There’s a moment about halfway through the very first level of Deathsmiles where you’ve just turned your third huge Spanish galleon into the biggest ball of flames so far, as Halloween celebrations on the living October dockside go on hold while supernatural butcher-pigs and a horned cyclops do their thing to a cacophony of church organs, and a mass of airborne demonic nasties rain down bullet-hell from above and from all sides, and it was at that moment, the very first time I played it, when I decided Deathsmiles was the best game ever! And that was before I’d taken down a massive grim reaper boss to emerge into the most atmospheric graveyard since Ghosts ‘n Goblins on Commodore 64!
Fast forward to some time later, and Deathsmiles sits at number twenty in my list of all-time favourite games and number one if we’re talking shoot ‘em ups. Just ahead of DoDonPachi, which probably also says something about my particular taste in shoot em ups even if one is horizontal and the other vertical, and they are a full ten years apart. You don’t have to go much further down my list to find even more CAVE shooters either – Progear, Espgaluda II, Mushihimesama… I love me some CAVE! They just tick all the boxes – the feel, the challenge, the creativity, the complexity, the jaw-dropping looks and impeccable soundtracks, but most of all the exhilaration; there’s nothing like majestically sweeping across the screen in the face of a swarm of their enemies and a curtain of bullets to come out of the other side still intact against all the odds!
I’m not going to go into Deathsmiles itself in too much detail here – for all the reasons explained above, it deserves its own deep-dive, and I’ve been waiting mere days short of a year for this Deathsmiles I+II Collector’s Edition to turn up so I can legitimately do so! Outside of MAME, I didn’t have an Xbox 360 when it came (then went) there in 2009, two years after its original arcade release, and I know that some people really like playing these things on a touchscreen, but I just don’t so I never took the plunge on the 2011 mobile version, although back in 2019 it did unexpectedly get updated so I assume you could use a controller now, but still, that’s not where I’d ideally want to play it. Deathsmiles II is a different matter – I’d play that anywhere but I’ve just never seen it in the wild and never got it working anywhere else; I’m not a MAME expert but I’ve tried every version on every core and never got decent performance out of it, if any at all, so once again, I’ve waited an age for this thing to turn up so I can finally have a go!
And that’s why we will have a quick paragraph on first impressions there before we get to the unboxing of stuff, which means we should probably set the scene a bit first after all… We’ve pretty much established that Deathsmiles is a side-scrolling shoot ‘em up by Japanese developer CAVE in 2007, heavy on the gothic vibe and heavy on the bullets. You (and a friend, if you have one) take the role of one (or two) of four Angels to defend the magical land of Gilverado from an invasion by hell itself across eight stages, and this version comes with nine different game modes (presumably mirroring the Xbox version, if it’s like other CAVE rereleases), including the souped-up Mega Black Label take. Every aspect of its aesthetics could have been made just for me – they’re everything great about CAVE games but running wild through a haunted house, and the action gets increasingly breathless as you progress.
This is where Deathsmiles brings a few of its own tricks to the party too – once you’ve picked your character, you’ve got a choice of where to begin, from Port Town, Forest of the Lost or Lake Shore. Beat the first level and you’ll get another batch of stages to choose from – Graveyard, Swamp Wastes and Volcano, and then you choose from first lot again and so on until you’ve beaten all six, when you can either enter the nightmarish Gorge level or go straight to the Hades Castle. Things then get really unique because each of these stages has three levels of difficultly, and in the original game you can only choose each one twice before it’s locked out, so as accessible as this makes it, you’ll have some decisions to make about where it gets harder, or, indeed, where you’ll score biggest. This version loosens things up though and you can choose whatever level you want when you want.
There’s power ups and other stuff, but we’ll save that for another time and move to the 2009 sequel, Deathsmiles II X: Merry Christmas in Hell, instead, which also got the old Xbox treatment but apart from that is appearing here for the first time as far as I know. While I’ve never played it, I do know it’s not held in such high regard as the first, partly from the presentation, which adopted a more realistic, smoothed polygonal style, and partly because it’s just a bit uninspiring. Nothing uninspiring about the story though! The evil Satan Claws killed your caretaker, Count Dior, on Christmas Eve, so you’ve got to chase him down through Gilverado’s winter wonderland, which includes two new locations, as well as two new Angels to select from. And it’s alright! It is more of the same and the new art style does make it less of the same at the same time, but it’s a very good horizontal shooter. From what I’ve played so far, the Christmas theme comes and goes between levels and I guess that’s my main criticism – it’s either a Christmas game, which definitely limits its year-round appeal, or it isn’t. But if it’s set up as a Christmas game then it needs to go all-in as one. Close your eyes and you’ve got a CAVE game though, and I’ve enjoyed it so far.
If you’ve played another CAVE game like Mushihimesama or Espgaluda on Switch (also read Xbox 360) you know what you’re getting here. It all looks pretty but the presentation is pretty barebones as far as anything meaningful goes. Don’t know what Arrange mode is? Tough. Mega Black Label? Tough. Normal mode versus Arcade? You’ve got it! You can mess around with display settings though and there’s some nice wallpapers, a training mode, score attack, replays, various rankings… It’s fine, assuming you know what you’re doing, otherwise I definitely recommend a trip to the internet to consult some bigger boys! We’ll finish here with a note on Switch performance – also fine, docked or handheld, but the Joy-Cons don’t feel great and the d-pad is better but not much, so my preference is definitely docked plus arcade stick.
And with that, we’ll save the games for another time and start digging around our Collector’s Edition box, starting with the box itself. We’re talking 16cm wide by 22cm high by about 7cm deep of fully-printed, 2mm thick, stiff, high-quality card with an invisible magnetic clasp on the side. The front cover features a nice four-person coffin containing our Angels and a bunch of roses, which is also on the additional cardboard sleeve that holds it all together, and inside is a full width cover and a side’s worth of printed collage showing the Angels in action. And I like that as a welcome!
