As one of the earliest titles for the Neo Geo, Alpha Mission II doesn't exactly dazzle in terms of presentation. Smooth scrolling and some catchy tunes aside, it looks like a relic of the 1980s rather than an example of how SNK's Neo Geo hardware revolutionised the arcade and home console arena in the '90s. However, beyond the often uninspiring graphics lies a surprisingly deep experience which takes some time to fully master.
The biggest innovation in Alpha Mission II involves its armour system. There are 11 different armours - basically bolt-on power-ups which drastically increase the destructive capability of your "Armored Scrum Object" spaceship - and each one has a unique effect. Homing, as you might expect, unleashes projectiles which track enemy units while Bubble covers hostiles in, well, bubbles. Black Hole, on the other hand, opens up a massive rift in space and time which sucks in enemies - an incredibly cool effect. Armours have to be manually triggered by pressing the X button, and it's often best to hold onto them until you reach a really tricky part of the game.
The catch with these weapons is that they drain your Energy gauge quite rapidly once deployed; taking a hit also knocks down your Energy quite dramatically. Once it drops to zero the Armour vanishes, but you can pick up another set by collecting three of the same Armour pick-up during play (which is harder than it sounds). You're also given Gold depending on your performance in each level, and in-between stages this can be used to purchase Armour.
Armour isn't your only option when it comes to dishing out death and destruction - via pick-ups you can enhance the power of your craft's main guns and missiles, too, the latter of which are used to destroy objects on the ground, Xevious-style. In fact, there are so many pick-ups in this game that it initially becomes rather confusing; "S" speeds up your ship while "G" gives you Gold and "E" replenishes some of your Armour's Energy. To add even more confusion, these pick-ups come in reverse options, which power-down your craft's abilities. It doesn't end there; "R" sends your ship backwards a short distance through the level, while "W" fast-forwards the action and "C" strips away your current Armour. Making sense of all these items can take some time, which is perhaps why Alpha Mission II makes such a poor first impression; there's too much going on to fully comprehend, at last when you're a beginner.
Put a few hours and however, and it all starts to make sense. Learning to conserve your Armour until the right moment becomes part of a wider strategy, and the hunt for the relevant power-ups adds even more tension. While the levels become a little samey after prolonged play the bosses offer plenty of excitement. Level two's massive mothership has to be picked apart a section at a time, and just when you think you've got it beat the action switches to the interior of the craft and the epic fight continues.
It's a shame then that these moments of brilliance are separated by what amounts to some pretty lukewarm blasting action. When you don't have Armour equipped your ship feels a bit underpowered, and while it's possible to boost your standard lasers and missiles up to four times over, it's too easy to take a hit and lose everything (unless you've picked up the all-important "K" power-up, which allows you to retain them - told you this was confusing). The ground-seeking missiles have quite a weak rate of fire too, which means you're often unable to deal with those threats before they open fire and take you down.
Despite these shortcomings, Alpha Mission II remains an interesting shooter which at least attempts to break away from the typical genre template. The usual ACA Neo Geo updates apply, and unlike some of the other entries in Hamster Corp's series, the Hi-Score and Caravan Modes make perfect sense here, giving you all the more reason to polish your skills and work your way up those online leaderboards. The game's two-player mode is also perfectly suited to the Switch; simply find a friend, hand them a Joy-Con and you're in co-op blasting heaven.
Alpha Mission II may not be the most visually stunning shooter on the block - in fact, fellow Neo Geo blasters Pulstar and Blazing Star are much better looking - but it has enough new ideas to make it a worthwhile download for fans of the genre. The Armour weapon system is interesting and takes some time to fully appreciate, while the somewhat dazzling array of pick-ups constantly keeps you on your toes. The end-of-level bosses are excellent too, and it's only the rather repetitive levels which prevent this from gaining a more hearty recommendation.