Saturday, February 14, 2009

Aero Blasters

Kaneko / Hudson

I've noticed that fans of the Turbo are usually quite fond of this game, while bums who prefer other systems tend to consider it mediocre at best. Partial to the TG-16, I, of course, have always liked Aero Blasters. It won me over at once with its light, catchy melodies and parallax-heavy visuals, but AB excels beyond its superficial elements. I like it when my shooter experiences involve some strategy, and this game certainly calls for enough to avoid degenerating into something easy and mindless like Thunder Force III.

Indeed, if you invade enemy territory in cocky, reckless “I beat TF3!” fashion, you’ll be knocked on your ass in a matter of seconds. Progress occurs step by step in this adventure. The stages aren’t merely long strips that hurl one villain after another your way; they each consist of brief segments that call for distinct battle plans. Identify your enemies’ methods and patterns of attack, and determine the weaponry most suitable for each leg of the trip. You’ll need to die to figure out how to live. Of course, it helps if your plans are augmented by talent; stratagems alone won't suffice. Persevere, use your head, and hone your skills, and not only will you be all right, you’ll have a great time as well.

Particularly enjoyable is the fourth-level fight with a robotic warrior who hurls boulders, wields a massive ball-and-chain, and dispatches smaller troops. The impressive mecha is like an early version of Thunder Force V's awesome Guardian's Knight.

The fifth stage features more great battles. You've really gotta concentrate during a duel with a mini-boss who fires repeated spread shots, especially since you have to contend with gravity effects that tug your ship in every which way as you fight. Survive the showdown and you'll have to face the spread-shot soldier's clawed cohort, another pretty-cool piece of machinery.

Along with those fourth- and fifth-stage showdowns, the most memorable parts of the game are Area 2's exciting speed tunnels (speedy space-limiting sequences reminiscent of the final stretch of Thunder Force II's eighth stage, but faster) and the annihilation of Area 1’s beautiful cityscape by a barrage of bombs and lasers.

The final level is also memorable, but primarily for the things it doesn't do well. It starts off in intense fashion by pitting the player against some cool giant snakes, and it uses pastels effectively during the final battle to make the beautiful city in the background really look as if it's glowing...

...but in between is a stretch of what my old buddy Robanovich would call "crap challenge." I often enjoy unusual trials, but AB forces players to navigate a rather unfair "fly through narrow tunnels while the screen wobbles pointlessly" sub-stage of nonsense that should've been left out entirely. It seems like a foregone conclusion that I'll lose a bunch of lives every time I play through the strip, and foregone conclusions generally blow. After that comes an extremely boring "moving blocks" gauntlet. I can accept that this sort of area was something of a shooter staple back in the day, but the AB designers at least could have tried to do something unique with their block-course effort (as Gaiares' did with their third-stage castle). There's nothing interesting or challenging about what they came up with.

I really like AB aside from its near-the-end hiccups, and I believe it has gotten the short end of the stick over the years; many lesser shooters from the 16-bit era receive a lot more attention. I realize that it relies on a tepid alliance of styles that may be rejected by both the Thunder Force III crowd and the R-Type faction, but for the factor of potential enjoyment, the game is undoubtedly worth a try and most likely worthy of purchase.

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