Release timing can be a difficult thing, especially when a pandemic is involved. When the shooting game experts at M2 announced the arcade-only shmup 戦刃 / Senjin in February of 2020, nobody could have foreseen what the coming months and years would bring.
While home console games were one of the few profiteers from the worldwide pandemic, Japan’s arcades weren’t as lucky. Even though Japan experienced no full lockdowns like many western countries, social distancing and home office were very much a thing – not a good development for Japan's notoriously packed game centres, many of which were forced to close down since then.
Nevertheless, M2 persevered and released its vertical shooting game roughly 17 months later on July 16th, 2021 as an arcade-exclusive title running on Sega’s ALL.Net P-ras MULTI Ver. 3 Arcade service. By that time, it was no longer known as simply Senjin, but as SenXin Aleste – the latest entry in the venerable Aleste series and the first to be released exclusively in arcades (Japanese arcades, that is).
The new Aleste branding was not that much of a surprise for many experienced veterans as the ubiquitous P-chips in early screenshots and videos were a big hint already, and the big pauldrons of the four female pilots looked a lot like those seen in the Mega Drive classic MUSHA Aleste. What´s more of a surprise is that M2 stuck – and still sticks – to SenXin Aleste being an arcade-only-release; to this day, no home console port is announced, which means the new Aleste is only accessible in Japan’s embattled amusement centres.
Before Japan finally opened its borders to regular foreign travellers in October 2022, there was basically no way for players outside Japan to experience the game as its creators intended. Therefore, one of our first goals when visiting Japan for Tokyo Game Show 2022 was to go to the wonderfully noisy game centre HEY (Hirose Entertainment Yard) in Tokyo's (in)famous Akihabara district in order to finally drop some 100-yen-coins into SenXin Aleste.
And we dropped a lot of coins into the game. To cut a long story short, SenXin Aleste is an absolutely amazing shooting game and an incredibly accessible one as well! While most arcade shooters are notorious for their steep learning curve and high difficulty, SenXin Aleste is more than willing to accommodate every player, from the seasoned danmaku-pros to those who never played a shooter before.
Straight from the beginning, the game is all about choice. Four difficulty levels are available: Novice, Casual, Original and Expert, there's also an assist mode that automates smart bomb use when it is available. The next choice is probably the most important one: Who should be the captain of your squad? While characters and ships are swapped on the fly during actual gameplay, the choice of captain offers additional perks.
Going for the Japanese pilot Yuri Kunugi, the energy gained upon picking up P-chips is increased. The French pilot Ratna Francis heightens the frequency with which various items appear. Russian-Japanese character Tanya Yaezakura increases firepower, while the Chinese heroine Huang Kexin boosts the regeneration speed of downed characters significantly.
That draws right into another central system of the game: all four pilots differ in speed and attacks. While Yuri goes for a strong forward bullet pattern, Ratna’s lasers can be rotated around the ship, and Tanya's very powerful fire can be concentrated on a spot in front of her ship’s bow. Finally, Huang is the most defensive of the four; the pods circling her ship cancel enemy bullets, but to make up for this, she lacks a bit in terms of firepower. Along with the concentrated and rapid-fire options, a bomb and a rather complex burst system that cancels enemy fire and turns P-chips into various emblems for scoring, it all makes for a very flexible and complex shooting game.
Despite all this complexity, the game is very approachable; playing on a low difficulty setting with Huang as the captain, even novice players will see a lot of the game on their first credit. Getting hit doesn´t equal a lost life; the pilot hit is relegated to the sidelines for a short period while her energy recharges. Picking up her corresponding item drop shortens the wait dramatically. That allows for far more player mistakes than comparable shooters.
Pilots are changed by picking up differently-coloured items, and finding out which pilot works best for a given situation is one of the games’ main draws. The five stages boast beautiful pixel art with nice, chunky sprites, while bullet patterns are nicely readable. Tatsuhiko Kasuga’s soundtrack is simply amazing, combining new themes with classic Aleste-tunes. When the title track of Aleste is woven into the music of the fifth and final stage, series veterans are sure to get goosebumps all over.
The game is full of such moments. Weaving through intricate bullet patterns feels wonderfully smooth thanks to the responsive arcade stick controls; holding the fire button not only changes the attack mode but also slows down each pilot's ship for delicate evasion manoeuvres. In return, unleashing a bomb and hitting a huge enemy with Tanya’s concentrated bullets right in the face feels wonderfully empowering, and changing to the bullet-cancelling Huang in an intense situation gives you a short breather.
Coming back from the brink of defeat when only one character is left feels equally exhilarating – and besides, the game is just incredibly charming. The four pilots talk during the game, victory screens show the triumphant crew, and your AI mentor Wiz-N (another connection to the classic Aleste heroine, Ellinor Wizn) keeps you up-to-date on developments – if you understand the Japanese language, at least. It's a game more than worthy of the venerable Aleste-name.
Speaking of names; while we´re referring to the game as SenXin Aleste, there is no official transcription of the Japanese title 戦刃 Aleste as of yet; 戦刃 roughly means 'War Blade' or 'Battle Blade'; a literal transcription of the Kanji would be 'Senjin' – and you will find the title Senjin Aleste in quite a few sources. When asked about that, however, M2‘s Ken Senda explains: "To be honest, we haven't had a real discussion about the correct spelling yet. It's either 'Senxin' or 'SenXin', I personally lean more towards the second."
Naming confusion aside, playing SenXin Aleste in Akihabara is an absolute treat. The sound and atmosphere of the game centre, sitting in front of the machine’s wonderfully responsive stick and buttons and knowing that the game is not available outside Japan right now just feels amazing. Still, of course, we certainly wouldn´t mind a port to home consoles. Talking to M2‘s CEO Naoki Horii about our desire for an international release and the game’s unavailability to players overseas, Horii muses: "I'll say... that's a problem I'd like to tackle, and I'm preparing something for it." But right after, he adds: "I don't mean to imply that we'd be releasing a console version of SenXin Aleste. That's not exactly what I said…"
We can only wonder what the enigmatic CEO is hinting at.