Tengai (also known as Sengoku Blade) is a typical 90s bullet hell shooter with a unique twist. The core gameplay is as you’d expect – guide the player character around a steadily shifting landscape whilst dodging a seemingly infinite swarm of glowing projectiles, as waves of synchronised enemies crumble at the hands of your gradually intensifying counter-barrage. So far so standard. Where Tengai sets itself apart is in its aesthetic. Gone are the glistening spaceships and alien sci-fi landscapes seen in genre classics like Ikaruga and Radiant Silvergun – replaced here by a feudal Japan setting without a space shuttle in sight. The game leans heavily on the yōkai of Japanese folklore for its enemy design – a motif more recently used in 2017’s excellent action RPG, Nioh, and the player can choose from one of five eccentric heroes (plus one hidden character) to take on the demonic hordes.
The control scheme is simplistic, with two face buttons dedicated to shooting (one standard with a charge option, one full-auto) leaving the remaining two buttons to deploy a special attack which varies by character but generally means assured destruction for any onscreen enemies and provides some much-needed respite from the endless stream of incoming fire. The left stick or directional buttons allow for adequate movement, with last-second evasive maneuvers a constant must to avoid a quick death. That said – this, like so many retro titles, reflects poorly on Nintendo’s decision not to include a traditional d-pad design on the Switch, instead opting for four standalone inputs which, whilst perfectly usable, feel awkward to anyone used to playing 2D games via classic controllers (NES, SNES, DualShock etc). Third party solutions to this issue have started to crop up online, but I’m personally waiting/hoping for an official Nintendo release.
Tengai runs flawlessly and is further proof, if we needed any, that the Switch is destined to be a legendary console when it comes to playing our favourite games of yesteryear (bring on the Virtual Console!). The arcade visuals pop nicely on the 720p screen and the game includes a small suite of customisation options including a full screen aspect ratio (sorry, purists…) and multiple image filters, the default of which smooths the artwork effectively without resulting in too soft of an overall presentation. The player characters are a collection B-tier anime designs, the female variants of which include all the obligatory fanservicey flashes of cleavage and underwear that you’d probably expect. More noteworthy artistry is on display when it comes to the environmental backdrops that frame each stage. Gloomy vistas made up of medieval Japanese architecture, foggy woodlands, and ancient statues deliver a decent sense of place and atmosphere; underlining the atypical visual design choices when compared to the genre at large. Enemy design is solid with multiple sub-boss encounters per stage that include some great trash talking and range from supersonic samurai warriors to Giger-esque hell trains. Audio is inoffensive but ultimately forgettable. The soundtrack added to the sense of mania but lacked any standout moments or addictive melodies.
An end to end playthrough lasts around ten minutes or so, with only a handful of levels, each of which can be beaten surprisingly quickly. Committed players can find some longevity via the seven difficulty options (Very Hard, Hard, Normal, Easy, Very Easy, Child, and… Monkey), along with alternate endings for each character which seem to convey some wider narrative which was happily lost on me. During the latter half of the game, progression branches slightly when the player must choose from two alternate levels, therefore requiring at least two full playthroughs to see every stage. I completed the game with three different characters, each of which saw unique sub-boss dialogue and a radically different final boss encounter. The option to augment playthroughs with additional lives and even infinite continues brings some welcome accessibility. Players who want to experience the full game but don’t cherish making it to the final minutes only to die one too many times and forfeit all progress will no doubt appreciate this inclusion. My personal sweet spot was to play on Easy with additional lives but finite continues. This eased the difficulty enough for me to get through the game after a few failed attempts and without ever feeling frustrated.
At an asking price of £6.99, I’m struggling to outright recommend the game despite it coming in on the lower end of the pricing scale of Nintendo’s eShop – for a few extra pounds, there are some far more impressive value propositions to be had. That said – fans of the genre wanting to experience Tengai will likely find £6.99 more than fair. Currently, the only other legitimate options to experience the game on a home console are to play the PS2 port or to take out a small loan and buy the highly collectible Sega Saturn release. It’s also worth noting that this is the first handheld version of the game – a novelty which increasing is helping to make Switch a runaway success and encouraging players like me to engage with retro curiosities like Tengai.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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