Capitalizing on the success of Commando and Ikari Warriors along with countless popular action films of the time, the late eighties saw a massive explosion of overhead action games where the player controls a lone warrior out to destroy an entire advanced army. Some of these imitators like Data East's Heavy Barrel and Bloody Wolf were fairly successful and are fondly remembered today. Last Alert, however, was neither.
Last Alert was created by Shin-Nihon Laser Soft, but this developer was actually a division of Telenet formed specifically to create games that would take advantage of then new CD based gaming hardware. Staffed by several Telenet, Renovation, and Wolf Team regulars, their most notable work under the Laser Soft name would be the Cosmic Fantasy series along with many sequels to Valis. After a brief but prolific run, however, they were folded back into Wolf Team itself in 1994.
If one were to look at a list of games published by Telenet, one would see that many of their games are almost great but not quite there. Perhaps their tendency to constantly re-assign and realign their developers into so many different groups is what led to many of their games feeling unfocused despite generally solid premises and presentation. Despite Laser Soft, Renovation, Wolf Team, Reno, Commseed, Riot and a few other B-teams operating almost independently of each other, there are certain deficiencies in their games' art, controls and structure that make it obvious at a glance that you're playing a Telenet product.
It's fitting then, that so many of Telenet's core qualities are prevalent in Last Alert, one of the very first games to be released on the PC Engine CD in 1989 (along with Telenet's own Valis II a few months earlier). Last Alert, at a glance is a mediocre clone of the great Data East game Bloody Wolf, but it actually has a few unique things about it that make it worth playing. The most obvious being the anime inspired story sequences between each mission. These are a great look back at what was briefly considered the future of video games. Though barely animated, Telenet was actually at the forefront of both the "it's just like you're in an animated movie" design mindset of many Japanese CD games of the time, and of the soon to explode FMV craze. While the PC Engine CD is more than capable of playing live action video files, Telenet kept things simple with barely animated anime inspired story sequences. It makes for a cheap but fun experience. A grindhouse action flick compared to the hyper serious, unintentionally hilarious attempts at high art several game publishers at the time were attempting with their own live action productions.
The game's story, like Strike Commando and the countless other Z-grade action films that inspired it, is a pastiche of every popular seventies and eighties movie cliché. Guy Kazama is the country's best commando. He must undertake a mission to destroy The Force Project, a coalition of four direct to video action movie villains bent on world conquest. We have South African warlord Colonel Kadat, Mr. Lee "of the Hong Kong mafia," corrupt politician Chairman Steve, and finally Russian physicist Dr. Garcia. Dr. Garcia stands out the most as he inexplicably has pointy ears and long, flattened silver hair like an elf out of The Lord of the Rings while also having a cybernetic arm right out of The Terminator.
While taking down Mr. Lee, we're told between levels that Guy enters a secret martial arts tournament held by Lee every year to find out more information about him. So it should be no surprise that Mr. Lee's look and even the way he fights is stolen directly from Kien Shih's performance in Enter the Dragon. Homage is nice, but Mr. Lee's English voice actor is particularly bad, using an outdated, stereotypical "Chinese" accent in case we couldn't tell where he's supposed to be when his introductory cutscene involves a gong and a red and gold dragon ensconced temple. Given the international and eclectic cast of characters it really stands out since his Charlie Chan caliber dialogue and "Kentucky hillbilly" are the only accents attempted by the English voice cast.
Despite the low hanging fruit of the character design, however, Laser Soft chose to be a bit more ambitious with the game's structure. Each level can scroll in any direction, and the player often has a secondary objective beyond just reaching the end of the level. The slightly non-linear level design lets Laser Soft play around with having a few optional and hidden areas in each mission as well where you can get extra items or fight a few extra enemies.
In a game all about running around shooting the same enemies over and over again, why would you want to do that? Because unlike most games of this kind, you actually gain experience points from each foe you defeat. Getting enough experience increases your maximum hit points and also unlocks more weapons for you to choose from. This gets interesting because each weapon you unlock is not necessarily better than the last. It really comes into play in one particular level where you have to rescue the President of the United States. He's tied up in the middle of a room, and the enemy you fight here circles around the room firing shots everywhere (was there a particular movie or manga that both this game and Metal Gear Solid ripped off?). If too many of his or your stray bullets hit the President, you lose, so you have to actually use one of your less potent weapons here and take your time. It's the high point of the game's boss fights as almost every other one can be won by just standing in front of the boss and blasting away with all of your most powerful gear.
