ALESTE; a short series introduction

If there’s one genre of games that defines the arcades, it has to be the shooting games. Be it space or otherwise, the genre has been there since Computer Space and kept evolving from title to title under different developers and publishers. The simple perfection of Space Invaders is a far cry from the modern bullet hells. Before the genre essentially became just all about the bullet patterns it seems to be now, the growing period of the 80’s was purer to the form. Hudson’s Shooting Caravan games like Star Soldier and Starship Hector even had nationwide tournaments in Hudson All-Japan Caravan Festival, and had special versions of the games produced. Later on, Hudson would include Caravan mode in their games just for these events and as a legacy after the boom was over. In retrospect, you could even call Hudsons Caravan events as one of the earliest form of eSports. After all, shooting games are all about scoring, mostly.

One of the series that competed in this highly saturated genre of time was Aleste. With the 30th anniversary of the series (and an upcoming revival) I’ve decided to take a moment and have a short coverage of the series.

Aleste‘s, by all intentions, is a sequel to 1986’s Zanac, a game that was famous for its adaptive AI, fast-paced action and dynamic music that matched the pace of the game. This still keeps Zanac as one of the more interesting and unique shooting games out there, as the AI doesn’t just adapt to player’s weapons, but also to how well they are doing. Certain enemies and waves are triggered how much the player is shooting, moving, scoring and such. Considering how the game can be relenting, the AI ultimately encourages methodical approach and situation-by-situation basis gameplay that can, and often will, result in a completely different kind of playthrough each time. Bosses were also timed, and failing to defeat them would throw the player back into the stage with the penalty of higher number of enemy waves. Considering the original Zanac ran on the MSX, a machine known to have sprite and scrolling issues, it’s a game that shows that Compile was a company that knew how to code. I’d even go as far to say that at one point Compile was a company that made one of the best coded games around.

While longplays are terrible way to showcase a game as they’re often played with perfection, they are also a good way to showcase the whole game and get an idea of their overall length. The games just look easier than what they really are.

All this carried in 1988’s Aleste. To make it stand out from Zanac, parts of its weapon system was changed, but the core of AI being the player’s main opponent, both in gameplay and story, remained. The first Aleste is more or less forgotten in favour of Zanac because of this, but also because both Sega Master System and MSX versions suffer from massive amounts of flicker and slowdowns for whatever reason. Power Strike, the English title for the US and European SMS release might be something some readers might be more familiar with.

Compile set in stone how their weapon system overall works, reworking nine standard weapon types from Zanac. These include standard multi-directional shot, missiles and lasers. However, some more tactical weapons have been introduced. A Charge-shot weapon that functions as a shield directly in front of the ship before shot ranks among one of the best, which is further emphasized in a weapon that creates rolling balls around your ship. A controllable wave beam allows a more creative use of the weapon pool, and each of the eight weapons the game offers have their own use, but are all powered-up by grabbing floating P capsules. Be wary though, since the AI decides if you’ve been having an too easy time with your current set-up.

As a sidenote, Aleste is pronounced as Alesta [アレスタ] , because Japanese and English mix like crude oil and water sometimes.

Between Aleste and Aleste 2, Compile released some of their most famous titles of the time; Guardic Gaiden and Gunhed, known as The Guardian Legend on the NES and Blazing Lazers on the Turbografx-16 in the West.

Considering the shooting game genre is more or less about the constant evolution of some kind with each entry (though we see how things degrade with others), 1989’s Aleste 2 is essentially what Aleste should have been. It might be more of the same, just better. Spanning three disks, Aleste 2 is probably the best vertically scrolling shooting game on MSX, having extremely smooth scrolling for the system, a pressing soundtrack and the return of Compile’s dynamic AI system. The difficulty’s been ramped up few notches as well, with Oni and God difficulties being absolutely maddeningly impossible.

