Alfa System is a developer that even more passionate gaming enthusiasts will rarely talk about, but anyone heavily interested in games has probably played at least a few of their titles. Alfa has worked on everything from excellent shoot-em-up series like Down Load and Shikigami no Shiro, the light gun shooter Elemental Gearbolt, and several installments in Namco's massive Tales Of... RPG series. In their early days, however, they worked exclusively on games for the PC Engine and its various CD accessories. While being released in 1991 caused Sinistron to quickly get lost in the crowd both in Japan and in the US due to the former country already having a several flashier CD-ROM games available and the latter's game playing populace being fixated on the SNES and Sega Genesis, Sinistron is still worth a look today for its solid level design and some original ideas.
The most unique thing about Sinistron is the huge metal beak that covers the front half of the player's ship. More than just a decoration, it completely changes how the game plays compared to any other shoot-'em-up. With it, instead of just shooting at aliens, ramming into and hovering very close to incoming enemies to destroy them is a great way to play through the game. Genre veterans may see this as a more limited take on the iconic force pod from R-Type, but it's actually different enough to stand out as its own addition to the equipment and techniques that are now common to shooters. The rest of the ship's arsenal is a bit more typial. Throughout the game upgrades appear on the screen when the player shoots small ships shamelessly similar to the vehicles that fulfill the same task in the R-Type series. These include small drones that can hover above and below the player's ship to absorb damage, speed improvements, and of course three different weapons.
Picking up those extra weapons is where that metallic beak becomes even more ingeniuus, it's actually a metallic jaw! When fully upgraded, it can be opened and closed to different widths at will. Opening the jaws exposes the Cyber Fighter's primary cockpit, but also dramatically increases the volume of the firepower blasting out of it for each of the game's three extra weapons. To balance this, the damage each weapon does is evenly distributed across each projectile being fired. It's a great idea since the Cyber Fighter is a relatively huge target, meaning it can often be safer to stay still and increase one's attack range rather than trying to evade incoming enemies or vice versa. The Cyber Fighter can also unleash a small blast of energy around it, this is charged up by holding down the fire button for a few seconds. It can be fun to play around with (try beating the first level without firing a shot!) but does too little damage to be of use in the game's much more challenging final areas.
Sinistron's levels make great use of the Cyber Fighter's capabilities. The mass of asteroids in level four is particularly clever. As it starts, the rocks hurtling towards the player can easily be destroyed. As the level goes on, however, asteroids made of different types of materials come into play. Some have small turrets on them that fire at the player continuously. Others hurtle towards the player at high speed if they're shot at at all. Some explode into many smaller pieces that have to also be destroyed or dodged, and some cannot be destroyed at all. Halfway through the level the game throws every single type at the player at once, it's extremely intense and satisfying to master. The third level has some strong visuals also, with a large number of plant and insect themed enemies that will require some tight maneuvering and good use of those deadly jaws to get through. This stage also has the coolest boss in the game. At the level's end the heads of two giant dragons are seen bound to the stage's floor and ceiling, and the realization hits that the player was flying in between these two ancient and gigantic animals for the entire level that have been dormant so long an entire ecosystem grew around them. They attack by spitting out smaller fiery dragons that can quickly overwhelm as they also spit fire at the player. Once the heads are destroyed, instead of hearing the triumphant stage clear music, what might possibly be their offspring suddenly flies onto the screen, quickly and continuously trying to ram into the player's ship. The levels are all very nicely done, but while some of them are clear homages to R-Type and Gradius, the best are these ambitious ones where Alfa System did their own thing.
