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Air Fortress (1989)      

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HAL Laboratories

USA, Europe, Japan

Nintendo NES

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(Anonymous) (Unknown)   28th Mar 2012 07:45
In space no one can hear you swear"

Ever analyze the word “nostalgia?” “Nost” comes from the Greek word “nostos,” meaning “return home,” while “algia,” commonly used in medical terminology, means “pain.” Put it all together, it means “painful return home.” Just about any NES game, from decent to excellent, is just like that. Air Fortress is a painful return home after playing all these easy games on next gen consoles. It reminds me just how much I sucked as a gamer then, and how much I really still suck. Air Fortress was a game that started out easy, but became quite the task once you made it into higher levels. It was a very simple game that made large demands through usage of tough controls. You can tell the controls were not programmed stiff on accident. It all plays into the challenge. And just like that, Hal made a simple concept both intriguing and fun.

Fun, but hardly original. Take the plot, for instance. Folks on the planet Farmel have just noticed a cluster of strange bodies heading their direction. A group of air fortresses, each carrying thousands of aliens, threaten to wipe out their world. They send a single warrior named Hal Bailman to infiltrate each fortress and destroy is energy supply, permanently shutting them down one by one. We've heard this before. Alien takeovers rank up there with saving maidens, competing in fighting tournaments, and resurrecting dark gods. They're adequate storylines for the time, but they aren't amazing or thrilling. You'd think that developers would have gotten tired of reusing these same storylines before long and gone for something new, but it seems those ones stayed even through the SNES era, and even survived in the PlayStation era for a short time.

As Hal, you must destroy all of the air fortresses. To do so requires you to first rip off Gradius, and then rip off Metroid. Remembering both also brings back painful memories of sucking, furthering the “algia” part even more. Each air fortress consists of two areas: flying to the entrance of the air fortress, and exploring the inside to find and destroy its power core. Both scenes borrow from the aforementioned games, respectively. This idea is a double-edged sword. While it's nice to see a mix, it's a somewhat clumsy mix. Hal Labs only took the basic elements of Gradius and Metroid and stacked one on top of the other. It's difficult to tell if they aimed to make a side-scrolling shooter and wound up tacking on exploration, or if they wanted a space adventure game, but wound up tacking on a shooter section.

It's like this: A well done mix actually blends the elements seamlessly. If you breed a lion and a tiger, you wind up with a liger, which has subtle similarities its parent animals. However, the developers just put the basic ideas together next to each other, separated. This is like someone sawing a lion and a tiger in half and stitching the lion's head end with the tiger's tail end. This sicko also shaved off the lion's mane and painted over the tiger's stripes so as to demean the fine details of either animal.

You start off on the Gradius end, scrolling right and shooting anything that comes near you. This is one area where the potential to go wrong is high. A good shooter relies on tight controls with good response, and swarms of single-hit enemies. Hal Labs shoots... and scores! The shooter scenes are actually not half bad. The only downside is that all you do is shoot and dodge. Unlike other shooters, you don't pick up weapon upgrades. The only thing you can grab are bombs and energy needed to explore the insides of the fortress. The gameplay here is basic, but lightly fun. Honestly, I'm not as big of a fan of the shooter scenes. I'm always waiting in anticipation to get to the insides of the place and start wreaking havoc.

The first couple are very easy, but after a while the game begins to increase its difficulty. You'll get more items along the way, but enemies will begin swarming in larger masses and even shooting at you. The worst are asterisk-shaped ships that will swarm around you until shot. Even if you evade them, they'll stick around and try to kamikaze into you. By the third or so level, they're beginning to shoot projectile at you. As if they weren't hard enough just trying to crash into you. It keeps you on your toes, and makes victory seem that much sweeter. Of course, I'm not nearly the ace these days as I was as a kid. You can imagine what my neighbors think after hearing the tenth late night f-bomb.

Exploring the fortress looks like Metroid, but acts a little differently. You don't really walk much during these scenes, but can float around all over the place using the D-pad. It's actually quite unique. The insides consist of corridors and platforms (but no true platforming) that can lead you to the core. The first level is very straightforward, but later levels feature more and more branching to keep the game difficult. It becomes easy to get lost, and good memory and sense of direction is needed. And just when you thought you'd seen it all, the game throws newer and meaner enemies at you, including a clone of yourself and a nasty walking robot with a penchant for crushing you against the wall. This, my friends, is where most of your f-bombs will be dropped.

