CAVE Co. Ltd, the pioneering, god-tier arcade developer that reignited the shooting game genre in the '90s, has a portfolio to die for. After 17 years of cast-iron quality and unceasing invention, the sound of gunfire finally rang silent in 2012 with their swansong, Dodonpachi SaiDaiOuJou.
Among Cave’s output, only a few entries are regarded as black sheep. Progear (2001) and Akai Katana (2010) share a kinship of sorts. Both were salient horizontal scrollers among a host of verticals, and neither were hits on release. Directed by Shinobu Yagawa (Battle Garegga), Akai Katana is the most Cave-like of his creations and one of the easier titles on his resume.
In 2012, Akai Katana saw a western release on the Xbox 360 that included two unique, high-definition 16:9 modes in addition to the original arcade game. City Connection, infamous for the varying quality of its ports, has done little more than bring the 360 version to Switch, sans its much-needed tutorials. Everything else, however, remains solid.
The original arcade game is presented in 4:3, but the image can be adjusted to your preferences across all modes; there’s a great training option that lets you tweak every significant parameter; menus are nicely presented and easy to follow; and there are replay saves and online leaderboards to take advantage of. One recurring City Connection issue is input lag, and while sources claim the Switch version of Akai Katana suffers six frames, we honestly couldn’t feel it. Using our TV's game mode coupled with a wired Pro Pad, we made swift headway at a stable 60FPS and noticed very little in the way of input delay. The slowdown replication remains largely accurate too, with only minor variance in the new modes.
This release retains the 360’s optional arranged soundtrack, which amps up already heavy guitar mixes into a blistering metal oeuvre. As a bonus, a new “22” arrange is included too, but it’s a little thrashy for our tastes and drowns out boss battle thunder. Sadly, composer Ryu Umemoto (Pysvariar, Espgaluda II) died of chronic bronchitis shortly after the game’s 2011 port, at just 37 years of age.
The Japanese release features a full English language option for all three modes in this Akai Katana Shin package comprising Akai Katana Origin (arcade original), Zetsu, and Shin. Origin and Zetsu play similarly, with Zetsu being a cleaner, tweaked, 1.5 overhaul that improves the experience. Each mode has three pilots to choose from with different speeds, behaviours, and weapon attributes to experiment with.
You control a World War II fighter plane in Japan's feudal Taisho period, a mashing up of thematic styles that extends to mammoth steampunk machinery and Samurai-wielding bosses. For Origin and Zetsu, each craft features a weaker shot that allows you to move quickly while firing and a strong shot that slows you down, aiding your navigation through thick bullet curtains. Each craft has an option tethered to it that controls differently depending on your choice of pilot. Destroying enemies releases green energy orbs that cling to this option in a frogspawn formation, inflating as bullets graze them. Release your fire momentarily and the orbs are absorbed, filling your energy gauge and allowing you to temporarily enter ‘Soul-Shift’ mode.
This is effectively the scoring state, where you’re either completely invulnerable when using the weaker shot, or vulnerable but able to release a powerful laser with the stronger one. Scoring works by spawning ‘Suicide bullets’ (converging bullets created out of thin air) in your invulnerable state, and then switching to your laser to generate gold ingots that encircle your craft. The suicide bullets help to graze the gold to increase their size and value. Once you have a good combo chain and a mass of encircling gold, you can exit the Soul-Shift to absorb it, boosting your score into the millions and progressively earning you extra lives.
It might sound complicated, but pin down the method and it becomes both addictive and exhilarating to toy with. The invulnerability coupled with the danger of briefly switching to your laser, is brilliantly balanced. You can build your energy bar quickly, ram bullets around the screen, detonate a massive warplane to make everything explode in gold, and once you’re looking good, cash out. You then rinse and repeat, all while laying waste to the military armies that assail you: helicopters, tanks, battleships, and giant train-track-bound war machines.
Repeating this loop as often as possible is key to scoring. And, while you can simply play for survival, Cave games open up new worlds when you deep dive into their systems. Akai Katana is a blast in this respect, ushering you to dice with death, suicide bullets gravitating in fantastic spheres while you cook up an escape plan. The differences between Origin and Zetsu modes might not be immediately apparent, but Zetsu is certainly superior. In addition to its 16:9 format, it removes score item limits, generates more gold and energy orbs — allowing you to initiate your Soul-Shift more frequently — and increases the number of suicide bullets. While the original is still great, Zetsu’s tweaking of ship speeds and visual bombast makes for a more aggressive, fulfilling game.
