Friday, July 15, 2011

Getting Gold For Releasing Your Load

A lot of people are pretty passionate about so-called 'social games' on computers and smartphones currently. Okay, passionate is not the right word. ADDICTED is probably the right word. Like there’s a thin membrane laced with crack cocaine right under the touch screens and its been seeping into their skins. None of that namby-pamby baking, shopping, or tending for me though.

My crack-game of late has been Akai Katana Shin on the Xbox 360. I’ve spent more recent hours on Mortal Kombat attempting to get a last few achievements, in what should’ve been an afterthought, but turned out to be way too much work. Freeing myself from that bloodbath, I’ve been playing Cave’s latest shooter in earnest now, and I find it really hard to put down.

I enjoy Cave shooting games in general, but this title has even more of ‘the one more try’ factor than the rest of their catalog. The disc has three versions of Akai Katana on it, Shin, Arcade, and Zetsu. I’ve been playing Shin mode predominantly, and it has weapons and scoring so awesome and cathartic that replaying the early stages on restart hasn’t gotten the least bit tiresome to me. This post is going to deal mostly with Shin mode, then. The disc is region-locked to Japan. If you don't have a JPN console you can't play this, though I'd dare to say this game would be a big incentive to get one.

Like any Cave shooter, you can either play ‘for survival’ or ‘for score’… these terms used by gamers as nutshell phrases trying to encompass the balance between risk and reward. If you want to generate more or bigger scoring items you are going to have to put your ship (or avatar) at risk by getting closer to enemies before you shoot them, letting the screen fill with extra bullets, or milk boss characters for extended lengths of time… some version of ‘extra jeopardy’ rather than simply trying to kill every enemy as fast as possible to increase each ship’s survival time by minimising enemy fire. It is these sorts of risk/reward mechanics that make shooters compelling, and it’s where Cave’s particular style of STG excels. Also in Akai Katana Shin, as in most Cave games, learning to play well for score eventually ends up benefiting your survival as the extends come sooner or more frequently, and the timing and strategy you needed to get that score translate into survival skills. Once a player learns the ins and outs of a Cave game, playing for score IS playing for survival.

The thing about Akai Katana Shin for me is that the visual and audio depiction of the scoring system is so frickin’ cool… it just has ‘something’. But the risk, most of the time, is not nearly as brutal as other Cave games. And it is recoverable. If you fail to take advantage of a high scoring section, it won’t take long for you to reach another opportunity. It doesn’t feel (though I could be wrong) that getting the highest scores is nearly as ‘scripted’ as it is in say Ketsui or Dodonpachi Daioujou.

I also found that the blending of score and survival play styles came MUCH sooner. I love Ketsui, and I’ve dumped a lot of hours into it, but I’m still playing the entire second half of that game in pure survival mode. With Akai Katana Shin, I’m deliberately risking ruining great runs to the end by trying to keep huge chains alive and lining up as many bullets as possible in the sights of my super-weapon… and loving every minute of it. Yeah, yeah, I still curse when I die, but I think Cave hit on the perfect combination for me. In an earlier post about Bangai-O HD, I remarked on the cathartic thrill of that game’s over-the-top screen-filling uber-weapon. Akai Katana Shin pushes the same buttons with its ‘Ninja mode’ katana blitz.

For those who can’t be bothered with trying to dig up the info online: In Akai Katana Shin you pick one of three pilots/planes. Each corresponds to the typical Cave rules; one with narrow, straight but strong shots. One with a fair amount of spread to the pattern, but a little weaker. One with wide, fanned out shots that catch most of the screen but are quite weak and will not make short work of many of the enemies. Each pilot also has a ‘Ninja’ companion, who normally exists as a sort of ‘option’ orbiting the player’s plane. After building meter, you push a button and your plane switches out for a large, flying human (and no option), who has enhanced abilites and is the secret to triggering the aforementioned uber-weapon awesomeness. Again typical of Cave (and danmaku in general) if you hold down the fire button in any mode it focuses your shots at the expense of speed. The bombs in Akai Katana do clear enemy bullets as well as destroying the enemy themselves. A form of auto-bomb is the default. If you get hit by an enemy, while on your last life, the game will trigger your entire remaining bomb stock to keep you alive.

--If you use normal shot (rhythmic tapping), dead or injured enemies release light blue orbs (magatama actually, the comma-shape that figures heavily in Japanese history and myth) that power a couple of your Ninja abilities and keep a chain counter going.
--If you use focused shot (button held) the enemies release green energy orbs that increase the amount of time you can spend in Ninja mode.

When you are all ready to go, switching to Ninja form gives you two options;

--A defensive ‘blue Ninja’ (rhythmic tapping) who slows incoming bullets down and can continue to collect blue orbs.
--Or the offensive ‘red Ninja’ whose fire collects ‘katana’ swords from dead enemies. .

So basically, you fly through the stages, mostly using regular shot to collect blue orbs, with the occasional dip into focused shot to get some green E’s, it doesn’t take a lot of energy to fill up and sporadic use of focused shot won’t break your hit chain.