Each shooter level gives you a set number of lives, but once you enter the fortress itself all bets are off. You lose even one life while exploring and game over, no matter how many lives you ended the shooter scenes with. It adds to the difficulty, but makes it quite daunting. They really should have just given you lives in the fortress. There's nothing worse than getting to the core at the end and dying, forcing you to do the shooter scene all over again and make your way through the fortress.

It gets worse: the controls are very responsive, but understandably stiff. You move slowly in these levels to add to the challenge and realism. You still move fast enough to dodge projectile, but not deftly. Further on, you'll bump into situations and enemies that will tax your patience. If you aren't aggressive, you just might wind up in pieces. The challenge is part of what makes this game fun. It keeps you wanting to succeed, but sadly it also adds a level of unwarranted frustration. There are quite a few scenes where you just can't dodge the rain of bullets, or put up with all the enemies around you plus that bothersome clone. The first clone you bump into is the freakin' pits. He'll fly right out at you, blindsiding you, and cut loose shot after shot. If you didn't kill the enemies on the ceiling and floor before getting to him, you'll have their firepower to contend with as well. If you manage to kill the guy, you better have done so at the spawn point. Unlike other enemies, clones can respawn. That scene alone, dodging bullets from above, below, and from the clone is a nightmare, but a doable nightmare. When you're done, you'll breath a great sigh of relief and maybe think back on the time with self-satisfaction.

The levels really help make the game. They become so convoluted and well structured. The game starts easy and ends hard, just like it should, and the levels really show it. They start simple and become complex.

I failed to mention that the enemies look blah in this game. Many of them look hastily slapped together, others look lifted from every other space game. Even your character looks like a Samus Aran Cosplay gone horribly wrong. Put these next to the great environmental graphics and you have a real head scratcher. The environments look mechanical and desolate, just like they should. The backgrounds in the shooter scenes are mesmerizing, yet simple. You really get the feeling your flying through some complex and anomalous structure. It's almost creepy in a way. Just the thought of going deep into this fortress, not knowing what could be inside. The environments capture that well.

I'll be blunt about the music. It gets annoying very fast. You mainly hear the same BGM over and over again. It's well written, and reminds one of Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon. It has that sci-fi hero kick to it. But Hal Bailman's theme just doesn't stick like Queen doing Flash. It loses its charm quickly, and don't be surprised if you wind up reaching for the iPod before you finish the second level. The only time the music changes is when you destroy the core, leaving you with a lost and stranded sounding theme. This is it. Your ears won't bleed, bu they won't be amused either.

This game keeps it simple, and in some ways that's nice. There's little learning involved, so your tired braincells really don't need to strain. You can get right into the game. Sadly, the game feels like its missing something. The developers left out all the best parts of Gradius and Metroid, so all we're left with is the basics. Another feature or two would have been nice. Maybe something to upgrade the weapons or the ship like Solar Jetman.

Air Fortress is a modest space shooter. It's not outstanding, but it's fun and worth a look. It combines some basic elements of better games, but strips out the interesting parts. It ends up feeling like a challenging, gimmick-free game with great controls and environments that really bring the atmosphere to life. Sadly, it doesn't strive hard for greatness. It just wants to be entertaining, and that's enough.

Graphics: Good environments, mediocre character designs 7/10
Sounds: Lacking soundtrack, but okay sound effects 6/10
Controls: Well thought out and very responsive 10/10
Plot/Storyline: It was 1987, so I'll be lenient 7/10
Gameplay: Challenging and fun, despite missing a vital elements. The password system helps, too. 7/10
All Together: 7/10

*Lightly fun
*Great controls
*Nice atmosphere and environmental graphics
*Gameplay variety
*Well put together levels

*It's missing something
*Clumsy mix of game elements
*Limited soundtrack

Anyone with a knack for exploration or space action should check this out.

Reviewer's Score: 7/10, Originally Posted: 05/03/10

Game Release: Air Fortress (US, September 1989)

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This title was first added on 8th August 2007
This title was most recently updated on 28th March 2012

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