The two first Aleste games tell more or less a complete story, both justifying the AI system in-universe. Aleste sees biological computer DIA 51 rebelling against mankind and extends its tendrils across the planet in plans to destroy all life. Ray Wizn is tasked to fly in and destroy DIA 51, something he is very much determined to do after DIA 51’s rampage sends his girlfriend Yuri into hospital. It’s not Shakespeare, but gets the job done. Aleste 2 takes place twenty years later, with appearance of Vagant, an alien species intending to destroy humanity. Ray, now a ranking officer, loses his life in the initial barrage. His daughter, Ellinor steps up to opposite Vagant’s techno-biological rampage on Earth, and sees herself being transported to sub-space dimension during her fight to destroy what seems like the final boss. With a revelation of this being a trap, she breaks out back to Earth, with three months having passed there due to time dilation. After the final assault and freeing Earth, Rosa, one of Vagant generals, recognises her leader’s mistakes and thus makes peace with Earth.

Ellinor would end up being a sort of recurring character in the series. Rather than each game being a sequel of sorts, the character Ellinor Wizn, or Waizen depending on the romanization, is best thought as a recurring character in different settings apart from her each iteration, similar how Osamu Tezuka’s Star System could use the same character in different stories in a completely unrelated manner.

 

Aleste Gaiden was released two months after Aleste 2, and as the name implies, is a side-story. Released in Disc Station Special magazine, this minigame sees the return of Ray in a cybernetic ninja armour, aiming to defeat DIA 51 in a post-apocalyptic setting. The game’s intention was to create the vertical shooting game with the character walking on the ground. Obstacles must be walked around and crevices need to be jumped over.

The title’s shorter, easily beaten in half the time the two previous games, and simpler in terms of weaponry and overall design, limiting the weapon options stage count. It’s more a curiosity, if we’re completely honest, probably the weakest entry in the series. However, its take on the visual design and robotic armours was the launch point of Compile’s most famous Aleste title aftewards, as well as for a whole series of games using the said robots over fighters.

 

 

Toaplan published Compile’s Musha Aleste in 1990 for the Sega Mega Drive and it has been considered a system classic and as one of the best shooting games to date, especially if you believe Classic Game Room. Musha Aleste started out as a project to port Aleste 2 to the MD, but at some point during the development they went into a completely new direction, meaning classic Aleste was more or less abandoned. Taking place in an alternative timeline in Tenryaku 91, the game’s setting is Ellinor jumping into her giant robot to take down the supercomputer Dire 51. We see her squad being taken down in the first seconds of the game, leaving her as the only one to tackle the enemy. Much like with Aleste Gaiden, Musha Aleste drops the standard formula with Compile’s weapons and opts for three sub-weapons of bombs, lasers and rotating balls. Emphasize on supplementary firepower from options named Arms is given, as as the player can change how they function on the fly. They can rotate the player, fix them into a position or fly around the screen with auto-shot enabled.

While a much smaller game in scale compared to previous full-fledged Aleste titles, Musha Aleste comps this by being extremely fast-paced and having overall great design. It’s not balls to the walls punishing in difficulty either, being optimised for a more relaxed play session. This makes Musha Aleste a title that’s easy to get into and have a blast with. Ellinor’s rounder, more comical design was also first used in Musha Aleste, and she’d retain the look throughout the classic series.

 

Galvanic Gunner Aleste hit the Game Gear in 1991, and takes the series back to its fighter roots. Between this Compile had done another semi-fantasy shooting game with NAXAT, Seireisenshi Spriggan, for the PC-Engine, which was essentially Musha Aleste 2 in design and play. Ellinor has become the series’ main character by this point, whichever kind of setting the game happens to take in. The standard weapon set returns with a vengeance GG Aleste and the game doesn’t stray too far from the comfortable framing the series is known for. However, it is somewhat hampered by the small screen, though this is made up for by the fact that the Game Gear’s screen is in colour. Its chunky graphics are guaranteed Game Gear quality, as everything was designed visibility in mind above all else. The game is still damn nice to play, and is one of the better games in the Game Gear library alongside other Aleste titles.

The music is rather tinny, but that’s expected of Game Gear. The compositions suffer also from sound effects constantly overriding instruments. The composer, KG Takeuchi, would later revisit the Area 1 track with a brand new “reproduction” on his Youtube channel.

