Robo Aleste (Sega CD) review
"Sometimes you have to look where the coal is to find the diamond. "
Sometimes you have to look where the coal is to find the diamond.
Robo Aleste is a vertical shooter of true, distinct quality, mostly unknown and unplayed, even by shooter vets with extensive and expensive collections. As common as discussions are on the merits of its spiritual brethren (M.U.S.H.A, Space Megaforce, etc), Robo's name still seldom pops up. As good as it is, Robo Aleste suffers a fate unbearable for a shooter: it was released on a Sega add-on.
To find Robo Aleste, you must wade through a massacre of FMV game corpses, the littered remains of the Sega CD's often dirt-poor library. Here is where the fewer, stern titles stand, not the least of which is Robo Aleste. Its mark in history might be scant, but its impact on the quality of the Sega CD library marks its importance as a true vindicator of the maligned lineup of Sega's peripheral system.
Immersing yourself in Robo Aleste finds you to be the pilot of a robot in an anachronistic feudal Japan. Westerners have changed the scope of war in this fictitious modification of history, as giant machines powered by steam engines have been introduced to the battling factions in Japan's torrid past. As aligned warlords rally and attack your clan, your master Nobunaga calls on you to pilot Aleste, the most powerful of his robots, to save your army from its impending destruction.
All this really means, though, is that it's a shooter. Set in historical Japan. But even though you see names like Nobunaga Oda and Imagawa, what you'll get is far from a Koei war simulation.
The settings are properly drawn, appropriately rustic vaunts through a war-riddled 16th century Japan. Mountainous terrain and a village in peril introduce you to Robo Aleste's unique shooter backdrop, and you'll soon be confronted with enemy fortifications and industrial entrenchments. Aleste really takes level design a step further, though, by imbuing its levels with excellent and challenging concepts.
River Raid-style elements see ungraving here; by the fourth, volcanic level, you'll be required as much to dodge the treacherous scenery as the enemy. This is enhanced upon again in the prison-like battle through the enemy's defenses in the eighth level, where you must dodge and weave through a series of complex and narrow walls, straining you of your skill and depriving you of your connection to the rest of the world. The snowy scape of the altitude-enhanced third level hosts an excellent and involving engagement with a train engineered for combat. You steadily battle each of its cars, killing your way to the top, realizing all the way the genius and applied excellence of Robo Aleste's design team. I love these levels, for they are some of the most brilliant I've played in a shooter.
It's the end of the levels where the game finds its weakness. The bosses, which greet you with unimpressive, slumpy appearance, lack all of the impact the game's levels strike you with. Contrasting the brilliant, fluid, and relatively complex stages, the bosses are dry and uninvolving. Several of them are designs kin to your own robot, differing in small elements and color. Others of a more imposing size are poorly animated and none of them deliver intense resistance or even interesting fire patterns. Instead, they serve as rote impediments before you eagerly move on to the next exciting level.
Robo Aleste's powerup system, while not entirely unique, is an effective and integral piece of what makes the game so excellent. Your front weapon is a needle-like shot, which at first fires very slowly and ineffectually; as you shoot non-threatening, item-dropping ships, you level up your shot as you collect the pills they drop. Even at its highest output volume, the frontal emanation is relatively weak. This is a function of the game, though, as the secondary fire is as important as the first.
Your robot flies accompanied by two orbs, which can be loaded with one of four weapons. Each weapon is assigned a color, collecting a color collects that weapon. Collect the color more than once, and you can level up the secondary weapon. Doing this, in conjunction with the empowering of your main gun, gives you a fighting chance in this difficult game.
The secondary weaponry is fine indeed. Although not original, they are standards of the game and feel as natural and as well-implemented as conceivable. The homing shot dances around your piloted mech like electrons around an atom, breaking away to attack enemies within range. Their motion is poetic and their effectiveness is deadly. The laser weapon is a broad sweeping, dream-shattering weapon of mass frontal destruction. The ninja stars cover almost the entire screen in a forward motion, spreading their destruction over the widest area possible. Robo Aleste has a weapon for all situations, and obtaining them is not always an easy task. The game requires you to balance narrow risk for powerful reward, to balance chance of death for a better chance at life.
You'll need the strong weapons. Robo Aleste is hard. Even on its easiest difficulty, it demands of you and commands you to give your every reflex and attention. Your orbs can absorb basic bullets, which can save you in the game's frequently dire situations, but that doesn't alleviate the constant concern and panic that swells as enemies are pouring in from all directions, encompassing you and raining down their intent harm.
And it rains down and fills up without ever slowing down.
Robo Aleste is a gorgeous and expertly coded game. It swells with well-drawn sprites of above-average animation (minus the DISGUSTING second boss), brimming with themed color, and it never skips or stutters. No slowdown. The levels are thematic and a bit monochrome in hue, but they are so in the stylistic way that movies like ''O Brother Where Art Thou?'' are done. They are painted with similar colors to give the levels their tones, and to separate themselves and give distinctions. The result is superb, a competent rendering of periodic Japan and an attractive game. And it's on CD, so... wait for it...
VOICE! What would a CD game be without copious amounts of visual or audile aid? A cartridge game! So, in Robo Aleste, we find a poorly acted and confusing summary of the back story, worthy of a few listens just to comprehend the time-melding tale fueling this adventure. Sharing space with this token voice over is the game's comprising of shooter-bred music. The quality is definitely beyond MIDI, warranting the jump to CD here alone. While tracks are only sometimes appropriate for the time period the rest of the game reaches for, they are all certainly of high caliber.
Robo Aleste is a game steeped in superior quality and play. It is a sublimely intense shooter, where not one moment defines it, but rather the constant barrage of focused and ingenious play mechanics snare you and encapture your attention. Were it not for the lousy boss encounters, Robo Aleste's dynamic and challenging body would have propelled it to a seat very high on my list of favorites. The bosses exist, though, and they disservice the game. Fortunately, the majority of the game is a stunning example of technique and talent in shooter design. The Sega CD might not have the roster of shooter heavyweights the Turbo CD has, but it has its champion, the proud and virile Robo Aleste.
Community review by ethereal (March 14, 2004)
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