There's nothing quite like a good old-fashioned shoot-'em-up to get your pulse racing and your thumbs twitching. And if there's one company that knows a thing or two about hurling a barrage of beautifully crafted bullets at you, it's Cave. Akai Katana Shin (known simply as Akai Katana in the UK) is the latest in the studio's line of psychedelic, 2D arcade shooters to make its way to the Xbox 360, bringing with it an impressive array of gloriously over-the-top visuals, expertly crafted stages, and a lot of depth that make chasing high scores an absolute blast.
That's fortunate, because there's certainly not much of a story to keep you entertained. You play as a rebellious pilot dedicated to blowing up your former masters. The who and why are buried in the manual; all you're given is a choice between three different rebels, each with their own craft and special power. The craft they pilot are modelled after World War II-era planes, but despite their apparent age, they have the uncanny ability to fire waves of laser bullets and unleash devastating energy attacks.
Those bullets are put to good use throughout all six of Akai Katana Shin's stages, where you pilot your fighter across great-looking retro 2D backdrops set across land, sea, and air, and blow the living crap out of a range of tanks, planes, and turrets. Of course, they don't go down without a fight. There are streams of bullets to negotiate, some of which create mazelike patterns for you to navigate your way through, while others home in on you, requiring you to weave your way through the tightest of spaces to survive.
Akai Katana Shin is challenging but also satisfying to play. There's a great feeling of accomplishment when you make your way through one of the intricately designed 2D bullet mazes unscathed. The slightest twitch of your thumb can take you from a dangerous situation to a high-scoring one. If a bullet does hit you, all is not lost. You have three lives with which to make it through to the end of a stage, as well as three smart bombs that destroy all the bullets onscreen and deal damage to enemies.
You also have the option to use a special support character called a phantom, whom you can call upon to dish out some mega-damage. What exactly you can do with the phantom depends on what mode you're in. In Origin mode (a straight port of the arcade original), your phantom can deflect bullets, but only for as long as you have energy, which you collect from destroyed enemies. If you ration out your special ability, an extra layer of strategy is added to the action, making it more than just a test of your reflexes.
That's just the tip of the iceberg in Akai Katana Shin. Load up Slash mode and a whole heap of new features adds a huge amount of depth. Here, your ship has two modes, attack and defence, which are activated by holding down the attack button or by pressing it repeatedly. This affects which pickups you receive, as well as the speed of your ship. In attack mode, you gather energy and move more slowly, and in defence mode, you gather steel and move faster.
Gather enough steel, and you can launch it at enemies in Phantom mode. Time it just right and move in close enough, and you can net a huge score bonus, which is represented by hundreds of spinning golden coins that fill the screen in a frenzy of sparkles. When playing as your phantom, you also have the option of collecting Katana Shins that are dropped by enemies when you shoot them in defence mode. Once you've gathered enough, you can unleash them upon unsuspecting enemies for a gratuitous, neon-blast of an attack that nets you an even bigger score bonus.
You're encouraged to strategize and plan out where flipping back and forth between defence and attack modes, and between the phantom and your fighter, nets you the highest scores. It's an addictive and entertaining experience that keeps you wanting just one more go until you get it spot-on. It's enough to make you forget that Akai Katana Shin is otherwise a very short game; with just six stages and a handful of bosses to battle, you can whiz through it in under an hour.
You'll want to go back after finishing it, though, thanks to integrated online leaderboards that remind you of just how many points you could be getting. And if you're wondering just how to reach the really high scores, you can replay other players' games in their entirety, as well as upload your own runs for others.
If you find yourself hitting the top of the leaderboards too often and fancy more of a challenge, check out Climax mode. It's a variation of Origin mode, except there are more-complex bullet patterns to avoid, and a lot more of them. It's fiendishly difficult, but a great challenge for those with the requisite skills. Whichever mode you play in, a friend can jump in for some offline two-player action, and there are separate sets of leaderboards dedicated to two-player runs to try to reach the top of.
And that's what Akai Katana Shin is all about really, the never-ending chase of that elusive number one spot on the leaderboards. Sure, there's nothing in the game that pushes the genre forward in any significant way, and its release at retail rather than as a downloadable game feels like a way to charge a little more cash than it's short length is worth. But the shooting is so tight and the stages so well designed that it reminds you that sometimes you don't need a revolution in game design to have a great time.'