Posted by Damien McFerran
Restoring some Life Force to the 2D shooter
When you run through the list of prolific Japanese software houses during the 8 and 16-bit eras, Konami's name is usually pretty close to the top. Like rivals Capcom and Namco, it benefited from the incredible global success of the Nintendo's NES and many of its classic franchises gained astonishing notoriety on the console. The subsequent transition to the Super Nintendo was a smooth one, with the likes of Gradius III, Super Castlevania IV and Contra III all coming early in the system's lifespan. In fact, there was a glorious era in the early '90s when Konami could seemingly do no wrong; as if you couldn't have guessed already, the sublime Axelay emerged from the hanger during this fertile and profitable period.
Thanks to its relatively sluggish CPU the SNES was not as comfortable hosting fast-paced arcade "shmups" as the Mega Drive and PC Engine, but Axelay was the one game that Nintendo fans could cite when their Sega-owning buddies tried to claim shooter superiority. It's quite simply in a class of its own, not just in terms of gameplay, variety and challenge, but in visual and aural terms as well. By 1992 Konami was well versed in exploiting the custom tricks the SNES was capable of, and Axelay is peppered with rotational and scaling effects which set it apart from other 16-bit blasters. From the unique vertical "barrel" stages which rotate as you fly forwards to the amazing Mode 7 scaling and the subtle use of transparency effects, this is very much a graphical tour de force - and a game which still looks mesmerising more than two decades since its inception.
Like Konami sibling Life Force - or Salamander, to use its Japanese moniker - Axelay alternates between vertically and horizontally-scrolling levels. While it can't claim to be the first title to experiment with switching perspective - there was the aforementioned Gradius spin-off as well as Thunder Force II, which boasted a mixture of 8-way scrolling top-down stages and horizontal levels - it nevertheless lends the title a compelling hook. While it's tempting to suggest that you're effectively getting two shooter types for the price of one, the two styles complement each another rather than creating a jarring impression.
Much of this is down to the brilliant weapon system which provides the backbone of Axelay's appeal. Unlike other shooters which showcase pick-up weapons which can be enhanced as you fight through each stage, Axelay gives you access to three weapon slots at the start of each stage, and these can be cycled through using the L and R shoulder buttons during play. While you're only given one option per slot on level one, progress unlocks new weapons. There are no distracting power-ups to collect during the action, which leaves you to focus on the task at hand - blowing away the enemy while avoiding their incoming attacks. Taking a hit knocks out the currently-equipped weapon, and once they're all out of service another direct hit destroys your ship. Colliding with any solid object instantly obliterates your craft.
Axelay's weapon system also neatly avoids the problem which impacts so many 2D shooters - the quest to power-up your craft to make things easier, and the inevitable drop in combat prowess that occurs when you lose a life and all of your accrued pick-ups. Balancing a shooter which features scalable power-ups is a challenging affair; when the player is at full strength levels can turn into a cakewalk, but should they lose all of their weapons then things become too difficult. Axelay side-steps this quandary entirely by giving you the tools you need from the get-go. Incidentally, Radiant Silvergun - a later shooter from Treasure, which happens to have been founded by some of the team that worked on Axelay - would take the idea a step further by giving the player a wide range of weapon options from the start.
Because Konami didn't have to worry about balancing the game around power-ups and the player's power level, each stage in Axelay is an almost faultless experience when it comes to difficulty level. There's no way to speed up your ship, and the fact that it's not the nippiest attack craft amplifies the challenge. In fact, compared to other games of this type the D117B Axelay fighter is rather sluggish - yet this seems to add to the game's authenticity, as the ship itself is rather bulky and unwieldy - which ties in with its experimental nature, and the fact that it's very much the last throw of the dice for your desperate home planet of Corliss. Learning how to manage the D117B's lack of pace throughout the game's six stages becomes a taxing - yet rewarding - exercise. Save states - one of the biggest benefits of the Wii U Virtual Console - make things a little less frustrating for novices, but for the ultimate old-school experience we'd recommend you attempt to complete the game without using them.
Axelay may have been produced before the shooter genre became flooded with "bullet hell" titles thanks to the efforts of Eighting and Cave, but you might be surprised to discover that your skills perhaps haven't aged as well as the title itself. In the Nintendo Life office we've had to consume a large amount of humble pie after realising that we don't have the same reactions that we did during the early '90s, while newcomers on the staff have commented on the title's steep learning curve. Even so, Axelay is never, ever unfair; practice, memorise enemy patterns and familiarise yourself with the strengths - and weaknesses - of your ship and its armament and you'll slowly but surely master this taxing jaunt through hostile space.
Finally, some mention must be made of Taro Kudo, who composed the game's lush soundtrack. It boasts a diverse mixture of styles, with the opening levels showcasing strident, purposeful tracks (the whirring, mechanical menace of Stage 2 remains a high point of 16-bit music in general) while elsewhere there are levels accompanied by slower, almost melancholic tunes. What's truly remarkable is that Kudo-san isn't just a musician - since contributing to the sterling soundtracks for Axelay and Super Castlevania IV he has helped design such titles as Freshly-Picked Tingle's Rosy Rupeeland, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga and Paper Mario: Sticker Star, and now plies his trade as a director at Vanpool.
Finishing Axelay on hard mode reveals the tantalising sign-off, "See you again in Axelay 2". By the time many of us had become skilled enough to reach this screen, some of Konami's most talented programmers and designers had departed to form Treasure, a company which you could argue has continued the Konami tradition of 2D excellence in the years since. Axelay 2 never materialised, and Konami itself appears to have largely forgotten the core franchises which made its '80s and '90s output so exhilarating. In this regard, Axelay's launch on the Wii U Virtual Console is a timely one; it reminds us just how rich the 16-bit era was. Many shooters from this same period have aged badly, the years having exposed the fragility of their mechanics and the crudeness of their presentation, yet Axelay gleams like a piece of software which rolled off the production line only yesterday. The SNES catalogue is packed with games that are often described as timeless classics, but few are as worthy of that accolade as this.