The very definition of short but sweet
Axelay is a shoot em up with a lot going for it - awesome level designs, excellently detailed graphics, and a soundtrack to end all soundtracks. That's not to say that it's perfect... just that it's a very good game, with one major flaw that kind of kills it. What is that flaw? You'll have to read it and find out! But first, the story!
Story: Illis, once a peaceful solar system, now invaded by an alien empire known as the Armada Of Annihilation. While they're invading each and every planet, the D117B Axelay fighter is sent out to find its lost weaponary and to stop the empire from dominating the universe. It's a simple story, but it's one that just gives you an excuse to blow shit up.
Gameplay: Unlike most shooters, Axelay doesn't keep to one scrolling direction. It can scroll vertically for a level, and then scroll horizontally for the next level, then rinse, lather and repeat two more times. As such, you'll need to be able to adjust accordingly. To emphasize this, each of the weapons you'll acquire as you go through work better in one direction than the other, so you'll need to try out each weapon combination. You'll be given vulcan shots, spread shots and thin laser beams to mix and match in order to dispatch of foes. On top of the weapon combination feature, another interesting thing about this is that if you get hit, you'll just lose the weapon you have equipped at the time, and when you lose all three of your selected weapons and stripped down to a crappy pea shooter, one more hit, and then it's the scrap heap with you. Usually in shoot em ups, it's just one hit and you're dead, but here, they're taking it a bit easier on you. You have a few lives and a few continues to use up, and upon reaching a high enough score, you gain an extra life.
So basically, Axelay isn't exactly like your typical shooter, and it shows further in the level designs. The level designs implement many cleverly placed obstacles to ensure that you're able to react quickly while gunning down enemy ships, and the actual designs are pretty creative in a way that's hard to describe with words, so I'll just say that when you're going through the levels, especially level 4, you'll find yourself short on breath and belief, because they're just that damn well designed.
You may be asking yourself "so.. what's the catch?". Here's the catch - too short. Standing at only six levels tall, Axelay isn't about to consume your entire month. Yes, the levels are about 3-7 minutes long each, and doing a no-death run would take about 30 minutes. That's only really about it. I mean, yeah, Axelay doesn't seem as hard as Ikaruga on normal mode, but on hard mode, this is a total bastard. Split second reflexes are a requirement if you want to get through the game, though surprisingly on normal mode, it's not quite a bitch, though it can get tricky every now and again. Lots of practise doesn't stop this game from feeling like a blur, but it'll keep you pretty busy, and it's not about to force you into breaking your controllers or anything.
Controls: The controls are excellent. The control scheme is pretty easy to get the hang of, and the ship moves at a good pace, which is needed in doding a lot of obstacles and enemy fire, especially in hard mode. You'd think that it'd be tricky to get used to the vertical controls because it has a slightly different view from, say, Galaga, but nope, it's about as smooth and slick, so you won't be hit by any curve balls in that department.
Graphics: Axelay was always best known for presenting some *bleep*ing excellent graphics. The horizontally scrolling levels are colorful enough to suit the storyline - so a bit pale, but not to the point of being depressing - and the amount of detail put into each object is pretty good, but it's the vertically scrolling levels that will ultimately impress you. The pseudo-3D landscapes amongst the shading of the flying objects, amongst a certain boss, will force your jaw to drop six feet under in amazement. Objects look like they're rushing at you and your ship in a realistic manner, or as realistic as the SNES can manage anyway... really, it just looks cool.
Audio: So yeah, it was mostly known for its high end graphics, but I always knew Axelay as that shoot em up with a very kickass soundtrack. Each track gets you into the spirit of blowing up enemy ships, except for the fourth level, which prefers to give a sort of haunting atmosphere, which makes sense, since it takes place in a deep, dark, mysterious cave. In fact, with the exception of the first level's track, the soundtrack is different from the usual fast paced sci-fi themes. It's more jazzy and a bit slower... It's a very memorable soundtrack as well, meaning you'll be hard pressed to get it out of your head. That's what I end up enjoying about the audio aspect of any game; tunes that don't want out of your head, and they're excellent anyway, so why would you want them out... unless you have no room because you're studying for an exam, then yeah, you'll want it out, but other than that, nah, great soundtrack!
Replay Value: Despite its shortness, Axelay is refreshingly addictive. No doubt that, even after finishing the game, you'll want to come back to it, but its shortness is also its weakness in this department. It goes by like a blur, so after the fifth or so playthrough, you'll probably get bored of it. What also hits the replay value like a ton of bricks is the lack of a two player mode. Usually, shoot em ups are fun with a second player, since you'll have someone to compete with for points, or to see who carries the duo the furtherest, but here, not even a 2 player alternating mode? Come on, Konami, what were you thinking!?
Overall: Axelay is a very well crafted game that won't be leaving your SNES anytime soon. Its excellent soundtrack, graphics and level designs will keep your body parts glued to the screen, and the intense gameplay, especially on the hard difficulty setting, is going to keep you on the edge of your seat. Bit of a shame that it's short and only one player, or this would be on my top five list of favorite SNES games.
Replay Value: 7/10