Monday, June 1, 2009

VC look - Alien Soldier

One of the benefits of the Virtual Console is that a number of games that never saw release outside of Japan and/or Europe can reach other regions. While these releases inexplicably cost 100 or more points than their domestic brethren and for the most part don't feature translations it at allows more people access to games like Alien Soldier.

One of the last Mega-drive games released by Treasure, Alien Soldier features one of the more non-sensical stories in a game. It involves something about experiments and friends turning against each other but in-game it amounts to a couple cutscenes of people turning into monsters and a planet exploding with absolutely no context. Anyway the point of this game is boss-fights...about 25 or so of them.

The Boss is an important aspect of any game. Aside from taking on different forms they are capable of requiring different strategies or at times introducing entirely new gameplay ideas. The notion for a game focused entirely on bosses is that level-design is more than just enemies and pits. If you can fill a room with the same things that properly emulate what you're going for you you'd have no need to hold yourself to the standards gamers have commonly accepted. Thus for Alien Soldier everything that leads up to the boss is there for preparation. It is here that the player can destroy minor enemies for weapon-practice, regain lost health, and collect items that increase his ammo and raise his max health. 

Before starting the game the player chooses four of six weapons. These include a regular cannon, a flamethrower, a laser, a homing cannon, a spreadfire, and a powerful cannon with low ammo. These are familiar weapons to any shooter fan but the catch here is that whenever the player has to switch weapons(whether to match the current situation or because they're out of ammo) they have to press the A button and bring up a menu where they can swap between them. This is challenging to get used to because the game can't be paused while it's done. Any combinations of weapons are possible and the player can increase their ammo or switch weapons by gathering power-ups littered throughout most stages. Weapons not currently in-use will refill slowly.

After selecting your weapons you're free to get accustomed to the controls(the game doesn't actually begin until you leave the training room by pressing START). Your hero is some kind of bird-man and he's taller than most action-game characters, making him a fairly large target. This is important to consider because rather than trying to dodge a barrage of attacks your best bet is your teleport move-dash. By pressing down+C you execute a move that moves you instantly to whatever side of the screen you're facing. This is essential for survival as so many encounters will attempt to crush you by jumping to one side of the screen. Also when the player's health is full(indicated by their meter flashing), their next dash is a fiery one. This can do immense damage when properly timed(for starters it can kill the first boss instantly) but after using it the player loses just enough health that they can't perform it again(which is why health is so easy to come by so you can re-use and abuse it). 

Another important ability is done by double-tapping the B button. For a fraction of a second you perform a shield that has a number of uses. In a pinch it can destroy some foes but mostly you'll be using it to reflect certain attacks, turn enemy bullets into precious healing items, and possibly using the recoil it produces to get out of some situations. It's a tricky move to get used to(especially since the B button is also the button that fires your weapon) but it's imperative for many situations including the final boss fight. 

The hero's jumping ability is also important to understand. There's the regular jump but by pressing the button again he can hold completely still in mid-air via hovering. He can still fire his weapons but by using a shield he's thrown out of hover and send flying backwards. By jumping again while in hover he performs a second jump that flips, making for an ever so slightly smaller target(but it's more useful for other situations). The hero can also walk on ceilings simply by jumping so that he touches one. By pressing down+A the hero also switches between two different firing modes. Silver mode is fixed and allows the player to fire in any direction without moving while Golden mode lets the player fire while moving but their direction if fixed while firing(note that when you put it together you get Golden Silver, the final boss from the Treasure game Gunstar Heroes, I just thought of that.).

The progression of this game as I mentioned before is quite simple. All of the non-boss sections in the game showcase quite a bit of variety and they go by so quickly you'll never really tire of them. Speaking of variety Alien Soldier has a surprising amount of variety to all of their boss-fights. While a number of them rely on the same tactics(seek out weakpoint, fire away, dodge when they get close) the environments are never the same. Even something as simple as a box in the middle in the room could lead to either a great advantage or a severe problem. Even though all of these bosses can be taken down in as little as seconds they run the full gamut of animations and abilities and not a single one feels tacked-on or is composed of nothing more than a big target that fires a ton of bullets. All of these gigantic foes are fully-realized and have their own personalities and quirks(not to mention many forms). Of course one would expect nothing less for a game focused almost entirely on bossfights to have good ones.

While the superplay videos floating around the net make this game look easy it is only due to the time taken figuring out and memorizing the exact locations to be in order to take the bosses out so quickly. First-time players will be struggling with this one and spending quite awhile on every boss. Alien Soldier is not an easy game and due to the speed of everything(this is one of the fastest games on the Mega-drive) death is never far away. Minor attacks like bullets will only take off a bit of life and serve as more of an annoyance or lead-in to something much stronger but major attacks(like colliding with a boss or being swiped by their claws) will really take a lot out of you. If that wasn't enough you have to work with a rather stingy time-limit and falling into pits will drain your life fairly quickly if you don't mash buttons to get out of them. While you can take one last hit(note the flashing red energy meter) before dying no matter what it does little to keep you from looking at "GAME OVER" scrolling by in giant red letters.

The game defaults to "super easy" mode where everything does less damage, you get unlimited continues & passwords for every single stage, and when you pause you can actually choose what speed you want to run the game at(to make things easier on you find certain ways to defeat the boss faster). Make no mistake however that this difficulty is anything other than a practice mode. Super Hard mode(the only other difficulty) is the real setting and makes those continues limited and those passwords meaningless(oh and no making the game slower). Sure you can still play through the entire game and see the ending on super easy mode but eventually you'll want to move forward.

In my piece on Shinobi III I talked about the essential aspect of being able to really know how the videogame character you're playing as actually works. Alien Soldier is without a doubt one of the most important titles to rely on this. In fact this extends beyond your character and to the bosses you face. While too many games emphasis simply dodging attacks this game requires that you make the most out of every move the bosses are capable of. Every bit of space on the screen could mean the difference between life or death(or to a deeper extent whether you can kill the boss in 10 seconds or a minute). In no way am I implying that this is exclusive to Alien Soldier. In fact the main reason I'm bringing it up is because this game makes it so apparent and easy to understand. At the speed in which everything moves and how quickly the game begins and ends even the most complicated boss-fight can become second-nature with just a little bit of time. While some games reward the player for keeping a game going for a long period of time Alien Soldier is the exact opposite. There are no rewards for doing things with style, collect a bunch of hidden coins, or anything of that sort. All that matters is that you destroy everyone in a small amount of time.

Some might argue that a game that focuses entirely on one aspect isn't really worthwhile. I'm really not sure how these people come to that conclusion. Maybe it isn't to everyone's taste but a boss-rush can still be a fully-realized game. In fact if you're fighting a boss by jumping, firing a weapon, and performing special maneuvers how is that any different from running through an enemy-filled corridor or jumping from platform to platform while foes rain down on you? All that's happening is that the elements are being changed around. The boss-fights go by so quickly that it's not like you have to mess around with a boring pattern for several minutes. In the end they're nothing more than images on the screen and how you react to them isn't any different than if this was a platforming game with a lot of minor enemies and few bosses or something more akin to Gunstar Heroes which plays it relatively closer to what we deem as "standard" for the action game genre.

Alien Soldier is Treasure's most focused and well-directed title and definitely one of their best. As a bonus even at $9 it's still several times cheaper than the actual cart(though you have another option with the import-PS2 Treasure Box collection). I think that's a fair price for a classic.

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