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.
All modes feature a True Last Boss condition, but like many aspects of the game, the requirement is simpler than Cave’s other works. Here, simply finishing the sixth stage (of seven) without losing a life will put you on course to an upbeat ending.
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.