The story of the game stands apart from the rest of the series as it has no connection to any of the previous games. Within the game’s story, Integrated Earth State expands towards space for the first time, but is challenged by an alien force calling themselves as Moon Child. This alien force attacks I.E.S., destroying their Space Defence Force and conquering Earth. Few of the surviving members of the SDF escaped to a satellite and finished building GG Aleste, a specialised fighter spearheaded by Seft Waizen. Seft’s granddaughter Ellinor would become its pilot. As SDF members succumbed to despair, Ellinor blasted off to reclaim Earth from Moon Child.

 

Super Aleste is the series’ only entry on the SNES, as Compile seemed to be comfortable with Mega Drive after Puyo Puyo became their greatest hit and Sega opted to publish load of their games. Known as Space Megaforce in the West, Super Aleste is removed from the other games in setting. A gigantic spaceship named Sphere attacks Earth. Earth’s only and last hope are Raz, the pilot of the fighter, and Thi, Sphere’s mysterious ex-prisoner with psychic powers. The manual goes deeper how all ships, including Aleste, were shot down. Raz however survives (hence the cover) and frees Thi, who uses her powers to repair and enhance the ship. Not that you’d know much about this, the Western release cut all of the scenes out with some extra stuff from the Options menu as well. It is very de-Japanised. The Cutting Room Floor has an entry on the game. If you’ve noticed that I haven’t mentioned the AI for some time, that’s because Compile more or less dropped it and concentrated on designing the enemy waves in a traditional way. Nevertheless, there’s something sombre and relaxing about the game, especially for a 1992 title, which allows the player to zone in in a relaxed manner, even during the more hectic moments.

This design shows itself in the game, as it is pretty much the opposite of Musha Aleste. It’s slower, more methodical but in no way just has you sit doing nothing. Weapon options have been increased and all weapons have more than one fire mode, making tackling the stages more interesting with each playthrough. It is also much longer game, taking about an hour to beat, but there’s a Short Mode that is only four stages long. There are multiple difficulty levels, each with their own endings. The SNES was never the go-to machine for shooting games, but Super Aleste should sate that craving more than the more famous titles like Axelay.

The music is pretty stellar overall, mixing things a lot more than you’d expect. KG Takeuchi also revisited Super Aleste‘s first stage, the Amazon, with a reproduction track.

If you ever wanted to play as one of Nobunaga’s ninjas, 1992’s Dennin Aleste has you covered. Hitting the Mega-CD the same year Super Aleste hit SNES, Dennin Aleste follows in the same steps as Musha Aleste and Spriggan, effectively solidifying Compile thematic split between historical fantasy with robots and futuristic shooting games when it came to the series. As usual, the game was renamed as Robo Aleste in the West. The player character Kagerou pilots the titular Electric Ninja Aleste in order to defeat Astaroth, the mysterious shadow figure controlling the rest of the warlords warring against Nobunaga. The game has a four-minute intro that covers the whole setting, if you’re interested in alternative history. The idea of Japanese craftsmen being able to build eight-meter tall robots powered by steam engines based on Western weapons technology is one of the more believable things in it.

The overall system is lifted from Musha Aleste, with an additional weapon thrown in, clocking the special systems at four. A charging mechanic was introduced to the game, where you have to stop shooting for a time to charge ARM units, though how useful that ended up being is up to question due to the raised difficulty ceiling, where it’s more beneficial to keep shooting rather than charge. The game is also fast but lacks polish compared to the previous entries. It’s also slower compared to Musha, and as usual for Mega-CD titles, has large amounts of cutscenes to tell the story. A sequel was planned but ultimately abandoned due to the declining sales.

1993 saw GG Aleste II, which held the title of being the series’ swansong until M2 decided to revive the franchise with GG Aleste 3 and Aleste Branch. It went under the name Power Strike II when released in the Western market, confusingly enough. While the game doesn’t exactly offer anything new in terms of Aleste or shooting game standards, it is an improvement in every regard over the previous Game Gear title, with much better sprite work and sound. The graphics are still a bit chunky, but much more defined and varied. Bonus Stages turn the game into a clone of Space Harrier in a limited capacity. These pseudo-3D stages are a fun distraction at first, but after multiple playthroughs tends to drag down the pacing a little bit.

