Alien Soldier is a “run and gun” platformer (though that term is used very loosely in this case) by Treasure, which is a company that has a pretty good reputation amongst gamers.
Personally I’ve never really been interested in this game. Why? After all, I liked Gunstar and Guardian Heroes from Treasure. I’m going to guess that maybe it’s because I read/heard that it was single-player only and there’s a really huge portion of games where, for whatever reason, I just can’t stand playing without a friend (SHMUPs come to mind).
But now that I’ve become a hermit and getting friends over to my underground dungeon for a co-op session is much harder in this modern age, I’ve finally got around to playing and completing the game.
So how does it do? It has issues…
*Is mobbed by a legion of angry Treasure fans*
Well, let’s start off with some positives I guess. Aesthetics, both graphics and music are nice. The controls are tight. Alien Soldier tries to implement a more complex technical side to the genre: the previous game Gunstar Heroes was pretty simplistic in its execution of the genre (although still fun), but AS introduces concept like dash teleports, countering bullets, walking on ceilings and so on. Alright, moving on!
At the start of the game, players are allowed to select 4 weapons from a pool of 6. Each weapon has its own firing rate, ammunition count and so on, meaning having multiple copies of a weapon is an acceptable choice. Ideally, this would provide a way for players to customize the game according to their playstyle, which is something that Gunstar Heroes does very well.
The first thing that’s very apparent as a problem in Alien Soldier is the weapon balance: it’s bad.
The two outstanding weapons in terms of badness would be the Ranger Force and Sword Force. The former is a Spread-Shot like gun similar to those in Contra, while the latter is a rather generic linear laser weapon which is a strange design decision, considering a much more interesting laser weapon exists in the game.
As a weapon, the Ranger Force does make you wonder if the game had gone through some kind of major design paradigm shift at some point of time. Generally speaking, in run and guns Spread weapons are good for these purposes:
1) Wiping out numerous mobs of weak enemies that go down easily if you can hit them, but their small size makes it difficult to do so.
2) “Shotgunning” at close range for massive damage as all bullets will hit the target rather than spread out.
So what’s the problem? If you aren’t familiar with AS’s framework, AS ironically doesn’t have a lot of “run and gun” sections. It’s more accurately described as a “boss rush” game instead, and the “run and gun” sections are extremely short, 1-2 minutes affairs mostly useful for restoring your health.
In such a scenario, why would you even include a spread-shot weapon other than as a trap for unsuspecting newbie players? Sure, it does work pretty effectively in those short sections, but most other weapons can do the job without being completely worthless in boss battles!
It’s like one of those old-skool RPGs where you can find hobgoblin slaying swords, when there’s only 1 hobgoblin in the entire game.
As for the 2nd usage, this is hindered due to the nature of the boss battles in the game. Sure, the bosses are huge, and it’s certainly easy to hit the entire boss with all of your shots… on the other hand, every boss in the game has a weak point that you absolutely MUST hit if you want to beat the boss before you die of old age because of the damage multiplier.
Well actually, whittling down the enemy very slowly isn’t even a viable strategy, since there’s a time limit and you’ll just go boom once the time runs out.
The big two “optimal” boss killing weapons are the Lancer Force and Flame Force. Lancer’s a really hard to describe weapon… you tap the button to shoot, and it sort of stays on the screen for a while and deals major damage if it hits. Flame’s a standard short range flamethrower weapon, which is rather hard to use but can take down the enemy HP in the blink of an eye.
Without one of these two weapons in your set-up, bosses take way too long to kill. They are mandatory, which I think really hurts the fun factor of the game. Also, both of these weapons have low ammunition counts as their weakness, which means you really can’t whiff with them.
The other weapons are basically filler that you use in-between your two big money shots. Sword is just… bad as a generic linear weapon but feel free to send me videos of experts tearing the game up with said weapon if such videos exist.
So your only two other choices are basically Buster and Homing. I prefer Homing because while weak, it has a really good special ability of penetrating a lot of special defenses and allows you to concentrate on dodging while still constantly attacking a weak point. Buster’s additional damage personally doesn’t seem to be worth it, considering that you need to unleash a stream of shots onto a boss weak point to deal any damage at all (something that doesn’t seem to come up very often).
One annoying aspect of the weapon system is enemy immunities. Certain weapons will just bounce off harmlessly if you use them on specific bosses. At first I thought it was completely random what immunities enemies have, but apparently FAQs have stated some general rules like Flame weapons not working on metal enemies (oh yeah, that makes perfect sense). Buster’s annoying for this because there’s a surprisingly amount of bosses who are immune to it for no good reason.
The optimal weapon set-up thus basically includes 2 Lancer weapons, and some combination of either Homing, Buster and Flame. If you’re really good at the game I do believe the maximum optimal setup you can go is 2xFlame/2xLancer.
Outside of the weapons, while I do appreciate attempting to add a more technical side to the genre, the execution is very clunky and I find myself whiffing and executing unintended commands.
