The SNES wasn’t known for shmups…until Axelay came along
For an incredible library that spans over all kinds of genres, the SNES is not well known for its “shmups”.
For example, Gradius III is bogged down with flicker and slow down and Super Nova and Darius Twin are the definitions of “meh”. While on the other hand, Sega had the Thunder Force series ripping it up. It was one genre that truly embodied the phrase “Genesis Does What Nintendon’t.”
However, the Genesis did not have Axelay.
Developed by Konami and released in September 1992, Axelay stands head and shoulders above several games in the shmup genre and is, without question, the best of its kind on the SNES. It’s still a fondly looked at game, as reviews for its Virtual Console re-release are still positive across the board.
And yet, Axelay did not set the charts ablaze with sales figures. It was (probably) a combination of the SNES not being a great system for this particular genre and less than two weeks prior, a little game called Super Mario Kart was released. Another factor is that Axelay was meant to be Japanese-exclusive, but was ported to the US at the last minute. Heck, a sequel was even planned.
Celebrating its 25th anniversary today, Gaming’s Undervalued Treasures is profiling a game that deserves to be called an “undervalued treasure.”
Also, fun fact: the majority of the development team went on to become the founding members of Treasure.
From a pure gameplay standpoint, Axelay is the best shmup on the SNES
Axelay’s wonderfully optimistic story is about how the planet of Corliss has faced total annihilation by the…well, Armada of Annihilation. It’s up to the lone pilot of the Axelay (aaaaad…title drop) to fight off this horde.
Taking cues from their Gradius series, Konami included a Weapon Select system into Axelay. Players can choose a primary, secondary, and a missile option.
However, from the outset not all the weapons are selectable and as the game progresses, more weapons become available. There also is not as many options as Gradius. That being said, there is not one weapon in the game that is useless. Players can also select the weapons on the fly as well and won’t have to rely on an upgrade system like other shmups.
The Round Vulcan weapon, for example, allows the ship to shoot enemies circling around the player. The missiles are fantastic for the more crowded moments in the game as well.
The controls are tight and responsive, key for any shmup, and gives the player a fighting chance. Make no mistake, Axelay is a difficult game, but not quite controller-smashing, hair-pulling, screaming-obscenities-to-make-90s-Denis-Leary-blush difficult as other games in the genre.
However, other features are quite awesome as well
Axelay utilizes the SNES’ color palette and its Mode 7 processor quite well. The tiny details on the Axelay ship, the enemies and bosses and stages are all pleasing to look at. The development team knew what they were working with, and decided to work around the SNES’ capabilities, rather than against them. The opening stages have a nice use of blue and the standout lava stage is exceptionally nice looking.
The game has both horizontal and vertical shooting stages, similar to Konami’s Life Force each with its own aesthetic. Many of the vertical levels have a sort-of-gimmicky feel to them, as it looks like you are flying over a city.
However, they are quite nice to look at and add more dimension as opposed to being some generic level. Other levels take place inside dilapidated space stations and on a planet made of lava, where the game’s most memorable boss fight takes place.
Then there’s the music. Composed by Super Castlevania IV’s Taro Kudo, Axelay’s OST is a varied one and each boss has their own theme. The first level’s track, “Unkai” is perfect to get the player ready for the action.
One of Gaming’s Undervalued Treasures
Axelay is one of Konami’s best games in the 90s and one that holds its own against other shmups of the era. It’s a shame we may never get that sequel though.
Regardless, happy 25th Axelay. A game as awesome as this one deserves a big celebration; from the quality of the gameplay, to its unique weapon system, to its overall fun nature, Axelay is one no shmup fan should ever pass up.
The game is available on both the Wii and Wii U Virtual Console, but copies on the SNES are going to be quite expensive.