Retro Gaming Retrospective: “M.U.S.H.A.” (SEGA Genesis)
Nintendo recently announced that SEGA Genesis games are coming to the Nintendo Switch via a Switch Online “Expansion Pack”, so I thought the time was right to highlight one of the most prized games included with this additional subscription service: M.U.S.H.A. This write-up is a bit more in-depth than a standard “review,” so I’m winging it with the whole “retrospective” thing.
Time to give M.U.S.H.A a bit of The Splintering’s trademark TLC… Prepare for bemusement!
What is it?
M.U.S.H.A. … Who the hell has even heard of this game? It has a dumb name, anyway. What exactly is a MUSHA in the first place? Well, SEGA-tards, “musha” translated from Japanese (武者) means “warrior,” and in terms of the title itself, M.U.S.H.A. IS AN ACRONYM FOR (sorry- left the caps lock on there) “Metallic Uniframe Super Hybrid Armor.” So that’s not convoluted at all. Now you definitely want to play the game, yes?
Well, you friggin’ should! M.U.S.H.A. is truly one of the great vertical shooters of the 16-bit era. Developed by Compile and published in the United States by Seismic, if you give any kind of flying fork about shooters, you would do well to play this game.
So, now let’s reminisce.
M.U.S.H.A. (Known as MUSHA Aleste in Japan) is the third installment in the Aleste series of games by Compile. The story takes place in an alternate history of the Tenryaku era (天暦), which, for those of us not formally acquainted with Japanese history, that’s roughly 947-957 AD. In this alternate history, Japan has advanced technologically at a ridiculous rate and has begun colonizing space. But in true sci-fi form, the computer controlling the space colony of “Little Japan” decides that all humans are bad. The computer, known as
Skynet Dire 51, thus turns the environmental control system against all mankind.
You play as a woman named Terri, (Ellinor in Japan), the pilot of this special Metallic Uniframe Super-thingy. As the sole survivor of the attack force sent to counter
Mother Brain’s Dire 51’s threat, only you stand between HAL’s Dire 51’s forces and humankind’s total annihilation!
And then you shoot a lot of stuff, and you sometimes run into a recurring boss robot named “Big Asia” (大亜). Yep, that’s his really-real name. Does anyone play shooters for their rich and engaging story? Nah, me neither. So let’s talk about where the game really shines: pretty much everywhere else.
In short, the game looks, sounds and plays fantastic. Throughout you collect P-chips which both power up your main gun and provide you “option” satellites, which hover around you, adding to your arsenal. You also pick up special weapons including bombs, lasers and shields (I stick with the shields, mostly). Otherwise, I won’t go into the game mechanics in too much detail as that is really better served by those doing a full “review.” Some other jerks, anyway…
Almost everything in the game is masterfully crafted. Certainly one could wax ad nauseam over the soundtrack, so let’s take a quick listen…
Not bad for 1990, just two short years into the Genesis’ life span. This was the work of Toshiaki Sakoda (only known as Washija in the end credits), who not only did the amazing tunes in M.U.S.H.A. (including the above track, Full Metal Fighter, which was given a spot on Hardcore Gaming 101’s Best Video Game Music of All Time list), but he also composed tracks for- holy crap – Alien Crush and Devil’s Crush (The latter known as Dragon’s Fury on Genesis, for you non TG-16 aficionados).
Based on the game’s credits, it’s more difficult to pin down who exactly was responsible for M.U.S.H.A.‘s level designs (possibly Kazuyuki Nakashima, more on him in a bit), but especially some of the aesthetic choices in the backgrounds are worth mentioning.
I’m going to drop a video here that shows off one of my favorite stages, aptly named Stage Four. I apologize in advance for some of the wonkiness in the video capture’s frame rate which causes some of the weapons and explosions to look a bit off.
Hopefully, you got a good watch and saw how well the graphic artists used the power of the Genesis to produce something truly unique for the time. The cloud transparency and silhouetted enemies behind each lightning strike is still something to behold, even from the early days of SEGA’s 16-bit powerhouse.
