Posted on 5 August, 2016 at 7:55PM
Axelay is a space shooter video game developed and published by Konami for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. It was released in Japan on September 11, 1992, North America in September 1992, and Europe on September 30, 1993. The game was originally intended to be a Japanese exclusive, but was granted release elsewhere due to numerous letters from eager fans and critics. If the game is completed on the hardest difficulty, a message pops up promising a sequel, but no such thing was ever released. One of the programmers for this game, Kazuhiko Ishida, later departed Konami and went on to help the founding of Treasure, the company that created such memorable classics as Gunstar Heroes. In any case, Axelay is similar to other Konami space shooters like Gradius and Life Force, but it uses the Super Nintendo's Mode-7 graphical effect to produce an interesting perspective. Many magazines of the time lauded Axelay as being one of the best shooters on the SNES. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why; the game is quite good.
The tumultuous tale of Axelay takes place in Illis, a planetary system that may or may not be fictional. My money's on it being of the not real variety. Illis was a peaceful system, until it was one day invaded by an evil alien empire. You can tell they're evil because they refer to themselves as the Armada of Annihilation. In other words, they're nihilists. One by one, the planets of the Illis system quickly fell to this powerful alien threat, including a planet similar to Earth named Corliss. Obviously, that means Corliss is part of the good guys' team. The conquered planets had their resources slowly drained from them, making them nothing more than slaves to the invaders. After months of alien attacks, nearly every ship of the Illis system was utterly obliterated. The last surviving ship is a prototype space fighter bearing the serial number D117B, also known as the Axelay. As a final resort, the Axelay is sent to battle enemy forces all by its lonesome. This is the ship you pilot for the duration of the game, hence the title. Now if only we could get some chips.
Unlike side-scrolling shooters like Gradius, most of the stages in Axelay scroll vertically instead of horizontally. It's in these vertically scrolling stages that the game makes the most impressive use of Mode-7. Specifically, Mode-7 is used to give the backgrounds a curved appearance to simulate a pseudo 3-D feel. The way the backgrounds seem to curve where they meet the sky is stupendous, as it gives the stages lots of visual depth. This is perhaps one of the best uses of Mode-7 on the SNES, because it avoids the typical Mode-7 pitfall of looking too flat. There's a part later in the game where you're flying over a fiery planet and a giant worm jumps out from the magma, first appearing in the background and then landing in the foreground. It's an absolutely breathtaking sight. Unfortunately, Axelay's amazing visual trickery does come at a price; it's occasionally tough to judge the collision detection of objects that are part of the background layer due to its curvature. Considering this is a shooter where colliding into object results in immediate death, that's a big problem. It's possible to get the hang of it after a while, but clearly defined hit boxes are integral for a genre like this. Still, the Mode-7 looks fantastic and doesn't come off as a cheap gimmick.
Another unique thing about Axelay is its weapon power-up system. Instead of finding additional weapon power-ups by destroying enemies or blowing up containers, you'll be awarded new ones as you progress through the game. In fact, you get a new weapon after every stage. Before each stage, you're prompted to equip the desired weapons from your stockpile. There are three categories of weapons and you're restricted to having only one of each type on you at a time. During a stage, you can quickly switch between your three currently equipped weapons by pressing the shoulder buttons. Weapons include lasers, missiles, bombs, and more. A couple of the weapons are truly unique, like a Vulcan that can shoot bullets all around you, allowing you to destroy enemies that are to your sides and rear. The most notable feature of the weapon system, though, is the fact that they act as extra hits for your ship. If an enemy bullet hits your ship, it'll destroy whatever weapon you had selected in exchange for letting you live. You'll still instantly die if you crash into scenery or the enemies themselves, but this is far more forgiving than your average shooter. Also, unlike conventional spaceship shooters, you regain all lost weapons whenever you die. Overall, the weapon mechanics in this game are pure genius.
Not all the stages in Axelay are of the vertical scrolling variety; there are a fair amount of the more traditional horizontal scrolling ones, too. To be more precise, every other stage is a side-scrolling one. While the side-scrolling stages don't make much use of Mode-7, they make up for it with superb use of parallax scrolling. The hit boxes are also fairly easy to make out during these segments, reducing the likelihood of death by collision. Some of the weapons will function differently during these stages, like how most missiles fire forward in the vertical stages and drop downward in the horizontal ones. As a result, weapons can be better or worse depending on the type of stage, adding a degree of strategy to equipment selection. Constantly shifting between horizontal and vertical scrolling stages gives the game a more varied feel, as you're never given enough time to grow bored of either style. Both perspectives play well to boot, so the quality remains consistent regardless of how the screen scrolls.
The environment is just as much as your enemy as the enemies themselves. Like most space shooters, crashing into walls means death, and Axelay takes full advantage of this by having lively stages with moving foreground objects. For example, stage two is a space colony that boasts tons of moving platforms, stage three takes place over a city with giant pipes that will shorten and extend in an attempt to kill you, and stage four is an alien grotto with goopy organisms attached to the ceilings that try to puncture your ship. You can also sometimes interact with the environment, like blasting support pillars to cause the ceiling to collapse. The combination of varied environmental layouts and swarms of unique enemies makes each stage that much more memorable. Basically, the game avoids running into the problem many space shooters have of stages merely being empty backgrounds with different enemies. This kind of environmental hazard design was done before in Gradius, though, so it isn't unique to Axelay. It is, however, still a good way to design a spaceship shooter.
Bosses come in two varieties; mid-bosses that appear in the middle of a stage, and the main bosses that show up at the end. For the main bosses, you typically have to shoot their weak points to inflict damage. Figuring out what the weak points are is fairly intuitive, because they're almost always represented by a glowing orb or something else that's exceedingly obvious. Sometimes you'll have to repeatedly shoot a boss to reveal its weak point in the first place, breaking away whatever initial protection it has. Many of the bosses are pretty creative, like a battle cruiser that periodically sinks below the clouds to hide from your bullets, a flying saucer you push backwards with your shots, a gigantic robotic spider that traps you in its cybernetic web, a malformed fish-like creature that changes your currently equipped weapon by shooting mysterious lightning at you, and an enormous flame golem. There's one boss that makes an extravagant entrance by causing a cave-in right before the battle begins, forcing you to dodge a series of falling rocks before the boss even appears. You never know what boss to expect in the vast universe of Axelay, and that suspense is thrilling.
If you want an excellent spaceship shooter with a few twists, then consider giving Axelay a shot. It's got awesome graphics, awesome music, awesome stages, awesome bosses, and is just plain awesome. The unique weapon system and fancy Mode-7 effects already put this on a level far beyond that of most other space shooters, but Axelay also backs all that up with fabulous stages and wonderful bosses. The variety in switching between vertical and horizontal scrolling is great, because it's almost like you're playing two shooters in one. The only hindrance is that the aforementioned vertical scrolling sections have unclear hit boxes due to the complex Mode-7 effects, which is a serious issue. As serious as that issue is, though, it doesn't ruin everything the game does right. Axelay is a breath of fresh air in a genre that sorely needs it. This is no stale shooter.
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