Aurail is a tough game to get used to. It's an overhead run and gun, much like Ikari Warriors or Commando or Heavy Barrel, except instead of a soldier, you control a walking tank called a Transom. You can walk forward and fire as normally, but you can also stand in place and rotate, allowing you to fire in eight directions. However, there are no strafing controls. It's one of those design quirks that seems like it might have been an oversight, and it may have been, but in practice it works in the game's favor - like the original Castlevania titles, whose stilted jumping controls and limited attack movements defined the game, Aurail's controls are essential to both the tempo and strategizing required to conquer it.
And conquering it is a masterful feat. Aurail begins off rather challenging, at least for the first stage. By the fourth stage, it gets to get reasonably difficult. By the seventh stage, it means business, and that's not even the halfway point. It utilizes a punishing checkpoint system, where a single death will set you back only a small distance, but an immediate second death will send you back even farther, potentially to the beginning the stage. Every inch of ground is a hard fought victory, which can easily be snatched away.
While often frustrating, being able to learn and relearn the terrain is essential. Like R-Type and its ilk, being able to memorize when and where enemies appear is one of the major keys to victory. While the goal of the screen is to move upward, you can also scroll the screen to the left and right a bit, but offscreen enemies will not attack. More important is being able to identify the enemy's weakpoints. Missile launchers, for example, will usually overshoot you, while their homing capabilities will track you from behind, giving you an opportunity to shoot them down. Laser turrets are limited to the same eight-way directional limitations as you are, so it's just a matter of finding their blind spot and firing until they die. This is obviously much harder than it sounds, because there are usually plenty of bad guys attacking at once. You can try to take it slowly, but destroyed turrets will regenerate and smaller enemies respawn constantly, so there's always a balance between knowing when to advance carefully or to charge forward full speed.
There is also a unique power-up system at work. Many fallen enemies will drop "P" orbs, which will grant you three charges on a power meter. There is also a "D" icon, which gives you command of an orbiting satellite called a Kite. At any moment, you can sacrifice 12 charges to create a shield (which stack up to three times). Alternatively, you can command the Kite to attack, which will quickly drain the power charges but allow you to attack while remaining safely under cover, or at least let you deal with multiple foes at once. Again, there's a careful interplay of prioritizing offense over defense, or vice versa. The game is generous enough to start off each new life with enough power charges to generate a single shield, but assuming you die a lot - and until you spend hours practicing, you will die a lot - it's hard to keep the meter charged high enough to be all that useful. Granting a few more charges per "P" orb wouldn't have hurt in evening up the odds a little.
Aurail's stages are broken up into three sections - the first and third are 2D overhead areas, culminating in mid-boss and large boss battles respectively, while the second stage is a 3D tunnel area. In these corridors, you move forward automatically, and can shift left and right between three columns, while collecting P icons and dodging mines. At several points, enemies will attack, and you will stop to engage. At this point you're free to walk up and down the tunnels in order to destroy everything. While the shield generation works the same as the overhead levels, there is no Kite, so instead this button is used to turn your mech 180 degrees, so you can defend yourself from behind. There are small indicators that show the location of attacking foes, as well as onscreen text to keep track of the remaining enemies.
The 3D sections take awhile to get used to, perhaps even longer than the 2D sections. While some knowledge of overhead shooters will help you get through those levels, the 3D stages are entirely unlike anything else. The trick is to pay close attention to the indicators, which is the only way to grasp where everything is located. These sections are also overly tough because your tank is just as weak is in the 2D levels. Thankfully, only bullets actually damage you, as enemies can collide into you without any penalty.
Aurail was designed by Westone, which is generally known for its fairly cute and cuddly Wonder Boy / Monster World series. However, in keeping with the science fiction war theme, the visuals in Aurail are much darker. The spritework is decent, though it really shines in the 3D segments, where it's easier to see the details, and the boss fights, which consist of gigantic, segmented machines of pure destruction. Amidst the futuristic imagery, though, there are occasionally ancient looking ruins, which, along with the fantasy-styled woman featured on the title screen, give it sort of a mythological feel. There's even a made up language that kinda sorta looks like English, and a cryptic robot voice that says various vaguely intelligible things. The music is heavy metal played through the System 16's FM synth - harsh, but undeniably catchy and thematically appropriate. It was composed by Westone mainstay Shinichi Sakamoto. It can be purchased online at Project EGG Music, or is available on the Sega System 16 Complete Soundtrack Volume 3.
Despite its quality from both a design and an aesthetic standpoint, Aurail didn't receive much exposure, leaving it unported outside of the arcades. It is the epitome of old school arcade design - difficult to learn, even harder to master, but like all of the best titles, with persistance comes the reward of victory, and Aurail is as good as any.
Blood Gear: Aurail Scenario 2?
The 1994 PC Engine game Blood Gear - published by Hudson but developed by Westone - identifies itself as "Aurail Scenario 2" in the ending credits, implying that it's meant to be a sequel. The story has some very vague connections, stating that some characters are "people from Aurail", and the stage one theme makes a cameo.
However, according to company founder Ryuichi Nishizawa, it really isn't a true sequel, just more likely some amusing connections inserted by some of the other staff members, since he was not heavily involved in its production. They both have science fiction themes, of course, but Aurail is mostly about robots and walking tanks, while Blood Gear focuses on larger, Gundam-style mechs. Aurail is also an overhead run-and-gun, where Blood Gear is a side-scrolling action-RPG, similar to Square's Front Mission: Gun Hazard, so they play nothing alike.