Sinistron's graphics are the work of Shimizu Taku and Jun Mikawa. It's unfortunate that both of them did not do more graphic design for video games, as Taku is also be responsible for the very well executed cyberpunk aesthetic seen in Down Load (1990), while Mikawa would go on to do concept and visual design work for Psychic Storm (1992). Sinistron's music is actually much better than how it's described in contemporary reviews, though the tracks are unfortunately very short. It's difficult to verify who composed it, as in the game's credits they are listed only as "Terra." This is probably Toshiaki Takimoto, who was doing sound work for Alfa System around this time, and there's some similarity between Sinistron's soundtrack and Takimoto's work on the humorously subtitled 1994 SuperGrafx shoot-'em-up Aldynes: The Mission Code for Rage Crisis. While the true identities of some of Sinistron's developers are still an unconfirmed mystery, and it has never been ported to or re-released another system, it's worth checking out for anyone interesting in retro shoot-em-ups for the TurboGrafx-16.
While it may be forgotten today, Sinistron did have some shortlived fame when it was released in the US, and was even on the cover of TurboPlay magazine along with a full strategy guide and map of the entire game within. It was also given a two page review in GamePro. Both reviews heavily praise the game's colorful graphics, but are a bit less impressed with its soundtrack. In general the game was well received critically and considered an excellent shoot-'em-up, with extra praise given for its checkpoint system. A commonplace feature in shooters even at the time, but in Sinistron when players continue the game after losing their lives, they can actually choose whether they want to continue from the level's checkpoint or restart it.
A few changes were made to Violent Soldier before its release in the US as Sinistron. They have no appreciable effect on the game but are worth taking a look at. The game's story is dramatically simplified. Violent Soldier's prologue is actually a bit out there by shoot-em-up standards. Scientists observe a massive amount of debris and biological matter heading in our general direction from deep space soon after a supernova. When the debris actually reaches our solar system, however, the large amount of biological matter in it convinces them that it's not an act of nature, but an alien invasion. The titular "Violent Soldier" fighter pilots are dispatched in their deep space fighters to investigate the source. What they find is the husk of a long dead civilization still being running on auto-pilot via a malfunctioning cybernetic intelligence that blindly uses whatever is left of it to wage war against whatever industrial society it perceives. It's somewhat similar to the plot of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and separates itself from the generic evil-because-they're-evil-aliens battled in most examples of the genre from Violent Soldier's time.
That more typical premise is unfortunately the stuff that Sinistron's story is made of. In Sinistron, a large cybernetic monster named Sinistron (the game is now named after its ultimate villain rather than its hero) swoops into our solar system and devours Pluto, a squadron of ships are dispatched to destroy it but are handily wiped out. The player takes on the role of the one surviving pilot from that mission with his trusty "Cyber Fighter" spaceship. The next difference one will see is the new cover and logo. Violent Soldier's cover features an unsurprisingly violent depiction of the player's ship escaping from the first level's boss as its intestines are exploding out of its mouth. It's understandable that this wouldn't get a pass in the US, but rather than make the mistake of commissioning rushed new artwork (perhaps after seeing the embarrassment of Deep Blue's US cover), IGS decided that less is more with just the game's title on a black background. The logos themselves had to be redrawn due to the game's title changing, though both feature an approximation of the game's second boss wrapping its tendrils around the text.
These changes of course do nothing to hurt the game's look, and Sinistron still features the same levels and pacing. Players will pilot their Cyber Fighter through the still operating ruins of this old world for three levels. The fourth level takes place in space against a nicely executed asteroid field, and the final two levels consists of a grueling journey through the insides of the massive Sinistron (the cybernetic AI is given no name in Violent Soldier) itself. There are three alterations to the game itself, but have a questionable effect on the its difficulty level, making it unclear why Alfa System and IGS even bothered. The first is that the game's checkpoints are slightly earlier in each level, but only by a few seconds. The second is that some mid boss movement patterns are simplified, but since these larger enemies are already so slow and limited in their attacks it has no effect on the game's intensity. The third is the most questionable, when starting Violent Soldier, players can hit select to bring up a sound test and also switch the game's difficulty from normal to easy. This is removed from Sinistron, meaning US players can only play on the normal. It doesn't make a huge difference, as the only thing it changes is how many hits it takes to defeat each enemy. Enemies in this game aren't very durable to begin with, but it still seems like a pointless thing to take the extra time to remove.