Progress collecting is indicated by a glowing ring of characters around your ship and a green bar at the top of the screen. At any time you can switch to Ninja mode and it will consume whatever you have in green bar. The blue orbs you collected will be reflected in the number of magatama surrounding your ninja. You can stay ‘defensive’and treat the Ninja like your regular old ship albeit he/she can slow down incoming fire somewhat, but there’s a time limit based on how much green you had in the meter before you changed. Or you can go ‘offensive’, by holding down the fire button, switching to red. This shoots out the circle of magatama and they cause damage to enemies and cancel bullets. As they do this, they fling katana back to your ninja. So really, the more blue orbs you collect before you switch, the more magatama, and katana, you will have to work with. If you hold fire down as the red Ninja portions of your fire output will gather additional katana from dead enemy, but your green bar timer is still counting down, so it’s better to collect what you can before triggering Ninja mode.

With a cloud of katana surrounding you, here’s the REALLY fun bit. Apart from the blue orbs and green E items, there are gold scoring items marked with a red G. You get these in various sizes when you kill enemies in different ways in Ninja mode. As I said earlier, when you switch BACK to ship mode, any katana hovering around your ninja will shoot forward (or wherever you aimed them). Anything they strike, will be destroyed and emit clouds of the biggest form of gold item. They blossom all over the screen and then get immediately sucked into your ship. Opportunities to do this come frequently in the game. And if you amass enough swords before unloading, any enemy apart from end bosses will go down with one glorious, slowdown-inducing barrage.

If I had any criticism about the game itself, it would be that all this orb-gathering and gold-fountaining frequently obscures the awesome artwork on display in the game’s graphics. Akai Katana’s art style is reminiscent of the stodgy ironworks machines found in titles like Metal Slug or In The Hunt. But you’d have to play through seriously reducing your scoring attempts in order to see a lot of it! The way it all works is so awesome however, that the complaint is kind of pathetic and hollow really.

The above explanation does not encompass many of the subtleties in the game and its scoring but it gives the gist. Essentially what you have here is a game with such cool and layered weaponry, that the time-honored, screen-clearing bomb is almost unnecessary. Through some strategic timing, you almost always have overwhelming force on tap. It is seriously boner-inducing when you get a full complement of swords lined up on a huge midboss, let some popcorn enemies gather around him, and then wait for scads of enemy fire to blanket the screen and almost reach you… then trigger twelve katana right into the heart of the shitstorm, flying your plane behind that steel wall of consuming death so that you can vacuum up all the gold that much quicker.

Practically a video game orgasm. Ooh! That’s what the appeal actually is! Cave has distilled human sexual response into a shooting game! YES!

Seriously, I could go on and on about the other things the game does so right. I think Cave soundtracks are generally ‘okay’. Usually I think they are appropriate for whatever game and usually there’s one or two standout tunes (ie, the TLB theme from Ketsui), but not the sort of thing I’d spend a ton of time listening to on my iPod. The music from Akai Katana Shin isn’t going to make my favorites list, but it is a damn sight better and more memorable than most of their previous music. I’ve already mentioned the visuals, but additionally, this is the first Cave game in a while where ‘lolis’ in some form were NOT front and center. Instead the game has a sort of old-fashioned industrial feel with clunky little tanks and turrets, and prop planes. All the player characters, teen girls included, are dressed in a military manner, and pretty lacking in fan service opportunities. That isn’t to say the character art is particularly manly. It is still pretty swishy, as seems to be the style these days. But the armies and weapons are glorious. Rendered in HD-friendly resolution, and with plenty of screen adjustment options. Also, it’s horizontally-oriented, so no tate required.

I don’t think this game will necessarily make a gamer a fan of the bullet hell style. And it may actually vary from the Cave formula, with its multiple uber-weapon system, too much for a lot of Cave diehards. Also, since it’s a hori like Progear and Deathsmiles. So vert-only players might shun this too. But to me this game just does everything so right. It is absolutely spectacular, and brings enough new things to the table that it doesn’t play like any other Cave game… or any other shooter that I can think of.

There was one massive oversight, though, and I’m kind of baffled that Cave, at the time of this writing, has not issued a patch to fix: you cannot enter your initials on the high score tables. If you post your score to an Xbox Live leaderboard it DOES use your gamertag, so proper credit is attributed. But in ‘local’ terms you can’t ID the scores played on YOUR console. Pretty glaring considering high score tables, and their three initial entries, are pretty much rock-standard in shooters since Space Invaders.

That error aside, I can’t recommend Akai Katana Shin highly enough. I haven’t even really scratched the surface on Arcade and Zetsu modes. Arcade is essentially a recreation of the original game, complete with the faults that got it kind of a lukewarm reception in Japanese arcades. But it is the mode that allows two players at once. Zetsu is a sort of ‘fixed’ version of Arcade and would be the de facto standard now for basic Akai Katana (without the Shin part of the title). Unless some super surprise entry blindsides me between now and Christmas, Akai Katana Shin will probably end of Game Of The Year for me in 2011.
(screenshot ripped from Andriasang)

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