Good thing he didn’t end up needing his cool space helmet to breathe or anything.
For me, 2017 will be remembered as the year I got into shooter games. The Guardian Legend, M.U.S.H.A., Life Force, and now Axelay. I tended to avoid these titles in the past because of their reputation for extreme difficulty and samey premises. “You’re a spaceship; shoot all the other spaceships.” Yawn. I dismissed the whole genre as simultaneously intimidating and dull.
What a mistake that was! It turns out that there are few things as exhilarating as pulling off a perfect series of pinpoint maneuvers through a hail of enemy bullets and sending a screen-filling boss down in flames. A great shooter is an addictive blend of pattern recognition and quick, precise reactions under pressure. Losing yourself in the flow of a well-designed stage is nothing less than mesmerizing. Yes, I reckon it’s pretty great how tastes mature over time.
Axelay is a vertical/horizontal shooter developed and published by Konami in 1992. In many key ways, it can be seen as an unofficial follow-up to their 1986 release Salamander (Life Force). The alternating overhead and side-view perspectives, dynamic stages that change shape around you (and can trap you if you’re not careful), and sections where you must blast your own narrow passages through dense destructible material blocking your progress all seem like clear callbacks. You even fight the exact same iconic fire dragon enemies from Salamander in Axelay’s fifth level.
Before I go on, though, let’s get the whole pronunciation thing out of the way. Is it “axe-lay?” “Axel-ay?” Something else? Well, supposedly the Japanese pronunciation would be something like “ak-su-rei” so…beats me. Whatever you call it, you’re probably close enough.
Anyway, the game’s story is about as bare bones as you’d expect. The peaceful solar system of Illis is under attack by the relentless Armada of Annihilation. The tiny Illis space fleet has been all but exterminated and only one ship remains: Axelay. There’s also some implied backstory and motivation for Axelay’s unnamed pilot: He carries a locket with a picture of his wife and kids inside. Who’s the Armada of Annihilation and why are they attacking? No idea. I couldn’t even tell you if they’re supposed to be humans or aliens or what. Good thing you won’t have the presence of mind to wonder too much about it while they’re attacking you from all sides.
Axelay’s graphics, sound, and level design are all first class, but the main way it differentiates itself from the rest of the shooter pack is its weapon system. Unlike in almost every other game in the genre, there are no power-ups to collect during gameplay, unless you count the extra lives earned from high scores. Instead, you select a loadout of three special weapons before starting each stage and can freely cycle between them at any time. Choosing the ideal arsenal for each stage will make things go much smoother. Getting hit by enemy fire will disable your current special weapon and getting hit again after all three have been knocked out will result in your death. This might sound overly forgiving at first, but keep in mind that colliding with an enemy or any part of the level architecture will destroy your ship instantly. Some special enemy projectiles, such as homing missiles, can also take you out in one shot. In practice, I found that I rarely died after losing all of my special weapons. Most of the time, it was kamikaze attacks and crashes that did me in.
One interesting consequence of this system is that you’ll often return to the action after losing a life more powerful than you were before, since each new ship comes with a full new compliment of special weapons. This is the polar opposite of most shooters, where death usually strips you of all your accumulated upgrades and leaves you in a very vulnerable position. If you’re fully powered down from taking heavy damage and relying on your super weak backup gun, death can almost feel like a relief, provided you have plenty of extra lives in stock.
You’ll also unlock a new special weapon to pick from after completing each of the first five levels. You begin with only three weapons and three slots to place them in, which means that no variation is possible initially. If there’s one major complaint I have about Axelay’s design, it’s this lacking early game arsenal. Despite going out of their way to implement a system that allows for customization of your loadout, there’s very little variety in how you can approach the first half of the game and some of the late game weapons can only be used in one or two levels. Granted, some of the weapons you unlock later are very powerful and might not be balanced for the easier early stages, but adding in a few more weapons total and giving you five or six to pick from at the very start would have really given this setup much more breathing room, so to speak.
While it’s obviously somewhat a matter of taste, Axelay might be the single best looking shooter on the system. Backgrounds are gorgeous and enemies (especially bosses) are drawn and animated extremely well. The visual flourish that the game is best known for has to be the stretching effect used in the background of the vertical scrolling stages to make it appear like you’re flying high over the curve of the horizon. While this does look cool, it’s ultimately more of a gimmick than anything else. It only affects the gameplay to the extent that it can make maneuvering near the top edge of the screen a little dicey at times. Passing through a narrow gap in a section of wall without crashing as it appears to be stretching and warping, for example, can be a good bit trickier that it would be otherwise.
Sound effects are solid, but it’s the score by Taro Kudo (of Super Castlevania IV fame) that really carries the game in the audio department. The theme for the second stage in particular (“Tralieb Colony”) has to be one of the best tracks you’ll find in any Super Nintendo game. The entire soundtrack perfectly nails the combination of soaring heroism and looming menace that a “lone pilot against an entire fleet” scenario calls for. Don’t even get me started on the masterful final boss battle theme, which is spread out over three increasingly eerie and pulse-pounding tracks.
Like a lot of shooters (and classic Konami action games in general), Axelay is fairly short at six levels. On the plus side, it doesn’t artificially stretch out the experience by recycling backgrounds and enemies, so the action stays fresh and surprising throughout. Replay value comes mainly from simply trying to make it all the way to the end due to the fact that continues are limited. You can adjust the number available from as many as six to as few as two via the difficulty setting in the options menu. Speaking of which, you should probably also use the options menu to set your missiles and primary gun to the same button. You’ll want to blaze away with everything you have all the time anyway, so why not hold down one trigger instead of two?
All-in-all, I had a fantastic time with Axelay. It’s truly one of the top tier shooters for the Super Nintendo/Super Famicom. Super Dimension Fortress Macross: Scrambled Valkyrie might have slightly better horizontal stages and Space Megaforce slightly better vertical stages, but Axelay still manages to do a damn fine job blending both into one seamless experience, just like Salamander did years prior. It delivers perfectly paced combat that’s fast and frantic with nary a hint of slowdown. The console as a whole will never be as well known for its shooters as its contemporaries, the Genesis and PC Engine, but this one can stand tall with the very best of the best from its era. Some of the talent behind Axelay later left Konami in order to found legendary game development house Treasure and it definitely shows in every aspect of the production here.
So load up those weapon pods and go tear the Armada of Annihilation a new one, who or whatever they are.