Compile are best known as the creators of the evergreen Puyo Puyo series, a franchise that began as a spin-off of their Japan-only Madou Monogatari series of (mostly) dungeon-crawling RPGs and gone on to weather just about all the ups and downs gaming can throw at it – not just surviving the demise of Compile itself in 2003, but arguably becoming stronger than ever, if Sega’s most recent quirky collaboration, Puyo Puyo Tetris 2, is anything to go by. But there was always another side to Compile far away from squishy puyos, colourful mazes and magic; a world of sleek spaceships and nonstop arcade-like vertical shmup action – the world of Aleste.
The Aleste series debuted on Sega’s Master System back in 1988 and was surprisingly released in all three major territories in the same year, although the US version was apparently mail order only in the beginning (as if being a Master System game in the land of the NES wasn’t difficult enough already). It reviewed and sold well enough to justify the release of a rebalanced and slightly expanded Japan-exclusive version of the same game for the MSX2 range of home computers just a few months later, which was swiftly followed on the same format in 1989 by the impossibly cool Aleste Gaiden (we enjoy shiny shmup ships as much as anyone, but who wouldn’t want to see them replaced by a heavily armoured futuristic ninja every now and then?) with the impressively bio-mechanical styled Aleste II coming out just a few months after that. Over thirty years on those games still remain out of reach for many of those outside Japan who fell in love with the first game, the games currently unavailable to purchase even on region-locked digital stores – and are disappointingly absent from Aleste’s very own M2 Shot Triggers collection.
But at least those titles have the decency of being plain old virtually unattainable, which is at least easier to understand than the confusing mess of ever-changing and unrelated names that followed for international fans of Aleste, ahem, Power Strike. In Japan, you’d know you were buying an Aleste game because it would have “Aleste” written somewhere on the front of the box – really, it was that simple. The rest of the world was not so lucky.
The original Aleste was released everywhere else as Power Strike, and from that starting point US (and only US) fans skip the three MSX games we mentioned earlier and get to play the excellent Mega Drive title M.U.S.H.A. (if you were wondering, that’s a backronym: Metallic Uniframe Super Hybrid Armour) in 1990, a renamed version of Musha Aleste – not the biggest change in here by any means, but still a notable break that gives potential players no hint at all that the game is related to either the Power Strike they may have previously enjoyed on Sega’s 8-bit console or the import delights of Aleste. Sadly, this version never saw release in Europe, although it was a firm favourite in its Japanese form with importers in that region.
After that, English shmuppers everywhere skipped another game – GG Aleste on the Game Gear (the “GG” in the title stands for “Galvanic Gunner” rather than “Game Gear”) and the next title we come to is 1992’s SNES shmup Super Aleste, which finally brings European Power Strike fans back into the fold after four years and five games away, and technically gives them their first honest-to-goodness Aleste game too – the title staying exactly the same as the Japanese original for the first time ever. Sadly, those trying to keep up on the other side of the Atlantic had to hunt down a copy of the unintuitively named Space Megaforce this time around – as if following the series wasn’t already hard enough at this point.
The worst part is there was no need for this constantly-shifting jumble of words: the Mega CD entry Dennin Aleste released the same year in Japan as Super Ales- Super Power St- sorry, Space Megaforce, and has the honour of being the first and only game in the series to keep the Aleste part of its name in all regions, even if the intimidatingly foreign-sounding Japanese word in the title, “Dennin”, was swapped out for the foreign-sounding Czech-derived word, “Robo”. It’s just a shame it was a follow-up to Musha Aleste, a game one region didn’t get and the other did but had no real reason to assume was related to a Mega Drive shmup with a completely different name (being on the Mega – or Sega – CD didn’t help matters either).
If we untangle ourselves from this unwieldy knot of names we arrive in 1993 and what would, until just last week, be the final entries in the series until its grand revival via GG Aleste 3‘s inclusion on the Aleste Collection. 1993 was the year Aleste’s overseas titling was finally put right… well, things finally made a tiny bit of sense… well, were confusing in a different way. This was the year Europeans (sorry, dedicated American fans) were finally able to buy an official and exclusive Master System sequel to Power Strike called… Power Strike II, designed from the ground up to specifically be “Power Strike II” (and now officially recognised as an Aleste game thanks to the new collection) as well as… Power Strike II, which is actually a renamed version of the fantastic Game Gear shmup GG Aleste II and not really anything to do with Power Strike or Power Strike II (the other one) at all. Confused yet?
