The era just after the chaos the industry barely survived in the mid-80s was a spawning ground for upstart companies who'd have never had a chance in a world controlled by Atari. Publishers sought fresh, new talent and gamers sought fresh, new experiences, and the arcades were a veritable paradise for an entirely new set of genres. From this era arose many of the most prominent developers and publishers of today's gaming industry, but for every modest upstart company that made it, there were about a dozen that didn't. One such little company was Video System. One of Video System's chief programmers was Shin Nakamura, who'd garnered cult fame after creating Rabio Lepus in 1987, an extremely odd shooter starring flying rabbits. Video System itself became quite popular in the early '90s after the release of their most prized property, Sonic Wings (known as Aero Fighters in the US), also helmed by Nakamura.
However, for some unknown reason, Video System thought it'd be a good idea to begin developing exclusively for the Neo Geo, which didn't support the tate-shooter (FYI, a tate shooter is a special kind of vertical shooter with a vertical axis much longer than its horizontal axis, opposite of just about every other type of game. Tate shooters usually required a special type of arcade cabinet molded to fit a vertically oriented monitor) layout that Nakamura had become so enamored with. Thus, with Video System's decision to show full allegiance to SNK, Nakamura made the decision to jump ship, take his small team of programmers, and start his own company, which he christened Psikyo (pronouced "Sai-kyo", which sounds like "strongest" in Japanese). Psikyo would go on to become one of the chief proprietors of commercial tate-shooters the world over, whereas Video System would enjoy only a sparse few minutes of success with its Sonic Wings brand until it would eventually fizzle out sometime in the late '90s.
Psikyo's first game was Sengoku Ace, which borrows from Sonic Wings (and in turn passes it on to almost all other Psikyo shooters) the option to play as different characters. You can select from 6 different characters with their own planes that have unique primary, secondary and bomb attacks. This led to some more personality than most space shooters, and also to this:
This is Koyori, not technically the main character in any of the games, and yet is ostensibly the most popular. Yes, Sengoku Ace ups the boobage quotient much higher than practically any shooter out there, mostly because it's not a genre where you'd figure that rack size would enter into the equation. Psikyo found a way, though, and God bless them for that. The second and third games, Sengoku Blade and Sengoku Cannon, feature artwork by the (at that time) underground artist Jun Tsukasa. Both Sengoku Ace and Gunbird helped add a bit of personality to the shooter scene, not only by sticking in identifiable characters, but also creating brief story scenes between stages.
Samurai Aces is Psikyo's first shooter, and what a debut! Rather than enter the fray with a typical space shooter, Psikyo went off the beaten path with a feudal-esque yet postmodern Japanese setting. While this isn't exactly original (Compile had already done this with a few of the Aleste games), it's definitely a refreshing departure from the norm. Aside from the setting, however, Samurai Aces is a pretty standard tate shooter. It's eerily reminiscent of Nakamura's previous title Aero Fighters, in both design and visual style (i.e. similar explosions, bomb icons, etc), which makes sense considering that it was developed by the same team of programmers. Almost all of Psikyo's shooters from here on out would use similar visual styles to Samurai Aces.
Jane / Kunoichi
A female ninja who flies an odd-winged ship that looks like something out of Da Vinci's filing cabinet. Fires streams of kunai that get slightly wider with each power up. Her secondary weapons are some typical spreading missiles. Her bomb is probably the best in the game. She ascends closer to the screen and circles around, causing a storm of cherry blossom petals that damage or destroy all enemies.
A monk who flies around on a bird-like plane. His plane has surprising maneuverability considering that as a character, he looks to be the big, slow type. Fires a very dense ray of beams that gets wider with each power up, and a ring of Shinto beads as his secondary weapon. When using his bomb, he fires glowing blue symbols of energy for a few seconds, and these do massive damage.
Kenoumaru / Dog Spirit
Somehow manages to fly what looks like a... F15(!) that fires needle-thin spreading beams. His secondary is a giant, spiked dog collar. His bomb causes him to fire large, spreading flame beams for a short duration.
