One of the many Super Nintendo gems published by Konami and tucked away in the Wii Virtual Console’s catalog is Axelay, a single player, spaceship shoot ‘em up with great weapon options and alternating vertically and horizontally scrolling stages.
Like most games of this type, the player pilots the good guys’ last super spaceship, in this case the Axelay, against an unexpected, unidentified, and seemingly undefeatable, alien enemy. Fortunately, the Axelay’s pilot has the power of humanity, symbolized by his anachronistic amulet containing a picture of his family, which he clutches in the game’s introduction. Therefore, he might just stand a chance. Unlike most shoot ‘em ups, however, there are no power-ups to collect that improve the ship’s speed, weapons, or shields. Instead, the Axelay has three modular weapons systems that are equipped before the start of each stage: a pod for weaker laser attacks, a side system for weapons with wide angles of attack, and a bay for powerful missiles. One weapons system is used at a time, but it can be switched to one of the other chosen systems on the fly. More and more options for each system are earned after the completion of each stage, which adds a sense of progression and accomplishment while playing the game. Also unlike many shoot em’ ups, each weapon system can take a hit for the Axelay. The system is subsequently destroyed and replaced with weaker weapons or switched over to a functioning system, but at least the player’s ship isn’t destroyed. However, should the ship take a hit in a weapon’s weakened state or crash into an obstacle or an enemy ship, the Axelay won’t survive. Nevertheless, a spare ship will spawn without breaking the flow of the game with fully operational systems. This makes Axelay a more forgiving game amongst shoot ‘em ups, but I prefer this setup over relying on a powered up ship that, once destroyed, is replaced with a super slow, very weak fighter that isn’t as fun to control.
The total number of stages isn’t particularly impressive, but the length of and variety in each stage are. Each stage has moments when a particular weapons system is most useful, adding a bit of strategy to play. For instance, the epic and often multi-tiered bosses are often best tackled with missiles from the bay system, while sections that are filled high and low with enemy ships and cannons are usually best approached with the side system weapons. The side system Round Vulcan is particularly fun to use, and is a great example of developers designing a clever way to control a feature beyond the seeming limitation of the SNES controller. By holding the fire button down, the Round Vulcan shoots machine guns on both sides of the Axelay more and more towards the front, and when the button is released, the machine guns continue to fire, but progressively more and more towards the rear of the Axelay. This simple control scheme allows the player to fire at almost 360˚, and this is not only useful for destroying enemies in all directions, but also, and this is probably the most fun yet tense part of the game in my opinion, when dodging the enemy’s seeker missiles while precisely gunning them down.
What also impressed me with this game is how smooth the experience is. There are a couple of parts where enough enemies on screen cause slowdown, but 99% of the game plays without at hitch and does not suffer from crippling slowdown and sudden recovery of speed like you would experience in Gradius III or Super R-Type. Mode 7, the scaling technique the SNES implements to generate depth and rotation as exemplified in Super Mario Kart or the map screen in Final Fantasy III/VI, is also impressively used in this game, particularly in the vertically scrolling stages. I could describe it as looking down on rotating, yet changing cylinders or globes, but finding a video on youtube would show how the effect is implemented. It can be a little jarring when larger sprites stretch as they scroll down, but for the most part the Mode 7 implementation is successful, particularly when obstacles rotate/scroll into view or enemy fire angles up towards the player’s ship.
Axelay has quickly become my favorite shoot em’ up for the SNES, due in large part to its weapons systems and level design. I’m also very impressed with how they harnessed Mode 7, which makes this game a good showpiece for the SNES’s capabilities. The graphics and color choices are pretty good for the time it was released, 1992, and the music is impressive and has some nice synth effects. It’s not a very long game, but each level is unique and varied. Also, there are three difficulty settings to choose from, and the game starts over at a higher difficulty upon completion, allowing for more points to be added to the player’s score. Even on normal difficulty, I found it to be a challenging game; it took me many replays before I managed to the complete the game without using a continue. Highly recommended.