At the end of that busy five-year span we’ve seen ten Aleste games released across six different formats (although oddly enough never anything for NEC’s famously shmup-friendly PC Engine) – a tall order to keep up with even if you were living in Japan and lucky enough to already have all the hardware sitting at home at the time, and extremely difficult in different ways for everyone else. It’s a good thing the wizards at M2 have given us a break of almost three decades between GG Aleste II and GG Aleste 3, otherwise we’d never have found the time to catch up.
For all the trouble the disjointed releases caused overseas, at least there’s no doubt they’re worth the effort of tracking down: Aleste was a tightly designed and boundary-pushing series from the start, and from that high point on the series was always just that little bit slicker and smoother than the competition. For a series that had so many entries on so many formats in such a short space of time, it’s astonishing how unique they all feel and how well-tuned they are to their host hardware’s strengths, from Super Aleste’s spectacular Mode 7 level, where the entire stage seamlessly rotates and scales as you play, to Power Strike II’s (that’s Master System Power Strike II) satisfying yet simple Super Burst mechanic, GG Aleste II’s zippy into-the-screen bonus rounds and Aleste Gaiden’s hole-hopping ninja – never seen before or since – they all have a fresh twist or a new idea to offer long-term Aleste players or general shmup enthusiasts alike.
These games are just as visually innovative too, the more naturalistic rivers and forests of the very early Aleste games – where harsh metal structures may be covered in alien vines or hiding bosses that are mostly eyeballs – giving way to the techno-Japan vibe of the 16-bit Sega titles, all floating tiled-roof fortresses and traditional Noh masks repurposed into metallic enemies, the constant shifts in style and gameplay meaning that even if someone was to binge-play the whole lot in a row it’d still feel as bright and inventive as any shmup series could ever hope to be.
Even if you choose to ignore their inventive one-shot ideas and wide range of unusual firepower, the Aleste series remains an excellent example of a genre famed and feared for its demanding action and unforgiving difficulty, and for all their many differences there’s still a cohesiveness to the series; an intangible feel that unites them even if on paper they appear to be worlds apart. Specific shot types may come and go (as does the ability to manually switch between types of types, as in Super Aleste, at will) but they always fall into similar roles, always giving players the opportunity to pick up some sort of generic all-rounder, a defensively orbiting helper, powerful lasers, or a homing attack.
The same thinking applies to how they’re collected and powered up too: Maybe this game the pickup icons slowly rotate through all the available choices as they lazily make their way down the screen or shoot away at high speed when released from their ground-based starting points, but they always leave you asking the same questions even under wildly different circumstances – do you want to take the chance to switch to the directional shot that lets you cleanly pick off the upcoming turrets sitting on the sides, or would you be better off with a defensive barrier to absorb some bullets? You’re almost at the boss, do you switch to high-power lasers and try to make it through the tricky swarms preceding it, or do you play it safe and rely on your weaker homing shots and own ability to dodge the inevitable hail of bullets?
While they aren’t as famous or as glamorous as some of their arcade-born cousins, there’s a clear approach to style and design underpinning Compile’s shmups that extends both forwards and backwards from Aleste, running from at least 1986’s Guardic (MSX) all the way through to Compile’s final 2001 release Zanac X Zanac (PlayStation) – it’s a certain texture that seeps into everything from the general pace of the games to the way the weapons on offer interact with the offensive forces heading your way and can even be found in smaller but equally important touches, such as the way the little power-up capsules in Compile’s Rude Breaker (PC-98) arc towards you in exactly the same way they do in Musha Aleste.
Of course, with the exception of GG Aleste 3, these games are at best twenty-seven years old, and going back to them today makes it very clear just how much the genre has changed over the decades. Vertical shmups are now almost exclusively thrilling “bullet hell”-style challenges, players doused in wave after wave of hypnotic curtain fire and expected to weave their tiny hitboxes way through largely predetermined “set piece” patterns, none of which does screenshots of Aleste’s “Five bullets at a time, maybe” approach to the genre much good.
The key difference is just about every bullet you ever face in Aleste is going to be heading straight for you, turning what by modern shmup standards would be considered a mostly clear screen into deadly assaults by vicious little enemies that always seem to either move too fast or conversely hang around too long for comfort. They’re a challenging but not unfair line of shmups, all of them beautifully polished and consistently punching above their weight – and this was a developer that did shmups on the side, a total genre shift when they happened to be in the mood, rather than a company that dedicated themselves to shmupping and nothing else – and they still turned in a string of incredible classics fondly remembered and now officially celebrated decades later, a whirlwind of creativity capable of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the genre’s very best. Not bad for “those Puyo guys”, is it?