Robo Aleste (Sega CD) review
"With the line sharply drawn between Motonari's alliance of evil and Nobunaga's force of... good?... Compile has infused a driving theme into their 12-stage epic. Each episode, whether it's a rain-streaked flight above placid farmland or a harrowing weave through rocky canyons (as warships take aim from the river below), feels like it's important because each boss has his own unique face and historical personality."
The Legend of Kage
In the year 1543, a Portuguese vessel beached on the shore of Kyushu. This foreign ship introduced Western firearms to Japan's feudal society, and greedy warlords were quick to plunder -- and replicate -- this new technology.
That much is true.
This technology included elaborate schematics that allowed feudal Japanese leaders (like Samurai Warriors Kenshin Uesugi and Shingen Takeda) to manufacture steam-powered mobile suits and assemble immense fleets of war zeppelins. Other popular weapons included "trains armed with rotary turrets", "flying mechanical centipedes", and "throbbing fire-spitting Satan heads".
From a historical perspective, that part's a FIENDISH LIE... but this intriguing twist on truth forms the basis for Compile's daring and awesome Sega CD shooter Robo-Aleste. The hero -- elite ninja Kage -- has been entrusted with his demonic lord Nobunaga Oda's most powerful weapon: the fantastical electric mech Aleste. As part of Nobunaga's "White Fang" ninja squad, Kage's mission is to infiltrate and eliminate the anti-Oda alliance, which is led by the elderly warlord Motonari Mouri. You'd think it would be easy to kick Mouri's elderly ass, but he personally operates a screen-spanning, human-headed, steel spider.
With the line sharply drawn between Motonari's feudal junta and Nobunaga's ninja force, Compile has infused a focused theme into their 12-stage epic. Each episode, whether it's a rain-streaked flight above placid farmland or a harrowing weave through rocky canyons, feels important because each area's boss has his own unique face and historical personality. It's also nice that none of the levels are excruciatingly long, which is a problem that plagued some of Compile's other shooters.
Since it lacks dead space, Robo-Aleste presents a steady shooting challenge. Durable physically-oriented enemies, such as robotic sword-swinging samurai, are routinely contrasted against fragile projectile-oriented opponents, such as airborne shrapnel bombs. It's a nice mix of styles that kept me sweating as I played.
Some enemies can be crippled instead of eliminated. For example, Motonari Mouri's 100 PERCENT HISTORICALLY ACCURATE feudal tanks are armed with twin machine-gun turrets. In a tight pinch, it's sometimes quicker -- and safer -- to destroy the turrets but leave the tank alone, so that Kage can move on to the next opponent before it peppers the screen with glowing bullets... but if you experiment and figure out how to wipe out even the sturdiest enemies (some seem invincible at first), then you'll be rewarded with hundreds of thousands of points.
Towards this end, Kage's Aleste is capable of some heavy firepower. Four ninja-themed weapons are available, and (for once) they're all decent. Nothing pisses me off like a game with tons of weapons, but only one that's any good! Secret ninja fire bombs cover the sides, secret ninja shuriken are powerful, and the ever-popular secret ninja Giga Beam can blast through walls (which is the only way to hit sheltered opponents).
It's common for shooters to offer a variety of weapons for different situations; Robo-Aleste's innovation is the Yellow Chaser, which is a variant of Compile's popular "swirling shield weapon". Basically, it's two fireballs that swirl around in diagonal arcs, which always leaves the Aleste exposed to enemy fire. The reason the Yellow Chaser doesn't suck is because it's not really intended to be a shield: the fireballs automatically home in on nearby opponents, or they can be flung at enemies' ugly faces with a simple button press.
For comparison: while playing M.U.S.H.A., my good friend Mats grabbed THAT game's "swirling shield weapon" and flew around the screen unmolested, shouting "I'M INVINCIBLE!!!", for seven whole levels. That's really not very fun at all!
Learning to judge the distance at which the Chasers automatically attack, as well as mastering the manual launch, adds an unexpected level of depth -- ultimately, this "shield" weapon caused me to play with a more aggressive style! That's part of Robo-Aleste's charm -- players aren't allowed to settle into a casual gameplay routine.
The overall presentation doesn't follow a predictable routine, either. Even though the story revolves around Nobunaga versus the Evil Alliance, there's one detail I didn't mention before: heroic Kage has a jealous, power-hungry brother named Kurogane (voiced by the legendary Akira Kamiya in the Japanese version). Every great epic needs a ruthlessly psychotic villain!
Whether he's impersonating Kage or gloating about having murdered hundreds of innocent peasants, Kurogane is one bad dude. In the very first level, Kurogane sets their hometown ablaze and murders their sensei just to attract Kage's attention, which gives Compile a good excuse to add robot ninjas leaping out of burning buildings.
Through the use of his aforementioned secret ninja weaponry, Kage (hopefully) manages to defeat his brother, but this just fuels Kurogane's quest for revenge... a quest that culminates in an Aleste-VS-Aleste airborne battle above a mountain of money at the Warlords' gold mine. Is it coincidence that such an ostentatious display of meaningless wealth has been chosen as the backdrop for such an emotionally charged and pivotal confrontation? No, I think not!
I can't stress enough how Robo-Aleste manages to mix tactical depth with crazy-cool style: when Kage infiltrates the Warlords' Citadel in the dead of night, sirens blare and spotlights rake the ground, the beams criss-crossing in a gorgeous display of transparency. While negotiating labyrinthine corridors and avoiding buzzsaws and laser barriers, it occurred to me: even the famous Turbo CD super-rarity Sapphire never gets this good! The elaborate mix of traps and tanks is more challenging, more stimulating, and just plain cooler than similar "scenery dodging" levels in other shooters.
Even the music is absurdly good; The Warlords' Theme consists of a round of tympanic percussion and ominous chords leading into a furious techno beat, punctuated by staccato blasts of brass. Every track is at least excellent, and many are classic. But it shouldn't really surprise anyone who's played Sylphia, Zanac Neo, or Madou Monogatari that LMS Recordings kicks ass.
After several installments on systems ranging from the MSX to the SNES, Compile reinvigorated their tired Aleste series not by adding low-grade FMV or half-assed first person sequences, but by analyzing the basics of good gameplay and providing every enemy with something vital but easily forgotten: a sense of purpose. Whether it's Yoshimoto Imagawa blatantly delivering a speech before a fierce battle, or a squadron of missile carriers subtly assembling in formations designed to trap Kage in a corner, the action feels so involved and so real that it's hard not to be smitten by Robo-Aleste.
Staff review by Zigfried (October 08, 2005)
Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.
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