Even with Aksys Games' questionable marketing decisions left behind, the framework of Deathsmiles IIX remains utterly distasteful.
Deathsmiles IIXPublisher: Cave
Format: Xbox 360
ESRB Rating: T
Release Date: 2011-05-17
The argument: The Deathsmiles franchise features girls who are too young wearing clothes that are too small.
The counterargument: The tiny outfits have nothing to do with the gameplay!
The counter-counterargument: Then why include them at all?
It was tempting, last time Deathsmiles made its way into western Xboxes, to attribute the focus on the girls themselves to the marketing push surrounding the North American release of the game. Aksys's unabashed use of the term "lolis" didn't help, offering an open appeal to gamers for whom the term represents a repressed fetish. "Lolitastic" even became a word to describe the American limited-edition release of the game. The thought was that Aksys's front-and-centering of the game's "loli" inclinations were what made those inclinations seem so distasteful.
Still, Deathsmiles IIX (or Deathsmiles 2X, or Death Smiles 2X, depending on where you go for your news) is here, and Aksys is nowhere to be found thanks to the ground-breaking move by Cave and Microsoft to bring an import-only boxed game to the North American Games on Demand store. No American publishing house was here to muck things up because no localization or marketing was necessary to make the game available in this way. And yet, the entire conceit remains distasteful and uncomfortable.
This is mainly due to a flaw in the "counterargument" above, which states that the tiny outfits have nothing to do with the gameplay. It is true that there is little to no hint of the more provocative elements of the game while you're actually flying around and shooting things, unless you count the stuffed bunny boss that happens to feature a rather prominent bulge in a rather curious area. Still, as you fly around destroying wave upon wave of sinister Christmas-themed enemies (rather than the Grand Imperator Tyrannosatan of the first game, you'll face off against, yes, Satan Claws), you inevitably approach the end of the game, and it is at the end of the game that the most questionable moments occur.
When such moments include an 11-year-old having a wardrobe malfunction, it doesn't seem to matter that the worst of it is blocked or obscured. There is a transgendered 12-year-old boy in here as a playable character who becomes an unfortunate punchline when he is discovered in his tighty-whities. The developers even seem to have decided that it wouldn't be a Deathsmiles game without an ending for 14-year-old Follett that features a still of all the girls in a steam room (again, the steam allows for strategic filtering of the visuals), an ending that the developers encourage the player to watch by offering an achievement for watching it five times.
This is where the "it's not part of the gameplay" argument breaks down -- by putting such fanservice at the end of the game, it becomes the motivation for the player. In a more story-oriented game, the player's motivation is to discover or be part of a narrative; that narrative may not progress while the player is in battle, but it's there in the background, serving as the driving force behind the events in the game. In Deathsmiles, the player's motivation is to see nearly-nude drawings of underage girls. Sure, some of the endings are cute and clever, but those are overshadowed by the senselessly provocative ones.
In a thought-provoking article for Kill Screen, Jon Irwin writes of Dead or Alive: Dimensions' Showcase Mode:
...how is manipulating these Plasticine babes any different than a 7-year-old playing with a Barbie, inevitably ripping her polyester clothes off and parading it around a mini-metropolis of toy blocks and on-looking plush bears?
This underage girl, partially nude on my 3.5-inch-wide 3D screen, is but artfully composed polygons, the product of hours of coding, not five minutes of procreative thrusts. This is not someone's daughter...If a victim doesn't exist, can harm still be done?
He's right. Statutory rape and the distribution/consumption of child pornography is a crime because it's victimizing the children involved, and there is no actual victim here; the girls themselves are merely the product of an artist's active imagination. Still, they are here for us to enjoy, somebody is obviously enjoying them, and I'm not sure I want to be enjoying a game targeted at that somebody. A defender of the Deathsmiles franchise might counter that Deathsmiles is intended for fans of shmups, not fans of lolicon; that the care that went into the level and enemy design overshadows the more unsavory elements. Obviously much more time went into the action than into the cutscenes, given that each cutscene is simply a series of still pictures with text running underneath them. So if shmup fans are the intended audience, they should be able to appreciate a quality game without that sort of junk, shouldn't they?
To be sure, Deathsmiles 2X is fantastic on shmup terms. Follett's end sequence isn't the only thing that Cave carried over from the original game, of course -- the revolutionary difficulty system from the original has made it intact, and is even more tailored toward welcoming as many players as possible. Each of the first five stages' difficulty levels can be individually set, from "Level 1" (easy) to "Level 3" (hard), and the game uses those decisions to decide on a difficulty level for the final stage (or two). Pick "Level 1" five times, and you're in instant one-credit-clear territory, even with the defaults set for lives and bullet damage. Pick "Level 3" five times, and you might cry. Or, pick a few "Level 2" stages, a "Level 1" for that stage that you haven't figured out the bullet patterns for yet, and a "Level 3" when you're feeling feisty, and you may well have built for yourself the most satisfying shmup experience you've ever tried.
Whatever difficulties you pick, you'll find bullet patterns that will make you feel silly, and bullet patterns that make you feel like a superstar. No other series, even by Cave, is as adept at making the player feel as though the thousands of bullets on screen are somehow navigable. Throughout the levels, enemies throw the standard spiral and spray patterns at you, but the bosses are another story entirely; the skinny giant boss of Field D throws streams at you that look like they'll trap you but leave just enough room to squeak out an escape, while Satan Claws himself offers up a bidirectional snowfall pattern that is both mind-bending and surprisingly manageable.
There's a scoring system that requires a surprising amount of skill and the ability to switch easily between attacks. There's a "true last boss" beyond Satan Claws that both recalls the first game and serves as a nice goal for newcomers to work toward. There's also a cute little puzzle-platforming bonus game that makes the girls' familiars the stars of the show.
The point is, there's a lot here. There's a lot of quality here. And when you choose to augment all that quality with such an ugly attempt at "motivation", the focus on the quality is lost. That's the most infuriating thing about this: Deathsmiles IIX would be the perfect entry point for someone new to the genre. Its $30 price tag is compelling, its customizable difficulty is welcoming, and its bright colors are instantly appealing. And yet, the unsettling peripherals seem almost designed to put off all but the very small crowd who can overlook them for the sake of owning a shmup, an elusive genre that rarely makes it out of Japan. It's not only preaching to the faithful, it's hanging a "KEEP OUT" sign on the church door. It's hard to blame anyone who would obey such an instruction.