Samurai Aces Episode III: Sengoku Cannon (“Sengoku Cannon” hereafter) is a game of farewells.
It bids a fond farewell to the Samurai Aces series, which is how Psikyo began as a developer. It waves goodbye to Psikyo’s run of arcade-centric shoot ’em ups, being designed specifically for the PSP platform. And, in some ways, as a title developed by X-Nauts after they took over Psikyo in 2002, it’s something of a sayounara to Psikyo themselves, too.
Some of the snobbier shoot ’em up fans out there would also argue that Sengoku Cannon also bids adieu to Psikyo-branded games being “good”, but I’ve actually found quite a lot to like about this curious, clunky shooter. Let’s take a closer look.
Sengoku Cannon is a side-scrolling shoot ’em up that was first released for PSP in 2005. More recently, it was released for Nintendo Switch, both individually and as part of the Psikyo Shooting Stars Bravo compilation.
Like most of the other Switch ports of Psikyo games, it’s a fairly bare-bones port — and it’s especially apparent in this case, since it keeps the 30 fps frame rate from the PSP original. It does upscale the 3D backgrounds, however, so that’s something, at least — though they do look woefully low-poly by modern standards, even when compared to Zero Gunner 2 from four years prior.
For some, a sub-60 fps shoot ’em up is absolute sacrilege, and to a certain extent that’s understandable; it is a genre built on precise control, intricate manoeuvres and delicate positioning, after all. That said, despite the seemingly janky movement in Sengoku Cannon, the actual control of the game feels responsive and tight — which is good, because mechanically, this is probably the most complex shoot ’em up you’ll find with Psikyo’s name on it.
The mechanical depth primarily comes from the fact that you’re able to attack in four different ways. You’ve got your standard shot, you’ve got a Cave-style laser shot which causes you to move more slowly, you’ve got the titular “Cannon” shot and, of course, you’ve got bombs. Much like previous Psikyo games, there are multiple characters to choose from, each with their own unique loadout and handling; longstanding fans of the series will be pleased to know that Miko (now known by her actual name, Koyori) is back and as busty as ever, while Tengai’s eponymous hero is an unlockable secret character.
The standard shot works as you’d expect. You can either tap the shot button or hold a dedicated auto-fire button, and collecting power-ups increases both the power and coverage of your basic shot. The exact way this is accomplished varies according to the character; some get shots that fire in multiple directions, while others develop a wide, powerful barrage that fires forwards. The animal familiars of Tengai and their supporting fire patterns are sadly absent, however; this time around, it’s all up to the samurai aces.
Holding down the standard, non-auto shot button causes your character to make use of their “laser” attack, which allows more precise, accurate movement and concentrated fire directly ahead of yourself. Again, the exact implementation of the “laser” varies by character — Koyori’s is actually just a super-rapid version of her regular shot, for example — but its functionality is generally the same.
The Cannon shot is where things get interesting. This is a powerful blast in front of your character. There’s no limit to how many of these you can fire in total, but you can’t rapid-fire them; there’s a very short cooldown between each shot.
The Cannon can rip through most enemies with ease and do significant damage to bosses, but its main function relates to the game’s scoring mechanics. If you finish off an enemy with the Cannon, you’ll cancel all their bullets and turn them into coins and get a score multiplier of up to 10x the enemy’s normal value. The variability comes from how close to death the enemy was when you finished them off with a cannon shot, and to this end the game provides all enemies with a helpful beat ’em up-style health bar in the corner of the screen to help you judge.
That’s not all though; if you hit an enemy with more than one Cannon shot, you get none of these beneficial effects, but you will do more damage to them. In this way, you need to make some interesting decisions between maximising your scoring potential, or dealing with an encounter quickly. This makes for some especially interesting boss encounters, since many of these are set up in such a way that a quick route to victory involves weaving through bullet patterns and firing off well-timed Cannon blasts, but taking this approach means you’ll only get the minimum score possible. Instead, you’ll want to use your shot and laser to soften up each of the boss’ distinct phases — which each has its own health bar — then finish each with a Cannon blast for multiplier and shot-cancelling action.
Finally, you have the obligatory bombs, and much like in the previous Samurai Aces games, these are implemented as each character having their own unique, powerful special attack ranging from a relentless barrage of homing shots (that will actually miss completely if you’re too close to your target) to a short-lived damage field in a specific area of the screen.
Unlike in Tengai, where there is a short and very vulnerable wind-up animation before you let a bomb off, you can “panic bomb” in this game, since firing one off immediately turns you invincible, even if the effect takes a moment to activate. Bombs are also very powerful against bosses — though if you mistime them and inadvertently blast through a phase transition, you’ll miss out on the potential Cannon bonuses.
While it’s easy to see why Sengoku Cannon is not a particularly well-regarded installment in Psikyo’s back catalogue — and especially because its predecessor Tengai is a favourite of many shoot ’em up enthusiasts — there’s a lot to like here. The variety of enemies provide plenty of interesting challenges, the Cannon mechanics make the game as much about bullet management as it is about skilful dodging and the music is excellent.
Yes, its backgrounds may be a bit drab and boring, particularly when compared to its predecessor’s elaborate pixel art and parallax scrolling; yes, it’s a shame they didn’t bump up the frame rate for the Switch version; yes, Tengai is undoubtedly a slicker, more polished side-scrolling installment of the Samurai Aces series… but Sengoku Cannon is still fun despite all this, and for some people, that’s enough.
Plus, when did it ever hurt to try something a little less popular than the well-established favourites of the world?
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