It’s amazing what comes into your mind when you just stop and think, huh? For instance, just a few nights ago I was thinking about Akai Katana, the bullet hell shoot ‘em up I’d been playing on the Xbox 360. I first dabbled with it back in September, after thrilling sessions with Mars Matrix caused me to reevaluate the intimidating subgenre of shoot ‘em ups. That first session was a euphoric experience, full of lights, sounds, and unconscious reflexes, and I wasn’t even doing very well. It was a lot like losing my virginity! And like that pivotal event, once it was over, I knew I wanted to experience it again.
First released into Japanese arcades in August 2010, Akai Katana was another in a long line of polished shoot ‘em ups from CAVE. Headquartered in Tokyo’s Meguro ward, CAVE spun up from the ashes of Toaplan, following that developer’s bankruptcy in the mid 1990s. Coincidentally, that event also served as Takumi Corporation’s origins, the studio behind Mars Matrix, the other shoot ‘em up I’d been playing. Akai Katana was ported to the Xbox 360 a few months later, and in a rare move at the time, had a physical release in the United States in May 2012. This was courtesy of Rising Star Games, a European publisher specializing in niche, Japanese developed games.
I have no recollection of its launch here in the States, but two memories related to its retail release have stuck with me in the years since. The first centers around finding the pristine, secondhand copy I purchased from the Game X Change in Stillwater, OK for mere dollars just a few years ago, and the conversation it sparked with the affable clerk about our mutual appreciation for shoot ‘em ups. Secondly, I remember always seeing a few fair-priced copies at the Hastings Entertainment locations around northeastern Oklahoma before that retailer went belly up and suffered liquidation in 2016.
Anyway, that first playthrough was revelatory, and successive playthroughs were just as exciting. Thanks to unlimited continues anyone can beat the game, and it’s actually not hard to accumulate a lot of achievements easily and feel good about your progress. High level play however, takes advantage of the game’s mechanical depth to reach otherwise insane scores and unlock the toughest achievements. There were a couple of all-encompassing tutorial videos within the game that unraveled its mechanical depth with fantastic, and lengthy, demonstrations. That high level play looks slightly different depending on which version of the game is being played.
The Xbox 360 release is actually a visually enhanced, gameplay tweaked version of the original game known as Akai Katana Shin. The original arcade version is included, plus a third that incorporates elements of both. Regardless of version, I piloted one of three airplanes, each with a unique bullet pattern and option behavior. Likewise, each version allowed me to switch into Phantom Mode when I had collected sufficient energy. In this mode I controlled a more powerful partner, who was also invincible when not firing. Killing enemies as the phantom partner generated the point items that caused my score to skyrocket, especially when enemy bullets passed over them, increasing their size and worth.
In contrast, in the Shin version of the game I collected steel orbs that could be fired off at my opponents. When I activated Phantom Mode and fired the steel orbs, they canceled enemy bullets but more importantly, turned into katanas when passing through enemies. These katanas could then be fired for massive damage and substantial points. Generating steel orbs or the energy required to shift to Phantom Mode depended on whether I was tapping or the attack button or holding it down. There was a lot to consider, and I’m really not doing the game justice with my brief descriptions, but in fairness I’m nowhere near able to generate the kind of scores to even consider being on the leaderboard. For a deeper analysis, I’d suggest Spencer Johnson’s review on Hardcore Gaming 101, which is an absolute tome on the game and just one in a series of reviews he did for them over a variety of bullet hell shooters.
Even if my skills weren’t up to snuff, I got better the more I played, and I wanted to keep playing because Akai Katana was just so fucking rad. Heck, bosses summoned trains, battleships, and other early twentieth century mechanical destroyers out of portals for Pete’s sake! A nigh incomprehensible flood of bullets plagued the screen at all times, but there was always a way to escape the interesting patterns; the game wasn’t as devilishly hard as it appeared and you bet I was on cloud nine when I somehow evaded a daunting wave of bullets. Meanwhile, Ryu Umemoto’s (RIP) shredding electronic rock soundtrack served as the perfect auditory complement to the mayhem that was unfolding before my eyes. Akai Katana is a tour de force of the genre, and one that I foresee will keep me coming back for years.