GameSpite Journal 10 | Axelay

Axelay | Dev.: Konami | Pub: Konami | Genre: Shooter | Release: Sept. 1992

The Super Nintendo is not known for its shooters. Early titles for the system, such as Super R-Type and Gradius III, suffered from noticeable graphic slowdown as programmers wrestled with the machine’s relatively slow CPU. As developers learned the ins and outs of the SNES, this became a non-issue, but not before rival Sega had crafted an entire ad campaign around the fictitious “Blast Processing” available only on the faster Genesis console. Regardless, quality shooters, while plentiful on the Genesis and even the TurboGrafx-16, are in short supply on the Super Nintendo. Axelay is one of these hallowed few.

“After months of tenacious enemy attack only one ship has survived: Axelay.”

The stylish attract mode animation sets up the standard-yet-ludicrous “lone super ship versus an armada of tinfoil enemies” back-story inherent in the genre, but once you begin the game proper, it’s back to the fundamentals of dodging and shooting, then surviving up until the boss ship or monster at the end of the stage. The game is fast and responsive without any hints of graphic slowdown. Featuring a mature orchestration that often reintroduces melodies from past tracks in new context, the music is pretty great and puts the advanced SNES sound chip to good use.

“Arms installation complete. Good luck.”

Rather than the traditional track of powering-up your ship during play by collecting the occasional floating icon, you choose from different armament options before each stage—two types of bullet upgrades and one type for bombs. During play, you can cycle through which upgrade to use via the shoulder buttons. If you get hit with enemy fire you lose an upgrade, essentially giving each of your ships four hit points (unless you directly collide with an enemy or obstacle, which kills you instantly). At first, only one upgrade of each type is available, but as you progress through the levels, more choices open up, providing a dash of strategy to the game.

Similar to Life Force (one of Konami’s previous shooters on the NES), Axelay alternates point of view for each level. The horizontal stages are variations on common shooter themes -- the cavernous space station corridor, the wet cave teaming with insect life, et al. -- while offering their own flavor with added detail, a slightly zoomed-in view with a play area often taller than the screen, and the occasional alternate path. The “vertical” stages are more distinctive, presented in a forced perspective by elegantly using the hardware’s scaling special effects. The terrain and enemies seem to roll off the horizon, and with multiple layers, the sense of depth can be quite convincing. With stages such as a nighttime cityscape and a lava planet, these segments also offer some relief from common level tropes. It’s well done and not presented in the usual “point of view” Mode 7 as utilized in F-Zero and Mario Kart, making it somewhat unique in the SNES library and in shooters in general.

Axelay was memorable when it came out, both for its solid, fast gameplay and its well-designed use of Mode 7 scaling. The boss fights are a bit on the easy side (at least on the easy difficulty that I can manage), but the levels themselves are fast and challenging without being cheap and require little in the way of memorization. It’s held up quite well with age, so if you are a fan of the genre, yet somehow missed it the first time around, I highly recommend tracking it down.

By Ben Langberg | Dec. 12, 2011 | Previous: Super Mario Kart | Next: Final Fantasy Mystic Quest