Cave is a company in Japan well known for one thing: crazy-ass, pink-pixel-barrage-dodging shooting games. Sure, they make cellphone apps and the occasional girlie DS title to pad the pocketbooks (they also developed the Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine MMO), but to fans of the genre, Cave is practically synonymous with the highest-quality shooting games on the Japanese market. Unfortunately, most of Cave’s shooting output is arcade-only, with only a few select titles managing to get home ports. One of the most longed-after Cave arcade releases of recent times was 2002’s Ketsui, a tough-as-nails military-themed vertical shooter with a superb mix of visuals, music, and gameplay design. Rumors of a PS2 port were on-again, off-again for many years. When a partner company, Arika, mentioned developing a DS version of the game, people at first assumed it was some sort of crazy experiment.
Well, it turns out it is a crazy experiment – one that managed to make it all the way to market somehow.
You see, Ketsui: Death Label isn’t a straight port of the arcade game. Rather, it resembles more of what’s called a “boss rush” in popular gaming parlance. Actual interim sequences where you blow apart waves of cannon-fodder ships and steal their precious score multipliers are extremely limited. The game instead focuses on boss fights, delivering encounters with several mid- and end-stage bosses from the arcade original. The structure of the game winds up being a bit different than the typical shooter as you’re given extra lives like candy and initially focus more on unlocking other play modes within the game. Obviously, you’re not going to feel too accomplished for clearing the lower-level challenges. Once you get to the higher difficulties, though, things start to get pretty nuts. The ultimate difficulty, the titular “Death Label” mode, is made precisely for fans of screen-filling, precision-timing “how the hell do I dodge my way through this godforsaken curtain of blue pixels HOLY HELL I JUST DID!!!!” bullet patterns. And once you’ve played so much that those once-intimidating boss patterns become second nature, then you can start working to max out your high score potential.
As much as I like Death Label, there are several reasons why I can’t recommend it completely enthusiastically, even to genre fans. Obviously, due to it being a boss-centric shooter, the game itself winds up being short and limited. Considering how often games in the shooter genre get slammed by “mainstream” reviewers for brevity, it seems almost bizarre that someone would make a game that’s even shorter with even less variety than typical fare. Sure, there’s a lot of replay value for people like me who go ga-ga for tuning bullet dodging expertise to utmost perfection. But for those who play shooters for anything beyond an immediate visceral rush or high-score poopsocking, there simply isn’t much to chew on here.
Yes, there’s a good deal of supplemental material in the game package. However, much of the bonus material, particularly the “bonus tutorials” featuring lead designer IKD, is catered to the Cave faithful. Even if you can read Japanese, there’s a lot of it likely to go over one’s head if one isn’t intimately familiar with the company’s output. But perhaps most damningly, a port of the arcade original with various new enhancements and options has been announced for release on the X360. When you consider that the “real thing” is going to be hitting soon after years of wait, it makes the Death Label experience seem almost trivial.
Still, if you’re a die-hard shooter nut jonesing for a high-quality portable fix of the “bullet hell” variety, then Ketsui: Death Label is well worth its price tag. (And if you’re a die-hard shooter nut, you’re likely used to spending hefty amounts of money to purchase games oft dismissed as short and lacking value anyway.) Just keep in mind that Death Label is simply an appetizer for the main course.
System: Nintendo DS
Rating: A (Cero)