For Megadrive (aka Sega Genesis) owners living in Japan or Europe, Alien Soldier was their last hurrah before the 16-bit consoles gave way to the 32-bit Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation. And what a hurrah it was: a visually intense 2D action game made up almost entirely of boss battles. Sadly, players in North America weren't invited to the party. Now, some 12 years later, however, Sega has taken the necessary steps to correct that oversight by making Alien Soldier available as a download for the Wii's Virtual Console service.
Each of the game's 25 stages consists of a short area populated with scrubby enemies, followed by a set piece encounter with a large, often multisegmented beast that has multiple attacks and a massive health meter. The side-scrolling environments are lush and throw out every visual effect in the Genesis console's book of tricks. But you'll probably be too busy admiring (and fighting) the menagerie of mechanical or mutant spiders, birds, lobsters, and other monstrosities to gawk at the scenery. Meanwhile, the soundtrack for this intense trip consists of a bunch of high-tech sound effects, some encouraging vocal comments, and pulsing music similar in style to what Treasure, the game's developer, concocted for another seminal 16-bit thrill ride: Gunstar Heroes.
Epsilon-Eagle is the name given to your birdlike hero. He can run, jump, hover in place, teleport across the screen, and make use of six different guns. You can only cycle through four of them at any given time, but you get to choose which four you want before the game starts. When your health is full, you can also press down+C to fly across the screen in a deliciously deadly burst of fire known as the "Phoenix Force." It takes a little time to adjust to the controls because you have to double-tap the buttons to switch weapons, hover, and make use of the counter ability. However, they soon become second nature. The Wii Remote works just fine, though you may want to use the Classic Controller if you're not comfortable tapping the A button--which is right next to the D pad--to change weapons.
Figuring out how to dodge attacks from bosses while hammering their weak spots is only a small part of surviving each encounter. The bigger parts involve picking the right weapons and not running out of ammunition in the middle of the fight. You'll love how the flame gun thrashes organic enemies, but it doesn't do much to mechanoids. For mechanoids, the two beam weapons are best, though they don't pack much ammo. Or you can try to make do with the average firepower of the traditional blaster and homing weapons, which pack plenty of ammo. Ammunition is a major concern. It's easy enough to grab ammo boxes during the sections before the boss encounters. You can also top off your life meter by using the counter move to catch and convert the enemy's bullets into health, but each gun can only carry so many bullets. If you miss too often, you'll run out and find yourself basically tickling the enemy with a wimpy steam gun. As you can imagine, it feels strange to worry about conserving ammo in an action game, but that's just another thing that makes Alien Soldier unique.
Whether it's because you're eating damage or running out of bullets, you can expect to die frequently every time you encounter a new boss. Lucky for you, the easy difficulty setting gives you unlimited continues and lets you use passwords to pick up the fight later. Aside from those concessions though, the use of the label "easy" is a misnomer. It'll take you two or three hours to work through the game the first time on the easy setting. Enemies on the hard setting are only slightly more difficult. The big difference is that you don't get any passwords or continues on the hard setting. Yes, to beat the game's toughest setting, you have to do it in one shot without running out of health. In either case, despite consisting almost entirely of boss battles, it takes just as long to get through Alien Soldier as it does traditional action romps put together with regular run-and-jump levels.
The only real problem with Alien Soldier is that it takes time to click. You have to learn the controls, figure out what the weapons do, learn the patterns of the bosses, and figure out how to keep your ammo stocked. But once you learn how to make your way, things really do click and you start totally feeling what it must be like to be an army of one trading firepower with some of the universe's largest, most elaborate creatures. That's a great feeling.