A good while ago, J Man reviewed an FMV Sega CD game called Tomcat Alley, and brought up two complete metaphysical certitudes, number one, fighter jets are indeed awesome, and number two, when presented with a game about fighter jets, the question isn’t whether you’ll like a game about fighter planes, but whether you’ll like THIS game about fighter planes. Well, we will once again explore that grand question, because today’s game, 1997’s AeroFighters Assault for Nintendo 64, seems to hope very much that you’ll be too sucked in by the prospect of whooshing jets and explosions to notice everything else going on…and they’re not quite so lucky.
AeroFighters Assault starts you off with a selection of four real-world aircraft (and their pilots) to select from. There’s chill surfer bro Hawk and his F-14, super serious Glenda’s A-10 Thunderbolt (the Warthog!), Japanese stereotype Hien and his FS-X, and Russian comrade Volk’s SU-35 Super Flanker. All four have different loadouts, but the weapons all fall into four types, your main gun, a missile, a defensive weapon, and a super weapon with two uses per life/stage. Aside from that, there’s not a whole lot of difference between the different planes, the A-10 isn’t decidedly slower than the others, nor is the smaller FS-X noticeably more nimble, and so on, although there are a couple of aerobatic moves specific to certain planes, like the SU-35 being able to pull of a tight loop-de-loop or a quick braking maneuver that you can use to make trailing planes overshoot you, so at least there’s a little bit of variety tossed in there.
Before each stage, you’re given your briefing and a little bit of intel about what you’re up against, but for the most part, the formula is pretty much the same for each one, there’s a boss out there, a handful of enemy jets to dogfight, and a smattering of support craft about whose entire purpose is to whittle your health down and soak up missiles you intended to shoot at something else. Now granted, it’s good that you have a little bit of everything to do, but on the downside, your missions are often timed, so you don’t generally have the time to tag every enemy you’re up against. Unfortunately, you kinda have to take out the enemy jets before going after the boss, because otherwise, they will hound you incessantly because of one of the bigger flaws in the game: your teammates aren’t worth a damn for the most part.
Yes, you have three wingmen alongside you, but much like a game like Star Fox 64, they basically exist for you to bail out when they get into trouble. Occasionally, they will take down one of the enemies, but usually, it comes after you’ve done most of the heavy lifting, and they’re not above accidentally shooting you if you’re both chasing the same bogey. You also don’t have any control over them, so you can’t tell them to all gang up on the same enemy or come help you if you’re in a bit of a pickle yourself, and after all the enemy jets have been taken down, they more or less dick around aimlessly. Sure, they “go after” the bosses, but rarely do they make a dent in the boss’s health bar, and more often than not, they just end up shooting around it. On the upside, you’re not actually required to keep any of them intact, so you don’t have to drop everything you’re doing when you hear one of them call out on the radio.
Now, you would think that the one thing that should be impossible to screw up in a game about fighter jets should be the dogfighting. Racing around the skies, circling, jockeying for position, sneaking up on an unsuspecting enemy and launching a Sidewinder up his tailpipe, that’s the big selling point of a game like this, and yet, the dogfighting mechanics here are underwhelming. Your enemies seem to have a decided advantage in terms of evasive ability, they seem more maneuverable, can turn faster than you, can change altitude faster than you, they’re allowed to leave the mission area whereas you have to turn around, and even worse, you’re basically forced to either shoot them down with your main guns or burn a special weapon on them, because if you’re fool enough to attempt to use your regular missiles on them, they will spurt out countermeasures almost every. Single. Time.
Unlike you, they’re not bound by only having ten uses of countermeasures or any kind of cooldown time in between them, either, so if you and a wingman both launch missiles at pretty much the same time, they’ll both be sent wildly off-course, at times, from the very moment you tap the A button. It wouldn’t even be quite so bad if the dogfights felt like actual, erm…fights, but they really don’t, because the only time they really attack you is if you’re preoccupied with something else like attacking the boss; they almost never manage to get behind you or fight back if you’re actively attacking them.
The other major problem I think AeroFighters suffers from is that it tries to walk the line between semi-serious jet fighting game and cartoony, over-the-top game where you happen to fly an actual fighter jet, and that kind of fence-sitting almost never pays off. Y’see, as I mentioned above, the dogfighting takes places between real-world production aircraft, but the bosses look like they’ve been dropkicked out of a bad anime. For example, the second stage has you fighting Leviathan, a giant submersible craft that can launch helicopters like an aircraft carrier of sorts. Now, that’s fine, I suppose, but in that case, why not just have you fighting an actual, regular looking aircraft carrier? It’s not launching weird futuristic helicopters, it’s launching regular Huey Cobra gunships, so it’s not even like this super ship is doing anything a regular carrier couldn’t do.
As the story unfolds, it also manages to get even more ridiculous, (SPOILER ALERT!) as it turns out, the big bad behind the whole thing is an alien. AN ALIEN. An alien that comes to fight you with Earth jets and Earth helicopters and Earth tanks. You would think that if an alien was the main antagonist, that would be your license to go buckwild with enemy designs and such, but no, and that’s extremely disappointing.
On the plus side, there is a surprisingly decent bit of replay value here. There are two unlockable characters, Mao Mao and her F-15 Eagle, which I’d say is the best plane in the game in terms of weaponry, and Spanky the Dolphin’s X-29 experimental fighter, which isn’t great, but hey, it’s a dolphin flying a jet, and that’s pretty cool. Now, to unlock Spanky, you have to reach all four hidden bonus stages, the first of which has you docking into your giant air carrier, the second and third have you defending a position from waves of enemy attackers, and the fourth sends you into space to fight a UFO. If you just want some dogfighting action, there’s a practice feature that lets you go against five of the enemy jets in one-on-one battles, there’s a boss attack mode if you want to lock horns with specific bosses, and there is a multiplayer mode, which seems like it would be the most fun, going at it with a buddy that can think for themselves and who isn’t buoyed by shenanigans like being able to spam countermeasures or leaving the combat zone.
AeroFighters Assault isn’t the worst game by any stretch, but it is rather disappointing for the most part. The dogfighting is less of an adrenaline rush and more of an exercise in frustration, featuring real-world fighter planes is cool, even if there’s nothing to really separate them from each other, and the use of an alien antagonist should be the green light to cook up some cool looking enemies to do battle with, and instead, you’re just kinda stuck fighting other real aircraft instead. It does get a bit of help from being one of the only games in this vein on the Nintendo 64, and having multiplayer and a couple unlockable planes does add a bit to the replay value, but really, you’re going to just get bored with the repetitive combat more than anything else. I suppose I would say to give it a look if you just can’t get enough fighter jets or you’ve recently watched Top Gun and that’s what you’re in the mood for, but aside from that, I’d say you’re really not missing out on a whole lot. Glenda might be coming in, hot, but the game itself is rather lukewarm.
Decent selection of real-world fighter jets, multiplayer and unlockables inject a bit of much-needed replay value.
Dogfights, which should be a highlight, are on the lame side, enemy design is rather staid considering where it could’ve gone, repetitive levels.