GG Aleste II allows the player to choose his special weapon at the start, making it slightly easier to start as you have some kind of power-up from the get-go. This would also carry to the Power Strike II released in the same year for Master System. The game is on the easier side, especially when using Neo Napalm as it also erases enemy shots, but the game’s quality overall shoots it at the top of Game Gear shooting games, which also explains why you’d need to sell one of your lungs to afford it.

As for the game’s events, following GG Aleste‘s events, the Earth Joint Forces decided to employ the use of military satellites, of which ALG-45, codename Algo, was considered to be most powerful. However, an unforeseen accident caused an alien parasite to attach itself to Algo and took its systems over. It grew for a time to gain concepts for breeding and destruction, which lead it to separate multiple cells of itself, threatening the Earth. At the same time, Lance Bird, the second model of GG Aleste ships, was being tested by lieutenant Alice Pfeiffer Waizen, a cousin to Ellinor. As reports of the berserk satellite flood into the ship’s systems, Alice ignored the test crews pleas and blasted to face the enemy. You get to see the crew in the ending scene.

 

Despite not being an Aleste game, Compile was employed to make a sequel to the original Power Strike in the same year as GG Aleste II. Power Strike II has nothing to do with the original game, not shares anything with GG Aleste II despite the two having the same title in the West. Released in Europe and Australia only, Power Strike II is one of Compile’s more shining moments when it comes to game design. Certainly, it has the usual Aleste elements, but also has a unique charge shot burst shot mechanic, where after a certain amount of shots the player’s ship is able to shoot a stronger burst of fire. This encourages the player to approach shooting in a more reserved manner in order to utilise the burst, which is a lifesaver in many ways.

Instead of using sci-fi space setting like all the other games employ, Power Strike II takes place in an alternative world of 1930s, in which many people turned into air piracy following The Great Depression. The player’s pilot is named Pothunter, and each stage is set up with a Wanted poster, price and all, to further illustrate the game’s framing. Pothunter’s ship is called the Falcon Flyer this time around.

As a late Master System game, the game is rather gorgeous looking and employs rather large bosses, with Stage 7 boss being longer than the screen’s height. Music composition tries its best to hype the stages, but Master System’s rather tinny sound combined with the constant sound effects doesn’t really do it much justice. It costs an arm and a leg on the aftermarket due to its limited release for PAL regions only, but it was included with Aleste Collection, marking the first time the game was released in Japan.

 

 

Jumping a bit to the future, M2 published Aleste Collection in late 2020. As per M2’s standards, the games’ ports are running without any real faults. However, the star of the pack is a brand new game; GG Aleste 3. Made to run on Game Gear hardware, the development team had some of the old Compile staff working on the game, and it shows how well the game was made. It’s not farfetched to say that GG Aleste 3 looks and sounds the best the series has ever looked, trading the previous GG titles’ chunkiness into sleek, detailed sprites with intricate yet clear designs. While some slowdowns exist, these can be disabled in the menu by turning Slowdown/Wait OFF. This gives the game an impressively smooth and aggressive pace, especially on the harder difficulties. While GG Aleste II was the best shooting game on the Game Gear, GG Aleste 3 can compete as one of the series best overall. Its polish is simply superb.

The game’s story finds Luna Waizen piloting the latest iteration of the GG Aleste series of fighters against a terrorist organisation calling themselves as Moon Child. In mere hours they managed to hack and overtake all the military power Earth’s satellites held, Luna launches off from Earth Orbital Army Lunar Defense Corps’ last satellite as it was taken over, challenging Moon Child’s terrorism.

While sources claim that the game was released on a limited Game Gear cartridge, this isn’t the case. A limited number of special Game Gear Micro consoles was produced that held the same titles as the Aleste Collection itself. While playing on Game Gear Micro is a novelty at best due to its extremely small size and cumbersome D-Pad, which reportedly goes bad very easily, all the games are surprisingly playable as they were originally designed to be played on a portable device.

