Welcome to Shoot Stars
Samurai Aces Episode I, Samurai Aces Episode II: TENGAI, Samurai Aces Episode III: SENGOKU CANNON, GUNBARICH, GUNBIRD, and GUNBIRD2 unite to form this epic arcade collection! Bring the arcade home by blasting through these shooters vertically in the popular ‘TATE’ mode for the ultimate shoot-’em-up experience!
- Samurai Aces: Episode I
- Samurai Aces Episode II: TENGAI
- Samurai Aces Episode III: SENGOKU CANNON
- Final words & overall score
Samurai Aces: Episode I
Samurai Aces is the third game I am reviewing from NIS America as part of the Psikyo Shooting Stars Bravo collection. This is my first time playing this shmup so I’m looking forward to it. I’m still not sick of reviewing shmups so keep them coming! This vertical scrolling shoot ‘em up was originally released back in 1993 by Psikyo in the arcades. It later came to the Playstation 2 in 2004, and is now available on Switch in this wonderful collection.
Whether you’re a professional or amateur in the genre, Psikyo chose to broaden the challenge spectrum for all to play. Take your pick of difficulty from one to seven, but I suggest trying a level higher than what you think you’re comfortable with. Get a decent feel of the game and give your skills a chance to shine and grow. Keep in mind when swapping difficulty levels it appears they have the same amount of bullets and same patterns, but enemies health is scaled respectively. Take a quick look and pick one of six fighters to begin. Characters to choose from do not show names nor do they tell their statistics. Learn and burn your favourite fighter pilot into your memory and stack that local leaderboard. Initially, the massive eye-browed fellow is my favourite pilot but through playing them all I’ve ended on the tie fighter looking ship. It has a parallel double shot that is surrounded by lightning bolts on either side once upgraded.
Immediately the first feature I notice is the head bobbing, Asian inspired music. In order to fully appreciate the experience I was forced to adjust the sound settings in the pause menu so be advised. The vibe changes per level, for example, the second level has more of a tense and typical arcade sound that fits well. Music continues to differ per stage and keeps the action from becoming stale. Visuals also keep to the Asian inspired theme with enemies such as ninjas throwing stars and oni tanks. Backgrounds varying from green fields to mountainous ranges to cherry blossom-filled lands with Japanese arches.
Psikyo sadly kept to a similar format with Samurai Aces as their other games. Levels begin with small enemies, a mini-boss appears, the large boss appears, then a map is shown and the level completed is marked off the map and the character makes a remark. This boring repeat feature may not be an issue for most but I’ve put some hours into their games so it bothers me. I’m well aware these are all old titles brought back for our entertainment but even then, didn’t people think the same thing I’m saying?
The local leaderboard does not distinguish between difficulty levels which is a massive bummer, nor can it be seen from the main menu. I find the high scores to be relatively useless because of the lack of information. Other games in Psikyo’s collections that have one leaderboard will state the difficulty level per score or even separate leaderboards by difficulty level. High scores bring replayability and lacking that aspect will lower the value in the end.
Jumping back into the graphics I want to compliment the backgrounds that have layer after layer. Flying in the sky showcasing the large boss hovering over a huge landmass, surrounded by tons of clouds. These stacking backgrounds create depth that makes the game feel bigger and looks great. An early favourite level that showcases this well is the cherry blossom stage. A Japanese arch with descending steps covered in cherry blossoms leading down to a farming town. It’s just beautiful! I love this level and it’s a wonderful display of the development teams skills. Many shoot ‘em ups today pale in comparison to Samurai Aces, along with similar titles from this team.
Gameplay remains fast and hectic despite the chosen difficulty. Each pilot has their own movement speed, shot type, and bomb. All are enjoyable to play as and following every game over I swap characters to keep things interesting. Dialogue between levels is minimal and forgettable, it barely needs mentioning. Samurai Aces is a fun shmup and overall it’s pretty difficult, calling the player to return for improvement. I love the Japanese theme the most and it’s a good addition to the Bravo collection.
