Alisia Dragoon falls into an awkward part of collective gaming memory, being one of those games with the peculiar invisibility that comes from being available everywhere (immediately losing that import-only allure) and by nobody whose name will earn you any of those all-important nerd points. Gainax’s involvement is really more of a “Ah, that’s interesting.” footnote, Mecano Associates may have created an excellent soundtrack for the game but you’d struggle to find much else by them, and while Game Arts may be famous for their Lunar and Grandia series’ trying to go from those to this is a little like encouraging a fan of Gran Turismo to pick up Omega Boost. There’s just no angle that gives the game an easy hook like saying “It’s by Treasure” or “Music by Yuzo Koshiro” does for other niche titles. The closest you can get to any sort of accessible reference point is to say that it bears some similarity to Game Arts 80’s computer duology Thexder; but even then the only real link is that they’re by the same developer and both feature a lock-on laser system.
All of this is a real shame because Alisia Dragoon’s not “Alright if you can’t afford Alien Soldier” (not that Alisia’s exactly cheap these days either…) but a fantastic and unique sidescrolling action game in its own right, one that still crackles with energy and inventiveness twenty-six years after its release.
Alisia Dragoon takes you on an adventure you through a visually stunning techno-fantasy-horror landscape that effortlessly mixes magical creatures with bio-mechanical flying fortresses and the ruins of long abandoned high tech civilisations as if getting all of these disparate elements working together was no trouble at all. The enemies encountered along the way all have that pleasantly disgusting look that seems to be unique to older pixel art – think of the gruesome monster-babies in Mystic Defender, or Shinobi III‘s mutated Hydra boss – that special sort of “detailed gritty-gross” feel. Whether dodging stone slabs dropped from above by robed skeletons or knocking an assassin off his floating platform for your own personal us they all fit the environment they’re contained in well and the vast majority will be exclusive to just one specific stage or even one part of one area of one stage.
Now I know “environmental storytelling” tends to conjure up images of “Welcome to hell!” written in blood on a wall next to a corpse but Alisia Dragoon’s got some great examples of this technique; using background details or other unique pixellated flourishes to enhance the world without interfering with that crucial action-adventure tempo, starting quite literally from the pre-title credits sequence. Just take a look at this:
This scrolling artwork is both something a bit pretty to pass a few seconds before the title screen shows up (and can be skipped if that small amount of time is still too much to bear) but also depicts some sort of ancient battle between a large monster and a deity-like figure, followed by the sealing/releasing of further monsters, before leaving us with a new horde and a larger freshly-hatched fiend attacking some people who are turned towards the large drago(o)n symbol that makes up the game’s logo, with the final humanoid figure on its knees with arm outstretched, almost praying for assistance. It doesn’t take much thought to see how this mural ties in with themes presented in the game’s plot (even if some of these details are locked away in the manual), featuring as it does an evil priest looking to release their demonic master from their cocoon in the first stage alone (which itself leads up to this dramatic scene with a background layer dotted with crumbling murals that bear a striking resemblance to the far-left section of this opening scene). I also have to point out that while Alisia is a silent protagonist her first and only reaction to being taunted by this priest is to shoot them in the face. She doesn’t want to negotiate. She isn’t weepily hoping for another way to end this conflict, saddened by all the violence around her. She just wants them dead. Back in 1992 I didn’t have a lot of gaming heroines to look up to that fell outside the “Fast but weak” pigeonhole so Alisia’s quiet dedication to killing everything that moved was something of a revelation and I still enjoy her no-nonsense approach to would-be demon revivers.
And the subtle storytelling doesn’t stop there; every level has something of interest or relevance even if it’s “only” noticing the care that went into ensuring that every area of every stage starts and ends with a link to the next, whether that’s traversing a mountain range before entering a dark cave or passing through an enemy fortress to the marshland beyond. These small touches give the stages the sense of continuity and add an almost cinematic feel to Alisia’s pursuit that would have been otherwise missing.
Which isn’t to say that the game’s about the story – there’s really nothing to analyse here as the slender plot still amounts to little more than a typical “Setting off to kill the big bad thing and any little bad things that get in the way” scenario – but it does mean that when you’re hit a laser blast from a rickety old robot in some sort of run-down facility your first reaction is to think “Eek, some of the robots in here still work!” and not “Who in the staff roll do I blame for putting this sodding thing here?”. 1992 was a big year for great games – Sonic 2, Alone in the Dark, Assault Suits Valken, and many more classics all debuted around this time but we weren’t quite out of that artificial-feeling platformer era yet, where a lot of games could easily be reduced down to “something to stand on” “enemy to fight” and “superfluous thing to collect” in a handful of different tilesets. Alisia Dragoon’s commitment to cohesiveness was ambitious at the time and it still stands out today.
