9 November 2008



































Date: October 2008
Ketsui Death Label (DS)
because somebody has to.

“Bullet hell” shoot-‘em-ups never get reviewed properly in the West, either in print or online, because almost nobody knows the first thing about shmup culture. It’s an area of gaming that’s turned inwards on itself almost as much as the world of the 2D fighting game, which is now almost completely impenetrable to outsiders. (Street Fighter 2 and its derivatives have now been released about eight times in the last two years, because it’s the last fighting game that the ordinary gamer could understand.)

It’s into that world that Cave/Arika have chosen to release the DS’s first bullet-hell shmup (and indeed only about its fourth shmup of any kind), and it’s not likely to get much of a welcome from anyone else. Cave’s games are at the hardest end of the hardcore spectrum (their last major home release, Mushihimesama for the PS2, is probably the most insanely extreme bullet-hell game ever – heck, even the name is almost impossible to spell), and while Ketsui is relatively restrained by their standards, this DS implementation of it is so refined and distilled that anyone but the most hate-filled, wild-eyed shooter obsessive (hello shmups.com!) is going to recoil from it in horror.

This is the only stage of the normal game that even approximates a normal shmup.

The first thing to note is that this isn’t even an attempt to port the vertical-screen arcade game. The “Death Label” tag signifies that the DS game is exclusively a boss-rush, featuring only the increasingly-gruelling stage-end guardians from the coin-op, which are hurled at you one after the other with steadily-increasing savagery. There’s the traditional complex scoring system to figure out, which is essentially based around proximity to enemies, with point-blank shooting with your special weapon (which makes your ship move more slowly, making bullet-dodging trickier) producing the biggest rewards and getting killed damaging your score multiplier. (Relatively unusually in a game of this type, you don’t suffer score-wise for using your smartbombs, and indeed the game is built around their frequent deployment.) But even beyond that, KDL is structured in such a way as to have almost no appeal to anyone other than the most absolutely dedicated shmup devotee.

The main mode offers eight difficulty levels, of which three are unlocked at the start – Novice, Normal and the final Doom Mode, a special mode which pits you endlessly against the game’s final boss, Doom. Each difficulty setting you beat unlocks the next one in line. Novice mode gives you just three bosses to deal with, who are limited to very restricted shooting, and even without using your Bomb weapon it’s easy to complete first time in roughly 90 seconds. Normal mode gives you four bosses and ups their firepower a bit, and so on through Hard A, Hard B, Hard C and Very Hard, by which point you’ve got 10 super-enemies to tackle, each of which can fill the screen with the traditional pink and blue bullets. Finally you get to Death Label mode, in which the bosses are in their modified and most fearsome forms, and the bullet patterns are a frighteningly big leap up from Very Hard.

This is the first boss you'll encounter with interesting bullet patterns. (This isn't one of them.)

The bullet patterns are in fact one of KDL’s more attractive features. Starting out as standard uni-directional projectile trails, by later in the game the enemy’s shots are performing elaborate and beautiful aerobatics, even by the standards of the genre’s most extreme titles - swooping out, swirling around, looping and re-looping, coming from all directions at once (including, rather harshly, off-screen and behind you) and generating more bullets of their own in a bewildering choreography that’s entrancing to behold even as it blows you out of the sky. But they have to struggle somewhat to be made out - adding another layer of difficulty - because much of the screen is hugely cluttered for a lot of the time by the showers of bonus tokens you get for shooting enemies with your powerful laser rather than the standard Vulcan cannon. (Bullets take precedence in the display, so they’re never actually hidden, but the tokens obscure enemies and distract you from the enemy fire.)

The better you play the worse this situation gets, as the tokens increase in size along with their value, so if you’re playing for points and shooting enemies from as close as possible, the screen will most of the time look like someone’s constantly dumping tankerloads of paving slabs onto it from above. The game has realised this is an issue, and there’s an option to reduce the number of frames for which the tokens are visible, but that adds a rather unpleasant element of constant flicker to proceedings, and you can’t switch them off entirely.

See? We weren't kidding about the tokens.

You have two ships to choose from (whose attributes are barely distinguishable from each other, and whose "normal" firing modes are entirely useless), and the game keeps separate high scores for each ship type at each level. So far so good, right? Everyone can find their own level of challenge and high-score it until they feel able to move up. Sadly not. Because KDL knows how little chance there is of most gamers being able to handle any of the higher levels, every time you fail (even if you just pressed Start and then wandered off to make a cuppa) it takes pity on you and gives you an extra life. By the time you get to 20 lives it just gives up on you in disgust and unlocks the next level anyway.

