls, demon pigs and giant orcs. The scenes are well visualized, especially the alluring cave of fire and its two-headed dragon, the pleasant foggy atmosphere in the cemetery and the impressive velvet-covered finale of the raid on the castle. While the presentation is good and the background is beautiful, it does suffer from some rough pre-rendered sprites; and arcade mode is outdated unless you plan on playing it on a CRT. Fortunately, its jagged edges have been radically reworked with high-res upscaling in Normal mode – although one can only guess with some certainty how much better the game would look if it were created entirely using traditional pixel art. However, the bosses are surprisingly creepy – albeit fairly straightforward – with Mary the Giant the cow and Tyrannosatan’s thunderous finale showcasing the wilder side of art director Junya Inoue.
Elsewhere, there are tons of options to tweak game options (which you should never touch) and screen settings. For some reason, when set to full screen, a strip of blank pixels appears on the screen, which really disables OCD. Thankfully, the native aspect of Deathsmiles II 16: 9 doesn’t suffer from this issue, but a picky patch would be welcome. A lazier issue is that Deathsmiles II’s playback function is inexplicably lacking in speed-up capabilities.
Death Smiles are specially simplified for casual players with a clever system that allows you to freely adjust their difficulty. Its six initial stages can be visited in no particular order, each with its own rank. Level 1 is children’s things, Level 2 is not much more difficult, and Level 3 is one notch higher. As you become familiar with the layouts and bosses, it will be fun to climb to higher ranks; but if you reach Rank 3 five times, you will unlock Death Mode by summoning a swarm of “Suicide Bullets” (additional homing fire released by destroyed enemies) for the rest of the game.
It’s still a far cry from the Donpachi series’ bedlam thanks to generous hitboxes, adequate slowdowns and powerful weaponry; but Gorge, an extra adrenaline-infused EX stage that precedes the grand finale of Castle of Hades, speeds things up. This is where your orbital familiars become indispensable, acting as a barrier to the suicide pool that guides you through the carnage.
Deathsmiles is a great survival game and if that’s all you’re looking for, you’ll have fun. Scoring, however, is a polarizing question. It’s incredibly deep, usually confusing, and intended only for experts – and for fans of the genre, targeting the upper echelons of the scoreboard, its structure can be disappointing. To score points, crowns fall from destroyed enemies, which break when they hit the ground, turning into diadems, and then onto skulls, the total number of which increases, but the value of points gradually decreases. Different enemies will drop larger icons depending on which shot method is used, which complicates the learning process, and you automatically aim them all at a certain proximity. During this evacuation process, you create a secondary counter that, when fully depleted, can be manually triggered to cause a “fever” condition for a short time. During this state, the number of points dropped is multiplied by a cascade that fills the screen, and while this is the most enjoyable part of the game – swiping everything and sucking a tornado of shiny ingots – you won’t be able to compete with higher scorers unless you learn to perform perfectly ” recharge ”before the fever is over.
To do this, you need to determine the optimal moment to enter the fever mode, and then, as soon as the counter reaches zero, destroy the huge swarm of enemies, absorb the wave of skull icons and instantly recharge the counter. It’s so hard to pull off that even if you could swear you did it right, it’s still prone to failure – and video surveillance doesn’t help much.
Added to this is a cumulative score multiplier that is canceled out either by death or by exiting fever mode, which requires suicide bullets to flourish. It takes months of practice to figure this out, repetition doesn’t help due to the slightly simplistic early enemy patterns, and you need to survive the tier 3 stages and death mode to make the most of it.
Like many other Cave shmups games, Deathsmiles received a rework known as Mega Black Labelalso included here. His new character, Sakura, is one of the most enjoyable additions to the clan; while the introduction of rank “999” – darkening the background of the scene and boosting enemy fire to a full purple haze – offers an exhilarating but nearly impossible trap available only to experts.
The Mega Black Label mixes up the core game by increasing the multiplier point ceiling and decreasing death penalties. You can also trigger multiple fever modes at each stage and assign more points and recharge opportunities. Its complex reorganization means that some people still stick to the vanilla version; but MBL’s greater sense of action and flow is likely to feel more natural to most, and his new EX Stage, Ice Palace, is a standout highlight.
The exclusive “1.1” console mode again rebalances the scoring and penalty systems, and adds features such as suicide bullets for bosses during fever. It’s hard to say why the game needed a third rebalance, but those who are well versed in the original may find its tweaks rewarding.
The sequel, Deathsmiles II X, has a suffix that translates to “Hell’s Merry Christmas” that will tell you everything you need to know about its holiday horror theme. Uniquely the only fully polygonal Cave shmap, it has a pleasing aesthetic flair despite being visually similar to a PlayStation 2 game. It has an even younger Lolis, one Trap and a consistently quirky set of enemies, but it nonetheless a very enjoyable manic experience. Its crazy scoring mechanic, which is often overlooked compared to its predecessor, is really fun to play with. Stage length and bullet density are closer to Cave’s usual work, and while many familiar systems remain, including routes and steps, the new force field system and its huge, pompous, screen-ripping bullets are still appealing.
Fever mode can last for most of the stage here, and at level 2 or higher it draws blue suicide bullets towards you. Once these bullets hit your magic sphere, they can be thrown back across the screen, reaping blazing destruction along the way. Recharging is still relevant, but now much easier to do, and turning the playing field into a cyclone of shiny glasses is an impressive rush. It also features an excellent antagonist in the form of Satan’s Claws and many unusual boss battles. It’s hard to say why, but there’s something more relaxing about Deathsmiles II’s footsteps.