These details would all be for nothing if the gameplay didn’t match the quality of the visuals: There’s a “simple depth” to Alisia Dragoon’s design that lays every tool at your feet from the beginning and then encourages you to make full use of them. In another action game this would usually mean new weapons or power-ups but instead Alisia’s accompanied by four AI-controlled summons that all have distinct strengths, weaknesses, and to some extent personalities that can be switched between at will. Let’s take a look at them:
Dragon Frye (Fire Dragon “Owaro-Chiguzas”): This is the smart one as it will independently turn to face enemies behind Alisia before unleashing a fireball (up to three, depending on its power level). The downside is these fireball(s) have no homing ability so they fly straight out, hit the first thing in their path, and that’s it. They’re a good all-rounder in most non-boss settings so long as you don’t try bringing them out in small spaces. Here’s a nice little detail for you: The dragon will open its mouth, ready to fire, once it’s charge bar’s full.
Ball o’ Fire (Burning Sphere “Ru-Mardokia-Rui”): This grumpy-but-lazy fiery blob will passively hurt enemies if it happens to touch them but it mostly just trails behind Alisia. You’d think that’d make it a bit useless but it has a trick up its sleeve: This helper’s charge bar doesn’t ready an attack but instead maintains Ball’s largest size; as it comes into contact with enemies or their shots it will shrink, and only when it’s at its smallest will it start to receive damage. This makes it very tough and a practical “safe” option if you want something around to absorb a little flak but your others are currently too vulnerable to risk.
Thunder Raven (Thunder Bird “Fel-Darth-Mei”): Passive in a different way, this flashy bird has no clue what’s going on and just constantly charges up (it’s got the longest charge of all) then releases its “smart bomb” attack the instant anything hostile is on-screen. Like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut in most instances, but pretty helpful for any larger bosses that tend to hang around.
Boomerang Lizard (Boomerang Lizard “Lance Ania”): Like the dragon this little lizard will do its best to proactively harm individual enemies, using boomerangs (up to three) that can pass through the scenery and attempts to loosely home in on as many enemies on all sides as possible as they follow a vague send/return arc around the lizard. Not always the most helpful in a boss fight, but perfect for any tight areas the dragon struggles with.
There’s a fifth and final option too: To not use any help at all. There’s no direct benefit to doing this – no secret ending, better rank, or more powerful thunder magic to balance out the lack of assistance – but if you either want to conserve her helpers life bars or to prove that Alisia can wipe the floor with an ancient evil’s horde all by herself then you’re more than welcome to do so.
And this is all before you get to Alisia herself, who is as unusual as the summons that shadow her. Her only attack is a blast of homing lightning that requires you to constantly balance the need to attack everything in sight with the knowledge that doing so will deplete her energy reserves – let them drain to nothing and she’s left with nothing more than sparkly fingers until you give her a moment to recharge. There’s also a full-power “Rolling Bolt” attack that’ll damage everything on screen, but only if you can avoid firing at all for long enough to let it charge up enough; not an easy task even at the best of times.
Possessing a strong auto-homing attack as standard removes much of the worry about aiming beyond “Is the enemy in front or behind Alisia?” (the answer is often “Both”) and makes it easier to spend time concentrating on her surroundings; something you’ll need to do as enemies can attack from every angle at all times, sometimes sweeping in from above without warning or sneakily leaping up from underneath. Thankfully Alisia is as agile while shooting as she is at any other time, and the game will frequently force you to jump, duck, and dodge around enemy fire while facing hordes of enemies on unpredictable terrain.
Combine these systems together and you’ve got a tough game that makes sure you always have everything you need right at your fingertips: You will never, ever, be left wishing you’d picked a different summon before setting out or clinging on with little more than harsh words to defend yourself and a sliver of health as each level starts her off completely refreshed and all upgrades for both Alisia and her companions are permanent (unless the helpers themselves die, and even then the game provides more upgrades than you need to max them all out), leaving no place for Gradius-style moments where you are forced to play perfectly or not at all.
None of this makes Alisia Dragoon a pushover: It will punish your mistakes, and being forced to restart a stage when you die means you can’t bumble your way through on lives alone – not that you start off with more than the one you’re already using anyway – but even when you’re struggling to survive it’s clear and consistent and fair from start to finish. We also need to take a moment to recognise that the game has a very positive and encouraging concept of challenge that always offers players a realistic chance of success and frequently leaves recovery items in sensible places (with more off the beaten path if you’re brave enough to look) that allow you plenty of opportunities to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
So it may be a hard game to complete, but it’s an easy one to love: There’s a lot in here you won’t see anywhere else, making it feel as fresh as a daisy no matter how broad your gaming palate and the lack of padding – no “boss rush” before the final battle or second loop endings here – keeps everything exciting and enjoyable. If anything Alisia’s strengths have only become more pronounced with age, and this little one-off packs in everything anyone could hope for from a premium 16-bit title.
Game Arts still have an official page up here; do pay attention to the tiny screenshots at the bottom as all of the images they show are impossible to replicate in the main game, and reveal early designs for several monsters as well as Alisia herself!
And if you’d like to have a look through the beautiful (and lore-filled) Japanese manual the kind soul here has put up a full set of scans.