Aleste Branch
Image: M2

Aleste is one of those big names of the '90s. Games like MUSHA Aleste on Mega Drive, GG Aleste on Game Gear or Super Aleste on SNES are some of the best shooters on their respective platforms – and today, also some of the most expensive.

Still, the last 'classic' entry in the Aleste-series released was 1993‘s GG Aleste 2 on Game Gear, which came to Europe as Power Strike II (alas, not in the US), shortly after which developer Compile basically moved all its game-making-efforts to the production of new iterations of Puyo Puyo.

So when news got out that M2 – the company behind Japan’s finest ports of classic games, as well as some of the best emulators, including those inside the Mega Drive Mini and PC Engine Mini – acquired the rights for the whole series, fans were pretty excited, especially when M2 then announced an all-new series entry called Aleste Branch.

However, that was back in 2019, and in the meantime, M2 released the excellent Aleste Collection on PS4 and Switch, which contained the all-new GG Aleste 3. It also brought the equally excellent SenXin Aleste to Japanese game centres. With so much new Aleste content out there, it's little wonder that few noticed M2 had gone a little quiet on Aleste Branch.

Aleste Branch
Image: M2

"The last time we sat down like this in 2019, I said that Aleste Branch should be released in the spring of 2020," says Naoki Horii, CEO of M2, as we sit in the company's office in Tennodai, near Tokyo. "That may have been a bit of a tall tale… I think that was a bit exaggerated and optimistic. I still thought it was possible at that time, but when we really started production, the work became more and more, and Mr. Yamanaka [Masato Yamanaka] kept coming up with new ideas that he wanted to incorporate. And so the production time became quite a bit longer than initially anticipated - and it's still going on.“

Masato Yamanaka, whom Horii-san is referring to, can't help but smile, having just booted the latest build of Aleste Branch on an M2 office PC connected to a giant TV screen. This build, he explains, was only finished a few hours ago and is a very early version; while the game can already be played from start to finish, it is still missing a lot of fine-tuning and polish – in terms of tech as well as in terms of level-design and enemy-formations.

Nevertheless, we're handed the controller, and we realise that we're probably the first outside M2 to play this latest version of the upcoming heir to a great, great shooter legacy – and it becomes clear pretty quickly that Aleste Branch absolutely has the potential to do its ancestors proud.

Like in all Aleste-games, the levels scroll vertically, and the ship of our selected pilot Ellinor Waizen (one of three playable characters) has two different attacks: an upgradeable main gun that shoots straight ahead and various sub-weapons that are activated by pick-ups left behind by certain enemies. These sub-weapons are more involved than those in many of Branch’s predecessors; holding the corresponding button, the ship charges a powerful attack – but only for a limited number of times. That design quirk promises interesting tactical decisions, especially when facing tough bosses at the end of each lengthy stage.

Aleste Branch
Naoki Horii, CEO of M2 — Image: Thomas Nickel

Said stages are now entirely polygonal in nature and look a lot different compared to what was shown in 2019. "Both SenXin Aleste and GG Aleste 3 rely on pixel graphics," Yamanaka-san elaborates. "So I asked myself if it makes sense and if it is right to follow the same course with Aleste Branch. I came to the conclusion that a different look might be better received by the team and the fans, so we started from scratch. All the images we showed in 2019 are no longer part of the game; we started all over again with the new style.“

While the 2D iteration from three years ago looked pretty fine, it becomes clear pretty early that going polygonal was the right decision. The levels feel fluid and dynamic – helped by some sweeping camera work – and the first couple of screens paint a loving tribute to another classic: pilot Ellinor takes off in a sci-fi-structure reminiscent of the opening moments of Treasure’s timeless classic Ikaruga. Later levels delight with clever nods to earlier Aleste games; enemies throwing deadly, returning energy discs or a huge boss being pulled through the clouds on chains are clear nods to MUSHA Aleste, while giant battleships floating into the screen from left and right feel like nods to the Game Gear titles.

Still, Aleste Branch is not simply a retread of past ideas and successes; tributes like those mentioned don´t take away from all the new settings, the new music and new enemies. While Aleste Branch often reminds you of the classics from Compile or Raizing, it also feels very much like a modern shooting game.

Still, a few questions remain; we´re still missing a release date, for example. "If we had a strict release schedule and deadline, we would have to make a lot of compromises," replies Yamanaka-san. "I guess in another company or even an indie studio, that would be the case, but I didn't want that. I wanted to do something that only M2 could do."

Aleste Branch
M2's Masato Yamanaka — Image: Thomas Nickel

So it will be done when it´s done. This leaves the question of the platform, which even Yamanaka-san, who develops the game in Unity, has no answer for. However, Horii-san decides to offer a final bit of information. "We're releasing the game on Meta Quest!“ After a short laugh, he quickly adds: "No, no, I'm just kidding. I think it will come to consoles first and foremost. But if the opportunity arises, I'd like to bring it to arcades as well.“

Playing this early version of Aleste Branch leaves the firm impression that this new iteration of the classic series is in good hands. Still, more information on a date or a platform would be very welcome. However, that probably won´t be too far off; tomorrow, December 23rd, M2 will hold another one of its now-famous live-streams on its YouTube Channel. Aside from as-of-yet secret guest appearances and the almost-certain return of the ever-popular Christmas tree costume of M2 Shot Triggers director Kazuki Kubota, we're also promised some news about Aleste Branch – maybe even a new trailer and a release date?

That would certainly be a nice surprise for the holidays!