Shooters on the SNES were usually painful affairs, full of unnecessary slowdown in a genre known for its twitch action and break neck pacing. That isn’t to say the system wasn’t capable; on the contrary, many exclusives designed specifically for it were stellar. The arcade ports were usually the games that suffered the most. Play Thunderforce 3 on Genesis and then take Thunder Spirits for a spin to see what I’m talking about. One such exclusive would go on to become not only one of the best shmups for the SNES but one of the greatest shooters of all time.
Axelay was released in 1992 by Konami. An alien force known as the Armada of Annihilation has invaded the Illis system. The citizens of the Earth like Corliss launch the D117B Axelay in a last ditch attempt to fight back. Released early on in the console’s lifespan Axelay would become one of the definitive shmups of the era with its mix of fast paced action and interesting weaponry. As an original effort it fully utilized all of the SNES’s advanced features and shamed many of the sub par shooters that stank up the system’s library at the same time. Among the pantheon of classic shooters Axelay is always ranked pretty highly, cementing its legendary status among fans.
Like Life Force, Axelay alternates between horizontal and vertical scrolling stages and is equally at home on both fronts. You get the best of both worlds in all in one complete package. The distinction between this and other shooters does not end there. The 6 levels alternate between both styles and encompasses a variety of terrain. From the overflowing lava of the Lava Planet to the neon lights of Urbanite city, for what is a modest game length wise it does a very good job of conveying a sprawling adventure. Despite the game’s length you won’t Axelay puts up a considerable challenge but at least you are suitably armed for the task at hand.
Axelay bucks the shooter trend by featuring no power-ups whatsoever. Instead you begin with all of your weapons and receive more after completing every stage. Prior to the start of any level you can choose your load out in 3 categories: Standard, special, and the type of missile. The weapon system also plays into character death. Eschewing the one hit kills of most shooters, direct hits from bullets will only disable the currently selected weapon, in essence giving you a 4 hit life bar. Collisions with enemies or the environment will still result in instant death. These welcome changes bring the at times brutal difficulty down to a more manageable level.
Regardless of the viewpoint, both the side scrolling and vertical levels have had an equal amount of attention lavished upon them. Mode 7 is used to simulate a rolling playing field on the vertical stages; at first the effect is disorienting but as you adjust it’s very effective at conveying a trek across the surface of a planet. The effects on the surface are not the only impressive elements on these levels, the bosses, gigantic mechanical monstrosities that could serve as the final boss in a number of lesser games are just as incredible. The mechanical spider of the first level sets the bar and it only escalates from there, culminating with the fight against the lava lord that also adorns the box art.
The horizontal levels aren’t as visually impressive and instead go for scale in terms of number of enemies and size of bosses. The Ed-209 boss utilizes segmented animation much like many of Treasure’s games; I wonder if any of their staff worked on this? There’s a level set against the backdrop of an advancing armada of ships, highly reminiscent of R-Type. This was released in 1992 and even towards the end of the SNES’s life there weren’t many shooters that were on the same level visually.
If there’s any one failing it’s the game’s length. At only 6 levels the more determined fans of the genre will complete this in one very long afternoon. But with effects that are still impressive today and a considerable challenge you’ll undoubtedly play through it again and again. The SNES was not home to the large varieties of shooter the Genesis and PC Engine were showered with so any game that stands out is cause for celebration and Axelay is certainly one of them.