From the western title you might not be immediately aware that Tengai’s full Japanese title is Sengoku Blade: Sengoku Ace Episode II. This is, in fact, the sequel to Psikyo’s very first game, the brilliant Samurai Aces. But with only a few familiar faces returning and a complete change of shmup orientation style, did Psikyo stretched out too far from it’s winning TATE shmup formula?
Horizontal shmup change aside, you can rely on its memorable, zany roster of characters: the titular Tengai is a brutish monk who shoots beads; the young ninja warrior Sho uses throwing blades as weapons; Junis is a kunoichi who uses both kunai and shurikens in a spread pattern; Katana looks like the main protagonist from Super Nintendo’s Hagane (which just so happens to be its original Japanese name) and, of course, uses laser attacks. Finally, there's Miko - despite her striking redesign this really is the same shrine maiden that flew a biplane in the original game. Her attacks, naturally, are based on ofuda cards. Due to ‘reasons’ she also became a poster girl not only for the series, but for Psikyo’s games in general.
Another big departure from the original is the fact no one is flying any sort of machine in this game. Instead everyone flies by themselves freely across the screen. Each character starts with just their main ranged weapon attack. Power-ups will not only increase their base firepower, but summon familiars to ride along for the journey. Tengai has a hawk; Sho has mirrors with reflections of his lover; Junis has a mongoose called Socrates; Katana summons a magical spear and Miko summons a water spirit by her side. Holding the fire trigger will charge the use of these familiars. Smart bombs are also present - they're a rare commodity and most of them aren’t really as screen-clearing in power as previous Psikyo games.
With gameplay variety assured by that memorable roster, it's time to take a look at the playing field. The first four levels are presented in random order (but Zerodiv was kind enough to provide costumers with a level order select by hitting ‘Y’ instead of ‘A’ on the main title screen) until you eventually hit the fifth level and must face off against every previous mid-boss on a row. If you manage to clear that nasty gauntlet, a branching path is your last choice before reaching the final boss for an epic, screen-filling glorious battle. Even here you can’t quite relax since this end showdown is a timed affair; do poorly and you will get your character’s ‘bad ending’ instead of a complete victory.
Gameplay also has a few surprises for a shmup: physical contact with enemies will not cost you a life. Instead, you get a downgrade in your firepower which can make certain sections real troublesome (such as losing your familiar just before a boss fight). So your top priority to remain alive is to make sure you dodge all the yellow/orange bullets that regularly fill the screen. It never gets to ‘bullet hell’ levels of mayhem, but they certainly show up in far more intricate patterns and speed than in previous Psikyo games. You will not find many moments of peace to appreciate the gorgeous backgrounds.
On the subject of graphics, Psikyo has really outdone itself in that department. Not only sprite art for both playable characters and enemies is spot on, the portraits for each character and mid-bosses are truly excellent. As we mentioned above, the constant barrage of enemy bullets might make you miss out on some of the most beautiful parallax scrolling backgrounds ever made for a 2D video game. Steampunk medieval Japan has rarely looked this aesthetically pleasing. And so is the game soundtrack that carries with it a distinct oriental flavour, perfectly wrapping up the whole atmosphere. Tengai was a beautiful package back in 1996 and age hasn't robbed its beauty.
Once again, Zerodiv's emulation wrapper goes above and beyond to ensure you can customise your experience properly. Everything from graphic filter options and screen orientation to number of lives, credits, button remapping and difficulty settings are all present and accounted for. This shows not only a proper care for the legacy of Psikyo’s catalogue, but also respect for the consumer.
Tengai is part of a distinguished niche shmup pantheon we like to refer to as the ‘flying-person shooter’. It sits comfortably on top of other great examples of the genre such as Forgotten Worlds, Space Harrier, Lords of Thunder, Cho Aniki and Gynoug (aka Wings of Wor). It's not only one of the finest shmups developed by Psikyo during its active years, but an absurd luxury to have it at this very sensible price. It offers an arcade perfect, single- or two-player horizontal scrolling shmup that still manages to not only pack a punch and a challenge but make current age efforts looks dull by comparison.