That image is also on the inside of the game box, and as well as the Switch cartridge, we’ve also got a manual, which is always lovely to see in 2022! It’s a not massively informative 18-pages, with a profile on each of the characters accompanied by some excellent character art, but if you’re enjoying that then maybe don’t look too closely at their ages… Actually surprised they didn’t get a tweak here as it wouldn’t be the first time for these games. Apart from that, a couple of pages explaining controls and a nice piece of thanks for playing artwork. Nice.
It’s at the top of the box so we’ll start the rest of the goodies with the wall-scroll. And already I’m remembering the ludicrous situation we now find ourselves in doing these unboxings, though marginally less ludicrous so far than me describing the teacup from the Cotton Fantasy Collector’s Edition we unboxed here a while back! That said, I think this might be my favourite thing in the box – reminds me of those wall-scrolls with glittery tigers or Japanese pagodas that everyone used to have on their living room walls in the seventies! It’s about 30cm long with a good quality print of the Deathsmiles main visual on its rollable canvas and it hangs very nicely.
Six artwork postcards emerge from the box now, and while every single one does feature what the menu has now confirmed as mostly sexualised, mostly underage girls, they’re relatively tasteful considering, and actually, there’s some cool backgrounds and those reds and blues are really popping when you lay them all out together. Doubt they’ll ever leave the box but you need to keep something in there to have a rummage around in every once in a while!
The enamel logo pin badge can come out though. I’ve got a notice board that I’ve been adding stuff to since the early eighties and I’ll find space on there somehow. Always space on there! It does look a bit like a black metal band logo though. Got some flames on it too… Maybe I could wear it after all. Not sure the colour is me though. Good badge!
Now the Deathsmiles arcade flyer. This is the kind of stuff I want to find in a collector’s edition, although I’d have liked an actual flyer for either or even both of the actual arcade games, rather than an arcade-style flyer for this collection. It’s good though. Good staircase!
Not sure about this key chain set featuring the familiar spirits of the games’ characters. It’s not so much a “set“ as one key chain with loads of little spooky animal charms hanging awkwardly off it. At least they’re not dressed in slutty goth gear too, I suppose! They’re decent enough quality too, well printed on clear acrylic, but not massively practical! It’s alright but can also stay where it is in the box for now.
Some bigger scale bits of shaped acrylic now, but first we need to try and get some protective plastic coverings off of every bit. And there’s eight bits and they’re all detailed cut-outs. And it’s a nightmare! Glad to see such care given to this diorama all the same though. These things are 10-15cm or so tall, really nice quality and while the majority are destined to stay in the box because there is a bit of a space premium (not to mention taste premium) at play with these, I think my nerd shelves can probably accommodate Sakura, the witchy swamp level boss from the first game who’s actually only playable in the Mega Black Label version of the original game here.
I know I’ll never put either side of this reversible poster on the wall, but as also happened inside the Cotton Fantasy box, I reckon skimping on including two A2 posters is a bit of a cheapskate move when you’ve spent £80 on a box of stuff you don’t need! Annoying folded up too, but I suppose most posters are… Unless they’re in numbered tubes like you used to get under the poster carousels in Woolworths in the eighties! Anyway, they’re both nice images, if hanging pictures of Angels in clothing of dubious taste on your wall is your thing.
Now we’re talking – the Gothic wa Mahou Otomi “Deathsmiles Respect Arrange” Soundtrack CD! Again, I’d like a bit of vinyl and not a CD for £80, and would have gladly paid a premium on top of that, but what we have here is alright I guess, and what’s one more CD you don’t want when you’ve already got two thousand! Here we have eighteen tracks by Daisuke Matsumoto, which I think is part spin-off and part rearrangement of the Deathsmiles soundtrack for the original Arrange mode. It’s a fantastic listen, mixing intense, histrionic gothic with big orchestral synth-rock, a hint of industrial metal and and a splash of J-pop, and it mostly works! I’d have possibly preferred a “proper” soundtrack CD (if I’m not allowed vinyl) because the original game in particular has a really beautiful one but I’ve had a really nice time listening to this in the background while I’m working and in the car all the same. Very enjoyable. Assuming you can play it.
I’ve been hoarding stickers for decades – never anywhere good enough to stick them so they stay on their sheets as infinitum. The same will no doubt be true of these sticker versions of the diorama pieces we just looked at. They nice but they’re just stickers that will probably now outlive me so we’ll move on.
Okay, more stickers, but these things are beasts and therefore even way less likely to ever find somewhere worthy enough of being stuck on! Now we’re looking at some very cool arcade cabinet marquee stickers, and they’re really big and really thick and way more informative than that manual in the game box, with some useful techniques as well as the basic controls and a fantastic bit of Sakura art on the Mega Black Label one! And with that we’re done so now no need to double-check her age before I come across as any more pervy than I do already…
The original contents list did have four character cards too but probably for the best that they don’t seem to be here! We have got the nice unlisted postcard instead maybe, which is the image at the very top of the page here. Right, I know I’ve left it late, but as I usually stick in a disclaimer when I’ve been given something for nothing for review, I’ll do the same here and state that I paid for this myself, so was it worth the £80 from Strictly Limited Games and their not-untypical one year wait? Well, obviously not, but like its Cotton Fantasy counterpart, I’ll get that much happiness out of it over time, taking the box of the shelf now and again and seeing what’s going on inside. And, of course, I’ll play the games to death, and that will make it worth the asking price alone. Which is exactly what I’ll be telling my wife if she ever notices this weird box with a load of, er, Angels on the front too!