An old man who appears to be some kind of scientist and has a puppet/robot tagging along with him called Ranmaru. He flies a small, agile plane that fires two lasers in rapid succession. His secondary attack consists of lightning bolts that extend upward, hitting everything in a linear path. As Gennai's plane powers up, the lasers become more powerful and more bolts appear, striking in more directions. For his bomb attack, he calls on giant versions of Ranmaru that bombard the screen, causing explosions.
Ayin / Kain
A one-eyed, blonde samurai looking for his sister Asuka. He flies a small, narrow-nosed fighter that fires a series of very thin energy beams. His secondary weapon is a fairly strong arrow. When using his bomb, he creates a silhouette of his ship made of energy that flies forward and damages anything in its path. It's fairly strong, but its small area of coverage limits its effectiveness.
A young, tomboyish priestess flying an A-10. Fires cylindrical bolts of energy, while her secondary is a pair of ofuda that fly forward in hawk wind motion. Her bomb is a symbol made of lightning that stays in place for a few seconds and works great against more stationary bosses.
For the most part, Sengoku Ace plays and is structured almost exactly like Sonic Wings. You select your ship and begin blasting through a stage randomly selected from a pool of several, getting powerups and memorizing enemy shot patterns. Fairly standard shmup stuff. The true beauty of Sengoku Ace is in its intense and eclectic pacing, a characteristic of both Sonic Wings and, for the most part, the rest of Psikyo's shooters. There'll be times where you're bombarded with intense bullet-hell tossing enemies for only about a minute before a large boss lumbers into view and then wham, you're off to the next stage just like that. The game is constantly throwing you around and that makes it pretty hard to get bored.
And then there's the game's aesthetic, which is quite possibly what Psikyo shooters are moreso about than their gameplay. Sengoku Ace, especially for a shmup as old as it is, looks really cool. There's a lot of detail in both the enemies and the scrolling backdrops they emerge from. There's also a lot more interactivity with the background than in most shmups. You can hit high-reaching rooftops for extra points and destroy parts of the landscape (although it seems that they will suddenly transform and become part of the enemy entourage just as often). The boss designs are really rad looking; Mmost of the enemies are a "Sengoku-meets-mecha" hybrid, with beings from Japanese mythology melded onto gigantic tanks and trains, similar to Compile's Musha Aleste and Robo Aleste games. Here you fight everything from gigantic versions of the Japanese wind and thunder gods Fuujin and Raijin, or against steam-powered robots wearing shogun masks, or even crazy huge walking Buddha things. You also encounter a team of flying warriors as mid-bosses, usually once per level, each signified with their own color. As you get into the final stages, you need to fight all of them together at once. And apart from technical detail, the game's stylistic motif, including its music, is charming and ties everything together into a very consistent and overall enjoyable package. In short, you really can't go wrong with Sengoku Ace. While it stays safely within the confines of the genre conventions of its time, it still manages to be a unique and fun experience.
Sengoku Ace was not ported to a home console at the time of its release - perhaps it was too powerful for the 16-bit systems in 1993, and too outdated by the time the 32-bit era rolled around. It was included in the Psikyo Shooting Collection Vol.2 for the PlayStation 2, released by in 2004 by Taito in Japan, and by 505 Game Street in Europe. It's pretty much a straight port. It includes a tate option, but like most PS2 shooter ports, the visuals are upscaled and interlaced. It was also released standalone on the PC in Korea.
Sengoku Blade (戦国ブレード): Sengoku Ace Episode II - Arcade, Saturn, Windows, PlayStation 2, Mobile (1996)
Sengoku Ace proved to be popular enough in the arcades to warrant a fairly big sequel. While Sengoku Ace exuded a lot of charm and character, it was ultimately a standard shmup affair. Sengoku Blade, on the other hand, is a complete breakout with much more complexity and is in every way a departure from the Sonic Wings formula.
Once again, Sengoku Blade boasts a roster of colorful characters. Things are a bit different this time, though. Instead of the cast of characters piloting various planes, here they instead fly about the screen all by themselves and call upon familiars to enhance their attacks.
