Long time no see, eh?
It's no secret that CAVE is one of my favorite developers in all of gaming history. CAVE's name is practically synonymous with bullet hell/danmaku (Touhou fans don't @ me); after all, most players would cite their flagship DoDonPachi as the first true bullet hell game. Their time developing the best-of-the-best shoot-'em-ups sadly came to an end in 2012, but as they say, all good things must come to an end. Their last two original releases were DoDonPachi SaiDaiOuJou in 2012, and Akai Katana in 2010.
赤い刀 (Akai Katana) is a horizontal bullet hell shmup released by CAVE on August 20th, 2010, and is their fourth foray into wacky horizontal land (after Progear, Deathsmiles, and Deathsmiles II). Making a horizontal shmup is a completely different beast from a vertical one, but CAVE never disappoints with their excellence like the previous 3.
The story of the game takes place in the Taishou era, the growth of democracy and industrial expansion in Japan starting in the early 1910s. A new energy source called Guiding Ore is discovered which is a mystical ore that is a flawless substitute for coal. It can be tempered into a blade known as a Guiding Katana that would empower certain soldiers with unique psychic abilities, and would empower those who killed someone with it with immense power and turn blood-red. Emperor Basho used the power of these katanas and his elite battalion of blade users (the Ten Suns) to grow his nation. A group of rebels grew in resistance to Emperor Basho's conquest, being led by his son Kikyou. This group sacrificed themselves to form their own Blood Katanas wielded by the remaining pilots to fight against the Empire. Pretty impressive story for a CAVE game!
The control layout is a standard 4-button layout (with two selectable control styles): fire (hold for laser), bomb, autofire, and Phantom Mode. You also pick between one of three characters and their associated Guardian: Tsubaki and Sumire, Botan and Kikyou, or Shion and Suzuran. The characters are like the ship types from DoDonPachi, adjusting the shot pattern and options.
But tpc, we're here for the scoring! Alright, alright... The point to the scoring system is all about Phantom Mode.
While not using the laser, the ship is put into Defense Mode, which is kind of like using autofire in DoDonPachi, making the options weaker but the ship stronger and more maneuverable. In addition, any energy drops will not be sucked in automatically. While in Phantom Mode, the ship will be protected by the Guardian Wall, which blocks everything: bullets, lasers, and anything else. However, enemy ships will launch suicide bullets when killed in this mode. When ending Phantom Mode, bullets will be blown back and resume motion after a few seconds.
Using the laser will instead put the ship into Attack Mode, which does the opposite: the ship is weaker and moves slower and more precise but the options become stronger. Enemies will drop pickups when the option is close to them, and all pickups will vacuum onto the player (you can't pick up items until you enter Defense Mode however). Phantom Attack mode is also not hurt by lasers, but will be pushed around by them (normally they do a few ticks of damage and a few hits will kill you). While in Phantom Mode, the Phantom fires the Guardian Laser, which will cancel bullets it contacts and can even chain bullet cancels. Attack Mode comes with a large risk in Phantom Mode: getting hit once will cancel Phantom Mode and you will lose gold pickups you amassed during it.
Akai Katana has an interesting variation on grazing; energy and gold items start out as small which makes them very weak. While being in Fighter (non-Phantom) and Attack mode, the energy orbs will orbit the player and having these pass through bullets will level them up into medium and large size orbs. For gold pickups, they will automatically level up while in Phantom Mode (they also grow by grazing). Pickups will only last a short time before disappearing, so pick them up fast!
The score system is both incredibly simple and complex (get energy, phantom mode, get gold, win), and while it is WAY more forgiving than DoDonPachi's chaining, it is no less demanding. In fact, bombs are MUCH less punishing than in CAVE's other games, as it doesn't even reduce the HIT counter in this game (you also get an autobomb on your last life). Like most CAVE games, there is the true final boss, but the requirements for meeting it are very easy, just finish Stage 6 without dying. It is the same boss as the normal Stage 7 but much more difficult (and nets you the good ending instead of the bad one). There's no second loop like classic CAVE games. Although the requirements are easier, the boss is by no means easier. I actually find it to be among the most difficult TLBs in all of their games.
The composer for the game is not Manabu Namiki as expected from CAVE, but instead Ryu Umemoto, and this is one of the last games he ever worked on prior to him passing away in 2011. It is an absolutely wonderful mixture of rock, electro, and traditional Japanese music and is easily my favorite CAVE OST, all culminating in one of my favorite final boss themes in all of gaming, Setsuna.
Speaking of rereleases, the game was quickly ported to the Xbox 360, which amazingly enough got a worldwide release. Along with an arranged soundtrack (similarly great, this time featuring a real guitar!), high-resolution graphics, replays, an online leaderboard, it also featured 3 gameplay modes, similar to the BLACK LABEL's we've come to expect from CAVE. Origin is a direct port of the arcade game, and Climax is a slight modification of it to support 16:9 resolutions along with removing the 256-item limit in the normal game, alongside other changes.
Slash (or Shin in Japan) however is the real remix mode. Scoring has been completely reworked. Now, killing enemies with the laser will cause energy drops while killing them with autofire will cause them to drop Steel Orbs, with proximity determining how many for both of them. Collecting Steel Orbs will have them float around the ship, and will be launched when entering Phantom Attack mode (which will cancel bullets and increase the chain). Steel Orbs hitting an enemy will cause them to drop Katanas, which will float around the ship. Enemies killed now will also explode into suicide bullets, which set up for the huge cancels. The katanas can be angled (except by a Type-1 ship) and fired by exiting Phantom Mode, which will launch them across the screen. Any bullets or enemies they hit will be cancelled and drop HUGE gold items which will cause explosive score results. There are other changes too: Phantom Defense mode is no longer invincible, and taking a hit in Phantom Mode now lowers the gauge instead of instantly kicking you out of it. The original game is fun, but Shin is that completely cracked-out CAVE style that I love so much, so I have put FAR more time into Shin mode than the original arcade version. Shin mode was later ported to Taito's NESiCAxLive arcade digital distribution platform in 2012 as a standalone release, and features the high-resolution graphics as it now runs on the Taito Type X2 board.
Akai Katana is easily one of CAVE's finest releases, with gorgeous art, beautiful music, and a deep and complex scoring system in every mode. I wasn't very sure about it at first, but it's quickly grown to become probably my favorite CAVE game now (narrowly surpassing DoDonPachi Daifukkatsu Black Label). It's very accessible to newcomer players who can use its mechanics for survival, and brutally difficult for those wishing to push the score system to the limit.
The game emulates very well in MAME, and as you can tell, there are ways to run the NESiCAxLive version pretty easily. CAVE and exA-Arcadia have also announced an arcade-exclusive rerelease on the exA-Arcadia platform set to announce in Winter 2021 (which is also a worldwide release... if you happen to be one of the lucky few who owns an exA-Arcadia).
Hey CAVE, you should also port it (and all your other games) to PC. I'd buy all of them ;)