(Super Nintendo)

Axelay (Super Nintendo)

Game Review

Axelay Review

Europe PAL Version

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.

Conclusion

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.

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User Comments (38)

antonvaltaz

#2

antonvaltaz said:

@Damo Slightly off-topic... but Life Force was known as Salamander here too, at least in the arcade and home computer conversions. Just like Gradius was Nemesis.

CanisWolfred

#3

CanisWolfred said:

I never liked this game for some reason. Even when I was really into shooters, it felt very slow and clunky, the mode-7 just made some of the levels obnoxious, and while it was nice to not have to collect power-ups, I honestly prefered the simplicity of picking up your powers and only worrying about one button.

It's not a bad game, I guess, I just put it into the same category as Radient Silvergun and Ikaruga, which are also very methodic games with higher learning curves than I'm used to with these types of games. I prefer the "easy to learn, hard to master" type of shooters.

Shiryu

#8

Shiryu said:

Hey, that's my video! I really miss shmups, I wish they were making news ones for 3DS and Wii U. A guy can dream... and to think there was once "Axelay 2" on the pipeline before the team left Konami and founded Treasure...

XyVoX

#10

XyVoX said:

Imported this from Japan on release day back then AHHH remember that barrel rolling mode 7, then traditional 2D levels, sumptuous i tell ya sumptuous. Father time has been fair as back then this was a 9 or 10/10 and still it is today.

SetupDisk

#11

SetupDisk said:

I was waiting for a screenshot like the last one and relieved it was there. That's some epic **** right there.

OorWullie

#12

OorWullie said:

Exactly what Caniswolfred said above.I have tried to get into this a few times but I found it really slow and the mode 7 distracting,I didn't enjoy it at all to be honest.I've played quite a few of the best rated SNES shoot em ups and none of the are a patch on the Megadrives best in my opinion.

Varoennauraa

#13

Varoennauraa said:

One of my favorite shmups from that generation, or ever. Inventive use of Snes's impressive GPU makes levels interesting, and surprisingly good looking even to day.

DiSTANToblivion

#14

DiSTANToblivion said:

I loved this game when I was younger. I prefer the slower, more methodical pace as the level design and atmosphere are stunning.

CaptMcCloudAran

#15

CaptMcCloudAran said:

@Shiryu I started a indie studio to bring a great shmup to WiiU, with a new twist using the Gamepad. Unfortunately, I live in Brazil and Nintendo policy just cut me off. Hope this will change some day...

Stargazer

#16

Stargazer said:

I love this game. Even if it's too damn short.

I always preferred Space Megaforce but this was one of my favorite SNES shmups.

Shiryu

#17

Shiryu said:

@CaptMcCloudAran That sucks. I'm from Portugal so I know exactly how it's like to live in a country where you don't have an official Nintendo presence. I read the recent news that Nintendo is puling out of Brazil, but you should do the game anyway and then find a third party publisher outside

dmc79

#19

dmc79 said:

Besides the obvious graphic superiority I'm surprise no one mentioned the amazing sound tracks this game possesses. Some of the most memorable ones from the 90" I may add.

AirElephant

#21

AirElephant said:

One of the best ever SHMUPS on SNES, bar none. If you even remotely consider yourself a fan of shooters you owe yourself a copy of Axelay. The effects were incredible for the time. SNES had some really great shooters!

Mrclaycoat

#22

Mrclaycoat said:

Funny, I really hated this game on the SNES back in the day. I also owned a Turbo Duo so I'm sure that played some big part in that since the Duo was the shooter king. I remember wanting to love Axelay and playing it over and over but rarely beating the first level and not ever caring. I think I'll pick it up again when it's up for NA since I still think about this one and why I could never get into it.

Kirk

#23

Kirk said:

I always thought this was pretty good but not amazing, maybe just because I'm crap at it (and was even back in the day), but a couple of great shmups I love from the 16bit era are Super Aleste and U.N. Squadron. Oh, and all the Parodius games were great too :-)

Edit: Oh and Truxton and Hellfire on the Megadrive are really good too but I always die pretty early on in those game lol :-o

MeloMan

#26

MeloMan said:

Never played this, but I've heard of it. I don't know when I would play it, but I'll add this to my wish list. This reminds me, I never did pick up Ironclad on the Wii VC...

OorWullie

#27

OorWullie said:

@Kirk Hellfire is a personal favourite of mine.I still play it from time to time but struggle to get anywhere near as far as I used to.

Kirk

#29

Kirk said:

@OorWullie

Yeah, it's a great shmup and I'm surprised no one else has really used the particular weapon/shooting mechanic from Hellfire. I've thought about doing something similar myself a couple of times.

CaPPa

#30

CaPPa said:

Axelay is a great shmup, it felt like an evolution of Gradius, so it's sad that the evolution didn't continue.

It's even sadder that Konami has fallen so far from greatness and are just a shadow of their former selves.

Peppy_Hare

#32

Peppy_Hare said:

"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 '90"
I bet much of that is due to the display lag modern flatscreens have. When you played the original, it was on a CRT without the lag. I've noticed I can play these old twitch-type games better on a CRT television.

sketchturner

#33

sketchturner said:

I've never played this game and am not a shmup fan, but I really enjoyed this review. The way you explained the difficulty balancing issues in particular helped put words to what I have often found irritating in most shmups. Maybe I should give this one a try if it comes Stateside.

Sampras

#34

Sampras said:

The game looks great. But Space Mega force is my pick for SNES Shooter in a league of its own.

Fandabidozi

#35

Fandabidozi said:

European release at last! Love this game. Hope it looks cool with telly set to 3D also. It's so easy to die within the first second of playing which is always fun too. Between this and After Burner II the years off to a great start!
Can we get Thunder Force IV on Mega Drive now too please :)

XyVoX

#36

XyVoX said:

My personal favorite was split between the Parodius's on the Snes & Hellfire on the MD closely followed by Axelay & Thunderforce 3-4 on the MD closely followed by Gradius 3,R-types,Super Aleste and U.N. Squadron, they were the days.

ANGRYBALDMAN666

#38

ANGRYBALDMAN666 said:

Nintendo why are you doing this still no SNES games on the 3DS Sega has show it can be done Nintendo can do SNES ,GBA and N64 games

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