Aleste Collection itself was published for the Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4. It collects the aforementioned portable 8-bit titles into one covers; GG Aleste, GG Aleste II with the option to change it into overseas Power Strike II version, the Sega Master System Power Strike II and GG Aleste 3. Sadly, the collection is lacking in content and does emphasize the portable titles above everything else. The original Aleste is there too, but none of its sequels or spinoffs are present. Aleste Collection is ultimately a stopgap until Aleste Branch finally gets published. Nevertheless, its much more affordable to purchase the Collection than to try get each of the games’ individual carts.

 

 

While Aleste started out as a game series with fast-paced and dynamic gameplay thanks to the AI, the series ultimately dropped that element and concentrated more on the setting and story. Compile pretty much ceased developing shooting games in 1993, with part of the staff still wanting to develop shooting games moved to Raizing. Puyo Puyo had the spotlight to no end, but ultimately the constant fall of sales and changes in the market that they couldn’t keep up, Compile’s last game was on the PlayStation in 2001, Zanac X Zanac, a direct sequel to the franchise that kicked Aleste off.

Zanac X Zanac consists of two games; the port of the original and Zanac Neo, which starts with the last stage of the original and directly kicks off from there. Neo has all the then-modern takes on the genre while staying true to the core; multiple ships to choose from, an expansive arsenal of 32 weapons and extremely well-polished gameplay and visuals, and a combo scoring system. However, the genre was done by that point, and bullet hells had taken over as the genre-defining standard. The story takes place right after the first game, where the AI Zanac foresaw its destruction and moved itself to a new core, forcing the player to venture forth again to fight against it. It is much of the same as original Zanac, just more polished.

 

Compile folded in 2002, and saw the rest of their staff moving elsewhere, some putting up their own companies like Compile Heart and Milestone, while others joined Raizing, while others simply quit the industry. M2 seems to have employed some of the veterans somewhat recently, though the studio still stays very small.

Dilemma of lives vs no-lives

When we observe video games and part of what makes them challenging is the limitations put on the player while still allowing him to execute the best possible solution to the problem faced within said games. A failure to met the requirements to complete a task or a challenge in a game should lead into an undesired result of character death, which then would enforce the player to do better next time with the skills he has acquired from the said challenge.

The problem with above is that very few modern games have situations where there is no need  for evolved eye-hand coordination, and failure to overcome the situation usually results in the player being respawned early on. This is not to say that old games were diamond hard pieces that are insanely difficult to overcome, this is a rose coloured picture of the past. This is to say that these games hard harsher limitations on the player and required more intended approach than just forcing your way through. To further elaborate let’s use an example. The Flying Medusa Heads in Castlevania we’re highly irritating obstacle even thou they were relatively weak. Add a guard that compensates their weaknesses and you have a stage design that requires the player to step up their game in order to survive to the end of the level. A lost life means returning to an earlier check-point and going through it again. Same thing if you lose to the level boss in most cases. Compare this to eg. Bioshock’s stage design (for the lack of better term here) where the player is able to continue in each of those pods every time he isn’t up to the challenge. The player can do this as many times as he wants as there is no lives to force him tackle the challenge. There is a level of safety in there, if you will, where the player might lose something by losing, but not all of it. Often these pods are littered everywhere, so there’s no actual loss outside some resources.

Super Robot Pinball is a good and easy example of a game that has a harsh limitation on the player; his ability to play the game well enough. There’s three balls/ lives theå player has, and losing those means Game Over. In order to the keep playing and advancing at the same time the player needs to overcome new challenges whilst juggling between Missions and main tasks, ie. hitting bumpers and defeating Enemy units. Losing one balls means resetting a lot of things and cutting the score multiplier. There’s no midpoints either, and the save you make when you need to take a break vanishes as soon as you load it. There’s no holding back here; it’s do or die.