At the risk of burdening this reflection with too many videos, I still want to exhibit one more stage as describing it goes only so far when you can see it for yourself. This is Stage Three, and with it comes one of the most masterfully executed moments in shooters from that time. Take a look, and see if you notice where exactly the “gotcha” moment is, when the developers made you, the player, the butt of their very subtle joke.
Did you catch it? At the beginning of the stage, it sure seems like it is going to be a very bland one, with nothing but metal tiles beneath your ship. But just as it gets to be distressingly dull, the tiles all fall out, the beautiful multi-tiered, parallax scrolling lava river canyon is revealed, and it’s as if the designers were saying, “Hah! Fooled you! You thought that this stage was going to suck, but it’s actually bad ass!” Add to that the perfectly timed change in the music just as your ship begins to move forward again, and it’s brilliant. The game really is packed with little moments like this, and they are a pleasant reward for the attentive player.
But now I am obligated to talk about how this game relates to the larger Aleste series. So how does M.U.S.H.A. fit into the overall series?
Meeeehhhhhhhh, I’m not sure that it does.
Okay, so Aleste and Aleste 2 were released on the MSX in Japan and ported to the west as Power Strike and Power Strike 2 for the SEGA Master System. According to Power Strike‘s manual, scientists accidentally created a bunch of mutant plants that take over the human body with their “creeping tentacles” (yes, it specifically mentions these) in an attempt to take over the earth. Oh, and you fly a space ship, not a mech suit… and the game takes place in the 21st century.
The title screen music is the same composition as M.U.S.H.A.‘s, and the gameplay is similar enough, I suppose, but the Power Strike/Aleste games are really more sequels to the Compile’s earlier MSX game, Zanac, though their plots tie together just as tenuously as they do to the M.U.S.H.A. timeline.
Well, that certainly clears things up, right? My Japanese is… well, virtually non-existent, but I think that page says “story” up at the top, though I am not 100% certain that it isn’t an epilepsy warning, or something.
From what I’ve come up with, I would say that M.U.S.H.A. is, in fact, some kind of spin-off from the broader Aleste series, which would continue with Super Aleste (known as Space Megaforce in the US) on that other non-SEGA system, the Super Turd with Purple Buttons (STPB). M.U.S.H.A. would get a more dedicated follow-up of its own on SEGA CD: Robo Aleste, which takes place in the middle of the 16th century, smack dab in the middle of the Sengoku period, which was during the early days of Japan’s unification. Sooooo… yeah. It’s a sequel, I guess. At least you play as a mech in that one.
The Men Behind the Metal
Enough trying to make sense of all this story-time nonsense. Let’s examine the good folks who made all of the bullets and explosions possible: Compile.
Compile was a Japanese developer that worked across several gaming platforms between the mid-1980s and early 2000s. The company was founded in 1983 by Masamitsu Niitani (credited as the producer of M.U.S.H.A. as Moo Niitani). Other than their early MSX games, such as the Aleste series, here’s a few more of their most notable titles from their catalogue: Golvellius (SEGA Master System), The Guardian Legend (NES), Blazing Lazers (TG-16), Alien Crush (TG-16), and, Jesus-halo-pooping Christ, Puyo Puyo (Mega Drive/Genesis).
It is worth noting Compile’s history as a shadow developer, which was a fairly common practice at the time. For those out of the know, this is a bit like the process of ghost writing, but with video games.
Did you think that Hudson actually developed Blazing Lazers? Narp. Ten seconds with the game, and I’m sure you’ll see how it parallels the creative hallmarks of M.U.S.H.A. Did you think Naxat Soft was the developer of both Alien Crush and Devil’s Crush? That’s what Naxat Soft wanted you to think, but Compile was actually the collective genius behind those, possibly the greatest two video pinball games ever made (However, they had nothing to do with the abysmal Dragon’s Revenge, which was the “sequel” to Devil’s Crush, and you are advised to stay away from that heap). Oh, and Compile also shadow-developed Ghostbusters on the Genesis for SEGA, too.
