You know gaming has aged nicely when a large subset of enthusiasts wax rhapsodically for the return to yesteryear. In this age of digital distribution channels, we find we can take that trip to the good old days with more frequency as developers mine the past to give niche gamers their continued fix. The last two years alone have been a boon to fans of 2D platformers and top down shoot ‘em ups; the hallmarks of the 80s arcade scene. With the return of titles like Bionic Commando Rearmed or Sin & Punishment, old school gets a new gloss and finds a hungry appetite in those gamers who value gameplay over pretty visuals – which is exactly the market that Cave looks to tap with the recent release of their shooter, Deathsmiles.
Deathsmiles plays like the ultimate mash-up of classic Konami properties’ Gradius and Castlevania. In this Gothic-themed side scrolling shooter, players choose from one of four junior witches as they seek to eradicate the grave evil threatening the land. It’s classic bullet-hell with the characters traversing Halloween-esque backdrops stockpiled with assorted ghosts and goblins looking to unload an obscene amount of ordinance on your wee little sprite.
The Castlevania vibe is felt in the spooky setting as well as the addition of a familiar – a little demon entity that rides shotgun with the player and helps double your fire power. Depending upon your control configuration, you can manipulate both entities independently; adding a strategic advantage to where you direct that constant barrage of fire and brimstone.
While Deathsmiles doesn’t bring much new to the table, it does succeed based on its whimsical charm and blistering action. Each new stage is brimming with well-animated visuals that impart a sweetly, spooky vibe. While the stages are short and the entire game can be blasted through in under an hour, the disc is packed with re-arranged modes encouraging SHMUP fans to keep gunning for loftier real estate on the online leader-boards.
While I was utterly charmed by Deathsmiles, I’m hesitant to recommend a full purchase at the current retail price to anyone other than shooter collectors. The content may be enough to warrant a premium Xbox Live Arcade price point ($15-$20) but at the current retail rate of $50 for the collector’s edition, it’s just too expensive. The niche hobbyists will probably look past the price point just to add another bauble to their collections, but with so many quality shooters available for small money on XBLA, this just doesn’t seem worth it.
We are living in a glorious age where classic game types such as Deathsmiles can be found as readily available as a AAA release like Halo: Reach. Those that give Deathsmiles a spin are in for a solid, if not completely revolutionary take on a gaming archetype that has endured for one good reason – these shooters are just plain fun to play. With a fairly forgiving difficulty level, this also makes for a nice entry level title before shooter fans tear their hair out in something like Ikaruga. That being said, unless you are that diehard collector, this title makes for a better rental. It’s well worth the play but only the diehard should make it a purchase.