Samurai Aces Episode II: Tengai
Samurai Aces Episode II: Tengai is the fourth game from NIS America’s, Psikyo Shooting Stars Bravo collection. For some reason, it’s just labelled as Tengai on the options and main menu screen. This shoot’em up hails all the way back from 1996 in the arcades. Eventually it hit Sega Saturn, PS2, then mobile and finally Nintendo Switch. Unlike most Psikyo shmups this one is a side scroller so set that Flip Grip aside and let’s get down to business.
Jumping right into the game I’m immediately relieved and feel better about Samurai Aces 2 compared to other horizontal shoot em ups from Psikyo. The area of play feels nice despite having a small area on either side of the screen cut off. It’s still a good amount of space to move around without feeling like there should be more. Don’t bother taking your first few runs too seriously because you will be too busy enjoying the scenery. To say this game is ahead of its time in the graphics department would be an understatement. This is best showcased on the air level with the billowing, overlapping, and flowing clouds. It’s not the first time Psikyo has impressed me with clouds, as funny as that sounds.
Overall themes revolve around old school Japanese samurai meets steampunk machinery. They are represented in both enemies and level design. One level you pass through a Japanese arch and enter the forest to be greeted by flying ninjas. These fellas take to the air and ground, both impressive and different. The gigantic oni machine later found was one of my favourite enemies. Minibosses often take the shape of a samurai, very fitting to the name of the game. Available characters resemble fighters of some sort with their choice of clothing and headbands. I love the underwater level for the robotic piranhas and fish/turtle boss that gave off some Darius vibes.
Gameplay is smooth, the way levels progress in both speed and direction keep it interesting. Instead of simply moving the screen from left to right it may move diagonally upward or downward. In addition, the speed of play will change or at least the background. It gives a faster-moving feel as intended and increases the intensity of play. Speed of movement depends on the chosen character but most feel relatively slow. Shots and bombs are unique to each character but the award for the best attack goes to the last unnamed character. She performs a dazzling spin towards the screen with dozens of cherry blossom petals spinning around her, bravo. Once a game over is reached the locked to local leaderboard will unveil the characters name, but it’s not important enough to show on the character select so why bother? I can’t exactly tell where the hitbox is located. My guess was directly behind where the shot erupts from your character, but other times it feels like the entire character. Ducking through enemy fire calls this into question and being focused on gameplay makes it difficult to determine.
Shots are satisfying and enemy explosions are destructive. I don’t have a favourite shot type per character but each kill feels good. Small enemies explode nicely but mini and large bosses give off the most satisfactory detonation. These are very important factors that increase replayability. I’m pretty impressed with Samurai Aces 2 as I’m typically not a horizontal shmup fan, but here I am playing more. Music doesn’t fit well and at times sounds more fitting to a relaxed game rather than an action-oriented one. Even when it’s not chill music it’s still forgettable. It falls short in entertainment value but what it lacks in that department it makes up for in the sound effects. Every vocal exclamation, enemy explosion, and enemy shriek is entertaining and comical.
Overall I enjoyed Samurai Aces II and as I said before, it was pretty fun for a horizontal shmup. My scores aren’t anything to brag about but the leaderboard is locked, so how would anyone know? I recommend starting on very hard because it didn’t seem that difficult, and felt good to play. This title may give me the motivation to explore other horizontal shmups further, so that proves it’s done quite a few things right. Gameplay didn’t feel cheap, the themes were awesome, and it motivated me to keep playing. I would recommend Samurai Aces 2 to others and can see myself returning to it.
Samurai Aces Episode III: Sengoku Cannon
The Samurai Aces trilogy is coming to a close with the third instalment, Sengoku Cannon. We are getting close to the end of the Psikyo Shooting Stars Bravo collection as well, this is the fifth game I’m reviewing for NIS America. Just as with the previous title we do not need the flip grip sadly.
