Release: Out now (JP), TBA (Eur/US)
If there’s a defining feature of Cave’s many shoot ‘em ups – beyond the holy triumvirate of complex scoring system, tiny player craft hitbox and millions of bullets on screen at any one time – it’s colour, blossoming fireworks of lilac and lavender. While the image of the genre may be of spaceships and military/industrial landscapes, Cave’s releases frequently cover more fantastical grounds.
Deathsmiles, for example, presents a Halloween theme and Gothic Lolita cast. Only the second ever horizontally-scrolling shooter to have been developed by the company, it nevertheless contains elements familiar to fans of its back catalogue. It also shares similarities with a style of shooter that’s long fallen out of fashion: with multidirectional shots, the game turns into a cross between DoDonPachi and Capcom’s classic Forgotten Worlds.
This may initially seem more complex, but in practice, multidirectional shots add a level of flexibility to the controls that makes the game far more approachable than many previous Cave releases. It’s an indication of a shift in design philosophy that’s carried through to all other areas. Shoot ‘em ups have long faced an ever-dwindling following, and it’s clear that Cave realises that unless it introduces such changes in philosophy, it could see the death of the genre.
There’s a freedom here that hasn’t been seen in a home release of a Cave game since ESPGaluda. The low-level score mechanics have a similar malleability: enemies drop points items that raise a counter. When full, the counter can initiate a power-up mode that increases both firepower and enemy points values. On the counter running out you’re returned to normal power levels, but by manipulating the speed of the countdown by utilising different shot types, the canny player can time its termination to coincide with the destruction of large groups of enemies, resulting in an instant recharge.
While there are still some restrictions – accurately timing the countdown expiry is exceptionally difficult – it stands in stark contrast to the infuriating chaining mechanic of the DoDonPachi games, or the obscure rank manipulation of Ibara. The home exclusive 1.1 mode takes it further, a few ostensibly simple alterations to the system changing the nature of the game entirely: direct control of the characters’ familiar on the right analogue stick, suicide bullets being cancelled into points items, initiation of power-up mode when the counter hits 100.
As such, 1.1 mode represents possibly Cave’s most exhilarating game to date. Hundreds of bullets turn into hundreds of items and each item collected makes an on-screen multiplier climb, giving rise to yet more bullets and more items, until the screen is awash with light and spectacle. And yet, despite the exponential increases in on-screen action, the action remains utterly legible.
It’s at these moments – when (intentional) slowdown allows you to jink your way through the gaps, when your score is climbing to pinball table heights and when your fingers feel directly connected to your eyeballs – that you understand why the genre continues to live on long after the mainstream left it behind, and why Cave remains its most visible and successful proponent.
Scrolling shooters deserve a Street Fighter IV, a game that reminds casual or drifted gamers what it was that made its genre so entertaining in the first place. It would be fitting if Deathsmiles, with its range of difficulties, high def visual remake, online modes, DLC and freeform mechanics, could be that game.