Alpha Mission
System: NES Publisher: SNK Developer: SNK
Genre: Action Type: Space Shooter Circa: 1987
We have lift-off!...Keeping the earth safe from cuttlefish

I have always been a fan of the shoot-em-up genre of games. It amazes me just how many of these types of games exist. It seems like every time I turn around, I find another one that I had never heard of before. Before I had actually bought it, Alpha Mission was one such game. Because of previous bad experiences with SNK's early NES games, like Athena and Ikari Warriors, I almost passed this up. But the label art looked so cool, and hey, it's a shooter! Now, I have not finished Alpha Mission. I never will finish Alpha Mission. And the point of this review will be to explain, to the best of my ability, WHY I will never finish Alpha Mission.
GRAPHICS: 3.5/10
As a vertically scrolling shooter, Alpha Mission looks suspiciously similar to Namco's classic arcade game, Xevious. Although it tries to look superior, and in some ways succeeds, sometimes I think it actually looks worse! About the only two noteworthy graphics are your ship (and its various upgrades) and the bosses. You start out flying over a starfield, and then you begin to approach what I believe to be some sort of space station. It's a structure that consists of a lot of flat-looking, polygonal planes. The different levels seem to be just palette swaps of each other, and they change every 2 levels. For example, levels 1-2 consist of a green, brown, and yellow background. Levels 3-4 look exactly the same, except now it's light blue, dark blue, and grey. Levels 5-6 are white, gray, and blue, etc. The enemies, powerups, and background objects are very nondescript, uninteresting and usually monochrome. The enemies consist of flying balls (a la Xevious), missiles, cannons on the ground, little things that look like either blue bats or birds, and something that bears resemblance to a cuttlefish. The bosses are larger and more detailed than the normal enemies, but they don't really rank among the best-looking bosses I've seen in NES shooter games. They all seem to vaguely resemble some sort of animal. The level 1 boss looks like a squid. The level 2 boss is a ship that sort of resembles a fish. Level 3 has a big bug of some kind, level 4 is a snake/caterpillar-like thing, and so on. I think the best-looking graphics in the game are those of the ship and its various upgraded forms. The ship is large and detailed, and looks a little better than the ships in most other NES shooters that I've seen.
If it's big and the music changes when you get near it, chances are it's a boss...If you called this game a Xevious rip-off, I might believe you
SOUND: 2.5/10
I do not like this game's sound much at all. There's only one theme that plays for every level, and it's not very good. It's not too annoying, but it just isn't that great and I would've liked to have some more variety in the music. By comparison, the music in Gradius wasn't all that good, but at least it was different in every stage. In Alpha Mission, the music only changes when you get to a boss. The boss theme is just typical. It's not really exciting. It's music that basically says, "You're fighting a boss now", and that's about it. The sound effects in this game are lacking, too. I don't like the scraping noise that the ship makes when you shoot. The explosions sound more like static than something blowing up. The biggest problem I have with this game's sound is the lack of it when shots connect with an enemy. There is no sound effect for that, not even when fighting bosses. This makes it awfully hard to tell if an enemy or boss is taking damage from your shots. I've heard several people say that they could never beat the boss of Level 2. I have to wonder if it's because it can only be damaged with missiles (not your normal laser fire), but players just never realized that because of the lack of any indication of when bosses are being affected by your attacks.
CONTROL: 4.5/10
For me, graphics and sound wouldn't completely drag down a shooter game, but control factors can. I'm not too fond of the speed-up system in shooters, but with most it's not too big of an issue. However, Alpha Mission has, quite possibly, the worst case scenario I've ever seen. The ship is incredibly sluggish if you don't have any speed-ups. Ridiculously slow. It is literally impossible to dodge anything with your ship moving this slow. Fortunately, you can get plenty of speed-ups pretty early on. The problem occurs if you accidentally pick up an item that makes you lose all your speed-ups. If this happens when you're in the midst of fighting a lot of enemies, you're pretty much screwed. Also, sometimes when you lose a ship, you restart your next life with all your weapons and speed-ups, and sometimes you don't. I don't understand why this happens. But if I have to restart without them on a later level, I may as well reset the game and start over. Now, once you get a speed-up, the ship's controls are actually quite good. Moving all around the screen and shooting is easy. There's no problems there. One button fires missiles and one button fires your lasers. Grabbing a letter "K" item will give you rapid fire and allow you to drop two missiles at once. This counters the cumbersome effect of being able to only shoot one laser at a time. Your ship is such a big target, that it can be difficult dodging enemies and power-down items.