Whenever you confront a boss, there's a brief voiced dialogue before the fight, which will often be longer and more amusing than the fight itself. Most infamous is "Alan," the credited English voice actor of Guy Kazama mispronouncing the word stingy. "People don't like it when you’re sting-ee." There are also some brief text interludes between levels that, typical of rushed Japanese translations, manage to be extremely specific without actually revealing any useful character information. "You have learned about Colonel Kadat's men and what they are like." Information that remains unrevealed: What you learn about them and what they are like.
Something else that makes the game fun is the relatively high number of enemies that can appear on the screen at once if you don't keep moving. Contrary to the low number of enemies one fights at a time in many other eight bit shooters, it's not unusual to get completely swarmed in later levels if you stay in one place too long. It's actually a bit of an improvement over Bloody Wolf, as the limited and more stationary enemy placement makes it a bit easier to take your time through that game. That said, like most Telenet titles, the controls and hit detection are questionable.
Guy can run and shoot in eight directions, and can hold down the fire button to strafe. Another button lets you use whatever special weapon you have equipped, and you can pause the game to switch special weapons and guns whenever you want. It's very easy to pick up, but the problem is an inconsistent delay when you turn and shoot at the same time. Sometimes the game thinks you're trying to shoot behind you despite changing directions before pressing the fire button. The entire game of Last Alert is made up of running around shooting people, so you'd think this particular aspect of the controls would have been attended to with more care. In addition, enemies will sometimes decide to run through solid walls to get you too. It's very "impressive" to see firsthand.
The animation of the characters in general is barely there, though it's nice that the sprites and Guy's clothing change depending on what type of area you’re in. Which weapon you have equipped is reflected accurately on the sprite as well. Though, in keeping with Last Alert’s more urgent tone, enemies unceremoniously collapse into an excessively bloody heap when defeated as opposed to the dramatic gesturing in Bloody Wolf.
The one way Laser Soft really does take advantage of the CD format is with the graphics. While the characters are indistinct and barely animated, the actual levels are very colorful, with a wide variety of places to fight and enemies to defeat. Each mission consists of a few areas you can play in any order, culminating in an assault on the Force Project leaders' bases. Even each of these shorter areas leading up to the base missions has a different look, and Guy’s sprite will change depending on the environment as well. Every level has something unique to see in it and the mission maps change regularly to accurately reflect the style of each area.
The game has a lot going for it, yet it failed to achieve any real success and has not been re-released on any other system. In the US, this was due to the TurboGrafx-16 and its CD add on already being dead in the water by the time it was released here. In Japan it seemed to vanish quickly also, though more likely because of the much higher quality CD games Japan was receiving on the system over the next couple of years. While Last Alert is a simple, fun game it's easy to see why it would be dismissed compared the more polished work other publishers were producing for the PC Engine CD throughout the early nineties. Last Alert does have a small bit of fame amongst US gamers, however, for one thing NEC Interchannel and Laser Soft probably were not expecting: Its astoundingly awful English voice acting.
On the one hand, the English dub is a real letdown since they actually got a group of professional, already established voice actors to do the Japanese dialogue. Even if one is unfamiliar with the actors at a glance, almost everyone has heard of their work. Most notable is Akira Kamiya. Yes, Kenshiro himself is the voice of Guy Kazama. The cast also includes Kōji Totani (Revolver Ocelot in Metal Gear Solid 2 and Jagi in Fist of the North Star), Banjō Ginga (Souther in Fist of the North Star, Liquid Snake in the Metal Gear Solid series), and many other long time veterans of both animated movies and video games. In addition, NEC opened up the CD launch with a bang in the US by getting a similarly experienced English voice cast for the US release of Ys Book I and II. This set a standard no English voice acting on the system ever came close to again.
On the other hand, the English dub is so hilariously awful that it might actually be preferable to the Japanese version. It's made even more awkward by the huge pauses between each actor's lines, as the timing of the game's imagery is not altered to match the new dialogue, a trademark of Telenet's CD games in particular. While ambitious, shortcuts like this and the stilted, overly long text interludes are typical of the time. So much work was done to make these early CD games feel like you're playing through a Japanese animated movie, but in the process many of the cheap localization tricks of their inspiration made their way into the games. The lengthy pauses are a bit of an odd shortcut to take since these barely animated game assets would be much easier to edit and alter than a forty-five minute plus animated feature.
And yet, this game does have a small cult following today. It has just enough going on in the level design and presentation to make it worth playing through, and the English cutscenes need to be heard to be believed. It also serves as a great snapshot of a transitional period in Japanese game design where developers used to working with the limited color output and capabilities of the PC88 and MSX could really start to cut loose with the visual design of their games.