Akai Katana Shin Review (Switch)
CAVE Co. Ltd, the pioneering, top-notch slot game developer that revived the shooter genre in the 90s, has a portfolio to die for. After 17 years of cast iron quality and incessant inventions, in 2012 the sound of shots finally fell silent with their swan song, Dodonpachi SaiDaiOuJou.
Among Cave’s output, only a few records are considered black sheep. Progear (2001) and Akai Katana (2010) have a kind of relationship. Both were notable horizontal scrollers among many vertical ones, and neither became a hit upon release. Directed by Shinobu YagawaBattle of Garegg), Akai Katana is the most cave-like of his creations and one of the simplest titles on his resume.
In 2012, Akai Katana saw a western version for the Xbox 360 that included two unique 16:9 high definition modes in addition to the original arcade game. City Connection, infamous for the varying quality of its ports, did little more than bring the Switch version of 360 without much-needed manuals. However, everything else remains solid.
The original arcade is presented in 4:3 format, but in all modes the image can be adjusted to your liking; there is a great learning option that allows you to adjust every important parameter; the menus are beautifully presented and easy to use; and there are re-saves and online leaderboards to take advantage of. One of City Connection’s recurring issues is input lag, and while sources claim the Switch version of Akai Katana suffers six frames, we honestly didn’t feel it. Using our TV’s Game Mode in conjunction with the wired Pro Pad, we quickly got ahead with a solid 60fps and hardly noticed any input lag. The deceleration replication also remains largely accurate, with slight deviations in the new modes.
This release retains an additional 360 arranged soundtrack that transforms already heavy guitar mixes into a bright metal piece. Also included as a bonus is the new “22” arrangement, but it’s a little thrashy for our tastes and drowns out the thunder of the boss fight. Unfortunately the composer Ryu Umemoto (PysvariarEspgaluda II died of chronic bronchitis shortly after the 2011 port of the game, at just 37 years old.
The Japanese version includes full English for all three modes in this Akai Katana Shin pack including 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, behaviors and weapon stats to experiment with.
You control a World War II fighter jet in Japan’s Taishō feudal period, a mix of themed styles that extends to gigantic steampunk vehicles and samurai-wielding bosses. In Origin and Zetsu, each ship has a weaker shot that allows you to move quickly while firing, and a strong shot that slows you down to help you navigate thick bullet curtains. Each ship has an option attached to it, which is controlled differently depending on your choice of pilot. Destroying enemies releases green energy spheres that cling to this option in a frog spawn formation, swelling up when bullets hit them. Release your fire for a moment and the orbs will be consumed, filling your energy bar and allowing you to temporarily enter Soul Shift.
Basically, this is a scoring state where you are either completely invulnerable when using a weaker shot, or vulnerable but can fire a powerful laser when using a stronger shot. Scoring is done by creating “suicide bullets” (converging bullets created out of thin air) in your invulnerable state and then switching to your laser to create gold bars that surround your ship. Suicidal bullets help to scrape gold, increasing its size and value. Once you have a good combo chain and a ton of gold around you, you can exit Soul-Shift to absorb it, increasing your score to millions and slowly earning you extra lives.
It may sound complicated, but if you master this method, it will become both exciting and exhilarating. The invulnerability coupled with the danger of briefly switching to your laser is brilliantly balanced. You can quickly build your energy bar, ram bullets across the screen, blow up the massive war plane to make everything explode in gold, and once you look good, cash out. Then you flush and repeat, all the while destroying the military armies that attack you: helicopters, tanks, battleships, and giant war machines moving along the railroad tracks.
Repeating this cycle as often as possible is the key to scoring. And while you can just play survival, the Cave games open up new worlds when you dive deep into their systems. Akai Katana is a blast in this regard, encouraging you to play dice with death, suicide bullets flying in fantasy spheres as you plot your escape plan. The differences between Origin and Zetsu modes may not be immediately obvious, but Zetsu is definitely better. In addition to the 16:9 aspect ratio, it removes scoring caps, generates more gold and energy orbs, allowing you to trigger Soul-Shift more often, and increases the number of suicide bullets. While the original is still great, Zetsu’s ship speed tweaks and visual bombast make the game more aggressive and action-packed.
The third mode, Akai Katana Shin, plays very differently. Incredible, given how perfect Zetsu is to perfection, it offers perhaps the most enjoyable, yet also the most complex mechanics of all. Here you accumulate energy with your strong shot and steel balls with rapid fire. In Soul-Shift, you can fire collected steel balls across the screen, canceling out bullets to fire katana icons in tandem with your laser. This process creates giant katanas that float around your ship that can be fired across the screen, tearing apart everything in their path, turning the bullets into a stunning wave of gold. Seeing your katanas tunnel in action turning everything into a tsunami of ingots is one of the most satisfying shooter mechanics of all time. And while the system is harder than the Origin and Zetsu systems, and playing a harder game overall due to the rarer life bonuses, the payoff in figuring out how to maximize your scoring reward makes Shin one of the package’s most enticing prospects.
All modes have a “Real Final Boss” condition, but like many aspects of the game, this requirement is easier than Cave’s other works. Here, simply completing the sixth stage (out of seven) without losing a life will lead you to an optimistic ending.
Akai Katana is a wonderful work. Its systems are deep and full of little tweaks to boost your performance, and its graphical splendor is paired with intense, bullet-riddled chaos that only Cave has ever managed to achieve. In the midst of it, as you switch between your Soul-Shift, gold vacuum cleaner, and screen explosion, it lights up that brain sweet spot like a Christmas tree. Adrenaline kicks in as you work your way through the seven stages of concentric patterns, piercing the web of blue and pink fire with your glowing hit box, the soundtrack pounding to your heartbeat as you use everything at your disposal to stay alive.
Bullet Hell games, while scary, operate by their own rules. Akai Katana systems require special practice, but it’s worth it. And remember, an unexploded bomb is a wasted bomb. While cave games may punish the use of a bomb, restraint in this regard is reserved to the masters. Each bomb is a life, and therefore you should not be afraid that your supplies will reach their final goal.
Akai Katana is a hell of a game. It may be a black sheep, but in our opinion, its thrill factor and scoring satisfaction trumps the likes of Deathsmiles, making it another favorite among shooting games in an already long list. It’s gentle enough to encourage beginners and deep enough to throw the hardcore into digital mining frenzy. At the same time, he is absolutely beautiful; a stunning panorama in which the historical and the futuristic merge into a pompous theater of war. Whether it’s flying over snow-capped mountain ranges, hillside forests, sunset-drenched railroads, or over the ocean floor, it’s a celebration. With three great modes, years of depth, and an incredibly handy scoring device, Akai Katana is not only the most accessible Shinobu Yagawa shooting game, but also one of the best horizontal Cave games.