Tengai: The Return of the Samurai Aces

If there’s one thing that becomes clear from looking at Psikyo’s shoot ’em up output over the years, it’s that they love a sequel.

The Strikers 1945 series saw two sequels, for example: one which built on the original formula, and another which transplanted the action into the modern day. They all played fairly similarly to one another in terms of their core mechanics, though each with their own unique features to enjoy.

The Samurai Aces series shook things up a bit more with each new installment. So after the straightforward, no-nonsense, enjoyable fun of the original Samurai Aces, we come to the second episode: Tengai. Let’s take a closer look.

Tengai (sometimes known as Samurai Aces Episode II: Tengai, or Sengoku Blade in Japan) is a direct follow-up to the original game, featuring some of the same characters. It first released to arcades in 1996, some three years after its predecessor — and after Psikyo had put out a couple of its most beloved classics, such as the original Gunbird and Strikers 1945 titles. It was also ported to Saturn that same year, but as with most ’90s or early ’00s ports of niche-interest shoot ’em ups, good luck finding a copy that isn’t going for astronomical amounts of money these days.

It also had a 2004 PlayStation 2 port — bundled alongside its predecessor in Japan, released by itself as a budget-price title by 505 GameStreet in Europe — as well as some monetised-out-the-wazoo ports for iOS and Android that are best avoided, but as with the previous Psikyo titles we’ve explored, today we’re primarily concerned with the Nintendo Switch version that can be found as part of the Psikyo Shooting Stars Bravo compilation.

Tengai is a significant departure from its predecessor in a few ways. Most notably, it’s now a horizontally scrolling shoot ’em up rather than the vertically oriented “TATE”-style affair it was before, making for a markedly different experience thanks to the new perspective on the action. And, like many horizontal scrollers from the era, it places a strong emphasis on spectacle, with each stage very much taking you on a “ride” through some beautifully rendered environments.

Like most Psikyo shoot ’em ups, Tengai’s opening stages unfold in a random order — and, like its stablemates, visiting a particular stage later in the cycle means that you’ll encounter a more difficult version of it, with bullet patterns becoming more intense and challenging to dodge. There’s a nice visual twist this time around, though; the later you arrive at a stage in your run through the game, the later in the “day” it appears to be, with the latest stages unfolding at dusk and night.

In true Psikyo fashion, we’re provided with a selection of characters, each with their own unique capabilities. This time around, each character has a basic shot, and collecting power-up items not only increases the effectiveness of this (usually by increasing its spread, barrage intensity or both) but also summons a “familiar” to support the character, which will move and fire in its own distinct way to complement the player’s actions.

Bombs take a little getting used to in Tengai, since you can’t just fire them off when you’re about to get hit by a bullet — they have a bit of a wind-up animation before they actually activate, but in most cases will block bullets once their main action has actually started. As such, it’s worth using them more offensively than you might do in other shooters; they make short work of mid-stage bosses, for example, or you can save them for a quick win at the end of a level.

Of particular note in Tengai are the gorgeous, multi-part, multi-phase boss fights. Each major battle in the game sees you blasting pieces off various (usually mechanical) monstrosities, with its capabilities being affected accordingly. Usually you can go for a speedy victory just by concentrating your firepower on the main body, but shooting off all the “bits” first will reward you with a higher score, perhaps some power-ups and, if nothing else, a much greater sense of satisfaction.

In most cases, a boss’ first form is its most complex in terms of components to blast, with the final phase unfolding as a more conventional battle to the death — though there are usually still at least a couple of cannons or other death-dealing implements to shoot off before you eke out a win.

Like its predecessor, much of Tengai’s battles unfold against distinctive, stylish opponents that blend elements of traditional Buddhist and Shinto imagery with steampunk, making for a very memorable experience and some fearsome foes to down before you reach the finale. The backdrops are also absolutely beautiful, consisting of some delicious pixel art and more than enough layers of parallax scrolling to satisfy even the most demanding 16-bit enthusiasts.

The soundtrack is a notable step up from the previous game. Rather than the rather morose, atmospheric but not terribly memorable Japanese-inspired music of the original, here we have some more energetic numbers that still feature traditional instrumentation, but which have a lot more pace and drama to them. The music, when coupled with the gorgeous backdrops and the roller-coaster ride on which the game takes you with each stage, makes for a game that is a lot of fun to experience, whether you’re watching or playing.

Regrettably, much like all the other Psikyo games on Nintendo Switch, Tengai also lacks online leaderboards and a replay facility, which may cause more hardcore shoot ’em up fans to turn their noses up. But despite these lacking features, this is a really solid port — and certainly a lot cheaper and easier to get hold of than that old Saturn version!

Tengai is a lot of fun and, for many, one of Psikyo’s best blasters. Like its peers, it strikes a good balance between challenge and accessibility, and rewards the player with plenty of big explosions, beautiful vistas and challenging encounters to overcome.

Oh, and for those who like titties, the change in artist from the original’s Hirofumi Nakamura to Tsukasa Jun in the sequel also brought with it a considerable, rather notorious increase in bust size for the playable character Miko, who unsurprisingly became something of an unofficial mascot for both the Samurai Aces series and Psikyo in general from this point on. Never underestimate the power of boob.

More about Tengai
More about Psikyo Shooting Stars Bravo

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