Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Axelay (Konami)

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You’ve heard this very web site make consistent statements about the unfortunate slowdown that plagues almost all SNES shmups.  Some say it was the limited amount of processing power (literally half that of the Genesis), while others claim that the increase in graphics meant that developers wanted to push the visuals at the expense of the framerate.  Whatever the reason, Axelay, developed by Konami, the very company responsible for the SNES port of Gradius III that slows to a crawl around every corner, has absolutely no slowdown.  It’s like a miracle of programming – the game does not slow or stutter and is a strong and competent shmup with horizontal and vertical (behind the ship) levels, much like Life Force.  As far as I know, it’s the sole reason we have to say “most” SNES shmups slow down, because one alpha title soars above the rest: Axelay.

Vertical/behind the ship level

It’s pretty much your typical shmup story, and given the fact that this is no series nor does it have ports, there’s really nothing to note other than aliens attack humans and we send a space ship in to kill them.  What is notable is that the Konami team that programmed Axelay was none other than “support program”, better known as Hideo Ueda and Kazuhiko Ishida, but many companies wouldn’t allow programmers to be revealed for fear they would get recruited to competitors.  In this case, Ueda and Ishida instead went on to help create their own competitor: Treasure – best known for Gunstar Heroes, touted by some as the best game on the Genesis, and more prominent contemporary shmups such as Bangai-O, Radiant Silvergun, Ikaruga, Gradius V and Sin & Punishment.  Turns out those two programmers that made a fast and smooth shmup on the SNES were actually on to something.

Axelay is not a particularly difficult shmup, although the behind the ship levels (think a skew version of Space Harrier) does take some getting used to.  You get to select three weapons before each level – one cannon, one special and one missile – and your power-ups will function for those three weapons and each can be used at any time during a level.  If you take a hit from a bullet, your weapon will be completely downgraded to its weakest form and a second bullet before getting another power-up will destroy the ship.  This “second chance” and limited single level focus for weapon upgrades is why the game doesn’t really suffer the “single life playthrough” curse.  Keep in mind, colliding with a ship does immediately destroy you so it’s not like you can dance into the fray without the fear of instant death, especially with the large enemies in Axelay that can take up significant screen real estate.   Graphically the game does some fun rotation and zoom effects with the SNES mode 7 graphics (and still no slowdown?) and a strong score by Taro Kudo (of Super Mario RPG and Super Castlevania IV fame) help utilize the impressive Sony sound chip and compete with many arcade shmups from the early 90s.

In order to see a “secret” ending, you must complete the game on its hardest difficulty twice – this title, like many other shmups, loops to the beginning when completed and increases difficulty if possible.  In that ending there is a promise of Axelay 2, which would have most likely been an impressive sequel but I’ll take Treasure’s Gunstar Heroes as a great substitute.  I’m no god at shmups, though, so I have not personally seen this ending and I have to take Wikipedia’s word for it.  While the title didn’t receive amazing reviews back when it released – Nintendo Power gave it a respectable 3.5/5 and I believe Gamepro gave the title somewhat the same score.  Nowadays it is often touted by retro gamers (I recently discovered) as a must buy on the SNES to prove that shmups are possible.  It doesn’t sell for too much, roughly $15-$25 online, but it’s on every region’s Virtual Console as well, which is where I ended up picking this up.  If you want to see a more forgiving version of an early Treasure shmup that borrows a bit from Salamander, I highly recommend giving this one a try, teasing your Wii into thinking it has a purpose in the process.

Did I just wrap this article in 700 words?  Shocker.  Stay tuned tomorrow for the Sega CD classic Silpheed for the shmup of the day.

Written by Fred Rojas

March 8, 2012 at 12:00 pm

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