Koyori / Miko
Koyori's back, having transformed from spunky, tomboyish shrine maiden into one of the most blatant examples of fanservice ever seen in a non-hentai shmup. She still fires ofuda at her enemies, but this time calls upon a strange monkey creature made of water to launch homing bubbles at her enemies. When her shot is charged, the monkey will release a small, slow-moving projectile with varying potency. Her bomb attack creates a huge sphere of electricity with symbols appearing inside it in a rapid sequence.
Shoumaru / Sho
A young ninja who is in love with the game's kidnapped princess plot device. Sho rapidly throws blades directly forward and his familiar is a pair of magic mirrors with the image of his beloved in them. When charged, the mirrors will stay in place wherever the button was released and fire beams forward continually for a few seconds. For his bomb attack, he sends a massive hail of giant swords at his enemies.
Made to be the main character in the English version (because, ya'know, Americans like manliness), Tengai is now really angry-looking and brutish. He fires Shinto beads at his enemies and calls on the support of a hawk as his familiar. When charged, it becomes a phoenix and lunges forward. The side of the phoenix depends on Tengai's power level. His extremely effective bomb attack sends huge, glowing kanji streaming forward for a few seconds.
A spunky young kunoichi with a pet lemur named Socrates. Junis is similar to Sho, but she throws kunai and shuriken in a three-way spread. Unfortunately, the spread gives her some really big blind spots and it's nearly impossible to focus your attack power on a single target long enough to kill it. Her charge attack calls upon Socrates, who breathes flames directly forward. Her bomb attack is a cinematic cherry blossom storm that showcases her preening for the audience.
Hagane / Katana
A robot samurai who moves very slowly but is incredibly powerful. Katana shoots very small and ineffective lasers. Fortunately, his familiar is a magical spear that multiplies with his power level, creating an effect similar to Options in Gradius. When charged, the spears can be thrown forward with a very short range, but an immense amount of damage, usually killing anything it touches that isn't at least a mid-boss. His bomb is a screen-filling lightning. Not related to the other robot samurai named Hagane.
Ayin / Kain
Yup, he's back, but as a secret character this time. Although his main weapons are his arrows, his familiar is a floating sword that shoots energy waves. His special attack shoots out an enlarged projection across the screen.
The characters are much more distinctive this time around, as the introduction of the familiars changes the game up a whole lot. Your familiars power up as you do, either multiplying or becoming more powerful. The familiar charge attacks add a much-needed critical strike as the bombs just aren't frequent enough to waste every time a major enemy shows up, and this is especially crucial here as the enemies in this game take quite a few bullets before going down.
Aside from the most obvious change (that being that the game is now a horizontal shooter), the game is much harder and requires a lot more skill. As mentioned, enemies are much stronger, but moreover, the bullet patterns are much more complicated. There are many instances where you're just going to have to use a bomb or you're going to die. Luckily, the game designers attempted to balance this out by being a bit more forgiving with hit-detection. Now, your characters can suffer two types of hits: bullet hits and physical hits. Bullet hits will kill you instantly and bring you back to your initial power level. Physical hits (i.e. physical contact with an enemy) will merely stun you for a second and bring your power down one level.
While fans of the tate-shooter layout might cry foul, the perspective allows for some aesthetic benefits. For one, the game has some pretty marvelous parallax scrolling in its backgrounds. The stage progression is also pretty dynamic, sometimes completely changing its motif several times before you reach the boss. Likewise, the huge bosses tend to transform several times with some really cool morphing sequences. The visuals are much more colorful, and much more varied, than most of Psikyo's other shooters. All around, the game is just really good looking. On the other hand, while the music sounds much more traditional, it just doesn't seem as good as the soundtrack in the first game.
Much like the first game, the opening stages are randomly selected, but it starts following a set pattern from the fourth stage. Here, you meet all of the random mini-bosses you've faced throughout the stages, each of whom taunts you before the fight. There's even a branching path in the final stages, leading you through two different sets of levels, and a bad ending if you don't kill the final boss in time. Also, unlike a lot of arcade shooters, you can't simply credit feed to the end - starting at the fourth stage, continuing will bring you back to the beginning of the stage.
