In an alarming trend over the past couple of years, game designers have been paying so much attention to flashy graphics that they have somehow forgotten about gameplay and control, truly the two most important aspects of a game. Thankfully, every once in a while a game comes along that goes back to the roots of what games are supposed to be - and Soukyugurentai (Blue Sky, Crimson Warriors) truly fits into that category. A vertical-scrolling sprite-based shooter along the lines of Raiden and Strikers 1945, Souky may lack the nifty 3D graphical flash and booming sound of its console contemporaries (Raystorm, Einhander, and Thunderforce V) but makes up for it in spades with its awesome control and challenging gameplay.
As mentioned above, the graphics and sound are passable but not really spectacular. Even though the bosses are huge, the ships are well animated, and there are some nifty 3D-ish scrolling effects strewn throughout, the 2D ships and backgrounds (which are susceptible to occasional slowdown, especially in two-player mode) just don't compare to the competition (especially its vertical-scrolling counterpart Raystorm). On the aural side, Souky's tunes are a well-done orchestral/techno mix, but the sound output is a lot lower than usual, and the explosions come out sounding tinny and unimpressive. However, it is easy to overlook these shortcomings because Souky's other attributes turn it into one of the best shooters to come along in a long time.
Just like the neGcon turned Wipeout XL from a stiff, largely annoying racer to poetry in motion, the analog pad turns Souky from a good shooter to an experience where you and your ship are one. With the combination of the analog pad and an intuitive (but customizable) controller setup, ducking around projectiles, chasing after power-ups, and sweeping laser fire across the screen all quickly become second nature.
Challenging and strategic, Souky's gameplay is head and shoulders above the rest. At the beginning of the game, you are given a choice between three vastly different ships, which, depending on the one you choose, changes your entire approach to the game. With the speedy red ship, you'll spend your time charging up its powerful "web shots" - homing missiles that do massive damage to every enemy in range (even the ones below you) if you can survive during the lock-on time. Take the blue ship, and a combination of web shots and standard shooting must be employed, using the heat-seeking missiles that come with its power-ups to hit enemies even when you're dodging the tons of projectiles that literally flood the screen at some points. Or, as a third option, you can take the slower green ship with the most powerful standard shot and simply blast your way through everything in sight. Enemies fly in from all sides (including above and below), massive planes blanket the screen with projectiles, and small laser installations consistently fire right at you, making it tough to survive, let alone destroy your enemies. Of course, this sounds like every other shooter on the market, but what sets Souky apart is the intense action mixed with the fantastic control (analog or not) that makes for a nearly indescribable gaming experience.
Even though the shooter genre is growing scarce in America, it's alive and well in Japan - and Soukyugurentai, along with having the coolest-sounding name in gaming, is an old-school 2D shooting masterpiece that fans of the genre really shouldn't miss.