SNK is primarily known for its fighting games these days, but in its earlier years it was known for a number of solid (and influential) shoot ’em ups.
While Alpha Mission (also known as ASO: Armored Scrum Object in Japan) isn’t the company’s first shoot ’em up by any means, it is an important one and forms the first in a loose “trilogy” of titles that we’ll explore over the course of the next few articles.
Drawing inspiration from Western RPGs, of all things, this is a fun but challenging vertically scrolling shoot ’em up that any fan of the genre owes it to themselves to become intimately acquainted with.
Alpha Mission sees you piloting a ship called SYD (presumably HAR0LD, JYM, B3RT and the other spaceships from the local Real Ale Society were unavailable) through a series of perilous environments in an attempt to… uh… it’s not really all that clear, actually. But let’s face it, this is a 1980s shoot ’em up so all the “plot” that was really needed to justify a bit of quarter-pumping action was “these are bad things and your spaceship needs to shoot them”, and indeed that is pretty much all we get in terms of setup for Alpha Mission.
Your mission will take you over several space stations, each of which appears to be being attacked by swarms of enemy forces and a large boss at the end of each stretch. Naturally, it is your job to blow everything up, whether it is in the “air” (in which case lasers will do the job) or on the surface of the space station (in which case you’ll need to use missiles). Lasers have decent range on them; missiles are affected by “gravity” of sorts (despite the fact we’re in space), so they hit the “ground” after a short period. However, this isn’t Xevious; you don’t need to line up a specific bomb sight with a ground target to hit it, simply ensure that your missile makes contact with it before it expires.
So far so conventional. And indeed, Alpha Mission would have been a perfectly serviceable if unremarkable vertical shooter if it had stopped there. But oh no, it didn’t stop there, not by a long shot, and that’s what makes it such an interesting and noteworthy game to play, even today.
Drawing inspiration from Western role-playing games (we’re talking the year before Dragon Quest hit an unsuspecting Japan, here) the team at SNK decided that they wanted to incorporate some sort of “progression” system that would allow the player to increase in power as the game went on. And what they ended up creating is a lot more complex and interesting than many power-up systems that would show up in subsequent shoot ’em ups even years later!
There are several main components to Alpha Mission’s progression. Firstly, you can upgrade the speed of your craft, the power of your lasers and/or the power of your missiles by collecting three power-ups marked with S, L and/or M respectively. Normally, these upgrades will be completely lost if you lose a life, but if you collect a K (for “keep”) tile of the appropriate colour (blue for speed, yellow for laser, red for missiles) you’ll maintain that particular level of upgrade when your next life starts.
Interestingly, there are also negative power-ups (or power-downs, I guess?) marked in a brown colour with mirrored text in some cases; these generally have the opposite effect to their more colourful positive counterparts, though the particularly unpleasant and unique “C” (cancel) tile causes you to lose all energy, parts and “K” tiles previously collected. Avoid at all costs!
The second key part of the progression mechanic is the energy system. This comes in the form of a meter at the bottom of the screen that starts out empty. It can be filled by collecting power-ups with an E marking; blue ones add one unit, yellow add four and red add eight. You can also collect “V” (“voltage”) power-ups to increase your maximum energy level; this begins at 16 and can be increased up to 24 with these tiles.
Energy is used to power one of eight different “armour” kits that can be collected. Initially, you start with a couple of these stocked, and further parts are concealed throughout each stage. Three pieces of the same type must be collected to stock a particular armour; if you collect one that doesn’t “match”, you’ll lose your progress towards that particular type.
Armour types include an 8-way shot, a protective barrier, various upgrades to missiles and lasers that go well beyond what the letter tiles offer, and a devastating “Thunder” weapon that can decimate even bosses in a single hit. Each armour requires the energy meter to be charged into at least the “yellow” section to use, and each consumes energy at a different rate both through firing and absorbing enemy fire. Once your energy expires from using a particular armour type, you’ll need to collect all three parts again before you can use it once more — but remember you can stock up on the other types.
The armour system is really interesting, because it provides you with situational, at-will power-ups that can be triggered according to the challenges you find in front of you, and each feels like a significant, meaningful upgrade. There are definitely “best” times to use each type of armour, and part of learning your way through the game involves figuring these out as much as memorising enemy patterns.
Alpha Mission is a well-presented game, with satisfying FM sound effects and an anime-inspired soundtrack. Supposedly composer Hiroshi Tsuji wanted the entire game’s music to consist of one long drum solo, but this idea was, regrettably, vetoed by the rest of his team; the original prototype track is, however, supposedly still accessible through the game’s debug menu if you’re able to get to that.
A year after its arcade release, Alpha Mission got a port to Famicom, and this subsequently came West in 1987. This version is remarkably true to the arcade original in terms of execution — though it unfolds in 4:3 aspect ratio rather than the vertical orientation of the arcade original. The power-up system is fully intact — albeit without quite as much on-screen visual feedback due to the Famicom/NES’ limitations — and in some respects, the armour system is handled in a more player-friendly manner. Rather than having to select which armour you would like to activate at the same time as moving your ship, the home port features a “subscreen” from which you can pick any of the armours you have collected the pieces for and activate them at will.
The home port also features a secret level that you can access after defeating the area 12 boss particularly quickly — usually through use of the powerful Thunder armour. Normally, the game ends after this last area (which is actually the end of a second loop around the game with harder versions of the bosses) but the secret “Area 13” features a boss rush to truly challenge yourself. This was just one of many examples of SNK incorporating additional features into home ports of their games — the ones where they handled the ports themselves, anyway.
Is Alpha Mission still worth playing today? Absolutely. It’s a really solid example of a mid-80s shoot ’em up, and its unique power-up and armour system gives it a very distinctive feel from its contemporaries. Both its arcade and home incarnations are worth exploring in their own right, as the simple change in screen aspect ratio makes for a markedly different look and feel for the whole experience — plus there’s the tweaks to the mechanics and the secret level in the home port to look out for, too.
Alpha Mission was followed up by Bermuda Triangle and World Wars, which we’ll be looking at soon — and it got a numbered sequel much later in the Neo Geo days. But that’s a story for another day!
Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
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