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A Blood-Stained Bullet Straight Through Hell

If you look at the Wikipedia article talking about the shoot ‘em up genre, you’ll find this entry for a specific sub-genre known as “bullet hell”:

“Bullet hell” (danmaku, literally “barrage” or “bullet curtain”) is a shoot ’em up in which the entire screen is often almost completely filled with enemy bullets. This type is also known as “curtain fire”, “manic shooters” or “maniac shooters”. This style of game originated in the mid-1990s, and is an offshoot of scrolling shooters.

What I find funny about that entry is just how casually it talks about the bullet hell genre. Oh yeah, it’s that style of shoot ‘em up where the developer throws so many bullets on screen at once that your brain locks up from overload. No big deal, really.

If you’re already completely lost, then this is going to be one heck of a ride.

When I was young, games like Akai Katana were simply called shooters. Space Invaders, Galaga, Asteroids, things like that were shooters—antagonists of some sort were on screen, and you pressed a button over and over to shoot them until they were dead. Simple.

At some point, a new breed of games came along that greedily stole the “shooter” title, and what once used to go by that name became known as the “shoot ‘em up”. Something else happened along the way, however: The games evolved into a totally different beast. They went from the for-everyone fair of the arcade titles I listed above, to a bit more serious—yet still accessible—games like R-Type, Gradius, or Sky Kid, to games like what we have today—hardcore, maniac, tough-as-nails battles for survival.

Except, even the hardcore just weren’t finding them hardcore enough. So, now we have the bullet hell shooter—where your screen can literally become a maze of enemy bullets, and survival is sometimes less about killing everything and more about keeping yourself alive.

In the interest of full disclose, I’m not one of those hardcore experts at bullet hell shoot ‘em ups. Heck, I didn’t even get seriously into them until last year, when I finally jumped in with an imported copy of Do Don Pachi Resurrection. That isn’t to say that I hadn’t previously played either your typical shoot ‘em up nor those of the bullet hell variety: From Deathsmiles also on the Xbox 360, to more competitive-type stuff like Star Solider R on WiiWare, to classic games like Gaiares on the Genesis, to modern stylish takes on the genre like Space Invaders Infinity Gene, I’ve played plenty of genre offerings. However, it was Do Don Pachi where I decided I really wanted to see if I could get good at a shoot ‘em up, bullet hell or otherwise—versus simply playing it.

There’s a huge difference between those two—playing and mastering—and that’s one of the first things you’re reminded when venturing into Akai Katana. If you go into it simply with the mindset of beating it, you’ll find yourself easily doing so with a bit of persistence (and a lot of mashing the continue button). That isn’t the aim of every new release from bullet hell masters Cave, and that’s not why a game like Akai Katana exists.

Mastery means getting into Akai Katana’s core gameplay elements—and like any good Cave shoot ‘em up, they’re interesting, deep, and seemingly impossible to understand by a mortal human being at first. I think this is one of the biggest elements that keeps a lot of players away from the bullet hell genre: That initial steep learning curve, and the fear that there’s just far too much to comprehend and remember. As somebody who’s been there before, let me tell you this: Don’t let that stop you from giving the genre a go. When I sat down with Do Don Pachi, and forced myself to really learn its ins and outs, it ended up reminding me quite a bit of Street Fighter IV. Yes, that initial intimidation level is indeed there—but you start to learn the game, piece by piece, and step by step Soon, you’ll find that those things which at first seemed impossible to master are now almost second nature.

Akai Katana’s trademark gameplay elements center around two ideas: Item collection, and proper use of your Phantom mode.

Let’s start simple. Each of the three plane choices you have have two basic modes: Defense and Attack. Defense comes from either not touching the shot button, or by only firing off shots via quick taps of the button. Attack mode, meanwhile, produces a bigger and more powerful barrage of firepower by holding the shot button down.

Energy items can be obtained in one of two ways: By either killing an enemy up close via Defense mode, or by killing an enemy via the shots coming from your partner Option. If you’re in Defense mode, energy will automatically be collected by your plane; if you’re in Attack mode, your Option can collect that energy, but it won’t be absorbed. While your Option still has that collected energy, if enemy bullets travel through those energy items, they’ll get bigger. The bigger the energy item, the more energy you’ll get from them when finally absorbed.

So far, so good?

That collected energy is used to lengthen the time you can exist in Phantom mode. When Phantom mode is engaged, your plane and your Option merge together, summoning a powerful floating warrior. When the Phantom is in Defense mode, they’re invincible—enemy bullets will bounce right off of them. When in Attack mode, their laser blasts are extremely powerful—but one hit from enemy fire, and you’ll instantly be kicked out of Phantom mode.

Phantom mode is where things get especially interesting, as those bounced bullets don’t always go away; some  fly off in an arc, soon returning in your direction. Should you bounce the bullets yet again back near an enemy, and then kill that enemy with those bullets in close proximity, the bullets turn into score-boosting gold.

This is just a simple—yes, I’m being serious when I say “simple” there—rundown of the basics of Akai Katana’s original arcade mode. The game becomes not only a test of your reactionary skills, but also your quick wit, as you have to balance when to use which mode either for survival or for taking a chance at getting a higher score. It’s a series of concepts that I understand, yet haven’t come close to fully mastering. Those concepts also make Akai Katana feel both like a tried-and-true Cave shoot ‘em up, and unlike the rest of the Cave games you may already have in your library (or, at least, may have tried before).

Then, of course, all of this gets complicated even more by the fact that this Xbox 360 release of Akai Katana comes packed with two other flavors of the game—Slash Mode and Climax Mode—each of which mixes up the rules while also adding in some new elements. None of these three mode options are so totally different as to break the feel of the game, but each does stand out on its own enough to really provide a great sense of variety and content in regards to the overall package.

All of this is just scratching the surface of what Akai Katana is. Simple in theory, complicated in practice, and visually intimidating—it is a perfect representation of the genre it calls home. When taking a look at both Cave’s roster of games, and the bullet hell family as a whole, Akai Katana is a great new chapter that will provide shoot ‘em up fans with a fresh set of challenges to conquer.

Yet what about those who aren’t bullet hell experts, but want to give the games a go? Personally, I’m more a fan of vertical-scrolling shoot ’em ups; still,  horizontal-scrolling offerings like Akai Katana may feel a bit more familiar to those more used to many of the simpler shooters from gaming’s past. As well, I think the theme here is a bit more Western-friendly than other offerings from Cave—instead of strange fantasy situations or flying robot girls, most of the game is based around a so-ridiculous-it’s-cool world of more traditional weapons of world war.

So, Akai Katana is a great choice for both longtime pros and those just getting their feet wet. Just don’t let its daunting persona keep you away—while Akai Katana is certainly another case of sink-or-swim, it’s quite a lot of fun once you’re no longer thrashing about wildly from fear of drowning.

SUMMARY:  Yes, even us mortal humans can play and enjoy bullet hell shoot ’em upsand for those wanting to try such games, Akai Katana can have just as much to offer us as it does hardcore fans of the genre.

  • THE GOOD: Great level of challenge, polish, and gameplay options centered around a fun theme
  • THE BAD: Akai Katana‘s stages and overall length felt shorter that some of Cave’s other offerings
  • THE UGLY: The seizures your brain can have when first trying to decipher bullet hell shot patterns

SCORE: 8.0

Akai Katana is available exclusively on the Xbox 360.


About Eric Patterson

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Eric got his start via self-publishing game-related fanzines in junior high, and now has one goal in life: making sure EGM has as much coverage of niche Japanese games as he can convince them to fit in. Eric’s also active in the gaming community on a personal level, being an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming and consumer rights.