Sega’s Mega Drive console — or the Genesis to those of you in the States — was a wonderful machine.
In many ways, it started the process of making gaming “cool”, and laid the groundwork for Sony’s solid efforts to make our whole form of entertainment a lot more mainstream with the first PlayStation. But more importantly, it played host to a wide variety of absolutely fantastic games.
One such title was Game Arts’ Alisia Dragoon, an unusual action game that combines elements of disparate genres to produce an extremely memorable, enjoyable and addictive game that still holds up well today.
Game Arts is primarily known today for its excellent Lunar and Grandia RPG series, but the company has turned its attention to a wide variety of game styles over the years. The company’s first game, 1985’s Thexder, was a run and gun shooter for Japanese home computers that was subsequently ported and brought West by Sierra and, later, Activision, and since that time we’ve seen Game Arts shoot ’em ups, action RPGs, card games, sports games and mech sims.
1992’s Alisia Dragoon is, in many ways, a return to Game Arts’ roots, in that it could quite reasonably be described as a run and gun game, but at the same time it provides enough interesting twists on the base formula to make it very distinctive amid what became quite a crowded genre in the 16-bit era.
It was distinctive in another way, too: developed in collaboration with anime production house Gainax, whose video game products had typically erred on the side of dating sims and visual novels, Alisia Dragoon was a break from the norm for the studio, at least when it came to software. The story and artwork, which combined both fantasy and sci-fi influences as was fashionable in Japan at the time, drew a great deal of inspiration from Hayao Miyazaki’s animated movies, particularly Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind — understandable, given that a number of Gainax’s founders had previously worked alongside Miyazaki.
In Alisia Dragoon, you take on the role of the titular heroine as she attempts to avenge her father. Mr. Dragoon, Sr. was a big deal back in his day, as he successfully sealed the villain Baldour in a cocoon and shot it in to space, but he subsequently found himself tortured to death by some rather disgruntled followers who found themselves without a big evil thing to follow. To make matters worse, Baldour’s cocoon has now crashed back to earth and its contents look rather likely to wake up and cause havoc, so naturally it’s up to Alisia to sort this whole mess out a little more conclusively than her old man did.
As was a rather common practice back in the day, Alisia Dragoon was heavily localised when it was brought West. The young anime-style sorceress of the Japanese original’s box art became a muscle-bound female gladiator straight off the cover of a heavy metal album, and the story was changed slightly so that Alisia’s father had only previously attempted to stop Baldour rather than succeeding; in the US and EU versions of Alisia Dragoon, Baldour had simply been “dormant” for a number of years before returning to Earth in his “silver star”.
The exact reasons for the localisation aren’t entirely clear — presumably the assumption that distinctly more “Western” cover art might be more universally appealing — but this isn’t a story-heavy game by any means and the changes are limited solely to the packaging, manual and limited in-game text. Alisia’s in-game sprite is clearly her Japanese incarnation, and her reliance on magic rather than brawn for combat kind of undermines the whole “gladiator” thing that the US and EU box art has going on. It ultimately doesn’t matter all that much, but it’s interesting to observe, particularly when even minor changes to Japanese games tend to incite the wrath of many Western fans today.
Alisia Dragoon’s gameplay is part shoot ’em up, part platform game, part brawler. You proceed through a linear sequence of levels from left to right, blasting enemies with Alisia’s powerful thunder magic and collecting powerups. Alisia shoots bolts of lightning in a straight line from her hands, and these can be maintained for as long as she has power remaining; they also automatically lock on to enemies so long as she is facing them. Allowing Alisia’s magic to charge up to its maximum allows her to unleash a sweeping lightning attack across the whole screen rather than in a single direction at once; this is good for clearing out weaker popcorn enemies, but isn’t always the most useful thing to do in a boss fight, where you typically need to focus on a single weak point with careful timing, so managing Alisia’s energy level is a key part of the gameplay.
Alisia is supported in combat by one of four different monsters, each of which has its own unique way of attacking. Her dragon shoots fireballs, her… weird whirly blob thing hurls itself at enemies, her griffin emits powerful blasts that damage everything on screen and her lizard shoots boomerangs. Each are useful in different circumstances, each can be powered up independently of the others, and each has its own life bar. If one of Alisia’s monsters dies, it is gone semi-permanently, though revival items are hidden in a few locations throughout the levels.
Rather than lives, Alisia has a HP bar that can be expanded by collecting the appropriate powerups. When she runs out of HP, it’s an immediate game over — though continues can be found as collectible items in a number of the stages. Continuing sends Alisia back to the beginning of the whole stage rather than simply allowing you to immediately pick up where you left off, though; this is a title very much inspired by the arcade games of the era, which were similarly unforgiving in many cases.
It works, though. This is not a game you can “brute force” your way through simply by credit-feeding — largely because said credits are in short supply! — and as such making significant progress feels like a genuine achievement. It’s relatively rare for modern games to demand that you “git gud” at them in order to see everything they have to offer; in modern triple-A games, generous checkpoints tend to pretty much guarantee you’ll get to the end with enough perseverance, while even modern arcade-style titles tend to allow the use of infinite continues.
Not so in Alisia Dragoon. If you want to see the end sequence, you’re going to have to master the game properly. And that means not everyone who plays Alisia Dragoon is going to see that ending — let alone the final stages, the final boss, or perhaps even past, say, stage 5. (Can you guess where I’m stuck at the time of writing?)
I kind of miss this; on the one hand, it’s understandable why modern games are designed the way they are — in most cases, they’re a lot longer than Alisia Dragoon is, so punishing the player harshly for making a mistake is out of the question if the creators actually want the player to experience everything they worked on — but at the same time, it’s really nice to feel a real sense of satisfaction when you finally overcome a bit that has been giving you grief for days, weeks, months, perhaps even years.
It also makes the game highly replayable; if there’s no guarantee that you’ll make it all the way through every time you play, there’s plenty of reason to revisit it every so often, just to see if you’ve still “got it”. That’s not something you can really say about a lot of modern games, which most people primarily replay for the sake of story or, in the case of modern arcade-style games such as shmups, score. Perhaps the closest modern equivalent is the pursuit of the elusive “one-credit clear”, but not everyone has enough willpower to resist using a continue when infinite credits are on offer!
Alisia Dragoon remains an enjoyable game today thanks to tight design, unusual mechanics and some strong audio-visual presentation, even keeping in mind the technical limitations of the time. It’s not Game Arts’ most well-known game, even despite critical acclaim on its original release, but it’s well worth spending some time with, even if it’s just to contemplate the magnificence of Alisia’s powerful thighs.
For those who do want to play it today, your only real option outside of emulation (which, of course, has its own legal issues that we won’t go into here) is tracking down some original Sega hardware and a copy of the game on cartridge. If you’re willing to do so, though, there’s a great game waiting for you — and then you’ll have a Mega Drive too, which is home to a variety of other top-notch games that are still worth playing in the 21st century.
Which, conveniently, we’ll be exploring in this very column in the coming weeks! How about that?
Mega Drive Essentials is an ongoing column looking back at both classics and obscure titles from 16-bit console era on Sega’s Mega Drive/Genesis platform.
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