Wow! Three words spelled wrong on one screen!...The mandatory flying balls
Alpha Mission's storyline is pretty much the same thing as 99.999% of other space shooter games. You pilot your SYD space fighter ship over what appears to be a space station, shooting at any enemies that get in your way. At the end of each level you beat a boss. I don't mind this formula being used, as it's difficult to make shooters about anything else. But Alpha Mission lacks severly in atmosphere, as it tries to be like Xevious, but is missing the serene charm of that game. Unlike Gradius, Alpha Mission has unique bosses, but the rest of the game is so repetitive and nondescript that it becomes very uneventful and uninteresting.
Alpha Mission is easily one of the most difficult shooters I've ever played. I seem to only be able to make it past Levels 3-4 about 50% of the time, and I've only gotten as far as Level 6. (I do not know how many levels this game has, total.) But, I guess that's not too bad, considering most people I've seen talk about this game say they can't get past Level 2. Unfortunately, rather than having outstanding level design and enemy patterns, Alpha Mission relies on cheap tricks and unfairness. Like all shooters, most of the game's challenge comes from the plethora of enemies in the levels. However, there are far too many "kamikaze" enemies, that change direction at the last possible second and ram into your ship, giving you no chance to dodge. The bosses are somewhat challenging, but all the ones I fought had very similar attacking patterns. They dance around the screen, shooting 3-way bullets at you, and a big fireball. If you take too long to beat the bosses, they stop firing their normal bullets and begin shooting fireballs that circle all around the screen and home in on your ship. But the biggest factor that adds to this game's difficulty is the lack of a continue feature and the fact that there appears to be no way to earn extra ships. What this means is that every time you use up your three ships, you have to start the game all over again. I don't think that it's really fair to have to do the whole game all over again just because you reach an area or boss that you just couldn't get past on your first try. This is also unfair, as it literally gives you no chance to be able to practice areas. And when the areas all look so much alike, it can be very difficult to memorize when and where enemies appear.
FUN: 2/10
Alpha Mission may not be quite as bad as SNK's other early NES games, but I can't be ignorant to the fact that I've played many shooters that were much better than this. The enemies, levels, and basic idea are all very mundane. But what Alpha Mission has that somewhat sets it apart is its armor power-up system. First of all, to use an armor power-up, you must collect letter "E" icons. You can collect up to 24 of these. By pressing Select, you can choose one of the different armors for your ship. Some of them are very useful, like the Nuclear and Cannon, while others, like the Octo and Fire are completely useless. Once activated, your letter E counter begins to go down. If it runs out, your ship reverts to its normal form. You can extend the life of your armor by continuing to collect letter E's in the levels as you're flying through. You can also get more armor power-ups by picking up armor icons hidden in the levels. While powered-up, hits from the enemies' bullets will take away E-power rather than blow up your ship. This system is interesting and unique, but it causes problems, too. It's a good idea, because it prevents you from powering-up to the max and just blowing through all the levels with ease, which some shooters are guilty of. But on the other hand, you lose the power-ups very quickly. If you use them on a Level, you'll probably run out of power before getting to the boss. If you use them on a boss, you'll probably run out and won't have any power for the next level. So you have to make a choice...a choice that leaves your ship extremely vulnerable, either way. Plus, there are lots of items scattered around that will take away your power-ups and speed-ups, if you accidentally pick them up! It's also a little annoying that you lose the ability to shoot while your ship is transforming back to its normal state after running out of power. Other than this power-up system, there really isn't anything new that this game offers over other, more well-crafted shooters.
This could very well have been the first attempt at polygon graphics...You have to BOMB this guy to beat him!

Despite everything negative about it, I still found myself coming back to this game quite a bit, just trying to get a little farther each time I played it. I did the best I could to give Alpha Mission a fair shot. Did I give up on it because it was hard? No. I gave up on it because I progressed through six levels and nothing changed. I gave up on it because, despite having an interesting power-up system, the action was slow, boring, and unforgiving. If you're an NES collector, and a fan of shooters, you may want this for your collection, as it is somewhat rare. But for me, it's simply not worth devoting any more of my time to Alpha Mission.
OVERALL SCORE (not an average): 2/10



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