Mention the name Compile to any serious shooter fanatic and you’re likely to be faced with a barrage of nostalgic ranting. The now defunct company was responsible for some of the finest blasters the video game industry has seen, including Super Aleste (also known as Space Megaforce), Gunhed and Zanac. Surprisingly, MUSHA (which stands for 'Metallic Uniframe Super Hybrid Armor', according to the North American release) often gets ignored when people are handing out accolades to Compile’s back catalogue – a situation that is truly mystifying, because it’s one of the best shooters to emerge from the sadly missed Japanese code shop and is arguably one of the most engaging vertical shoot ‘em ups on the Mega Drive.
Musha Aleste: Full Metal Fighter Ellinor (to give the game its full Japanese title) was a relatively early release in the lifespan of Sega’s 16-bit console (it was published in 1990). Not that you would know from the graphics – it might sound like an exaggeration but Musha Aleste features some of the most eye-catching visuals you’re likely to find on the Mega Drive. Everything is gloriously colourful and highly detailed, and some of the end of level bosses are particularly impressive in their size. The music is also excellent, with some seriously fast-paced tracks that compliment the frenetic on-screen action perfectly. The excellent standard of presentation is rounded off by a gorgeous anime-style intro which wouldn’t look out of place in a Mega-CD game.
Those of you seeking a sedate and relaxing shooter experience might wish to look elsewhere, because Musha Aleste really does drop you in at the deep end. The first level is packed full of enemies and it’s often rather intimidating, although it never rises to the level of being unfair. Later levels pack some serious challenge and although it will naturally take a few attempts to get all the way to end, you’re never likely to get so frustrated that you give up completely – which is not only the sign of a good shooter, but is also the hallmark of a perfectly balanced video game. Just avoid tinkering with the difficulty level in the options menu, as it cheapens the task ahead.
The weapon system in Musha Aleste naturally borrows elements from previous games in the Aleste canon, but adds its own spin as well. Your standard shot can be powered up by collecting glowing pods that are released by blasting certain enemies (just like in the original Aleste). However, the main focus here is the ‘pod’ sub-weaponry. These range from lasers to cluster bombs and even a shield, and can be powered up by collecting the same weapon icon four times over.
Because your main armament and sub-weapon are fired using two separate buttons, it means you effectively have to press two buttons at once to really stage a concerted assault, but you quickly get used to this. The other handy thing to remember is that your sub-weapon effectively acts as a second life – if you get hit, you lose whatever sub-weapon you have but live to fight another day using just your standard shot. Whenever this happens it quickly turns the game in a frantic effort to avoid enemy fire and locate another sub-weapon, which only helps increase the tension.
The other key element of Musha Aleste’s gameplay is collecting tiny drones which lend your robotic fighter a little more firepower. These can also be instructed to perform certain manoeuvres, such as seeking out enemies or merely spinning around your craft to provide 360-degree defence. To be honest the drone concept is slightly underused here and feels like something of an afterthought, but it nevertheless adds a little more depth to the gameplay that serious shooter fans will no doubt appreciate.
Considering the rarity of the Mega Drive original, the fact that Musha Aleste has landed on the Virtual Console is something to celebrate. Very few people have had the pleasure of experiencing this brilliant title and hopefully that will now be rectified. Granted, if shooters aren’t your bag then this is unlikely to change you mind in the same way that games like Radiant Silvergun might – but still, it remains one of the best shoot ‘em ups on the Mega Drive and is arguably one of the best of its era.