Sengoku Cannon begins with a quick-moving story before reaching the main menu. From there you have the option to choose story mode, practice, or observe the local leaderboard. If you remain on the main menu and don’t press any buttons then an explanation of game mechanics will be shown that is helpful. A regular shot, concentrated shot with slower movement speed, a bomb for momentary invincibility, and a cannon that can be used for the kill shot to receive a score multiplier. Now the character select screen, there are four available and two that can be unlocked. No skills or attributes are shown but it’s pretty sweet that two folks can be revealed later.
Character drawings look fantastic and I could see them transplanted into any anime I would watch. As soon as I started the game I was awestruck and taken back by the graphic style and amount of action going on. There is a lot to unload here. For starters let’s talk about how Psikyo utilised a 2D midground and a 3D background. All sprite work on the midground including your character and enemies are 2D while the background has an arcade or Dreamcast 3D look. At first it was a bit overwhelming and fooled my eyes but once I got used to it I became a fan. If anything it’s a beautiful distraction. Camera angles know no bounds and feel cinematic. Left to right is boring, Sengoku Cannon twists and turns every which way and can make it difficult to keep an eye on shots being fired but it looks great.
Initially, I was put off by the movement speed of each character but utilising the focused shot takes care of that concern. With rapid-fire used the normal movement speed is quick and smooth. Cannon shot or the kill shot as I like to call it is a tricky mechanic to get down but is based on timing really. Once you master the mechanic it will give a big payout to your score at the end of each level in “cannon bonus”. Honestly, this will boost your scores a massive amount even if used randomly so it’s worth trying. Pro tip: wait until an enemy lets off a load of bullets because they will turn to coins. Cannon shot is much simpler to use on easy mode shooting it off in conjunction with the normal shot. Normal mode will call on your timing skills to be more precise in execution. It can be used any number of times and I think you will find it inappropriate to keep using it once you’re annoyed with the sound your chosen character makes.
As the dust settles in the graphics department and your eyes have adjusted let’s talk about level design. Really the only 2D elements are your character, enemies, and each other’s attack sprites. Beyond that the background does all the heavy lifting. One level in particular showcases a ton of movement in a 3D space forwards, backwards, and then turns sideways in a matrix looking black and green area. That concept is spread across both imaginative and realistic landscapes. In addition to these wonderful looking sights there can be long stretches of nothingness that bore the screen. Flying above clouds that cover the bottom 15% of the screen while the above area is plain blue. This makes it easier to weave into bullet storms and out of tight spaces but coming from what was initially a wildly creative background, it’s a steep letdown.
A highlight of Samurai Aces III is the wonderful music that uplifts the game. The first level soundtrack I wouldn’t say it fits the genre very well, it sounds more fitting to an adventure RPG game. Maybe in the green land-covered areas it works best but overall feels out of place.
Enemies are a vast bag of variety that won’t make it to your sight if using the concentrated shot in some instances. Some small red robotic spheres may pepper out from top to bottom with a circular spray of pink orbs. Samurai archers will attack in hordes shooting their arrows in sequence. Inanimate objects such as spinning canisters with oni’s on them will blast at you. Some of these no-face looking, scythe bearing, angelic monsters are unrecognizable. Minibosses are a decent warm-up to the main level boss in their stand-alone fight. They will arrive in the far right center of the screen and remain for a brief pause before the battle begins. Some attack patterns will occur and it’s up to you to control your character swapping between normal movement and concentrated to survive. End of the level bosses aren’t large in size but their attacks are enormous, taking up all the empty space in some attacks. They give a short speech about your demise then turn up the heat. These short-winded discussions are forgettable at best. Hold down the concentrated fire so as soon as possible they take damage and pay attention to the number near their health bar as that is how many times you must deplete it. Or is it? If it says 1 then you have two bars to defeat, so on and so forth. I lend my bombs to the bosses after dodging their mesmerising shot patterns for as long as I can. Boss battles have a similar amount of enjoyment compared to mini-bosses and the areas leading up to it. They don’t carry the weight of the game as others do, so overall it’s pretty balanced.