The third mode, Akai Katana Shin, plays quite differently. Incredibly, considering how accomplished Zetsu’s refinement is, it offers arguably the most satisfying — but also the most complex — mechanics of all. Here, you accrue energy with your strong shot and steel orbs with your quick fire. In Soul-Shift, you can shoot your collected steel orbs across the screen, canceling bullets to release katana icons in tandem with your laser. This process creates giant katanas hovering around your ship that can be fired across the screen, ripping up everything as they go, converting bullets into a stunning wave of gold. Seeing your katanas carve a tunnel through the action, crunching everything into a tsunami of ingots, is one of the most satisfying shooting-game mechanics of all time. And, while trickier than Origin and Zetsu’s systems, and playing a more difficult game overall owing to sparser life bonuses, the payoff in figuring out how to maximise your scoring bounty makes Shin one of the package’s most alluring prospects. It’s also the only mode to feature a hidden True Last Boss, a meeting that will require you to go the length of the game without losing a single life.
Akai Katana is a wonderful piece of work. Its systems are deep and full of little tricks to boost your scoring performance, and its graphical splendour is married with intense, bullet-infused chaos in a way only Cave ever really achieved. In the thick of it, when you’re switching between your Soul-Shift, hoovering gold, and detonating the screen, it lights up that cerebral sweet spot like a Christmas tree. The adrenaline pumps as you worm through seven stages of concentric patterns, needling webs of blue and pink fire with your glowing hit-box, the soundtrack thumping in rhythm to your heartbeat as you use everything at your disposal to stay alive.
Bullet hell games, while daunting, operate on their own set of rules. Akai Katana’s systems demand dedicated practice, but it’s totally worth the effort. And remember, an unexploded bomb is a bomb wasted. While Cave games can penalise score for bomb usage, restraint in this respect is reserved for the masters. Every bomb is a life, and to that end you shouldn’t be afraid to let your stock attain its ultimate purpose.
Akai Katana is one hell of a game. Black sheep it may be, but in our opinion its thrill factor and scoring satisfaction is superior to the likes of Deathsmiles, making it another shooting game favourite among an already long list. It’s soft enough to encourage rookies and deep enough to send the hardcore into a digit mining frenzy. At the same time, it’s absolutely beautiful-looking; a stunning panorama that fuses the historical and futuristic into a bombastic theatre of war. Whether soaring over snowy mountain ranges, hillside forests, sunset-bathed railways, or across the ocean floor, it’s a feast. With three superb modes, years of depth, and an incredibly satisfying scoring apparatus, Akai Katana is not just Shinobu Yagawa’s most accessible shooting game, but also one of Cave’s best horizontal efforts.
So only jap eshop i suppose, with no western release in sight, might need to buy some japanese shop credit then.. 4440 yen is 30 euros..
I'd love to see an official port of Touhou mainline games come to Switch. A collection of EoSD - PoFV (6-9) would be awesome!
Now that is an example of a game-cover that doesn't tell you much about the game.
That's a whole lot of meaningless colors from a non-schmup person.
Might get it on Steam since the Switch has worse lag than the other versions.
Does Akai Katana have a storyline with cutscenes? Because it looks like it has a storyline and cutscenes.
@romanista it’s coming https://twitter.com/claricedisc/status/1604820121457131520
It’s going to be 30€ for the digital release, and we don’t know how much for the physical LRG release.
I’m bummed that they got rid of the tutorials but at least I still got my X360 L.E.
Surely someone else thought based on the cover that this was one of the dozens of otome games on Switch? Good to hear it's a nice shmup. Gonna most likely get the western release then.
There are so many shmups that are considered great on the Switch at this point I think we could use an updated list of "best of". I appreciate the genre but don't know where to start. I have Ikaruga, is that the best of the best?
2 shmups in today's news. I LOVE my Switch!!
Glad i can retire my 360 version.
I know the shmup-fans are as hardcore as they come. But, the genre feels like it's gotten to the point where the barrier to entry for new players has gotten too high. I miss the old arcade shooter games like Twin Eagles, UN Squadron and even that Avengers one, etc. Those were more mass destruction and bullet hell. But, I don't see any of that style any more.
@romanista there are other ways, less natural ways...
