I had to look up when Samurai Aces III: Sengoku Cannon was released, and found myself blown away that it was launched in arcades in 2005. That surprise is not because Samurai Aces III feels ahead of its time. Quite the opposite: it looks like a game from roughly ten years earlier, when Star Fox, Mode 7 and the Super FX graphics chip were the height of graphical standards. It was when games were made up of polygons so sharp that you could shave on them, and 3D backgrounds would shift and contort with the grace of a video cassette being tossed out of a window.
I’d love to know what reviewers said about Samurai Aces III: Sengoku Cannon when it first came out, because – surely – it must have looked retrograde and ugly in 2005, ten years after those games were at their peak. It looks even uglier now. The beautiful and timeless pixel art of Psikyo’s other games, re-released by City Connection on Xbox over the past few weeks, has been replaced by sub-Star Fox graphics, and we’d love to know why.
There is still something approaching a connection to TENGAI, the second Samurai Aces title, though. TENGAI switched from vertical-scrolling shoot-em-uppery to horizontal, and swapped the jet-fighters for flying people. Samurai Aces III: Sengoku Cannon covers the same ground, albeit without the screen borders. It fits snugly onto the full width of your telly.
But it’s what it chooses to show that’s the problem. This is comfortably the least attractive Psikyo game. We’ve already mentioned that shoddy attempt at parallax backgrounds, but they’re not just ugly, they’re disorienting. They move and jitter about too much, and that creates a problem for an intense shoot ‘em up. When the camera zooms around and momentarily frames a dark tower, suddenly dark bullets can’t be seen. Legibility is just one of the many critical issues facing Samurai Aces III: Sengoku Cannon.
Inexplicably, there is virtually no imagination or interest in the enemies. It’s been Psikyo’s trademark until now: gargantuan bosses with multiple stages, themed after giant babies, dragons in exoskeletons, stacking ninjas and any number of ludicrous others. But Samurai Aces III: Sengoku Cannon wakes up and doesn’t even try to get out of bed. Its bosses are almost entirely humanoid – a mind-melded Tengai even makes an appearance – and they don’t develop graphically. They look the same in phase 1 as they do in phase 5. Sure, they might mix up their attacks on occasion, but they are otherwise not much bigger than the average enemy. And then they repeat those bosses, over and over again.
What was Samurai Aces’ biggest selling point is now its biggest complaint, and we wondered how the mighty could have fallen so far. Boss sections are boring and repetitive, which is never a good mix. Bosses in other Psikyo games feel like pay-offs for chewing through dozens of enemies. Here, they’re an anticlimax.
The levels outside of the bosses aren’t bad, particularly. They’re full of enemies from the far superior TENGAI, so it borrows a little of their quality. But the levels are also far longer than the average Psikyo level, which we’d suggest is a bad thing. You can wonder if they will ever end. The pacing is shot.
On the positive side, the gameplay is preserved from the other Psikyo titles. Power-ups bounce around the screen, waiting to be collected to incrementally improve your attacks. Each character has a different attack, and you’ll soon find a favourite. Miko is back, for example, and she’s lugging sheets of kanji-strewn paper around as attacks. Other characters, like Tengai, can be unlocked.
Smart bombs are present, also collected as they ricochet around the screen, but Psikyo have fumbled these. When you fire a smart bomb, you are locked in place for the entirety of the bomb’s animation. It feels unnecessarily restrictive, and can leave you wide open to a subsequent attack. Miko’s, for example, is an explosion that stays locked in place. You might fire it while a boss is directly opposite you, but the animation of the bomb is so long that the boss will move outside of its yield by the time it reaches them. Which leaves you a sitting duck for what they fire next.
There is co-op play available, and loads of difficulty, visual and game settings, so you can largely play Samurai Aces III: Sengoku Cannon how you would like. But when we reached the end of the five levels (shorter than the traditional seven or eight), we had almost zero motivation to get back on the treadmill. There is little variety in the levels you face, and the lethargic pace and unimaginative boss fights made the prospect of playing once more daunting rather than exciting.
Samurai Aces III: Sengoku Cannon is a game that we’d dearly love to know more about. Some interviews or commentaries would have done wonders here. We suspect that it’s got a troubled history: a budget that got dramatically reduced perhaps. It feels so cheap, so noticeably diluted from the other Psikyo titles, that something must have happened. There’s a story waiting to be told.
In our previous Psikyo reviews, we complained about the lack of risk-taking. Shows what we know. Samurai Aces III: Sengoku Cannon changes a lot, and every change is risible. The Mode 7 backgrounds looked shonky way back in 2005, and the bosses can barely live up to the word. This is either a failed experiment, or a game with its budget savagely cut. Either way, it’s not a game you should be playing.
You can buy Samurai Aces III: Sengoku Cannon from the Xbox Store