In a move that is considered quite odd, given the series' history with sequels, Silpheed made the jump from consoles to mobile phones of all places, on Google's Android OS. Taking a cue from Sylpheed before it, Silpheed Alternative is yet another free-roaming 3D space-combat sim, this time utilizing motion and touchscreen controls, in addition to gamepad support by way of Sony's Xperia Play mobile phone. The name couldn't be more fitting, as it implies it's not the same Silpheed you know and love; it makes more sense adding "Alternate" to the title than simply changing one letter to make it stand out, like they did with Sylpheed. This time around, GameArts teamed up with GungHo Online Entertainment and Pyramid Inc. to bring the series to mobile phones. What they achieved is impressive to say the least, but like the potential we saw in Sylpheed, it falls short, literally, at bringing Silpheed to its former glory.
The game opens with an introduction video which narrates the story as follows: "It has been many generations since humankind developed the technology to travel amongst the boundless sea of infinite stars, but on January 19th, in the year 2419... A civilian spaceship, conducting an interplanetary voyage, is attacked by an unknown enemy - a tragic event that results in the loss of a countless host of precious lives. And following an investigation into the incident, it is determined that the attacking fleet belongs to that of an extraterrestial race. Now, with the very real threat to the peace and prosperity of humankind upon them, the Unified Earth Command mobilizes the Asgard, Earth's finest military warship along with the Gungnir Squadron, an elite group of fighter pilots to confront these ruthless aggressors, for the war of the worlds with these aliens has already begun..."
The most interesting aspect of the storyline is that it takes place in 2419, making it more of a supposed prequel than Sylpheed, which was set in 2632. Unfortunately, the story is fleshed out through text between missions and voiceovers during missions. It's hard to follow the story when you're playing on a mobile phone, unless you either have headphones on or you're in a room where you can crank up the phone's volume loud enough to hear what the characters are saying. Then again, the text between missions is good enough to figure out what's going on, not that it really matters, because the game is so short that there isn't really much of a story to be told. The voice overs are painful to the ears with obvious script-read dialogue, likely performed in one take by the actors who surprisingly have a history of voice acting in video games, according to a quick IMDB.com check.
Besides the basic story, which sounds all too familiar by now, the game really seems like a long demo or rather, a lite version of Sylpheed. In the ensuing seven missions, two of which are spent shooting at a random wave of identical enemies known as "gunships" while protecting your fleet's baseship until the level ends, the game has you attempting to destroy battleships that come in a small, medium and large variety, acting as the level boss that you can technically kill without even bothering with the numerous gunships flying around. The time limit from Sylpheed returns, which can be pretty frustrating when you're trying to take out a battleship while protecting your baseships from the enemies. It seems like the easiest route to take is to just go straight for the targeted battleships and take them out without even giving much notice to the smaller enemies, because once you blow up the battleship, which takes a large amount of shots to destroy, it's mission complete and the level ends. It doesn't matter how well you protect your own baseships, if you don't take out the enemies quick enough you'll be greeted by a game over message. This is especially aggravating when you're trying to rack up points to unlock weapons. A failed mission means you start the level over and all the points you gained during the previous playthrough of that level are void.
Then there's the weapons, which are completely useless unless you're using ones that can lock on to enemies. Your ship holds a main weapon, a sub weapon and a unit. The units, of which there are only five, act as an aid offering a temporary shield boost, more ammo, a jam system that deflects enemy homing attacks, an additional acceleration boost, or an increase to your lock-on range. Only one unit can be equipped at a time. The main weapon can be either a homing attack or a strong cannon-type attack that can overheat if used in rapid succession. The sub weapon is just the standard machine gun which is very hard to aim with when using the touchscreen or motion controls.
Due to the free-roaming 3D space that you fly around in, the developers did their best to make the game playable, and for the most part the controls work, however, homing attacks are completely necessary unless you happen to own an Xperia Play phone, which has actual buttons to control the game - unless you're savvy at using a faux analog stick on the touchscreen. The motion controls, achieved by tilting the phone to move around, offer a fun and immersive way to play, but it's a little tiring if you're playing more than one mission in one sitting. And that's just it - the game is so short that it can be completed in one sitting easily, in less than an hour depending on the difficulty, which can be easy, medium, or hard. At its current price of $2.99, it's hard to justify complaining though. The developers did attempt to encourage game replays by adding achievements, but they offer zero bragging rights due to a lack of online leaderboards. There are also unlockable weapons that you may or may not unlock in one playthrough, earning unlock points that are gained from killing enemies in missions.
Aside from the story mode, the option is available to replay select single missions separately after they're unlocked in story mode, but there isn't much incentive to do that other than to challenge yourself in a harder difficulty. It is fun to pick it up again every once in a while just to hear the game's excellent soundtrack. The music is reminiscient of previous Silpheed entries, offering an energetic sense of heroism to aid you in your efforts. It's even available to listen to outside of the game from the installation folder in OGG vorbis format. The graphics are gorgeous and really push the capabilities of Android OS as a mobile gaming platform, with a steady framerate and a beautiful interpretation of space. Unfortunately, the missions are so simple and straightforward that each level is basically the same - you floating in space with your baseships behind you and your targeted enemies in front of you. Navigation is pretty easy with a radar map at the corner of the screen and a spherical heads-up display that acts as a compass and points in the direction of enemy threats.
It really is an enjoyable game despite its shortcomings, and it's cheap enough that there shouldn't be any regret from purchasing it. It could have been so much more than it is, though, and we'd hate for it to be the end of a series that seemed to always linger around potential but never really attained the publicity it deserved. Perhaps the best thing we can do for the series, assuming you have an Android phone, is purchase the game so that GameArts knows its fans are still out there. If Silpheed's future lies in downloadable titles, let's hope that it'll see a return to the oblique shmup that it should be, and put it on a platform where it can truly be appreciated, such as Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network.