Latchkey Games is a weekly column that takes a look at games that perhaps didn’t quite get the amount of love they deserved: whether it was a game that was panned on its initial release only to become a cult classic, one that stirred the ire of series fans, or simply a game that fell through the cracks and was forgotten by time or overshadowed by a more popular release. This week’s game is Akai Katana, the latest danmaku shooter to make its way to American shores.
There are few genres more hardcore than modern “bullet hell” shmups; just looking at a screenshot from one of these games is usually enough to convince a lot of gamers that these games are beyond their skill level. In case you haven’t heard of “bullet hell” or “danmaku” shooters before, allow me to explain.
A regular scrolling shooter (or “shmup,”) looks like this:
While a bullet hell (or “danmaku”) shmup looks like this:
Yes, touching any of those pink shots will kill you in one hit. And that’s not even the hardest part of that game.
While even “normal” shmups are notoriously difficult, bullet hell shmups crank everything up to eleven: the screen is always filled with “curtains” of enemy fire, and players are required to have lightning reflexes and flawless hand-eye coordination in order to weave their way through the relentless torrent of attacks. Calling these games “shooters” is slightly inaccurate, since you usually need to devote more of your concentration on dodging shots and staying alive than on shooting down enemies. There’s definitely a steep learning curve involved with most of these games, but the sense of satisfaction gleaned from mastering one of these titles is immense. Watching a pro-level playthrough of a game like Ikaruga or Dodonpachi is almost like watching a beautiful, expertly choreographed ballet (except with slightly more explosions.)
Despite these games’ inherent difficulty, most shmups actually feature a pretty simple set of mechanics or rules: in Ikaruga for instance, you can change the color of your ship between black and white. You do double damage to enemies of the opposite color, while you’re invulnerable to attacks of your own color. Ikaruga is hard enough that most people will never be able to beat it, but even the most inexperienced of gamers will be able to grasp its mechanics within a single play session. To put it simply, most bullet hell shmups are easy to learn, but hard to master.
Notice I said “most,” because there are a few games that are an exception to that rule. Take today’s game for instance: in addition to being just as balls-hard as any other shmup, Akai Katana features one of the most convoluted and complex set of mechanics in the entire genre. In contrast to the pick up and play nature of most other shooters, you’ll probably need to watch a few tutorial videos of Akai Katana before you can play the game properly, and even then, you’ll probably needs weeks of practice before you become any good at it. But with complexity comes depth, and Akai Katana stands out as one of the deepest and most satisfying shmups in recent memory.
A lot of people will probably blow through Akai Katana in a single sitting and wonder what the big deal is: the game only has six short levels, and with infinite continues on, a lot of scrubs will probably beat the game without even attempting to dodge their way through the game’s intricate patterns of enemy fire. But saying you’ve completed Akai Katana just because you powered your way to the ending credits is sort of like saying you mastered Street Fighter because you beat Arcade mode on easy; you haven’t really finished Akai Katana until you can beat the game on a single credit, and doing that is an incredibly difficult task that requires complete mastery of the game’s complex mechanics.
In Akai Katana, your plane has two basic modes: if you tap the attack button, your fighter fires a weak but wide-spreading basic shot. If you hold the button down, your plane’s movement speed slows down significantly, but it shoots out a more concentrated, powerful stream of destruction instead. Defeating enemies in the first mode earns you orbs, while defeating enemies in the second builds up your plane’s energy. Orbs and energy are used with your fighter’s third mode, Phantom mode: your stockpile of orbs is launched when you switch over to Phantom mode, and the orbs are able to absorb enemy fire and attach themselves to the enemies themselves. If you shoot down an enemy with an orb attached to them, you gain a Katana, which your Phantom will automatically stockpile and then fire when it runs out of energy and transforms back into a plane. The katanas do massive damage to anything that gets in their way, and enemies defeated with katanas drop gold icons, which add substantial multipliers to your score. (Note that this is an explanation for the game’s mechanics in Slash mode; the Xbox 360 version of Akai Katana also features two other gameplay modes that are even more complicated.)
Still with me? Yes, it’s a lot to take in, especially when compared to the relatively simple mechanics of Ikaruga’s color swapping system or Gradius’ options, but learning the ins and outs of Akai Katana’s systems becomes worth it once you launch your first maxed-out volley of katanas: the previously intimidating enemies and bosses suddenly crumble in front of you, and the screen becomes a beautiful, Itano circus-like kaleidoscope of destruction. Eventually, dodging the enemies’ complex bursts of fire becomes second nature, and you start to worry less about simply surviving each level and more about dominating it. Sure, if you rely on infinite continues, you could probably beat Akai Katana in less than half an hour. But if you want to really play the game — i.e. beat it with a limited amount of lives, get a high score, upload your replays to the internet and compare your performance against the shmup pro’s — there’s months worth of replay value in the game.
But most importantly, it’s simply fun to play: weaving your way through enemy fire, using your orbs to clear a path through an otherwise deadly wave of bullets, unleashing your katanas at exactly the right time — Akai Katana gives you an indescribable feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment with every enemy defeated and every stage cleared. It’s the perfect blend of modern day complexity and old school fun, and it’s incredibly hard to put down once you let it gets its hooks in you: I was so addicted to the game that I actually had to stop playing for awhile because my right hand started to genuinely hurt from furiously tapping the attack button for hours straight. There are a lot of great shmups on the Xbox 360, but Akai Katana is arguably one of the best; as far as I’m concerned, it deserves to be ranked alongside legendary shooters like Treasure’s Ikaruga and fellow Cave Studio developed games like Mushihime-Sama and Dodonpachi.
Akai Katana was released for the Xbox 360 last year by Rising Star Games. You can still find new copies of it for about $15-$20 new, and I recommend getting it now while you still can — niche shooters like this often go out of print pretty quickly and can become pretty rare and expensive after a few years. Just look up the eBay prices for the Dreamcast version of Ikaruga if you don’t believe me.