World War I on the Western Front was a hellish cauldron of death and despair. An entire generation of Frenchmen, Germans, Britons, and to a lesser extent, Americans was smashed like breaker waves hitting the beach in the fields of Flanders and northeastern France. Despite the carnage, though, the air war has been somewhat romanticized over the years; pilots doing battle like knights of old, diving, rising, swinging through the air as the men on the ground watched in awe, eventually creating the legend of Manfred von Richtofen, better known today as the Red Baron. Well, today, kids, we get to punch a hole in the legend (and his plane), and win one for Snoopy, with Wings 2: Aces High.
Wings allows you to select from a group of five pilots, two Brits, an Irishman, a Canadian, and a Yank, and embark of a series of 20 missions (although some missions are more than one stage), culminating in an ultimate final showdown with the Red Baron himself. Missions break down into one of three types: Dogfights, which put you in a wide-open area, free to move about to get the jump on your enemies, Strafing, where you fly low to the ground in a corridor, picking off ground targets, and Bombing, which puts you in a top-down perspective, flying over enemy territory dodging anti-aircraft fire, searching for a target shown to you before the mission. As you complete missions, you’ll be able to power up your pilot’s attributes and win medals. About 70-75% of the game is comprised of dogfights, though, and after a while, you’ll basically be dumped into a dogfight after every strafing or bombing run under the premise that “the enemy is pissed and they’re coming for revenge”.
Being that dogfights are so prevalent here, you’d think they’d be a bit more exciting than they are, sadly. Although you can enter a code at the title screen to enable a little radar display that helps tell you where the enemies are (it’s even in the manual), a hefty chunk of time will be spent doing nothing but flying in circles until you actually see an enemy plane, and even once you get a bead on them, actually shooting them down is well, hit or miss.
The biggest problem is that you have literally no heads-up display of any kind, no airspeed indicator, no attitude indicator, the only help you have in aiming is the direction your plane is pointed in, and because it doesn’t change fluidly, but rather incrementally, there will be plenty of moments where you think you have a perfect shot lined up and you end up firing ten feet over your target. However, you have unlimited ammo, and there’s no penalty in terms of blowing your surprise or anything for just laying on the trigger, so you can realistically just start firing as soon as you think you’re close and just walk your shots onto the enemy plane.
The biggest disappointment with the dogfights, though, are your enemies. You start off battling one plane at a time, eventually you’ll end up fighting two or three at a time, but you never really get the sense of danger that you can get shot down. If anything, you’ll probably get killed because you were circling around to get a halfway decent shot on one plane when another dickfarm crashes into you out of nowhere. Apparently kamikaze attacks predated World War II by quite a bit. Even in stages where you start with an enemy on your tail, it takes damn near zero effort to lose him and start your great circling dance anew.
Strafing runs are a bit less tedious. You’re basically told what your target is, usually tanks or bunkers, and you swoop in low to tag them with machine gun fire. Again, you’re not really in danger of being gunned down as much as you are of crashing into the ground trying to turn or just plain not destroying the objective. Y’see, you have to make small, subtle turns with the rudder (triggered by L and R, but I hope you knew that going in, because the game never tells you that or has an option menu where you can check what the controls are) instead of the Control Pad, which will send you wildly slaloming around with no chance to line up a shot.
I should also mention that if you fail a mission, you get one more shot at it, and if you botch the second time, your pilot can get kicked out of the R.A.F. entirely and force you to start with a new pilot…yeah, never mind the million billion enemy planes you’ve shot down or all the other heroics you’ve performed, you miss blowing up that truck twice, and you’re not fit to even LOOK at planes anymore. Oddly enough, later in the game, strafing runs actually are easier because there are simply more targets to tag instead of one, and it’s a lot easier to bust up 2 out of 6 bunkers instead of 1 single, solitary truck or tank.
Bombing runs can range wildly from depressingly easy to rip-your-hair-out frustrating. You’re shown a picture of your target, helpfully circled in red, and then go to a top-down perspective as you rumble towards your target. You have to be extremely gentle with the Control Pad to fly straight-and-level, otherwise you’ll lurch from leaning left to leaning right with nothing in between. Enemy anti-aircraft fire can knock you off course, but they’re pretty easy to spot and avoid. Up and Down basically control your zoom level, going up lets you scan, and going down brings you in close, so ideally, you’d stay up high to avoid fire and search for your target, and then drop in low to drop your payload, but even this can be a little itchy.
L and R trigger bomb drops, which again, is never mentioned anywhere in the game itself, and they are subject to forward momentum, so you’ll have to lead a stationary target a little bit, but exactly how much requires more trial and error than you’re allotted. Even worse, you have no control over your speed here, so trying to bomb one target and then jerk the plane over towards another target seems to require some level of foreknowledge, even worse, the blast radius is REALLY small, so pretty much have to be spot-on, which isn’t easy when you’re trying to demolish a tiny bridge.
Now, if you’ve read this far, you may be wondering why this game scored so well when all I’ve been doing is bitching about it. To be fair, most of the control issues are cancelled out if you have the manual and know what everything does, and while it sucks to have to repeat a bombing run or strafing mission because you just couldn’t find the target, you can usually get it right the second time. Another thing I noticed was that enemy AI seemed to correlate to the color of the plane they’re flying; blue planes seem more inclined to lead you on a wild goose chase, green planes are a bit better about trying to take the fight to you, and black planes, while rare, actually put up a pretty even fight. After a while, you come to expect the cheap stalling tactics from certain enemies and know who to attack first out of a group, rather like a real pilot gaining experience and learning how to outwit a bogey. Even all the circling makes logical sense, real World War I dogfights probably weren’t head-on jousts by any stretch of the imagination, and it’s pretty satisfying to bust out an Immelmann Roll (where you pull up until your plane is upside down facing the opposite direction, then roll back to rightside-up) to get the jump on someone who blew by you and gun them down.
Graphics are pretty decent for 1992, your Sopwith Camel looks authentic and has the proper R.A.F. “bullseye” livery, the German Fokkers have the Iron Cross, and when you finally lock horns with the Red Baron, it does feel good to finally be able to spot and nab the little bastard. Yeah, the landscape never really changes, and can be replicated on Mario Paint, but simple and effective beat overblown and gaudy every time. Planes that are going down billow out smoke and go into a tailspin nicely, and thankfully, your bullets show up well against the background to help you lead your fire properly. Sound here is a delight, as machine guns clack during dogfights, bombs whistle towards their targets, and flak cannons makes a fairly authentic “clomp” noise as they fill the air with shrapnel. The main theme is a military-style trumpet tune that fits the period, and the background music in the missions sounds like it would’ve fit into a classic Errol Flynn WWI fighter movie.
All in all, this was a pretty cool concept, executed about as well as you could hope for an early Super Nintendo game. The lore of the World War I fighter ace was an idea worth making a game out of, and dogfighting feels believable and can get tense at times if you’re chasing a bandit and realize you’re being pursued by his wingman, or if an enemy is roaring towards you, although it can be tedious at times. Bombing and strafing are a bit iffy, but this was oftentimes the case in the actual war, and it’s nice that there was at least some variety thrown in there. I would’ve liked to see some secret perks like unlocking new planes or maybe a bonus campaign where you get to play as the Red Baron, but that aside, I would definitely chalk this up as an above-average game, and a hell of a lot more enjoyable than just putting on a flight cap and goggles and going to sit on top of your doghouse.
Nice idea to have a WWI air combat sim, and well-done for a 16-bit one. Nice aesthetic touches.
Without an outside way of knowing what the controls are, some trial and error is needed. Dogfights, the overwhelming bulk of the game, can be boring at times.