The title screen.This game is horrible. But first, the title screen!

Aero Fighters was released in 1992 by Video System Company. In case you don't believe that's a real company, like me, the title image is animated. Just wait and you'll see the auspicious name of the game maker.

It's important to realize that every shooter is the same, and they all suck. Sometimes they're realistic, and sometimes they're cracked out. It doesn't matter. The fixed scroll-on-a-path, the repetitive dodging and the simplistic enemies are a recipe that's been repeated since Galaxian (with incrementally better art).

Maybe repeated since Space Invaders. I argue that Galaxian (1979, Namco) represents an innovation on Space Invaders as it ushered in complex paths for the baddies to follow. And set the stage for every freaking stupid shooter since.

Sometimes I like to look at my vast collection of stuffed animals and ask, "Toshihiro, what have you unleashed on the world?" Toshihiro Nishikado is the guy who invented Space Invaders, based on a mechanical game of a similar design, and started the shooter genre on its way. I wonder what it's like to be "that guy" for a given genre, especially for one that spawned so much crap.

The key problem with the shooter genre is that there's no innovation and the quality level is low, in much the same way that the millions of gallons of feces which flow through city sewers daily are all very similar and, in most ways, undesirable. (Sorry, Ikaruga, two kinds of bullets doesn't count as innovation.) It continually astounds me that a developer can take a perfectly decent game structure like Galaxian, duplicate it, and utterly ruin it.

It took us an hour to play through this game. And you know what? That was too long. And WAY too expensive. We easily burned $20 in virtual quarters. So first, let me save you the pain of playing through Aero Fighters. Just sit back and watch:

The whole game. Seriously.

Of course, there are several characters to choose from, from several different countries, each with a backstory as compelling as the one shown above. Johnny 5 had to do something when he wasn't in those movies, after all. And that something was hanging out with be-mulleted dudes who like to fight.

I like to imagine the dude with the mullet as the only one speaking. All the text is on his side, after all. What a sad fate, playing video games with your obedient video-game-bot for eternity.

The Japanese team features a ninja and a female crossing guard. We didn't play through the whole story, but based on my knowledge of other Japanese games, I'm guessing that the ending involves rape/transvestites/institutionalized racism. Also, their planes shoot throwing stars and kunai. This is exactly the kind of shit I'm referring to when I use metaphors that involve more than a modest amount of feces.

Eric's Fun Fact: A kunai is an ancient kind of trowel, originated during the Tensho Era in Japan. In modern times, it is the primary weapon of all advanced Japanese jet fighters that have sufficiently powered-up.

My key complaints with the shooter genre are:
  • Too many bullets. Dodging is fun. When your visual cortex is physically unable to keep track of the scene because there are so many moving objects, it's not very fun. Also, the screens aren't very big on these games. It doesn't take very many bullets before you literally can't dodge, and you get about three hits before you lose a ship. It's one thing to get some quarters out of your players, but seriously - when your lifespan is measured in seconds, it might be time to rethink the game.
  • Too many bad guys. When you can only shoot forward, it sucks to have a swarm of actively firing baddies behind you. It's like playing paintball with a quadraplegic, and shooting him in the back of the head while he tries to work his wheelchair. Robotron did very well in this area since you could shoot in all directions at once; Galaga and co. side-stepped the issue by NOT HAVING DUDES BEHIND YOU IN SIGNIFICANT NUMBERS. Aero Fighter, of course, embraces the situation - if the technology allows it, why not have large numbers of dudes in the vast areas of the screen where you can NEVER aim?
  • Inexplicable themes and enemies. Nishikado had the good sense to give you a pretty straightforward premise - blow up the baddies, so they don't enslave your home world/girlfriend/riding lawnmower. But in Aero Fighters you actually go to a variety of countries and blow the hell out of them. Many of them are generic. In Russia, they actually launch the onion domes from the tops of the buildings at you. There's one level where you fight with what looks like a borg cube. And the climax of the game is blowing up not just the Space Shuttle, but its priceless space-cargo. I didn't even know jets could make it into space. To be fair, I did once see a shooter that involved hundreds of men flying through space, and we passed over another one where you fought naked women with snakes coming out of their foreheads (take that, Freud!)... but c'mon, couldn't they come up with something more compelling than attacking random countries and blowing up their hangars and churches? Wacky is great but if it's not engaging (and it usually isn't), fuck it.
  • Shooting tanks and planes with the same bullets at the same time. Seriously.
Now, the bullet count is actually a pretty interesting evolutionary aspect of games. At first, you could only have a few bullets on-screen at a time. Then technology got better and they could have thousands of bullets on-screen. This lead to a gameplay valley where the game designer could throw an undodgable number of bullets at you. Shitty. It took them years before they developed algorithms where there was always a path carved through the bullets so you wouldn't get "cheaped." Aero Fighters sits neatly in the dark, musty bottom of that valley.

Two-player mode in these games is terrible. It doubles the number of items on-screen (bullets and enemies) which means you can't tell what the hell is going on. In addition, the other player is guaranteed to steal all your power-ups for the 2000 points they give you. There's also no compelling aspect to two-player - you just have more crap in the same space. At least in a brawler you can mess with the other guy and double-team bad guys!

This Game Sucks. Finally, let me show you a screenshot from this game, and demonstrate how every part of it is flawed.

First, notice that even though the stall speed for a jet fighter craft is 100-150MPH, the ship has no problem keeping up with you. For reference, a nuclear aircraft carrier can go about 40mph at top speed.

Second, note that your ship is surrounded by inexplicable crap and it shoots TROWELS.

Third, check out the shots. They're slow moving balls of energy. What is this, SPACE WAR 2320? Why can't they just shoot normal bullets?

Finally, notice how you can destroy each part of the ship individually. Neat, right? But this means that each turret has to be destroyed independently, and there's no shortcut or strategy to destroying the ship.

In essence, the experience is that of a shooting gallery, with just a little more interactivity. The power-ups increase the amount of spam that comes out of your ship, but you can never defend against a shot from the side or behind. You can destroy any individual piece of a boss or ship but there's no benefit - you have to inflict a certain amount of damage before you can move on to the next phase. Losing has no downside beyond costing quarters, and playing with others is a detriment to the quality of the game since it will try to overwhelm you with enemies.

And if you take the American Robot path, it turns out you're playing a game that is ITSELF ABOUT PLAYING A GAME. Post-modern, it is, but fun, it ain't.


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2012-08-21 00:40:20
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