The DS’ acronym-giving dual screens are good for many things, including holding the handheld book-style for some adventure gaming, ports of already unusual arcade games, and Sega being so very Sega – but if there’s one genre they’re definitely not made for, it’s vertical shmups. That inescapable gap between the two screens creates an unplayable blind spot if a game’s visual output treats it as an actual break in what you can see, and if a game pretends it’s all part of one continuous display you end up with bullets and enemies able to suddenly “hop” between two – to the player’s eyes – physically separate playfields. Then there’s the DS itself; a lovely device that’s just not powerful enough to run a perfect port of the sort of contemporary arcade shmup happy to throw hundreds of bright pink bullets all over the place even if the screens were no problem at all.
It’s not looking good for DS exclusive Ketsui Death Label, a game based on Cave’s arcade shmup Ketsui: Kizuna Jigoku Tachi, is it?
Yet the game neatly sidesteps the significant problems of being at best ill-suited for and at worst unable to exist on its target hardware by not even attempting to recreate the intense stages of the original and opting for something more manageable instead – an extreme boss rush extravaganza using whatever resized assets pulled from Cave’s arcade title the DS could reasonably handle. On paper this is something to be disappointed about, and it’s not dishonest to say the end result is a string of disconnected and often out-of-order battles against some outlandish lumps of brightly-coloured metal encountered without the breathless spine-tingling pause that marks the transition from the regular stage to the arrival of a thematically appropriate jaw-dropping boss. But on when played in context it becomes something else – something more. On DS Ketsui Death Label is a tightly focused shmupping snack offering thrilling challenges and carefully handcrafted tests of skill capable of challenging anyone regardless of their years of experience with the genre, all available on demand whenever you have a few minutes spare to play and wherever that happens to be. Surviving one mode – and that’s probably going to take longer than you might think – unlocks another more difficult challenge and when there’s nothing left to conquer…
You discover Ketsui has a wealth of extra content to give you plenty of obvious reasons to come back for more: Training mode allows you to practise any boss you’ve reached from any course you’ve already unlocked (whether you’ve defeated them or not), which is just the feature you need to safely experiment with risky or unpractised techniques without the worry of throwing a promising run down the drain. The EVAC Report option contains eleven pages of artwork hidden behind over a hundred panels that are only removed by performing particular tasks throughout the game – some as straightforward as defeating the boss, others related to time spent, bombs used (or not used), ship selected, or even viewing a menu. Stunning displays of shmupmanship can be recorded and even shared with other (nearby) Ketsui Death Label owners, and when you’ve finished being amazed with each other’s high score runs you can switch to playing two different types of multiplayer game with up to eight (again, within touching distance) people, which sounds like exactly the sort of fantastic idea I’d love to see in action but have an awful feeling never happened for real outside a trade show demonstration.
And then you have two options: Put the game down forever now it’s “finished”, or start pursuing high scores. This is usually the point where a hardcore arcade shmup would leave you high and dry – but not Ketsui death Label. Selecting “Special” on the main menu takes you to the “Oshiete! IKD-san!! Kizuna Jigoku no Maki” section, where you’re given advice from Cave’s Tsuneki Ikeda himself. Here you’ll find hyper-specific topics explained clearly and in very small sessions – even taking the care to explain the differences between standard and lock shots, and regular bomb use versus auto-bombs – complimented by a selection of short annotated movie clips and images. It is, sadly, one of the best official shmup tutorials I’ve ever seen and something the genre sorely needed to embrace decades ago to stop bullet-hell titles falling into the understandably common “I cleared this in thirty minutes by holding down the A button, I don’t know why I’d bother playing it again” sentiment found everywhere from new players to dedicated review sites – if the games won’t even attempt to point out they have layer upon layer of glorious depth, never mind explain them, then how is anyone other than the already committed supposed to know there’s more to these shmups than shooting and explosions? This DS game is different. It wants you to get under its skin, it wants you to engage with it fully and appreciate the finer details without having to scour the internet for forum threads or leave everything to a separate guide book.
They’re worth the read too, as Ketsui only improves when you know what it wants you to do. The basic gist of scoring is to stay as close as you dare to whatever you’re shooting at to harvest as many high-value bonus chips as possible (the closer you get, the more they’re worth, ranging from nothing appearing at all to five) and then holding your nerve, not losing or activating your points multiplier until the very last moment for a massive points boost. It’s exciting by design, forcing you into situations you don’t want to be in with bigger rewards directly tied to taking bigger risks. Incredibly this maelstrom of bullets and scoring chips you have to weave through remains perfectly readable is even on such a small screen (I’ve been playing on a non-XL DSi)… which is a shame in a way, because it meant I couldn’t blame my many deaths on anything other than my own “Oh yes let’s press the bomb button after I’ve died. Again. Moron.” levels of incompetence.
At the time of Death Label’s release (2008) it was the only way to play any form of Ketsui at all outside a (Japanese) arcade and would remain so for a few years after that, and for all its many compromises it does a fine job of capturing the raw excitement of a “real” shmup; the pulse-pounding soundtrack, multi-phase giant bosses transforming before your eyes, and bullet patterns you learn to survive almost on instinct are all present and feel as electrifying as ever. It was an easy purchase at the time, a chance to experience a portable take on arcade gaming on a popular region-free format.
A lot’s changed since then.
Today a “cheap” used copy of Ketsui Death Label costs about five times more than a digital copy of the M2 ShotTriggers version of the arcade game on either the US or Japanese PlayStation Store, making it a questionable purchase regardless of its many qualities. It also doesn’t help matters that since Death Label’s release portable arcade perfect shmups old and new are affordable and common – to the point of being unremarkable – in any and every region the Nintendo Switch is sold. But Death Label still has a place in this new world: Unlike these modern titles (or modern ports of older titles) it’s been tailored specifically for the only format it was released on, a shmup made for portable play by design. Whether you’ve got a short commute ahead or an entire afternoon Ketsui can still give its all, the complete ferocity of Cave’s arcade shmup expertise concentrated into a few short minutes of action – a few short minutes of action that’ll take years to master.