Interview with Ryuichi Nishizawa, Director of Aurail
What is the storyline in Aurail? The ending hints at a larger story, but the intro doesn't say much.
It wasn't until the final days of development that I thought about the story and wrote the ending. (laughs) The story in games was not important back then, particularly for arcade games. Games are interactive, so the act of playing the game, being excited, and having lots of exhilerating moments, I believe these are the most important aspects. Someone who wants to enjoy a story should probably watch a movie. I also think that plot and drama are important to create something more realistic, but for the time, a story was really nothing more than a bonus.
For that reason, I did not write a full plot for Aurail, only suggesting that there was a more profound backstory. I think we were able to roughly achieve this effect. It must have, if this question is being asked. (laughs)
Aurail has an interesting graphic design, where most of it is very science-fiction feeling, but some structures look like they are ruins from an ancient civilization. Does this tie into the story at all?
I didn't really create much of a story, but rather a view of the world. A story isn't important for the game, but visuals are. Without a world view, then the design can't be determined. Here is the basic concept:
"Aurail" is the name of an ancient civilization. Many years ago, they created an advanced society. However, they eventually left into outer space for unknown reasons. Beneath the ruins of their civilization, they left behind a force of great power. The modern humans, technologically immature by comparison, began to wage war for control of this force.
Prior to Aurail, most of Westone's games were very cute, but Aurail has a more serious, darker tone. What prompted the change?
I used to love shooting games. Myself, I had made many comical action games, so I wanted to create a game that fully utilized the skills of the rest of the development staff. So, I was able to develop Aurail because I had a team who excelled at mechanical designs. Masanori Yoshihara, who drew the character illustrations for Monster World II, was in charge of the mechanical designs. Additionally, Maki Ohzora was in charge of the background designs. She had just joined the company, and her first work was background design for Aurail. Also, I designed the player's robot and the enemies in the 3D scenes using a 3D modeling tool.
What were the inspirations, game or otherwise, behind Aurail?
The original story was basically the anime Space Runaway Ideon. (laughs) (Ed Note: Ideon played a heavy role in inspiring Neon Genesis Evangelion.) It was directed by Yoshiyuki Tomino, who also created Gundam. Although it wasn't very popular, I loved the scene when a volley of missiles was shot from the body of an ancient robot. Aurail is an homage to that.
The ending credits call the game "Illusion in Aurail". Was that the original title?
It's meant to set up Aurail as the adaption of one chapter in a long story, "Illusion in Aurail". At any rate, it's just meant to be a beginning of something larger.
Are you aware of any connection between Aurail and the Game Boy game Cosmo Tank? It was developed by a company called Asuka and published by Atlus. They are almost similar, in that in Cosmo Tank, you control an mobile tank from an overhead perspective, and there are first person sequences. But, they are still very different games.
I looked up Cosmo Tank on the internet. I can see the resemblance, but I have not played it.
Halfway through each stage, the view changes to the 1st person tunnel sequences. What was the inspiration for these segments?
I wanted to try to make a game in 3D. Sega's System 16B had the ability to scale sprites, which could be used to build a pseudo-3D visuals. At the time, there wasn't any way to generate polygons. So, I worked very hard on those stages. However, I wasn't able to create enough of them, so the 2D stages were included to flesh it out.
Was Aurail considered a success?
I had been told at the time that "tank games" will not sell. However, I made a "tank game" anyway. Aurail is really more of a "robot game", technically, but it's "almost a tank game", isn't it? Regardless, I made the game because I wanted to make it, not because I thought it would sell. So as a result, it wasn't popular at all. As for myself, in spite of the hard work that went into it, I didn't think it turned out all that fun. :)
Were there any plans to port Aurail to a console?
None at all. The game was made specifically for the Sega System 16B.
What are your personal feelings towards the game? Is there anything you would change?
Maybe I shouldn't have created a "tank game". (laughs). But, I'm proud I made a 3D game using the hardware at the time. In fact, the things I learned during its development are still useful, particularly for programming 2D objects in a 3D space. I think we learned a lot of production methods, like explosion effects.
Just what are the digitized voices saying? I can make out "GOOD LUCK" but that's about it...
When you insert a credit, it says "Hello master". For the others, I can't remember. The sound engineer used a vocoder (digitized sound microphone) to create them.
Aurail is a very difficult game - the pressure really begins around the seventh stage. Nowadays, how far can you make it on a single credit?
Is the 7th stage that difficult? I guess we considered it okay to play through it with several credits, and adjusted the difficulty accordingly.
A few questions unrelated to Aurail... What was Westone's role in the production of the Jaws: The Revenge game for the NES?
Jaws: The Revenge for NES was developed by myself, Mr. (Shinichi) Sakamoto, and Mr. (Michishito) Ishizuka. I drew all of the graphics. After the release of Wonder Boy but before starting Monster Land, we developed it at the request of Atlus. We created it in about two months. Upon watching the videos on YouTube, it's quite slipshod, isn't it?
Is there any chance Wonder Boy will appear in any of the Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing games?
I look forward to discussing it with Sega. But for now, that has not happened.