Consider this: Press jump once jumps, pressing it twice makes you hover in mid-air. Pressing it thrice causes you to “double jump”, and if you hit a ceiling you’ll reverse gravity and walk on it. Guess how many times I hovered in mid-air like a moron, getting hit because my muscle memory was so used to double-jumping in other games?
There’s also the extremely clunky weapon changing system, where a menu will slowly rise up from the main character’s body, and you have to press left/right after the menu has completely appeared to scroll through your weapons, leaving him completely defenseless while you switch his weapons. Why couldn’t they just have used the Gunstar Heroes system, where simply tapping the button changed what weapon you currently have equipped?
And the Counter Force command, which allows the main character to grab bullets to turn them into health happens to be pressing the shoot button twice. I cannot believe how many times I have accidentally performed this command by accident, leaving myself open and wasting ammo as for some reason, utilizing this causes any bullets you have on screen to disappear.
And it’s surprisingly hard to crouch down, while shooting straight ahead.
Thankfully, one of the most easy to execute actions is the dashing teleport, whose command “Down + Jump” isn’t something you accidentally pull off very often.
Or maybe that’s a bad thing. As I talked about in an earlier post on Alisia Dragoon, the main character’s sprite is nice, big and detailed, but the end result is that while it’s nice to look at, it makes it hard to dodge bullets normally. However, the dash teleport has complete invulnerability frames, and a lot of boss battles basically boils down to repeatedly abusing it at the first sign of danger. In fact, the hardest battles in the game are those where you CAN’T use it because of stage gimmicks like having cliffs at the edge of the levels.
And coincidentally enough, the problem of having player bullet effects so fancy that the enemy projectiles get drowned out is also a problem in this game.
Alien Soldier has a reputation of being “difficult” but I think an important distinction to make when saying that something is difficult: Difficulty in “execution” and Difficulty in “forgiveness”
Execution difficulty is something like attempting to pull off an infinite combo in a fighting game, which requires very accurate timing and not everyone can do even with practice.
In this regards, Alien Soldier actually doesn’t rank very high. Most bosses are actually surprisingly easy and can be defeated easily once you are familiar with their patterns and if you know the correct strategy (Such as not wasting your time hitting them with weapons that they are immune to)
In my opinion, Alien Soldier’s big problem is with the latter. It is a very unforgiving game. This is due to the fact that its design decisions subject the player to a positive feedback loop (this term probably doesn’t mean what you think it does, see the link for more information.)
Due to the fact that the game is almost entirely boss battles, that means that the players constantly have to learn new information. In the process of learning this information, it’s invariable that they’re going to make mistakes. But getting hit in AS takes off huge chunks of your HP and invincibility frames for getting hit are very sparse so you aren’t really allowed to make a lot of mistakes before your character explodes into balls of flames.
Once you die, you got to play the boss again with your weapons reset. In Superhard mode, once you lose all 3 continues, you got to play the ENTIRE game all over again, because you know, if you just wanted to learn Boss 14’s pattern, you should totally have to play 13 stages of a game all over again just for that.
And guess what, the game doesn’t inherently refill your life after every stage: If you ended a stage with 1 HP, you’re going to go into the next one with the same amount. At the start of the game, there are run and gun sections against minor enemies as an opportunity to refill your health, but as you progress through the game these sequences become increasingly rare, to the point where late game stages consists entirely of simply a boss battle followed by other boss battles. Intentional design for increased difficulty? Running out of budget? You decide!
These decisions amplify any mistakes that you make and really comes to a head with the Seven Force boss: a single stage with a boss with 5 forms, and no, it’s not like 5 nerfed bosses or anything, they’re all pretty much the same difficulty as an actual boss. The only chance the game gives you to refill your health is in the 2nd and last forms of this boss fight (and it involves some risky activity). If you die in the battle, you get to do the entire boss fight from the very beginning. Talk about frustrating!
On the flip side, players that are already good get even more advantages to break the game. For example, the main character is able to use a “phoenix” variant of the teleport dash which deals massive damage to enemies caught in its path. This attack can only be used at max health and costs a bit of HP to use, but a good player is able to easily refill his HP by converting enemy bullets and abuse it to utterly trivialize certain bosses in the game. In contrast, a poor player would generally not be at the required HP needed to use this command.
I never did understood that sort of game design: why would someone who’s already good at the game need more tools to bend it over his knees? Well, other than making flashy videos on Youtube, but I think it would be a bigger accomplishment if those tools weren’t available, wouldn’t it?
In summary, “The rich get richer, the poor get poorer.” I honestly think a lot of these issues do not need to exist. Would any “hardcore” gamer really scoff at a health refill after every stage, which is the norm in videogames anyway? Like throwing tons of bottomless pits or spike traps in a platformer, I don’t believe these decisions affect the game’s difficulty in a satisfying manner.
Despite its faults, I do think Alien Soldier is still worth playing. If you’re interested in the hardware aspect of game design then this game is one of those games that really push the console to its limits. I just wished that it was this game that got a second try at an “Advance” version rather than Gunstar and Guardian heroes though, because it seems to me like it really kind of needed it more instead. Oh well.