Against this we have eg. Metal Gear Rising. While a game that I do like, it holds itself back. There’s pretty high amount of checkpoints overall, but losing against an opponent mostly throws very near the losing point, and losing in a boss battle just takes you back to the closest checkpoint, which may be one phase in the boss fight. The comparison fails when we look at the game design of Rising, and that it’s far too loose in terms of stage design and enemy placement to warrant any lives. Checkpoints could be more sparse, and outside the final boss battle (including the Metal Gear), is pretty much a stage on its own, the boss battles could reset to the beginning every time the player loses.

Doom is another example of Do or Die. There’s no middle ground there. If you’re not good enough, back to the beginning and try again. This is the main reason I can’t get into modern FPS games at all. There’s Quick Saves, mid-saves and all this crap that keeps holding the game back and not coming at me at full force. I’m not surprised that younger people than me prefer online-multiplayers, because the players don’t hold themselves back at all; they’re coming at you with the intention of beating your ass down. Single player games used to be like this on the consoles and in arcades. There’s also something I frequently discussed with my friends was that while the a single-player game has one solution only, a multiplayer game’s solutions change from player to player. I can’t fault this logic, unless we argue that making a game’s AI opposition completely random would result in far more varying gameplay to the extent that human opponent can’t do. Of course, this would lead into people calling such a product either completely unfair or too easy depending how bullshit the AI randomiser could be. There is few examples of single player games that apply changes how it behaves according to the player, and the most prominent example of this by far is Zanac.

Zanac is a game designed to counter the player’s way of playing the game. Depending what weapon the player had, the game would pick up the enemy and sub-enemy types that would be able to counter the weapon. This wouldn’t happen instantly thou, as the game keeps account how many times the player ship shoots. With certain amounts the game lifts the difficulty a bit, and changes the enemy type to go with. The variety of weaponry thus forces balancing and managing shooting, changing weapons and pacifistic approach. Zanac and it’s sequel Zanac X Zanac are a rare species where the player can play extensive meta-game with the AI system if they are able get in-depth experience and information. Otherwise, the game will become quite challenging to those who mainly just stick with their favourite guns and go out in a blazing glory. While it would be possible to repeat every game in a similar fashion, the human variable here changes the game elements to a large extent. This kind of player-dependant challenge is not really seen in many genres outside shooting games, and even then only few of them use this sort of ranking system. In modern games only Cave seems to incorporate ranking systems in variety of successes in their products.

What I see as the largest difference between the game design is that perhaps the core itself is yet to mature. During the haydays of arcade every new machine had something new and tried to take away the thunder of their competition. There was a huge amount of evolution in two dimensional game design during the 80’s and early 90’s. With the advent of 3D game design, it too began to go through multiple evolutions… to a point. It could be argued that the three dimensional game design is yet to achieve certain point. To illustrate this with Zelda, compare the amount of active playing the player does in most 2D Zeldas, especially with Zelda 1 and 2, in comparison to 3D Zeldas. There is a lot of empty and non-active playing in Zelda, from riding Epona through an empty field of absolutely nothing to do outside one or two enemies or secrets to find in comparison to Zelda 1’s fields with loads of enemies and secrets in almost every screen. If two people spent an hour with Ocarina of Time and The Legend of Zelda respectively, the amount of active playing would be higher with the one playing The Legend of Zelda.

Of course, this applies very much to console gaming, as PC gaming has been more lax in this regard. This is but one difference between PC, arcade and console gaming and we should embrace it more.

Single player games demand high skill in game design. Multiplayer games can be left for the player community sort it out, especially in modern online era, where balance and bug patches are easy to distribute. One player games demand from the very start meticulous approach in order to get it right, as the player skill against the computer will be taken into account. An enjoyable game offers a fair challenge, but also manages to make your blood boil and give you an adrenaline rush, be it single player or not. While there are those who see that lives are just an old relic from the arcade days, not using them in a smart way has been more damaging to the overall game design than not using them at all.

It would be sad to hear that with modern gaming no player tries to find multiple solutions to a challenge without outside influence. There are always multiple ways to tackle a challenge in games, if it’s properly designed.