Innovation from cult status

It has been some time since we got any news on Aleste Branch, a new Aleste game developed by M2, the developer responsible for loads of Sega AGES titles. The game was announced in 2018 and later we learned its proper title. I did a series introduction to celebrate the 30th anniversary, but even after we got some press events and the very first screenshot in a German gaming magazine/site (translations do exist), after that nada. Aleste Branch has been under development for around two years, but the sheer lack of information is enticing. Considerin M2’s Highma Fuyuno admits that only two people are working on the game, basically, it’s no wonder there’s not much to see. Their aim to replicate early 1990s CGI look to make sprites like they were 3D sounds rather fitting, but this is something that’s been almost overdone now. Mind you, despite yours truly is waiting for this game like a moonrise, the screenshot shown does make me worried. The following screenshots look much better and knowing that this game has blood taken directly from the legacy of the series, an unnamed self-published game series as well as that of Flame Zapper Kotsujin, as the character designer developed that game, expectations are hard to keep realistic and relatively low. The game’s budget is mentioned to be on the low end due to the small size of the shooting game market nowadays, and as such the game will most likely end up using such tools as Unity rather than M2 developing their own engine for the game. This, against everything else, doesn’t bode well with me. The game certainly seems to be a work of love, yet it has to be taken down a peg or three. Despite M2 being able to make their own Mega Drive emulator for their exceedingly well made Sega ports, there just isn’t large enough markets to put that kind of development time and money into an IP that is well-loved in one of the nichest of the niche circles.

Then I have to stop myself and ask what new could they be able to bring to the table?

Games like Fight’n Rage and Streets of Rage 4 are examples of time-tested game play being polished and brought to the table. There’s not much new about them, but the sheer polish in their systems, play and mechanics are stacking about thirty tears of genre refinement on top of each other, and capable developers have made solid titles with nothing much to complain about. This isn’t the first time though, these belt-scrolling action games were so common that almost everything about them has already been explored and adding new elements ultimately ended up as gimmicks. Well, 3D games, in the end, took their slot in the limelight. Action games like Devil May Cry have their roots in these action games, and for a time, 2D was passé. Thanks to the whole retro games boom, 2D became a more respected perspective once again, but despite so many action games hit the scene and were all around, shooting games shone with their absence. It’s a genre that after the 1980’s and early 1990s effectively petered out, going from all those orthodox and methodical slow games like Gradius and R-Type to modern bullet hells DonDonPachi keeps around. Aleste is no bullet hell and would not serve those sensibilities, but it could make a balance between different styles of shooting games if it would follow Super Aleste‘s footsteps and include multiple modes of play that change how the game plays, effectively allowing the player to choose what sort of sub-genre they’d be playing. That might make the genre fans happy, but that’s it. That’s it needs to be, in the end. Better have a great niche product than a lousy general audience’s one. Rise from cult status to mainstream is often the road to take.

How much new can we bring to something that’s, to put in less diplomatic manner, used up already? Aleste Branch by its very nature is adhering to the series’ roots, with lots of promise, but that is also its limiting factor. With completely new IP M2 might’ve been able to create something new. It’s a double-edged sword; despite Aleste being very varied series, it still has core elements that carry in each game. These elements colour the series and unify their overall play. In other words, we’ve already seen the core of Aleste Branch and it didn’t survive into the new millennium of video games. Certain genres or ways to make titles in a genre die out in time. They get superseded with titles with better execution and design, more advanced technology helping in the manner. It takes time. However, consumer expectations change and the wants in the market reflect this. Shooting games aren’t in demand, most games that require that level of skill and patience have become more or less exclusive titles for the showcase players and niche audience. Part of the audience now expects games to be accessible from the get-go, that the least amount of effort is needed to see, or “experience,” all of the game. It’s not the major part of the mainstream audience though, but they sure are loud about it. As the audience has matured, getting in and out of the game has become a more valid point, something that loads of games in the arcades offered. Browser games filled this niche, then some mobile phone games. This is defeated by the dedicated platforms, however, as you can’t just flip a console or PC open anymore and boot up the game. Even consoles booting up takes time and with some time between sessions, always are stopped by the necessary updates and such. Console gaming lost its speed advantage, and portable gaming has become ever so slightly more cumbersome with the ever-increasing screen sizes. Not that we have any other than the Switch to choose from, which kinda sucks as numerous Switch games aren’t exactly the most portable friendly titles.

What’s a developer to do in order to stand out from the grey mass of games, the number of which is largest we’ve ever had on the market, and then manage to do that with a title that’s a niche to the core? Well, I guess my own mention above about first being a great cult classic would serve better. Maybe rather than introducing something new or game-changing that could be a disaster, sticking close to your guns is the path to choose in order to gain more longstanding success. It’s nice and all to go with a big bang and throw money at a game you’re developing in order to make it the best and brightest, but often that’s ends up the game going fast past and end up as a whimper.

Nevertheless, innovation drives gaming. It’s not the controllers per se, not even how games are even played, necessarily. Perhaps how to “expand” the genre to its fullest, and take the name Branch to its heart. Storylines haven’t served the genre to any notable degree, but perhaps simply offering far more game to play per buck might be a way.

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