Tuesday 5 April 2016

Super Aleste for the Super Nintendo

Let's have a brief video game interlude. Super Aleste, or Space Megaforce if one hails from North America, is a stylish 1992 vertically-scrolling shooter developed by Compile. For retro game aficionados, they were a byword for quality shooters in the vintage era of eight and sixteen bit systems. Their Aleste series of games were known for fast, frenetic action, imaginative game play gimmicks, and superlative programming. This was a developer at the top of their game and knew how to make symphonies on the machines of the day.

Naturally, Super Aleste is no different from its NES, Master System, PC Engine, and MegaDrive forebears. The plot is some nonsense about a metal sphere emerging from the depths of space to lay waste to the Earth, and only one ship can succeed where the combined might of humanity's air force and space fleet have failed. Thankfully, the plot is the only banality where this game is concerned. You ship flies up the speed with endless waves of baddies flying at you kamikaze-stylee, occasionally letting off a bullet here and there. To complicate matters there are various gun, missile, and laser emplacements that get really annoying as the game wears on. And come the end you can find quite imaginative and unusual bosses hanging out and concerned with stymieing your progress.

I know I'm still not doing it any justice, but there were more fresh ideas (then) packed into Super Aleste than virtually any other shooter. Take the power-up system, for instance. Lifted from preceding Compile games, it allowed selection from eight available weapons by picking up relevant icons as they drift down the screen, and their power can be increased via orange or green orbs left behind by blasted enemies. The problem is not all weapons are equal - some are awful, especially the multi-directional shot. But the variation between the levels mean you can't just power up to the max and breezily steamroller a way through. Also attached to this is a little mechanic that was copied, sorry, "inspired" similar in subsequent games. Super Aleste wasn't the first to link level of power ups with the number of hits the player character ship can sustain - get hit and you're knocked down four power levels, cop another bullet and you're cat food. But it was the first, as far as I know, that linked it to spawning locations. During the course of the game one acquires extra lives (standard) and "special" extra lives (not-so-standard) that restart you at the moment of your destruction. Once these have all gone it's back to the checkpoint, which is very annoying when boss-related pugilistics are the order of the day.

Unfortunately, this is a mechanic you're going to have to get used to because some of the levels are very tough. The one that used to drive me to distraction was the graveyard of humanity's battle fleet. Not content with kicking our asses, the dastardly aliens have booby trapped and turned those ships' weapons against you. Sauntering along and having  a huge laser beam appearing from nowhere to slice you up is not helpful. Nor is blasting away right next to a bit of scenery which then decides to explode. It's tough, but not impossibly tough. A little bit of skill, patience, and copious smart bomb usage is enough to plow through.

It also has to be said that Super Aleste is a stupendous technical achievement for the SNES. Considering its CPU was super weedy by the standards of the day, unlike the debacle of Super R-Type there isn't a hint of slowdown in this game. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to think both ran on the same machine. Dozens of sprites and bullets fly about the screen with gay abandon, and often times there's some very nifty mode 7 taking place in the background. The second level is most superlative in this respect. Hordes of enemies seek you out as a scaling rotating station, which doubles up as half the level and the boss, spins and zooms in and out in the play field background. It's impressive now, what gamers must have made of it in 1992 ... Pleasingly, the sound is no slouch either. Effects are standard blaster fare with a bit of badly-articulated trash-talking by the bosses, but the music is among the best on the SNES. I've never been a fan of the sound chip's faux orchestral reverb, but this time mixed in with pretty fine techno tracks it was definitely pleasing to my refined/snobbish ear.

Overall, Super Aleste stands out from the pack as being one of only two really good vertical shooters on the SNES, and is the apogee of a genre that has long become a niche pursuit. But for unthinking, reflex- sharpening, instinct-driven gameplay, the sunny old 16-bit Nintendo has few that can top this.

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