As you probably noticed, much of their pedigree is in the vertical shooter genre (and no, I won’t use that dumb abortion of a word to describe a “shoot-em-up”… you know what it is), but there are clearly some very distinct and successful deviations from that formula. We’ve already mentioned how super-duper the composer Toshiaki Sakoda is, but what has he done for us lately? Well, he went on to compose the soundtrack in Evolution 2 on Dreamcast and the GameCube follow-up, Evolution Worlds. He also did the tunes in a little Saturn game called Baroque, which was later re-released on PS2, Wii, and more recently on Nintendo Switch.
Let’s move to the supervisor of M.U.S.H.A., Jemini Hirono. Hirono’s name is attached in one way or another to several Compile games from Zanac to Power Strike to Puyo Puyo, the last of which became Compile’s most successful franchise and was at the time ported to the west as Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine on Genesis and Kirby’s Avalanche on the STPB. Hirono jumped from seat to seat while at Compile, doing programing work, sound and, eventually, directing and producing Zanac X Zanac on the Sony Play-the-system-upside-down-because-its-crap-Station (PSX).
The stupendous artwork and visual splendor of M.U.S.H.A. may very well be the handiwork of its art director, Kazuyuki Nakashima. Nakashima also worked on Blazing Lazers, and eventually moved on to an arcade developer, Raizing, along with several other Compile creators such as Sotoyama Yuuichi and Yokoo Kenichi. He worked on several projects with Raizing including Super Bomberman: Power Bomber W (a puzzle game with Puyo Puyo roots) and arcade games, such as Bloody Roar 2.
So what happened to Compile? Burned to toast? Vaporized to milk shake? Pounded into the ground like an overused classic game reference?
No, unfortunately a much less dramatic fate befell them in 2002: bankruptcy. SEGA acquired full ownership of the Puyo Puyo series at that time (take THAT, Kirby’s Avalanche!) and handed off development duties for the Puyo series to Sonic Team. As for Compile and its staff, many separated into what is essentially two separate companies: Compile Heart (headed by Masamitsu Niitani himself), and Milestone Inc., both of which went on to make some pretty interesting games.
Compile Heart has maintained the legacy of the company in name, and they also took with them the rights to most all of Compile’s previous works. Their most notable game in my opinion is Hyperdimension Neptunia, published by SEGA in Japan and NIS in the US, which is an RPG that parodies the console wars of old. In the magical world of Gamindustri (Yep, no kidding), the world is split into four regions each ruled by a goddess representing a console manufacturer, who are: Vert (representing the Xbox 360), Blanc (representing the Wii), Noire (representing the PS3) and Neptune (representing the forgotten SEGA Neptune console) who is trapped int the human world of Histoire, and must be restored to save Histoire. She is of course assisted by a girl named Compa (sounds like Compile, eh?), among other girls representing developers/publishers associated with the game.
In contrast, Milestone Inc. maintained the legacy of Compile in their prowess in developing killer arcade shooters. Developing largely on SEGA’s Naomi board, several of their games saw a Japanese release on the SEGA Dreamcast even after the little white box was discontinued. Three of these shooters, Chaos Field, Radirgy and Karous saw a release in the West on the Nintendo Wii as the Ultimate Shooting Collection, which none of you jerks bought. So, if you are at all a fan, you owe it to yourself to track down a copy of this collection immediately. I got my copy for just $3 at GameStop several years ago, but Wii games are becoming tougher to track down these days. You can also get a standalone US version of Chaos Field on GameCube, if that somehow works out better for you.
Milestone sadly folded in March 2013 after its president, Hiroshi Kimura, was arrested for violating the Financial Instruments and Exchange Act when he sold securities for his sister company, MS Bio Energy.
So while Milestone is gone, the spirit of Compile lives on at Compile Heart, and their fantastic game M.U.S.H.A. is considered the classic that it deservedly should be. Even though I promised that I wouldn’t review the game, here’s my mini review anyway:
It am good game… you like.
Is it worth $300 for a complete copy on eBay, though? No, of course not. No single game really is. I was one of the lucky ones who managed to pick it up for $20 at my local games store back in 1994 or so, before M.U.S.H.A. became the holy grail of Genesis collections. But now that it’s coming soon to Nintendo’s expanded Switch Online service, there’s no time like the present (or October, to be exact) to experience the game for yourself!
Thanks for reading!
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