Overall in the horizontal shmups of the Psikyo games, Samurai Aces III has taken the lead. The graphics (which must have been mind-blowing at the time) are entertaining and the game overall is pretty solid. It doesn’t bring me back for competitive runs for any reason but it has increased my likeness for this type of shoot ‘em up. The mind-bending backgrounds stuck out the most and will spark interest for many upon starting a run. I liked my time spent with Sengoku Cannon and would recommend others try it.
Welcome back to the Psikyo Shooting Stars Bravo review. Today I’m reviewing Gunbarich which is not a shmup but could be listed as an arcade “shooter” in the very least. It’s an Arkanoid clone in the same vein of Brick Breaker but much more entertaining and includes Gunbird characters like the infamous Marion. Use your pinball paddles to hit the ball into every brick to clear the area. Face new obstacles and boss fights while enjoying the visuals along the way. This game looks to be the unique title in the Bravo collection so let’s get into the details.
From the game select area, I love the energetic and interesting music. It sounds like you’re getting ready to have a great time and I can bet I’m about too! Choose Marion or Grutan based on their power, speed, and magic stats. A short overview of gameplay follows explaining the player must destroy the blocks before the end of the time limit to win. Other than that, nothing else is said and you’re thrown into the mix. As I stated before this is similar to Arkanoid but since not everyone had the privilege let’s explain a bit. The main ball will bounce about the level and you’re tasked with not allowing it to pass your character. In this case your character has two pinball-like paddles that can be moved to bounce the ball at different angles. It takes some practice and precision but you can get the hang of it soon enough.
Gunbarich supports Tate mode so you KNOW I’ve got my flip grip out. This is a small plastic accessory that turns the Switch sideways and allows the player to utilise the entire screen for gameplay. Unfortunately for those without one, try playing on your TV because in handheld mode you’ll be cutting off a decent amount on each side of the screen.
First impressions are positive and I’m digging the carnival vibe here. The theme and colours just fit that feeling well. It reminds me a lot of the clown man stage from Mega Man 8. Alternating red and yellow trim around the stage, Jester-like enemies and flannel patterns on the sidebars (for those not playing with a flip grip) all breathe the circus theme. Music is light-hearted and positive. It sounds similar to a children’s show background music but I like it. It’s best enjoyed on the pause menu due to the games sound effects. Each time the ball is hit on any surface it makes a sound that will annoy those around you. It becomes overwhelming and calls for sound options to be adjusted which they can be on the pause menu.
Each character feels different but I prefer Marion because of her speed stat. She is the Queen of Gunbarich with her speedy controls. Gameplay is quick and the ball can knock around the stage at fast speeds when flipped continuously. Marion especially comes in handy when facing enemies that shoot paralysing orbs. When this happens the player must shake the left joystick until free, hopefully in time to bounce the main ball back into play. Rounds last sixty seconds unless additional time is added by hitting golden clocks with the pinball. We’re just going to call it a pinball now for name’s sake. Plenty of items to hit in addition to the clocks, such as the 10,000 point multiplier that looks like Yuan-Nang from Gunbird. It’s kind of difficult not to accidentally run into items especially with the multiball. My favourite item is the gun that allows you to shoot bricks.
While you’re trying to stay engaged with the pinball some interesting enemies will appear, then disappear. Then reappear again shooting paralysing bullets. These piranha plant looking guys bring a fun twist to the game for a couple of reasons. If you’re hit by the bullet it will cause a momentary lapse in movement but the bullets can also be hit and bounced back at the enemies. It brings a good change of pace to the game. World 3-1 has these evil little Santas that blast the same paralysing bullets on both sides of the screen. Little wicked buggers are annoying and ramp up the difficulty, keeping me on my toes. It’s devastating to get hit with their bullets and watch as the pinball passes by. It’s a tough world but it only gets more difficult, we must simply press on.