Sengoku Blade was ported to the Saturn and released as a two-disc double set, including both the game disc and a fan disc. The fan disc includes official artwork, "guest" artwork from a bunch of notable illustrators, and several hundred pieces of fan art from a contest. Most of it isn't good, of course, but there sure is a lot of it! There's also a "Samurai Fortune" selection, which is a brief, weird cutscene starring Ayin. The actual game is a pretty faithful conversion, with the addition of voices during the brief cutscenes, and the ability to play as Marion from Gunbird after beating the game with all characters. It also includes a rapid fire button - very handy! The Saturn version is a bit pricey on the aftermarket. The PlayStation 2 release is just a straight port of the arcade version, so it's missing the bonuses from the Saturn version except for the rapid fire, plus the visuals are interlaced. However, it is much cheaper and easier to obtain. The Japanese release contains both Sengoku Ace and Sengoku Blade, but the games were released separately in Europe. Korea not only got another PC release, but also a mobile phone port by Blue Bean Soft in 2006.
Saturn Fan Disc
Although Psikyo more or less collapsed around 2001, some of its members went on to form X-Nauts (pronounced "Cross-Nauts"), who did the PS2 Cho Aniki game, among other things. In 2005, they also resurrected the Sengoku Ace label for a new PSP game, dubbed Sengoku Cannon.
There are five levels in Sengoku Cannon, less than the previous games, although they are a bit longer, and frankly, a bit on the dull side. However, the random stages and branching paths have been completely removed. There are four characters to start out with, with two more being unlocked after multiple game completions. Strangely, the familiars from Sengoku Blade have been removed, and instead picking up P scrolls will just increase the power of your weapon.
The "main" character, as it were. He attacks with energy waves, and shoots homing lasers for his special attack.
What would a Sengoku Ace game be without Koyori? Still attacks with ofuda cards, of course.
The requisite cutesy girl. Her needle attacks have huge width. With her special attack, she fires out a huge purple beam of kanji.
Ayin returns here, too, looking crazy as ever.
Tengai initially shows up in the last stage as a "dark" form. Once you beat the game, you can play as him.
Junis also returns, but needs to be unlocked after beating the game a few times. She's missing her lemur though!
The biggest concession to the new technology are the 3D backgrounds, so the game looks like a side-scrolling version of Shikigami no Shiro. Make no mistake about it - this game is ugly. The backgrounds are repetitive and sparsely detailed, with ugly, blurry bits of texture. The frame rate is also choppier than it would be if it had used 2D backgrounds, and there's an obnoxious amount of slowdown, even when there isn't anything particularly taxing happening on screen. At one point, when you descend through the clouds, you can actually see clipping errors. How did this happen, if the path through each stage is completely predetermined? The final battle is fought against an entirely dark background - does this set the mood or did the designers just not have time to implement anything proper?
The other Sengoku games were somewhat saved by their spritework, which is mostly missing here. Many of the bosses are simply tiny floating humanoids, much like your own player character. Speaking of which, although your player is technically the same size as in Sengoku Blade, they look remarkably tiny on the PSP screen, especially against the widescreen display.
Perhaps the size of the bosses were adjusted due to the new "cannon" fire. There are three types of attacks - the standard rapid fire, a laser attack that slows down the movement of your character, similar to Cave shooters, and the cannon attack, a single powerful shot. If you kill an enemy with the cannon, all of their onscreen bullets are converted into points, along with a multiplier. It's a nice touch that they added some more modern scoring mechanics.
It may be one of the few original shooters for the PSP, but Sengoku Cannon feels cheaply made, even if the core action has improved a bit.
In addition to shooters, Psikyo's other forte was mahjong games. The Sengoku Ace characters, along with the Gunbird folk, joined up with Capcom's cast of characters for the Dreamcast game Taisen Net Gimmick: Capcom vs. Psikyo All Stars. Of course, it was only released in Japan.
To promote the release of Sengoku Blade, a few different PVC figures of Koyori were released. These were particularly notable because you could remove all of her clothing, leaving the poor girl in nothing but her thin underpanties (link NSFW, of course). One is even quite naughty to begin with (also NSFW). While not uncommon amongst the otaku fanbase, it is a bit odd to see such figures be officially sanctioned by the developer. There was also one released for Mizuka, although that one at least lets her keep her dignity.