I may be a SNES fanboy, but that does not mean that I can’t recognize greatness across the aisle when I see it. So let’s face it; when it comes to the shoot-em’ up genre, the ball was not in Nintendo’s court during the 16-bit generation … A faster processor led to the proliferation of the genre on the Genesis and an undeserved reputation amongst developers that the SNES was too slow for arcade shoot-em ups. But that doesn’t mean that the SNES didn’t have some awesome entries into this category. Case in point: Axelay, a space shooter created by the man who would later go on to found Treasure Ltd. This game did what even the mighty Gradius series could not do; produce SNES shoot-em’ up gold.
The game takes place in a fictional galaxy under attack by an alien fleet. You are the last hope for your people as the pilot of the prototype Axelay space fighter. It’s not much to go on, but it’s a shoot-em’ up, not an RPG. Just think of the story as giving you a reason to blow up stuff, and really that is all you need in a game of this style. Though light on traditional story, the game still makes the stakes relatively high for the player by showing a planet destroyed by the enemy armada. Yet where Axelay really shines is in its fast paced and picture perfect gameplay. Most shoot em’ ups stick with either the vertical or horizontal perspectives, Axelay does both exceptionally well, giving us the best of both worlds. This change of pace gives us a welcome sense of variety not seen in many other games in this genre.
Further defining itself among its shoot-em’ up brethren, Axelay does not power up your weapons via pickups, but instead lets you customize your layout at the beginning of each mission. You can take three types with you into battle, and the weapon variety increases as you delve further into the game. It’s interesting to experiment with different combinations of weapons, and choosing the best tools for the job at hand is paramount.
Awesome as all of this stuff is, its best innovation has to be the health system. While most shoot-em’ up games go with the one shot, one kill method of damage, getting hit in Axelay just disables your current weapon. Eventually you will only be left with a default cannon, and it is at this time that you will die if you take another hit. This makes life so much more fair than your typical shoot-em’ up, as I oftentimes find that you can back yourself into inescapable situations pretty easily in these type of games. That extra hit gives the player some much needed breathing room. And you will need every bit of breathing room you can muster, as Axelay is a difficult game that promises to test your reflexes and skills. But persevere and you will find one of the most engaging games of the era. Think of this game as one big WOW moment after another. Axelay was definitely a game that was crafted with Mode 7 effects in mind, and it does not disappoint. The game amazes from the opening level, giving you the ability to choose a path through a world that bombards you with a wide variety of enemies. All of this occurs with none of the slowdown that plagued other SNES shooters. It only gets better from there, with a battle inside a space station, a perilous journey through a fire world littered with massive Fire Worms, and a climactic fight against the same armada that destroyed your homeworld! This pacing results in each world giving you its own unique feel, forcing the player to adapt to each stage’s individual challenges.
Bosses are unique and challenging, with each made up of multiple sprites and components. These behemoths range from a mechanical spider to a giant lava robot! Each is a different and challenging experience, and you will have to be on your toes if you wish to prevail and avoid a game over screen! This is also one of the few games I can remember that gives each boss battle its own musical theme, helping to make the already memorable encounters legendary. But I guess we should not have expected anything less from the future founders of Treasure! It also helps that the mini-bosses are just as good, ensuring that there is always a significant threat on the screen. You will wonder more than once if mini-bosses are the level boss!
Much boasting can be done about the visuals in this game, and while graphics are not of principal importance, it is always commendable when a game can make use of them in a way that enhances the gameplay. It is in this aspect that Axelay delivers the goods by utilizing the presentation with scrolling and dynamic backgrounds, showing a sense of speed and scale that was just not present in many shooters before this. Axelay is a true system showcase that proves what developers could do just as much with the SNES processor as they could with the Genesis. The game is equally solid musically. Each track is a mood-setting masterpiece that pumps the player up. I would easily rank it with the best the SNES has to offer. Every single track just nails the atmosphere of the world it represents, and builds in intensity as the level progresses. My personal favorite is the stage two track, but I would bet that almost everyone will have a favorite. The soundtrack is just that good!
So that is Axelay in a nutshell. It is a stellar example of a company overcoming hardware limitations to make something truly spectacular, and it is easily the best shooter on SNES. Short but sweet, hard but fair, and demanding yet rewarding. It is the perfect shoot-em’ up for the SNES enthusiast. Konami should have kept a hold of these guys! They had a real “Treasure” of a developer.
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