M.U.S.H.A (also known as Musha Aleste: Full Metal Fighter Ellenor in japan) is a vertical Shoot em Up (SHMUP) made by Compile for the Sega Mega Drive and is the eighth game in the Aleste series (ninth if you count Zanac as the spiritual predecessor to the first Aleste). It is the second game in the series to deviate from controlling a small space ship and instead control a slightly larger mechanical mech stylized with a feudal Japanese ninja/samurai motif.
The game takes place in an alternative epoch of the tenryaku era of japan( or 2290AD in western versions), where research in the field of robotics has exponentially grown allowing computers, sentient AI, and colonial expansion to space, possible; Anachronistically fusing feudal architectures and designs with mechanised weapons. However a new space colony project goes horribly awry when the colony’s Ai, known as Dire51, becomes self-aware and decides to eliminate its creators, mankind itself. A squad sent to counter this attack is sent to thwart this strike, however all fall from the powerful wave motion cannon blasts inexplicably from a unknown source. However a solitary survivor takes the fight to the rouge AI, as the Pilot Ellenor (Terri in western versions) finishes the assault, alone.
While the cliques from well-known sci-fi franchises tepidly tie a narrative to the gameplay and does little to bolster M.U.S.H.A’s most prominent features, the presentation that derives from the bizarre alternative japan narrative gives the game a very unique aesthetic. This is a feature that is outstanding from the typical gritty industrial presentation of SHMUPS, influenced by Syd Meid and in some levels. H.R Giger.
The aesthetic of M.U.S.H.A fuses the industrial du jour of SHMUPs in the early nineties with oriental landscapes and structures, as well as enemy craft and bosses adapting the sensibilities of the tenryaku period to their designs. As you progress through the game, you will be treated to a landscape rich with steel plated pagodas mounted with turrets and missile platforms, as well as enemy mechs with armour mirroring Samurai Domaru (armour) and Ninja Garbs; one of the more infamous bosses in the game even resembles a mask from Noh theatre. A very appealing visual design that could compete with the SHMUP counterparts seen in the arcade.
While difficult to discern, the progressive scales used in the soundtrack seem to attempt to emulate a sort of synthesised rock/metal type score. Not fully realised due to the soundcard limitations of the Mega Drive’s (genesis) FM synthesis chip, however this does not hold the soundtrack’s quality back at all. The soundtrack is very memorable, with its frantic synthesised chords roaring through the speakers of the Mega Drive itself. The sound effects from weapons and explosions are very pronounced reflecting the strength of the respective weapon or severity of a ship or mech’s destruction. The game makes effective use of the sound design, on a console known for having a not so great soundcard installed.
The weapon system is nicely integrated into the game as well, allowing flexibility and customisation for personal preference or for situational use. There is rarely a moment on screen where upgrades are not available to the player, where the game is generous in dropping caches of projectile power ups and upgrades, even before/after the most dire of situations.
The first notable power up comes in the form of capsules known as P-chips, whose function is twofold. Collecting these capsules through shooting it’s container will not only increase the amount of projectiles (resembling Shurikens) up to four shots, but will also provide you with little drones that appear next to your mech. These drones can be stockpiled to a maximum of ninety nine. This helps the player significantly as these drones will regularly be hit by enemy fire, and can be used to shield the player from damage if need be. The drones can also change their formation at the players command into six different forms. These forms consist of Forward Form where drones fire forward, 3-Way where drones fire diagonally, Back aiming the drones backwards, Reverse that direct the drones to perpendicularly align themselves with your mech, Roll that causes the drones to rotate clockwise around your mech, and finally Free Form that allows the drone to roam free around the screen.
The game not only utilizes P-chips as the Players form of attack, but also three different upgrade caches that appear on the screen and are transported by friendly aircraft. These upgrades match the elements of Fire, Water and Thunder and alter the appearance of your mech depending on which you equip.. Fire allows the player to deploy bomb clusters, Water provides a circling energy shield around your mech, and Thunder equips your mech with cannons that fire wave motion energy beams. You can collective these upgrades up to four times, with each successive collection increasing the power of the upgrade equipped. Once you get hit the upgrade will become removed; acting ostensibly as a one hit shield. With this level of customization, a tactful player can exploit these power ups to utilize as shield at certain points of the game, making recovery from a stray bullet possible. With the amount of upgrades that appear on screen the player can switch from upgrade to upgrade when they are defenceless until a favourable upgrade appears. This is one of the most useful, potentially unintentional mechanics of the game, and be utilized by players who may not be experienced enough to hold on to one upgrade for long.
It has to be said that M.U.S.H.A as a whole is not as hard as other SHMUP counterparts, having many options at a players disposable to recover from a hit. Even when the player is killed, they do not restart the level but simply respawn on the same spot, though with the drawback of having to level up all upgrades and abilities from scratch. With that in mind the game, while reasonably forgiving, can still be difficult on the later levels and in places has some small flaws.
When equipping a fully upgraded weapon, the projectiles can obscure a part of the screen, making evading a hail of bullets heading in your direction difficult. This is particularly notable with the fourth Thunder upgrade that while transparent can still obfuscate enemy projectiles. In addition to this, when sequences of the game require you to evade parts of the environment, your drones may collide with these obstructions; causing unsuspecting players to quickly deplete their drone stockpile rather quickly. There are moments where changing the drone’s form to something such as Reverse or Back may be preferable. However these obstructions scroll on screen so suddenly that changing to a required form can at times be more detrimental than productive, and require the player to be very attentive.
In addition to this as stated previously the last few levels can be slightly difficult. The end boss in particular has a pattern that requires tightly packed evasive manoeuvres and due to the confined space, requires a lot of trial and error. The difficulty of some specific parts of the game in itself can be symmetrical in places to tougher SHMUPs, however this does not become too much of a problem. As you progress through the game’s earlier levels, the game will generously hand out a plethora of one ups (extra lives). You will notice how frequently you will earn extra lives and continues due to the relatively smooth learning curve of the earlier levels. This gives you enough leeway to learn the layout of a particular level quite quickly and even if you experience some trouble and require a game restart, most players may still see completion in as little as three hours to maybe under a week of practise.
This perhaps leads to the greatest flaws of the game in that it can be a little too generous with power up drops and extra lives, rendering it too easy. Experienced SHMUP players can effectively finish the game without losing a life in less than an hour. Where SHMUPS are usually a long travail of practise that can take weeks for veterans to perfect, this game can be completed by beginners in just a few days. This gives the game a very short lifespan in comparison to other SHMUPS.
While the game maybe too lenient and veteran SHMUP players searching for a challenge may be disappointed in its difficulty, M.U.S.H.A’s presentation, memorable levels, gritty music and profuse amount of enjoyment to be had, are more than enough to cause these complaints to fall by the wayside. A very fun and accessible title for veterans and beginners alike.