Now we come to my favourite portion of Gunbarich, the bosses. They take up a decent chunk of the screen and look bizarre. I find myself more entertained during these fights than the normal levels. They change order for no rhyme or reason that I can figure out. One is some type of bird or swimming character with earrings and a few minions that follow. Another boss is an evil Santa teddy bear with circling presents, it’s funny to see it turn evil and show its sharp teeth. My favourite is the pumpkin jester king that has arms circling around him. Each boss looks quite different from one another and vary slightly in their battle style. No matter the order the difficulty will increase.
A couple tips: Don’t flip your paddles at the beginning of levels. World 3 if you stay still the enemies will shoot paralyzing bullets directly at you and bounce off. Other than that just keep your eye on the ball.
I found it more difficult to play in docked mode with a pro-controller. Handheld with the flip grip feels more comfortable, and movement is easier to control. Using the pro-controller I kept getting stuck at world three but in handheld mode I was regularly getting whooped at world four.
Gunbarich is winning in the brick breaker genre and it’s cool that Gunbird characters are present. It’s a fun game to play in short spurts. Replayability isn’t the highest considering the short game-play but overall it was pretty fun and I would recommend it.
The next part of Psikyo Shooting Stars Bravo is Gunbird. This shmup is a classic, apparently, I played the sequel on the Dreamcast and didn’t care for it but that was prior to my rising interest in the genre. Since that I’ve been playing SO many shmups and can’t get enough. My friend Dace at Shmuptopia played this gem and I was instantly inspired to make the purchase. What a fantastic port for the Switch. Gunbird was ahead of its time and serves as a fantastic example of a great shmup.
If this game piques your interest I highly advise purchasing a Flip Grip. It will allow for Tate mode (turning the Switch sideways) and is the saving grace from the wasted sidebar space. At a $16 (13.99) shipped buy-in price, it’s worth the cost considering it can be used for other games. Tate mode will enlarge the game and open up game-play in a great way.
Gunbird is a visual stunner, such a good looking game cannot be overlooked. Vibrant colours and satisfying explosions fill the screen with each run. Bosses look incredible and their transformations in battle are awesome. With each shot, movement, and shape transition, great sound effects follow. I’ve been caught off guard multiple times and hit due to enjoying the graphics and not paying attention to gameplay. It’s crazy to think this was released back in 1994 in the arcade. Way ahead of its time.
There are seven difficulty options so those make Gunbird very approachable from all skill levels. Those that are terrible at shmups will still enjoy this gem on the lowest difficulty, called monkey. Multiple pilots give way to another difficulty tier in weapon choices and ship speed between them. I enjoy swapping pilots after each run to see their weapons, but it also changes the order of levels. All pilots have a story of their own with alternate endings. Cutscenes are cool, the dialogue is a quick and easy read.
Once a boss is defeated and power up is given, its a mad dash to obtain it before moving to the next level. This setback is minor unless you don’t have a lot of power-ups in which case it’s a bummer. The screen also doesn’t show your amount of power-ups but continue to stack them for more points. Gunbirds leaderboard is locked to local so you won’t be seeing others on it. It also shows different difficulty runs on the same board which is weird. I wish it was separated by difficulty and was available online to compare with others.
Gunbird controls feel good, ship movement is fluid and bullet speed is right. Each pilot will move at different speeds along with their shots but they feel balanced in their own respects. Music is charming but difficult to hear over the sound effects. Menu options allow you to change both options as well so the voice volume. Occasionally you’ll hear a baddie laugh or your pilot’s exclamation. Best bet is to turn the music highest and the other two slightly lower.
Replayability is high with the amount of difficulty and pilot options. Multiple and alternate endings boost that aspect even more. Graphics are beautiful, shots are satisfying, and the sound effects are great. I would definitely recommend this title to all players and have high praise for Gunbird.
