I think it safe to say that the shooting genre did not get off to a great start on the SNES. Don’t get me wrong there were many great games in that initial batch. However you also had to deal with some terrible slowdown that really did not show the system in a positive light. Gradius III was probably my favorite early Super Nintendo shooter and that was probably the worst with its technical issues. Little did we know that Konami would return less than a year later with probably the best overall shmup for the system, Axelay. I would even go so far as to say it is one of the best of that generation. This truly is an amazing game.
Rather than mimicking their own Gradius power-up system Konami tried something different. There are no power-ups; you begin each level with whatever weapons selected and can freely switch at any time. Your choices are broken down into three categories: primary, secondary, and missiles. The system expands after each stage as new weapons are added but sadly the full chart isn’t unlocked until the final level.
The primary weapons are relatively straightforward. The straight laser is exactly what the name implies although it resembles a fireball more than laser. The Needle Cracker is a series of smaller lasers that track targets. The Wind laser lets off a huge blast of four lasers across the screen. The secondary weapons are more interesting and require some nuance. The Round Vulcan sprays a series of bullets that rotate from the front to the back of your ship. This is more effective in the horizontally scrolling levels. The Morning Star creates a shield of bullets around the ship that slowly rotate and expand. It’s my least favorite but that’s because I didn’t have the patience to master it. Missiles are only supplementary and lack power but do possess burst damage capabilities in the right situation.
Even the way death is handled is a bit different. A single hit does not equal death; instead your current weapons becomes unavailable. You basically have a four hit life bar although each hit makes you weaker in return. Flying into the environment and crashing into the stronger enemies still results in instant death so the system isn’t too kid friendly.
As much as it tries to distance itself from their other work Axelay does have a few things in common with Life Force. The six stages alternate between horizontal and vertical scrolling and the game is equally adept at both. The first thing you’ll notice about the game is its viewpoint. The forward scrolling levels use a rolling Mode 7 effect that stretches the terrain to simulate a wider playing field. Its disorienting to look at and certainly unique. The pseudo 3d effect can be confusing in that it can be hard to judge whether you’ve completed dodged a wall or pile of flame due to the viewpoint. But these moments are rare and the effect is great overall. The side scrolling levels are less techy design wise but more solid in terms of control and mechanics.
Regardless of its alternating viewpoints there’s an element of spectacle present in Axelay that few shooters match. Every new level is truly distinct, bringing new enemies that require alternating your weapons. There is an element of strategy to using the right weapon that proceeds to mow down every enemy in sight and create a brief moment of respite that is incredibly satisfying. While the level themes are your typical fare their design elevates them over similar titles, especially with that camera angle. Who can forget the massive serpents that dive in and out of the lava in stage 5 or the ED 209 style boss of level 2? Konami were no stranger to the genre yet they really pulled out all the stops. Axelay is a console exclusive that easily competes with the arcade games of the time.
The insane production values I just mentioned warrant further attention. I’ve already mentioned the fake 3d effect however it would mean nothing without great art direction. The game’s somber color palette meshes well with the manmade environments. The initial sortie in the clouds is followed up by an assault on an enemy base, navigating a metal maze above a neon city at night and probably my favorite fire themed level of all time. The effects don’t stop with Mode 7 as transparency and multiple layers of scrolling are in abundance. I could keep going and I haven’t even mentioned the fantastic bosses. All of this visual splendor is backed up by a rousing score and perfect speech samples.
I found the difficulty to be almost perfectly balanced. Since you only lose the currently selected weapon when hit it is pretty hard to die unless you outright ram into one of the stronger enemies. Four hits until death was not very common for shooters and allows room to make mistakes. Despite that it’s no less soul crushing to lose a favorite weapon since it isn’t coming back until you either die or complete the stage. There’s a huge emphasis on choosing the right weapon load out for a given stage and while it is harder if you choose wrong it isn’t insurmountable.
My only problem if you can even call it that is the length; I want more! Axelay is so good and each level is so imaginative and different from the previous that it absolutely begs for more. The six stages present are all absolutely and if there were just one or two more this would be a classic. I liked the game so much that I even went through it again on hard mode. The secret ending that teased a sequel that never came to fruition makes hurts that much worse.
Axelay is my favorite shooter for the SNES and one of the best games in the genre. Compared to the PC Engine and Genesis there were a dearth of games in the genre for the system. However the truly exceptional ones were some of the best overall with Axelay standing near the top. Konami were on fire with the SNES and this was another notch in their belt. Don’t pass this up.