The Samurai Aces trilogy is a wild ride. It’s three games with three different screen resolutions, two different shooting perspectives (the first is a vertical shooter, the next two are horizontal), while the second game jettisons the ‘Samurai Aces’ moniker entirely, opting instead for just ‘Tengai’.
But while the Samurai Aces trilogy emerges as the most inconsistent and scattershot of all the Psikyo series, Samurai Aces is the least concerned with taking risks. Samurai Aces hews closely to the template set up by the Strikers 1945 and Gunbird series, being a vertical shooter set across seven levels, with all of the typical gameplay elements present and correct.
Stacking power-ups? Check. Each of the six characters has their own signature attack that grows with each power-up, and you will be jamming the A button down to automatically fill the screen with it. Ultra Genius Kenn-o has a wide spread of lasers that upgrades with shuriken once the power bar is full. Holy Tomboy Miko (which sounds more like an old Batman quote than a character) throws out paper covered in kanji.
Smart bombs? Check. These drop down in barrel-like containers, and give you instant board-wipes and – on occasion – the ability to remove all of the bullets that are being fired your way. Again, each character has their own: Gadget Gen, effectively a Gepetto character, fires off wooden puppets the size of aircraft carriers. They must have taken him a fair amount of whittling time.
As an aside, when comparing Samurai Aces’ approach to power-ups to the other Psikyo releases, there is a small but noticeable difference. Power-ups don’t drop below the halfway line of the game screen, and it’s an utter pain in the arse. If you want to boost your fire capability, you have to wander into the carnage at the top of the screen. Considering that you can die by touching enemy ships, and there’s very little sideways or backward defences on your ship, this can be a choice between death or pathetic firepower. Which isn’t much of a choice at all.
Ludicrous enemies and bosses? Check. Samurai Aces competes with Gunbird in the ‘most bonkers opponents’ bracket. Samurai Aces’ ‘thing’ is to splice Japanese touchstones like samurai, kanji, pagodas and tengu with hi-tech, modern elements like mechs and airships. Robotic samurai cut through the air, sending flaming projectiles at you. In one instance, which we want to scrub from our memories, koi carp with babies’ faces swim towards you, burping water projectiles at your ship. Bosses include samurai robots that Voltron together, and a giant urn that erupts to reveal a devil inside.
A short game with an emphasis on replay? Yep, check that too. There are seven levels here (one fewer than the conventional eight), and they follow the same pattern as most of the other Psikyo releases. Some simple enemies like tanks and helicopters are cannon fodder for your samurai fighters, before a boss gets wheeled in. These are screen-spanning, firing ludicrous waves of bullets that you could barely pass a needle through. They tend to have multiple phases, but are no match for some well-timed smart bombs and persistent firing.
Finishing the game isn’t a huge challenge (multiple difficulty settings, and the ability to up the number of lives and continues helps here), so the emphasis is on replaying to see multiple endings for each character. There’s the odd dialogue difference if you do, plus highscores record your best runs. As with the other Psikyo games, the whole experience can be played in co-op.
The deviations to the formula are mostly negative. We loved the Japanese aesthetic, so that gets a thumbs up. Samurai Aces is as inventive and gorgeous as some of the publisher’s highs. But the story is pig-swill. It seems to be a simple tale of samurais versus a flying fortress, but it’s not wholly possible to tell who you are fighting or why. Intermediary cutscenes can be summarised as “ooh, look, a flying island”. The bare bones story has an impact on the ending cutscenes, too, as the main characters celebrate their victories with varying degrees of mania. There are no alternate endings, so Samurai Aces offers few story reasons to replay.
The difficulty is on the spikier side, too. While you can brute-force a lot of the levels thanks to the ability to increase your lives, some levels (the Voltron ninja one in particular) are heavy on the bullet-hells – more so than the other Psikyo games (outside of Strikers 1945 III). If you prefer your shoot ‘em ups less than spammy, then this might not be the ideal starting point.
Samurai Aces is a perfectly decent Psikyo shooter. In quality terms, it sits happily at the midpoint of all the Psikyo re-releases, with an engaging theme and some cracking bosses. On the flipside, it has a limp story and a penchant for bullet-spamming.
An argument for starting your Psikyo relationship elsewhere is that the Samurai Aces series is anything but consistent: Tengai, the second in the series, goes in a completely different, horizontal-shooter direction. So, for a more coherent, and better-realised series, we would point you to GUNBIRD.
You can buy Samurai Aces from the Xbox Store