It’s been a fun time but the Shooting Stars Bravo shmup collection is coming to a close and with what better game than Gunbird 2. Originally it was hidden from the world in the Japanese arcades but was later brought to Dreamcast where I played it, then mobile and finally Nintendo Switch. Spoiler alert, I saved the best for last and with good reason. This is the twelfth shoot em up I have reviewed to round out the Alpha and Bravo collections by NIS America. It feels good to boot this up and feel immediate relief by way of awesome gameplay. Let’s dig in so I can explain.
Alright I’m jumping straight into it, right from the start Gunbird 2 is action-oriented. Constant fire and emerging enemies are exactly what I’m looking for in a shmup. It may be tough to dodge fire but stick with peppering one large enemy at a time to release that green power-up you need to take down these baddies faster. It’s very important to snag these upgrades but don’t take yourself more than halfway up the screen or you will increase your chances of getting shot. I don’t agree with the main area of levels music adding to the action. It more or less sounds better suited for an adventure game or some other genre. Moving on to the final fight of each stage it certainly levels up in quality and adds to the intensity of battle.
Seven different difficulty levels open the playing field to everyone. I messed around on Very Hard for a bit and had fun but dropped down to normal to work on making better progress. Even dropping to Easy mode was both challenging and satisfying in play. I had a good time in that mode and was able to soak in the sights and sounds well. Of the five available characters, I had to choose Marion because she was my favourite pilot from the original Gunbird.
Art style has the classic Psikyo look which is most easily categorised to the 16-bit consoles to me, but is not pixelated in style. If the style were to be any thinner in design it would be too ‘grainy’ or granulated in look, but it’s not. apparently, that’s what Psikyo was great at because they stuck to this approach and it yielded positive results.
Immediately I took notice of the boss differences in this sequel. The first boss I came across reminded me of the larger-than-screen bosses from Sky Force Reloaded (and Anniversary). These big boys need to be taken apart piece by piece. That means focus on the tail, portions of each wing, then maybe a middle area before the smooth transition to a smaller version of itself. Multiple forms of the same boss is a staple of Psikyo games and it didn’t miss Gunbird 2. It’s very apparent the improvements in this area and lovely to see.
Although the story is not important you can opt to read it between levels if you wish. Don’t get me wrong, the graphics and artwork are lovely but I couldn’t care less about every character’s motivation to destroy everything in their path. Each stage I feel has some ebb and flow to its design and character. The water level may seem dull in that the water is composed of the same sprites layered atop of one another, but oncoming enemies create waves with their mass and their creative design and colour break the sameness of the background. Each drawback seems to have a positive opposition that creates a nice balance between them.
On the bottom left portion of the screen lies a meter that can be filled somehow, I think by killing enemies. Each time it progresses to a higher level the player can unleash the secondary attack, which I far too often forget about. This additional layer is something to master and inherently boosts replayability. I can surely spend more time playing and conquering this skill to better myself and score. As of now, I have yet to get this secondary attack down but paired with the lovely graphics of Gunbird 2 it boasts of returning runs in the future.
This game rules and I would highly recommend it to others regardless of your likeness of the genre. It has immediate action even on Easy mode and for those that need less excitement, you can bump it down lower in difficulty. My favourite moment was approaching the first big boss that was only partially visible on the screen. I will be returning to Gunbird 2 in the future and I’m glad it’s part of this shmup collection. Big thanks to NIS America.
Round of applause to the Bravo collection for the great selection of shmups. This all in one package includes a Samurai Aces trilogy that showcases variety and progression in it’s style and gameplay. Gunbird is a classic included in this package deal that includes the improved sequel. Add Gunbarich to the mix that stands out from the shoot em ups but in a way that is refreshing. NIS America have done a great job in rounding up a wonderful selection of games that are a step up from the Alpha collection.