They may be the only company in the world with a verb for a name, but nobody can code a 2D, vertically-scrolling shooter quite like Compile can. Time and time again, this small group of Japanese programmers has turned the 8-bit gaming world on it's ear with the likes of Zanac, Gun*Nac, Aleste (Power Strike to you Westerners), The Guardian Legend, and others that don't spring to mind quite as readily. Space Megaforce (Space Megaforce? Power Strike? Who comes up with these names, and why haven't they been fired yet? "Aleste" sounds so much better...) marks what I'm almost sure is Compile's first foray into the 16-bit wars, and I'll be damned if they haven't produced yet another completely unparalleled blast-a-thon. Where previous attempts at shooters on the SNES (Super R-Type, Gradius III, Darius Twin) had cast serious doubt on the console's sprite-crunching powers by slowing down to near-nonplayability when more than ten things were on the screen at once, Space Megaforce crowds the screen with sprites and constantly throws gut-wrenching special effects at the player while still managing to keep the frame rate high enough for most players to WISH things would slow down a bit. As if that weren't enough, Space Megaforce also sports the deepest weapon system of any Compile game to date (not to be taken lightly coming from a company known for its insanely complex weapon systems), some genuinely eye-popping graphics, and that trademark lightning-fast action we've come to expect from Compile. Although it still doesn't quite top Zanac in my book (sorry guys, I can still memorize my way through this one, frenetic as it is), Space Megaforce is truly a shooter to be reckoned with.
Even the most ardent Compile junkie will admit that the company's games aren't known for their involving plots, and SM is no exception. Things open up with a series of cartoonish stills, depicting first a city, then a squadron of Area-88-ish fighter jets. That's it. No aliens, no conflict, and no cool-looking mushroom clouds, just a city and some freakin' airplanes (As far as I can see, fighter jets don't even come into play in the actual game. Weird...). Fortunately, all this arty nonsense can be skipped with a simple press of the "start" button, bringing impatient gamers straight to the title screen. As per usual in Compile shooters, all kinds of neat things can be customized here. There's plenty of difficulty modes (five total, ranging from the actually-quite-tame "wild" to the aptly-named "hyper"), a full sound test, a controller config, a controller test (?), and even a silly-but-cool little interactive Mode 7 demo. Once you've exhausted the entertainment possibilities of making the game say "Multi-directional shot!" with the sound test, it's time to move on to the game proper. You can select either the Regular or Short game modes; I've never bothered with Short myself, but I'd lay any money you like that it's just the same game with half the levels cut out.
Right from the start, the 16-bit, 256-color graphics of Space Megaforce impressed the daylights out of this Zanac-weaned reviewer. Although it's technically the sequel to Power Strike/Aleste, Space Megaforce's look and feel seem to borrow most heavily from Compile's NES sleeper classic, Gun*Nac. The ship looks like an enlarged, elongated version of the ship from Gun*Nac, and most of the weapons seem to be borrowed from it also (that killer flamethrower weapon is sorely missed though). As far as the actual stages go though, SM borrows from just about every existing Compile game and adds a few tricks of its own besides. The decidedly Power-Strike-ish first level gives way to a space battle with a looming space station, which suddenly sprouts a sea of Zanac-esque gun turrets and tries to drown you in deadly projectiles. Later stages really go off the deep end, including a surreal, warp-effect-laden level with pulsating planets and lots of ships that leave deadly trails (hmmm...) and a moonbase that literally bends space to appear practically on top of you. The sprites look about as nice, if not quite up to Gradius III standards (Gradius III's frame rate dropped to near-standstill at the slightest provocation though), and some of the bosses are truly eye-popping. As per usual in Compile games, the frame rate continues to zip along at 60fps or close to it even when the screen is clogged with upwards of fifty projectiles at once.
After the disappointing audio portions of Gun*Nac (the last Compile game I "truly" played; I've only played Aleste on an emulator and the sound wasn't working too well), it's nice to hear a decent variety of catchy, hummable, foot-tapping tunes that counterpoint all the shooting and blasting and killing nicely. Finally, the cryptic weapon classification system of the 8-bit games (hands up: who's ever had a good game of Zanac ruined because they grabbed Weapon #2 when they wanted to upgrade their current weapon, which turned out to be #3? I thought so...) has been improved slightly; each little weapon globe has a three-letter code on it (LSR on the laser, for example) in addition to the number, which makes it far less likely that you'll grab the wrong weapon and die horribly as a result.
Though they are, all told, the best the SNES has ever seen from this genre, Space Megaforce's graphics really aren't the game's main selling point. In keeping with what has almost become the norm for Compile shooters, the action is intense as all get-out (minor gripe: the ship's sprite is really too big to do some of the precision dodging necessary in the later levels), the control is spot-on perfect, and the scrolling is insanely fast in some parts, but all that's really just the tip of the iceberg here. You see, the weapon system in SM is so incredibly varied and deep that entire USENET threads have been dedicated to the debate of its nuances among hard-core fans. At the core, SM's arsenal consists of eight weapon types: the Multi-Directional Shot (rapid-shooting fireballs that blast in the direction you're moving), Laser (big blue lightning bolts that go through stuff), Circle (a rotating projectile shield), Power Beam (a chargeable beam of destruction), Sprite (a bunch of clones that follow you around), Scatter Shot (big fireballs that shatter into tiny pieces on impact), and Missiles (a bunch of homing missles), among others. Each weapon can be powered up six times by collecting either successive weapon globes of the same type or grabbing lots of the little gold eggs that enemies drop. In addition, each weapon has anywhere from two to five different "behaviors"; a touch of the R button (default) will toggle between them. Although some of the "alternate weapons" are pretty weak (the Circle just stops spinning if you hold down R), some cause genuinely neat effects (the alternate laser will send a gold homing bolt out to fry enemies) and all must be used creatively in order to get through some of the trickier parts of the game. When you add it all up, there are well over fifty weapon variations in SM, even if one doesn't count the ever-present Smart Bomb. This is especially interesting when one realizes that most of the levels are designed in such a way that they'll be fairly easy if you're using the correct weapon variation, but absolute murder if you aren't. Planning ahead and powering up the right weapon before you think you'll need it is essential, making SM almost a "thinking man's shooter" (yeah, I know that's an oxymoron. Bear with me here). Even so, the damage system leans heavily in the player's favor (taking a hit simply downgrades your weapon two levels; you can't die unless it's at one or two and something hits you), and SM's default difficulty level won't challenge most shooter veterans for more than an hour or so at best. Serious shmuppers will want to crank the difficulty up a notch from the get-go, as the challenge will be a little less forgiving and you won't "waste" the ending sequence. And for the truly elite, there's "hyper", guaranteed to reduce everyone but androids and speedfreaks to tears within the first two levels. Ultimately, SM's got something for everyone challenge-wise, and the excellent play mechanics and unparalleled weapon system place it a cut above even a good percentage of the Compile crop. Now where in SAM HILL is that Zanac-style AI??
I still have yet to see Compile outdo themselves and top Zanac, but Space Megaforce comes closer than anything else to date. Between its beautiful, slowdown-free graphics, pretty good audio, downright cool-assed weapon system, and typically decent game play, SM is easily the cream of the SNES shoot-em-up crop. It may be a little pricey at the moment (at least for cheap types like me who consider $15 "pricey"), but if you're a die-hard shooter fan, it's easily worth every penny. Do not miss a chance to own this one.