Now that Star Fox Zero has made transforming space fighters cool again (as if they could be anything but cool, we hear you cry) we take a break from the relentless war raging in the Lylat system and go back to the classic shmup formula on a console that is not all that well known for the genre. Produced by Winky Soft – a studio responsible for a plethora of SD Gundam Wars titles on Nintendo's 16-bit powerhouse – Choujikuu Yousai Macross: Scrambled Valkyrie is one of the Super Famicom's most esteemed blasters, and still plays incredibly well even by today's standards.
Should you be unfamiliar with the anime that began all the way back in 1982 (which was subsequently westernized as Robotech by the late Carl Macek), here's the basics: it depicts an alternate 1999 Earth where an empty, giant, ancient alien spaceship (the Super Dimension Fortress Macross) crash lands on our beloved planet. A decade later – and after much reverse engineering – activating the Macross accidently sends out a location beacon to the enemies of said ancient alien civilization, bringing the war-hardened Zentradi to our Solar System. After the first engagement, a desperate move by the U.N. Spacy (Army, Navy... Spacy!) attempts to fold space and time to allow the Macross to escape the Zentradi, a move that transports the ship, most of the defending fleet and a big chunk of the island along to the outskirts of the Solar System. The crew and civilians then prepare for the long journey back to Earth with danger lurking every step of the way from the superior numbers of the Zentradi battle fleet, bent on the destruction of all mankind along with the Macross.
The game takes place during this arduous journey. You are presented with a choice of three pilots who are major characters from the series: reluctant ace pilot and series poster boy Hikaru Ichijyo. Maximilian Jenius (simply "Max" to his friends) is yet another ace pilot that proves that you can join the air force despite needing glasses. Last but not least is the original bad girl Milia Fallyna, a Zentradi that falls in love with Max's abilities in the cockpit and defects to mankind's side of the conflict (after shrinking to regular human size, of course).
Oh, did we forget to mention the Zentradi are genetically engineered to be on average about ten times larger than normal humans? That is an important fact to consider when you spot Zentradi soldier corpses floating around on level 1 that are the size of your ship. In fact, it was when the U.N. Spacy realized that the Macross had to be built and operated by giants that they used alien tech to develop the Variable Fighters, the ships you pilot in the game. At first they appear no different than a regular human military airplane, but they are able transform into GERWALK mode (Ground Effective Reinforcement of Winged Armament with Locomotive Knee-Joint – try saying that twice as fast) to gain VTOL abilities. Even better, they can also change into Battroid mode where they become full-on Gundam-style humanoid mechanized infantry units in order to go head to head with Zentradi foot soldiers. Switching modes in this game will change your weapon and your ship speed, while each pilot has three unique weapons which will offer you quite a lot of replay ability since every weapon will change the way you tackle your enemies.
Every weapon can be powered up to three levels, and getting hit will downgrade your current weapon and take a chunk of your shield energy. Even if you don't get killed, tackling the regular mid-level and end of level bosses with unpowered weapons becomes incredibly challenging so you will have to practice and gradually memorize the stage layouts and enemy patterns before you get to complete all seven of them. They all look gorgeous; from the debris-filled space battle opening to fighting out inside the Macross on stage four and the nearly derelict Zentradi battleship in the last stage. How Winky Soft managed to maintain so much detail on both backgrounds and the enemies zipping around the screen without any noticeable slowdown is an amazing feat and (sadly) a rarity among SNES shmups.
But let's go back to the Macross plot to explain the distinctive mechanic of the game. The Zentradi know only war, they are built for it. As such they don't even have mixed crews among their fleet and as such, human behavior like love is foreign to them and it is soon discovered that waking up emotions is the most effective weapon humanity has against them. Lynn Minmay's voice becomes a powerful weapon in the anime's plot, with her songs capable of turning entire Zentradi platoons into pacifists or – even better – encouraging them to fight for the human side. This is also explains why Milia switched sides for the love of Max. The game emulates this mechanic by allowing you to hijack any of the regular enemies to fight alongside your Variable Fighter. When not shooting, you will start to glow. When fully charged, just touch an enemy and they will start attacking their former colleagues. It is rather fun to experiment with the different type of enemies until you find your favourite on each stage. It's a very clever mechanic and one which makes the game feel fresh and different.
Some minor annoyances do surface, however. There is a single button assigned for transforming
your Variable fighter, so you will always have to go through the cycle of Fighter > GERWALK > Battleroid, which might just cause you to get hit while trying to locate your desired weapon or speed setting. Winky Soft could have easily remedied this by assigning the "L" and "R" shoulder buttons to switch back and forth between all forms, but the developer sadly overlooked the button options the SNES pad provided. We also noticed that it is quite possible to finish the whole game just using Hikaru's fighter form and his fully-powered lasers, making the other characters somewhat redundant unless you welcome the challenge. We would also love a two player co-op mode but we assume the SNES CPU is already working overtime handling just the one.
Choujikuu Yousai Macross: Scrambled Valkyrie is a stellar shmup that deserves to be remembered as the fourth name after the holy trinity of Axelay, Super Aleste (Space Megaforce in the US) and R-Type 3. Despite not having been localized to the west, most of the text is in perfectly functional "Engrish" so the language barrier won't stop you from enjoying the action. You do get a lot of extra value out of this if you are familiar with the wider Macross universe, but if you just happen to like horizontal scrolling shmups make sure you give this a go; it will grip you right from the start with intense music (including a few selected renditions from the anime) and non-stop action that refuses to let go until you blast your way to the ending. A worthy title to add to your Super Famicom import collection.