But what that means, of course, is that the high score you just sweated blood over is meaningless, because the next time you play that level you’ll have an extra unearned life, each of which comes with numerous extra smartbombs. (You get three per ship to start with, but every time you destroy a boss you start the next one with four fresh bombs, so one extra ship can add as many as 39 bombs to your armoury.) I’d hoped Death Label level might be an uncompromising “true” mode, restricting you permanently to a fixed number of lives because there was nothing left to unlock, but it’s just the same as the others, throwing freebies at you with every restart. Lives are level-specific - if you've earned 16 on Hard B and then beat it and move onto Hard C, you're back to two for Hard C, but you'll have 17 the next time you tackle Hard B - so in order to meaningfully challenge your own high score on any given setting (ie play it with the same number of lives you got the previous score with), you'll have to play the game on EACH difficulty level at least 17 times.

That leaves only Training Mode, a single-stage score attack where you can battle any individual boss at any of the difficulty levels you’ve unlocked. Unfortunately, even this mode lets you set your own number of lives and bombs, and doesn’t save highscores at all, so it’s an even bigger waste of time. And that’s just about it, apart from some multiplayer modes which are basically just lots of people playing the same level at the same time to see who gets the highest score. (You can have up to eight players, but the chances of you ever finding that many KDL fans online at once are pretty much zero. I haven't managed one yet.)

These bullets come from all four compass points at once, which is a little harsh.

I played Ketsui Death Label so much this month because there’s nothing finer than a well-built shmup, and I was desperately hoping to eventually find a worthwhile game mode in it. The technical standards are excellent, proving that the DS can handle real bullet-hell games, and indeed this release made me yearn like a madman for a DS port of the majestic Giga Wing, whose horizontal-format screen and comparatively low graphical standards would be a superb fit for the little handheld. But even for the most fanatic shmup-lover, there’s nothing here that makes any rational sense – after the several hours of drudgery required before you can even meaningfully challenge your own high scores (the number of lives awarded for each difficulty level tops out at 20, so at least at that point you’re fighting yourself on a level playing field), you’ll be too heartily sick of the game and its small enemy roster to bother.

Ironically, exactly when most people will have finally given up, the game relents and offers up Extra Mode, a secret reward for beating Death Label level, which DOES restrict you to a fixed number of lives – a savagely stingy two of them, in fact. Furthermore, Extra Mode is actually a proper level (apparently a "remix" of the arcade game's fifth stage) rather than a boss sequence, with waves of ordinary cannon-fodder enemies and a variety of armoured units. It proves that Ketsui Death Label could have been a traditional-style shmup if it had wanted to be, which makes limiting it to a hardcore-only boss rush all the more baffling. (Intriguingly, the layout of the main menu screen appears to have room for at least one more secret mode after Extra, but I have no idea if one exists, and the startling savagery of Extra makes finding out seem deeply implausible.)

Your firepower is considerably less devastating than its graphical representation implies.

Perhaps proper levels would have made the cart impracticably big and expensive – it’s already a massive 128MB monster filed along with the very heftiest of DS titles. (Most games for the system coming in at 16, 32 or 64MB.) But it’s hard to see where all that memory is going, unless it’s on the little unlockable cartoon cutscenes in which the development team discuss aspects of the game, sometimes accompanied by little gameplay videos. These look like a lot of fun – they’re entirely in Japanese, so WoS can’t say for sure – but it would seem a very odd sense of priorities if they were the reason the DS wasn’t making a more complete attempt at porting the arcade game.

But in any event, Extra Mode isn’t unlocked automatically on reaching 20 lives like the other difficulty settings – you actually have to beat Death Label mode, which features all 10 superhard boss incarnations plus Doom, and most players will have so little chance of seeing it that it might as well not be there at all. (And even if you should possess the necessary mad shmup ultraskillz, you’re going to be looking at a minimum of six hours of slogging away before you can open it up, and probably many more.)

Luckily for WoS viewers, however, we’re there for you when you need us, and this handy save file unlocks all the main play modes including Extra. (As an unavoidable by-product there are existing high scores in the save, which unfortunately can’t be reset, but for most levels the Ship B setting has a “clean” score field which you can use for yourself. Ship B is slightly better anyway. NOTE: Obviously, the save file only works with flashcarts, not the shop-bought game. Pirates getting a better deal than legitimate purchasers again, there – good work, videogames industry.)

This is how you'll probably feel if you were looking forward to Ketsui Death Label as a DS shmup.

The many missed opportunities in KDL are a real shame, and absolutely mystifying, because Japanese shooting games are usually wonderfully structured in terms of both replay value (Gradius V and Raiden 3 being particularly good examples, alongside the stellar home version of Giga Wing) and accessibility to gamers with a range of abilities. But this one seems to have been constructed with no thought whatsoever as to what the purpose of playing it was, and with no interest in appealing to anything but the very narrowest range of aficionados. We can only hope that it nevertheless serves to other shmup publishers as a demonstration of what the DS is capable of in this field, and leads to much better future releases for which we’ll owe Ketsui Death Label a debt of gratitude. On its own merits, it deserves none.

A shorter version of this piece originally appeared on Snappy Gamer.

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