„One of the best“ is a tad meaningless with only four hori shooters made by Cave.
Edit: I see it‘s been edited out now. ^^
I’ve never heard of this game. I love Battle Garegga (my 2nd favorite Raizing shmup) and thought i had played every Cave game. Little bummed it’s horizontal but i think i’ll live.
Thanks for the review!
Great review, wonder if Nintendo Life will be reviewing Graze Counter GM soon as well?
@Daggot As someone who likes bullet hell games, I'd agree that they're everywhere now and can agree that they seem super intimidating. There are a few exceptions to the rule, but they mostly come from older series like R-Type Final 2 or Dariusburst Another Chronicle EX+.
But they do pop up from time to time! I've seen a few on the Switch, like Horgihugh and Ranger Dog. And no, I don't know why the examples of traditional shmups I first thought of both have dogs, lol.
(Also, I'd say I'm the opposite with which shmups I find hard. I find bullet hells kind of relaxing because it's all about pattern recognition but an old-school shooter like Gradius III will give me stress hives.)
Shut up and take my converted yen.
Agreed, basic memorisers like Gradius and other old school STGs like Tiger-Heli, etc, can be far more difficult and punishing than Danmaku stuff.
As stated in the review, with the right setup you won’t register any lag. If the Switch’s portability is what you’re after, you can go with this confidently.
It doesn’t have cutscenes, no, unless you count the ending. It does have a premise, but it’s in the manual rather than the game.
Bullet hell games when taking into account scoring processes have always had a high entry barrier though. Akai Katana is almost 12 years old.
@KeeperBvK I agree 😆 I didn’t write that. But it is one of the best of the Hori’s nonetheless.
@Tom-Massey A few weeks ago I played Tiger-Heli for the first time on Evercade! It's a beast of a game for sure!
Thanks for the review, Tom. 'Shin' is the only mode with a TLB, and have to no miss the whole game. Unfortunately, Hardcore Gamer 101 has it wrong.
Glad you're quelling fears about the lag. If it's 6 frames on Switch, it's the smoothest 6 frames I've felt in a long time. Though I kind of doubt the accuracy of the number.
@Daggot There are tons of them. Both re-releases of actual old games and homage type new releases.
@Shiryu yes i looked on play asia yesterday, thanks price was better than expected, for sure (did you lok ast shipping?)
Still like my shmups being playable directly..
(couldn't find it in the jap eshop by the way)
@Daggot There are so many different flavors of shmups that it's practically impossible to pick one and say it's the best of the best. Lots of people swear by Ikaruga as being "the one," but there are lots who think it's overrated. Even ignoring that, Ikaruga's gimmicks are not seen in many other titles, so within the genre, it's like comparing apples to oranges.
It takes a bit of experimentation to determine whether you like a certain flavor of shmups, or whether you like most shmups.
@romanista while shipping is quite reasonable, taxes ain't. So I try not to order single games from Asia and Japan, I try to bundle a few at a time to be more cost effective.
I’ve been getting more into Cave recently, but I hadn’t heard of this one. I’ll keep my eye out now
@Tom-Massey Thanks for the update. Unfortunately I play 99.9% docked.
@drj Goddamnit, no wonder on the one run where I pulled that off on Zetsu it didn’t actually work! Thanks so much for the info, I’ll have that amended. Thank you for reading, and I agree, it doesn’t feel like 6 frames.
@Tom-Massey Cheers, man. Love your work - thanks for keeping people's eyes on the genre.
@drj You’re very welcome, thanks for the kind words. I appreciate it.
@Daggot Those games have targeted bullets, they're equally as difficult in a different way.
@Edd-O Graze Counter GM is great, absolutely.
Akai Katana is a hell of a ride, even if the Original mode is a son of a b (I'm not the greatest pro player around with shmups too). Also, my advice is don't count on the Novice mode (by tapping Y on the menu screen of each mode except Zetsu). Novice is wayyyyyy too easy and you won't be able to learn something from it. 1 or 2 runs is ok but not more. Prefer Training mode with the real difficulty, always. Once again a great great game by Cave, even if the port seems to be a bit laggy from what i heard here and here.
But Shin mode is the real deal here. If you have wondered one day what it feels like to be a pilot in command of a plane with plenty of katanas on your back ready to make a carnage on the screen, AK is made for you !
this game is an absolute stunner and a classic. play it!
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