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Monday, January 14, 2013

NES Replay: Air Fortress

Developer: HAL Laboratory
Publisher: HAL Laboratory
Released: 1989
Three Cheers For Lost Classics: Huzzah!

In NES Replay, we go through each NES game from A-Z to see if they're any good. Today: Air Fortress.

As I went to write this article, I realized that I had foolishly not saved any screenshots of Air Fortress while I was playing. Instead of being annoyed, I was actually pleased. This meant that I'd have an excuse to play another level of this game.

You know, I didn't expect to be surprised when writing this series. The NES library has been picked over so much that I thought it would be almost impossible to find some sort of "lost classic" unless I decided to be completely contrarian and praise an awful game, like heaping praise onto something like Chip N' Dale's Rescue Rangers 2 for being a neo-classicist masterpiece that dares to question the ennui of daily life.

After all, anyone who knows a little bit about the NES knows the names of the good games: The Mario games, the Zelda games, Mega Man, Metal Gear, Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior, and on and on. There couldn't be any great games that we didn't know about, could there?

Well, there is at least one, and it's called Air Fortress. Here's the idea behind it: There are several Air Fortresses that are on their way to destroy your planet. You hop in your little spaceship and evade the fortresses' defenses in a side-scrolling shooter, collecting energy and missiles. Then, you exit the ship and navigate the corridors of the fortress itself, looking for the core. This is done in a platformer, where you're given a jetpack to navigate the fortress. Once you find the core, you destroy it and escape the fortress before it explodes.

There's shooting...
So what makes Air Fortress so good?
  1. This is a game that understands the phrase "difficulty curve." The first level is almost too easy. The next one is a little harder. The next one is harder. The next one is harder than the last. And so on.
  2. Your energy matters. So there are these little bubbles that have the letter 'E' on them. Collect them and your Energy goes up by 100. This ends up being both your life meter and the power you have for your jetpack. It will drop permanently when you take damage, but anything you've lost using the jetpack will recharge when you stand still.
  3. The level design is good in the platforming sections. Each screen is almost like its own puzzle: How am I going to get through this while taking a minimum of damage? Where can I stop and recharge my jetpack safely?
  4. You don't need to destroy every single thing in the level. Sometimes, getting through a level just comes down to evasion, not destruction. If you decide to destroy every enemy, you'll probably take more damage as you fight through the level. Plus, every time you shoot, your character recoils just a touch, so your weapon is more defensive than offensive.
  5. When you destroy the core, the game starts to feel like Metroid. The lights dim. The music gets quiet and menacing. Wait too long and the fortress starts to rumble. You scramble for the exit, avoiding any enemies you've left behind. Hope you found the exit on your first pass through, because if you don't know where it is, you're gonna have a bad time.
...And there's platforming.
There are a few knocks on Air Fortress. Each level looks similar. You could show me a screenshot of the first level and the fourth and I couldn't tell them apart. I chalk this up to the game originally being made in 1987 with only a light pass to make it ready for the States in 1989. I'm willing to cut it a little slack on this part, but it still could use more variety.

The cores also don't fight back. There are defensive turrets and other things around them, but the cores themselves don't put up much of a fight. It would have been cool if they were each a little different or something, but they each have a different layout of turrets and defense mechanisms, so it's pretty much a wash.

So, as good as Air Fortress is, why had I never heard of it? Well, it was a very, very limited release here in the US, only about 300 copies through a direct mail promotion. It's amazing that there's even a ROM of it available.

If you have a chance, play Air Fortress. It's one of the NES' lost classics and it deserves its time in the sun.

Note: Upon further review, Air Fortress really isn't all that rare. It can be purchased for around a buck on eBay, so it can't be that difficult to get a hold of. The misinformation came from an unsourced claim on Wikipedia, which I'll get removed.

Final Rating:


Next Week: Air Wolf