It’s always fascinating to see a developer’s first game, because it often represents a combination of the new company’s staff bringing their past experience to the table and an attempt for that new company to truly define themselves as something unique.
Psikyo kicked off a prolific few years of shoot ’em ups with Samurai Aces (also known as Sengoku Ace: Tengai Episode I), originally released to arcades in 1993. As the company’s first game, it certainly helps set the mould for their subsequent games, but it remains a solid shoot ’em up in its own right, and can easily be experienced today as part of the Psikyo Shooting Stars Bravo compilation for Nintendo Switch.
A lot of that is probably down to the fact that it was designed by Shin Nakamura of Aero Fighters fame, so Psikyo was always set up to get a good start. But let’s take a closer look anyway, and see what makes this game truly tick.
Samurai Aces’ narrative is pure nonsense, but 1) this is a shoot ’em up we’re talking about, and with a few notable exceptions, you’re probably not here for the story, and 2) the game doesn’t make a big deal of its plot for most of its runtime, with characterisation of the various playable cast members limited to the odd quip between levels. It does, however, have 21 different endings according to which character (or combination of characters in two-player mode) you’re playing, and thus a bit of context is perhaps helpful.
Samurai Aces casts you in the role of one of six heroes from the Sengoku (“warring states”) period of Japanese history — though don’t expect to see anyone you might recognise from Samurai Warriors here. Each of them has been tasked with rescuing the Shogun’s daughter Tsukihime (“Moon Princess”) from an evil cult, and in order to do so each of them has been outfitted with a flying machine of some description.
It’s really hard to sum up the various modes of transportation in Samurai Aces with a descriptor any more specific than “flying machine”, because the craft you’ll find yourself piloting range from what appears to be a bird suit through an obvious X-Wing knockoff all the way up to the Northrop YF-23, a prototype jet fighter from the early ’90s, whose real-life counterpart lives in a museum as of 2010.
Each craft is piloted by a different character, and the pilots themselves are as diverse as the craft they fly. Jane, the beautifuly blonde-haired, blue-eyed ninja, pilots a glider, for example, while the YF-23 prototype is in the capable hands — err, paws — of “super genius” dog Kenno. I told you it was pure nonsense, but it’s charming nonsense in the truest tradition of Japanese arcade games.
As you might expect, each pilot and their craft has a different firing pattern, and much like in Psikyo’s subsequent games, you can power them up through several levels by collecting bullet-shaped “P” icons. There are four possible levels of power, though in an interesting twist on those later games, the top power level is only temporary; after a few seconds of maximum firepower, you’ll drop back down to the third power level.
If you collect more power-ups while you’re already at max level, however, you’ll get a 2,000 point bonus for each one collected; as such, trying to remain at full power for as long as possible is an important high score strategy.
The exact effect a power-up has depends on the pilot and their craft. Some unleash a more intense barrage of shots that damages enemies more quickly, while others increase the area they cover. In each case, powering up also adds a subweapon that automatically fires alongside the main shot — these include a variety of effects such as homing projectiles and powerful lightning bolts.
Likewise, each character’s “bomb” has a very different effect, too, and some of them don’t even confer the temporary invincibility that we’ve come to expect from the conventions of the shoot ’em up genre. Be very sure of yourself before you panic bomb!
Each character and their craft feels markedly different; some feel “heavier” than others, too, so it’s not just about their shot patterns and bomb attacks, either. Even more so than many other, later shoot ’em ups, there’s a strong feeling that you’ll probably end up having a “main” in Samurai Aces, since different craft definitely cater to different play styles. It’s just a bit of a shame that the in-game high-score table doesn’t record which pilot you set a score with, making it tricky to analyse your performance while you’re learning the game.
Like the other Psikyo ports, the Nintendo Switch version of Samurai Aces also lacks online leaderboards and a replay function, which can be another helpful source of feedback on your overall performance, but ultimately for most players enjoying the game on a more casual basis, this won’t be a dealbreaker.
The visual style is nice, with plenty of personality to each level and some absolutely gorgeous boss design. A particular highlight comes in the form of a huge, multi-screen boss that is some sort of horrifying combination between industrial machinery and Buddhist statuary, but there are plenty of other wonderful designs throughout the game as a whole.
The music is oddly morose and non-melodic, but it actually fits the action oddly well without proving distracting, consisting almost exclusively of traditional Japanese instrument sounds and harmonies. The driving, relentless taiko rhythms in the background of most stages provide something of a sense of drama to proceedings, and it’s clear that the music has been developed to create atmosphere rather than to be catchy. Doubtless a bit of a subversion of expectations for some people, but Samurai Aces certainly isn’t the only shoot ’em up to take this approach with its soundtrack.
As Psikyo’s first game, Samurai Aces feels fairly simple and straightforward in execution. There are no charge attacks, no chain bonuses for timing object pickups… just satisfying, enjoyable shoot ’em up action with plenty of variety and Psikyo’s trademark style. It seems that they very much always had the knack of making great games, right from the beginning!
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