Blissful Death: how Aleste birthed a great but oft-overlooked series

Blissful Death: Celebrating the Shoot 'em Up

Certain names in the shoot ’em up space are very well known, and even more casual fans of the genre have probably played them at one point or another. You know the kind — your Gradiuses, your R-Types, your Thunder Forces, that sort of thing.

Compile’s Aleste series occupies a curious “tier” slightly below these titles in that you’ve probably heard of it at some point, but you may not have actually played it. There are numerous reasons for this — not least of which is the series’ tendency to release for relatively obscure platforms rather than those which are primarily associated with the shoot ’em up genre — but with the advent of M2’s excellent ShotTriggers Aleste Collection for Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4, a good chunk of this excellent series is now readily available for everyone to enjoy.

So let’s take a look at where it all began — Aleste on the Sega Mark III, released in the west as Power Strike for the Sega Master System.

Aleste

Aleste was first released in Japan in early 1988, with the renamed North American and European releases following later the same year. The American version was initially only available as a mail-order title, but later it had a limited retail presence in large stores such as Toys “R” Us; the European version, meanwhile, had a standard retail release. This was likely due to the fact that the Master System gained a much greater foothold in Europe than it ever did in North America; Stateside, gamers were all about the NES for the most part.

Aleste was also ported to the MSX2 range of home computers in Japan in July of 1988, and this version featured two new stages, a gentler level of difficulty and cutscenes that helped to tell the game’s story; this version was released on the Wii’s now-defunct Virtual Console digital marketplace in Japan, but has never been available in the west.

Aleste is heavily inspired by Compile’s 1986 shoot ’em up Zanac, which featured a number of similar elements in terms of both mechanics and narrative setup. Both Zanac and Aleste feature a lone pilot facing off against a biomechanical monstrosity — a manmade supercomputer named DIA 51 in the case of Aleste — and both feature an early example of an adaptive difficulty level — more on that later.

Aleste

Both Zanac and Aleste also feature the combination of main weapon and subweapon that came to define the latter series: collecting power-ups allows the ship’s main cannon to be increased in effectiveness, improving its rate of fire, damage potential and number of bullets on screen, while numbered pickups allow for one of eight different subweapons to be used. Collecting the same number multiple times in succession upgrades the subweapon; collecting a different number, meanwhile, simply switches to a different weapon.

The subweapons are, as you might expect, well worth getting to grips with as soon as possible — and doubtless everyone will discover a particular favourite as they play. Initially, you’re provided with a directional shot which fires out in the direction you move — useful in theory, but actually quite difficult to use effectively, and not very powerful. Alternatives include a charged shot, a piercing laser, homing blasts, a rotating “barrier” projectile, wide-spreading rapid-fire wave cannons, a frontal energy shield and a “sweeping” laser that oscillates wildly from side to side as it moves up the screen.

Some of these subweapons feel obviously “better” than others — as in most shoot ’em ups, the piercing laser is particularly helpful and powerful — but all of them have their uses and provide an opportunity to develop your own playstyle, which is a lot of fun.

Aleste

The power-up items also add an interesting risk versus reward element to gameplay, since before they can be collected they need to be shot out of capsules that sit on the ground — and they they float up the screen rather than towards the player.

This means that you’ll often need to put yourself in harm’s way to collect a desired power-up — and getting overeager means that it’ll disappear off the top of the screen before you can get to it. And this is to say nothing of the sections that provide a wide variety of numbered pickups to nab, meaning you’ll need some accurate, fancy flying to ensure you grab the exact one you want. All while dodging bullets and enemies, of course.

Aleste is by no means a “bullet hell” game — largely because the poor old Master System wouldn’t be up to the job of that type of shoot ’em up — but the attack patterns can come surprisingly thick and fast at times. Some bullets can actually be destroyed by certain subweapons, so this is something you’ll need to familiarise yourself with quickly; it’s especially useful when dealing with boss attack patterns.

Aleste

As you play, the game’s difficulty level adapts, as previously noted — and in the M2 Aleste Collection you can actually see the internal hexadecimal value that determines the overall difficulty factor as you play, along with what affects it. Essentially what happens is that the difficulty increases slowly but constantly all the time you are firing, and more rapidly while you are destroying enemies or making use of higher-level power-ups.

Conversely, it will drop back down again when you lose a life, so canny players who are going for a one-credit clear but not a no-miss run can use this knowledge to their advantage, deliberately offing themselves before a particularly challenging section in order to make life a little easier. If you’re taking Aleste this seriously, you’ll also want to know when to let go of the fire button, too, because as noted, simply shooting causes the difficulty factor to steadily rise!

The limited horsepower of the Master System is actually somewhat helpful at times when it comes to the difficulty; when the screen gets a bit busy with dense enemy formations and bullet patterns, there’s often some very noticeable slowdown. It’s not enough to make the game unplayable by any means — and one gets the distinct sense that Compile didn’t “fix” this because it actually makes these sections of the game a lot more manageable. This is something we’ve seen a lot in the shoot ’em up genre over the years, after all — particularly in danmaku titles.

Aleste

On the whole, though, Aleste is not one of the more difficult shoot ’em ups out there. It’s not quite as easy as its extremely accessible Game Gear successor, which we’ll come to in due course, but it’s definitely a title that even relative newbies to the genre will be able to get to grips with fairly quickly. It does have that distinctly rigid “8-bit shooter” feel to it, which may require a bit of an adjustment for those more accustomed to 16-bit (and 16-bit-style) shoot ’em ups — but before long you’ll be blasting through all the way to DIA 51 with no trouble whatsoever. And in the meantime, you’ll have fun with some classic shooting action!

Aleste Collection is available for Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 in Japan. Pick up a physical copy from our friends at Play-Asia.

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Pete Davison
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