Vertical shooters are the hallmark of arcade nostalgia, next to pinball cabinets and 2D fighters. Strapping into the helm of some variant of ship, blasting the hell out of incoming waves of enemies and powering up with inexplicable items that float through the air, either dropped by baddies or just conveniently appearing. It’s a genre that certainly doesn’t appeal to everyone, but, nonetheless, it’s a satisfying and intense flavor that can be savored even with a bit of aging. This should all be taken into account before sliding on the well-worn shoes that are Alpha Mission II.
Nothing especially exciting or new is happening here in AM2. You are in an oddly named spacecraft, the Armored Scrum Object (the ASO), and you are shooting aliens or hostile warriors or something to that effect. As you fly along, you power yourself up in two different ways. Firstly, your main laser can be gradually upgraded to have a wider spread, more energy projectiles and even side-firing missiles, which can be especially helpful. Secondly, you will be able to essentially “transform” your ship into a more high-powered model by collecting upgrades that have words on them, such as Fire or Main. Transforming into this stronger ship increases your combat prowess, giving you larger guns and also allowing you to take multiple hits (in your base form, a single shot will usually end your life). The transformation comes with an energy bar, which depletes as you shoot and takes a larger deficit when you get shot. The bar can be gradually refilled if you’re lucky enough to find the energy powerups floating around. In theory, you can be in an ascended state indefinitely with patience, accuracy and a bit of dexterity.
At this point in my life, regarding the Neo Geo emulation on the Nintendo Switch, surprises shouldn’t be a part of my experience. The wrapper and the general atmosphere of the Neo Geo titles always carry the same caveats: an interesting duality of Japanese and English, no two player mode, and some variation of online competition. There’s nothing hidden throughout AM2 that warrants a deviation from this formula: indeed, it feels better just knowing that a second player option couldn’t exist on the original, so I’m less disappointed by the inability for someone else to join in this time around. In addition, this game caters quite well to the leaderboard, as it better simulates what I would be striving for in my own arcade at home: being at the top of the high-score list. SNK and other groups looking to emulate should definitely take heed of this: if you’re going to have games that are inherently limited from the original state (and also may not appeal to many outside of nostalgia), have the resources available make the game enticing to new players. Knowing that my score could trump all the shooters who have a Switch worldwide? That’s something I can get behind.
So how is AM2? The game itself is in a really tenuous position for me. Spawned out of 1991, there is a weird mix here of classic and contemporary within the game itself. The powerups are very generous at the start of the stages, and can be peppered throughout to help make things go a bit smoother. I did enjoy the soundtrack and graphics, as they really matched up with the game at the time and had that great retro-future feel. And the henshin effect into a larger ship gave it a sci-fi edge that you wouldn’t normally find in games of that era. Remember, the 16-bit space race had only JUST begun at the time of AM2, and so arcades and the mammoth machine of the home Neo Geo had free reign to really make a splash with cutting edge technology, even if it couldn’t be afforded by many. I suppose that’s the most impressive part: this game was released in a time when the gaming landscape was still pretty tame, and, as a sequel to an NES, this was a massive leap forward.
My own personal issue comes with one of the most basic components: the rate of fire. Games like 1943 and Ikari Force relied on a similar speed of fire, wherein holding the button would sporadically kick out bullets but mashing the button furiously would afford you a better situation. But, whereas those NES classics had a good balance of enemies and items to justify the slower shooting, AM2 really seems to come on the cusp of a bullet hell lite in terms of amount and resilience of enemies. I can already hear people arguing that my skill is at fault and I’m just a terrible player, and I concede that this may be a smoother play for people who are regular worshipers at the temple of the sideways monitor. But I found myself increasingly frustrated that I felt incredibly sluggish compared to everything else on the screen, and had to keep restarting for what felt like very small amounts of contact that ended in my ship’s destruction. My poor firing also resulted in shooting the powerups, which would cause them to turn into something else, which really messes up your mojo when you just need more E to keep going but now it’s an M and I never quite figured out what those did.
Additionally, SNK missed another great opportunity here. You see, you have the ability with the Neo Geo wrapper to change the orientation of the screen. Wonderful! You can take your Switch, turn it sideways and play vertically! Which you can do…with massive black bars on the top or bottom. Even though you can tell the game to play 90 degrees away from where it was be, it still keeps it in a pretty small box to maintain aspect ratio. And if you stretch it out, it looks, to be frank, fucking awful. I understand that preserving the original experience was the goal here, but I feel a little TLC could have allowed this game to look amazing vertically a la Ikaruga or basically any modern shooter that gets ported to PC.
AM2 is also a game where I would sincerely recommend playing on the television instead of portable. The game has no issues and performs wonderfully in both scenarios: I personally feel, however, that the gameplay feels significantly more natural looking up at a screen and away from your hands than down at your lap. With an arcade shooter, the experience becomes complete when you are locked in on the screen and let your hands dance and defy through muscle memory. With the Switch in your hands, you can’t help but see your own digits working away at the game, and it’s oddly distracting in a way that other games don’t seem to have issue with.
If you are an avid fan of vertical shooters or shooters in general, Alpha Mission II is a great piece of history and has a bit baked into it to make it worth playing and not just owning. If you haven’t really been interested in the genre before or don’t like shooters, this is definitely not the game to change your mind. At the end of the day, it’s a nice addition to the catalog of emulation and will hopefully pave the way for even better things from SNK and Nintendo in the future.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Gameplay - /10
Graphics - /10
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