Alpha Mission was originally an arcade cabinet, produced in 1985, before being released on the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) home console by SNK in 1987. Cribbing from the earlier shoot-’em-up mechanics of Xevious, this title is perhaps best remembered as a cartridge for shooter purists only.
Alpha Mission is a vertically scrolling shoot-’em-up with the typical science fiction flavoring of alien landscapes, starfield backdrops in space, big alien bosses, and starships sporting formidable firepower. Like Xevious, the player can fire at airborne enemies or ones affixed to the ground. The B button fires the laser that hits fellow aircraft (spacecraft?), while the A button launches missiles for fixed ground targets. The environment automatically scrolls, and the player is given free reign to fly about the entire screen.
There are twelve stages, which repeat in true arcade style toward the goal of just getting a high score, and loosely grow more difficult, beginning with new flight-tracking enemies in Area 2 and proceeding toward the eventual all-out madness of double-digit stages. The end of a level has a juicy fight with a big, bad alien boss.
Power-ups can be gained via colored letters found on the battlefield, primarily by destroying ground targets. These can provide upgrades such as increasing the strength of the laser, increasing the strength of the missiles, and enabling faster movement speed.
Along with the score, there is also an energy meter, which grows by increments of 2 each time the letter “E” is gathered. Increasing the energy meter total unlocks additional types of weapons and other options which, when can be afforded, are selected by entering a selection screen with the Select button. Examples include an eight-way shot and a short-range-but-constant flamethrower.
These elements, in and of themselves, do not necessarily comprise bad game design. A very workable, playable shooter can be formed from these components. In fact, ingredients such as power-ups and differing weapons have been combined to create some of the greatest shooters of all time. However, rather than content to introduce these items and merely tweak them closer to perfection, Alpha Mission instead tears itself off the hinges with some poor choices along the way.
Case in point: There are power-downs; in other words, not all of the gainable items are beneficial. There are items that decrease weapons power, items that decrease movement speed, and even a letter just to throw the player back to an earlier point in the level. This only makes the game less possible to enjoy, to a potentially downright irritating extent, and takes quite the imaginative stretch to defend as a good idea.
Furthermore, the mechanic for weapon selection is maddening. It can be admirable to make this a player choice, rather than simply shift the weapon as the protagonist ship passes over a power-up. But the mechanic used here is terrible: Pressing the Select button opens up a black background, onto which are pased icons for different power-up, depending on what the player can afford. There is, too, the icon of the ship itself. The player actually has to take the time to maneuver the ship over to an icon and, once over it, press Select again. The effect is not always smooth; during a boss fight, this can cause the boss to reappear. Also, pressing Select again will suddenly cancel the power-up out and return to that selection screen, which can be dubious depending on the weapon being used, since different ones use up the energy meter at different rates and may not be immediately available again. This method of choosing weaponry is slow, clunky, buggy, and just plain bad.
Alpha Mission already suffers a blow in being ported to a television setting, since vertically scrolling shooters are much more apt to their original arcade screens, oriented to provide an optimal perspective and taller screen. With so much working against it, and forcing the player to deal with a ship that begins so slowly and existing under the constant threat of downgrades (which, by the way, actually serves to discourage quickly going after power-ups, which seems outrageously philosophically counter-intuitive of shooter design), this video game is just not good. Even worse, it is not fun.
Aside from decent production values and the nifty way missiles accelerate to full speed a moment after being fired, not only is Alpha Mission graphically unimpressive, but even has some noteworthy issues. The flickering and slowdown problems in this game are atrocious. Enemies constantly blink in and out of existence, some projectiles cannot exist on-screen at the same time as others, and the slowdown happens often enough to truly be a drag. Even if some of the boss designs are interesting and the backgrounds crafted with pixel-precise skill to an extent, these potential visual treats are muddied and muffled by the display problems.
The background music is too repetitive to be considered high-quality, and the sound effects lack any sort of crunch, punch, power, gravity, or oomph. What more needs to be say? This is a video game that provides only a bland little snack for the ears, and does not manage any aural feats worth mentioning, despite the best efforts of those who composed the basic tracks. In fact, if you hate the music, you are completely out of luck, since it even plays when the game is paused.
At first glance, Alpha Mission seems like the average 8-bit shoot-’em-up with a generic premise and arcade-style gameplay. At its core, the formula presented is not completely awful. The lesson to be learned here is that execution is everything, and the execution here misses the mark. This game is not original, visionary, or innovative in any discernible way, save for maybe its stupid weapon-selection screen mechanic.
This is an example of a game where nothing about it seems great and everything about it seems to have a problem. There are worthy complaints to air about Alpha Mission. For its crimes against the shmup genre, arcade ports, and the act of gaming in general, this mess gets one and a half stars out of five.
Overall score: 1.5/5 stars.