I find scrolling shoot-’em-ups to be one of the most difficult genres to talk about, right up there with puzzle games. It’s a formula that has been utilized many times, and frequently the changes are very small. Most of the time, you maneuver your spaceship, unicorn, or spaceship with boxing gloves around on an automatically scrolling background until a much larger boss shows up.
I can’t say that Axelay is much different. The formula could be described as a close companion to Life Force or Abadox where it alternates between vertical and horizontal scrolling stages. Its weapon system is a little lackluster. Axelay is, by most metrics, a pretty flacid shoot-’em-up.
Except, it’s still worth experiencing if you have eyes and ears.
Continuing the theme of being unremarkable, Axelay’s story is that an evil empire is invading a peaceful planetary system and absolutely kicking its ass. But thankfully, there’s, like, this one spaceship that is really great. It alone can beat back the bad guys.
This is the storyline of approximately 80% of shoot-’em-ups. That’s a completely made-up number, but off the top of my head, I can name a few. Gradius, for example. One of my personal favorites: Raiden. Gun*Nac. They’re narratives that aren’t really worth telling, and many of them just don’t.
Axelay could have skipped this too, but it decided to do it in the same way it approaches everything in the genre: as stylishly as possible. There’s a planet that gets covered in explosions, goes dark, and is left just outlined by a corona. Someone snaps a locket shut for some reason. Who were those people? I don’t know. But that forceful snap means that it’s on.
The soundtrack immediately starts crawling into your ears and laying eggs in your tympanic cavity. However, the visuals kick into high gear in the first level.
Axelay approaches vertical stages in a novel way, and it’s one that’s really hard to describe. It uses the SNES’ mode-7 sprite scaling to give a 3D effect (update: this was done with a raster effect rather than mode-7), but it’s so difficult to really pin down what it’s trying to do. I think it’s trying to do a perspective that makes it look like you’re following the ship, but that’s not how it looks. It kind of looks like you’re flying toward the horizon. But the way they do it makes it look like the curvature of the planet is about 10 meters in front of you, and everything is affected by it.
Large enemies will actually distort toward you like they’re curling around the edge of the world. It’s like the entire game is just painted on a conveyor belt, and you’re watching the very end of it as objects roll up over the end.
I will say the effect is better on a CRT screen, but not much. It’s still really cool, and I would honestly be shocked if there was anything else like it in video games. The sort-of misty appearance of it is striking. It’s like the developers tried to create an effect, failed, and were like, “I still like the look of it.”
Axelay alternates to horizontal shooting sections that are a lot more conventional but still visually impressive. The second level is one that really sticks with me. It has you fly into an orbital colony that’s set up in an O’Neill cylinder. It’s a type of theoretical design that uses centrifugal motion to simulate gravity. You essentially fly from one end of the cylinder to the other as it rotates in the background.
It is awesome.
You see the city, the natural areas between, and there’s a part where a bridge crosses empty space. Just looking at it makes me want a game set on an O’Neill cylinder. But not like, the Citadel from Mass Effect. More like Kamurocho from Yakuza, but in space. Don’t even make the game about living in space. Just use the setting as an extra bit of visual pizazz.
And then you fight the bad robot from Robo-Cop. You know, the one that can’t take stairs but can blow away a corporate executive?
Tell your children not to walk my way
Then you get to yet another awesome city level, which I know as “Mother,” because that’s the track name of the song that plays over top. The background once again depicts a space colony, but this one is like a double-decker. Remember the Hengsha megacity in Deus Ex: Human Revolution? Apparently, that concept was already in Axelay in 1992.
However, this level isn’t as visually arresting as the second level. The music, on the other hand, is one of my favorite sounds to be processed through the SNES sound chip. The whole soundtrack is absolutely amazing. It was done by Taro Kudo, who is maybe more known for his design work in UFO: A Day in the Life or Freshly-Picked Tingle’s Rosy Rupeeland. Absolutely legendary design stuff, but when he was focused on compositions in his early days: incredible.
He had a hand in the music for Super Castlevania IV, but whether he composed the absolutely radical Theme of Simon Belmont, I couldn’t find.
The point is, Mother is a fantastic track. If you’ve got a “best of the SNES” playlist somewhere, this should be on it.
The levels after that aren’t quite as interesting, which is fine, because there are only six of them. The fifth level is on a fiery planet, and it’s kind of cool, but I guess I’m more into seeing humans live in cozy space tubes.
The gameplay is also less notable. You choose three weapons at the beginning of each level. If you take a hit, that weapon gets destroyed, which allows you to take up to three projectiles to the face before dying. However, if you collide with the environment or an enemy, you’ll be gone regardless of what you’re still packing.
The weapons are not all that interesting. The coolest design is a dual-laser thing that starts firing behind you, then curls around as you hold the button down. You can tap the fire button to keep them shooting in separate directions, which is really helpful in horizontal stages.
The problem is, they don’t feel very impactful. The lasers may as well be dish sponges, as they just kind of tickle the enemy until they explode. Even the missiles just kind of sparkle in front of enemies. And yet, despite the lack of over-the-top weaponry, there’s still a tonne of slowdown once the enemies start piling into the screen. It’s just kind of disappointing.
It’s not an entirely bad shooter, but it’s not, say, Raiden. It’s just that all of its stat points were put in graphics and audio. It’s not a very long shooter, nor is it terribly difficult (aside from the fact that there are limited continues). It’s just average, whereas the visuals and music are outstanding.
So, it’s still worth playing Axelay for the aesthetics. There’s nothing quite like it. From its somewhat bizarre take on 3D to its unforgettable soundtrack, it’s completely top-shelf. Considering how well I remember Axelay and how much I appreciate it, I feel like that goes a long way when it comes to standing out in the genre. As much as I love Raiden, I couldn’t tell you what most of the backgrounds look like or how it sounds. Hopefully, that helps emphasize just how great Axelay’s aesthetics are, if I haven’t gushed enough about them already.