The universe that is Entertainment is a graveyard. Pick your favorite medium, bump around the internet, and you’ll find that no matter what the genre, no matter what the age, there are shows, songs, and entire franchises that were “killed too young”, whether due to poor sales, creative differences, or just a general lack of interest. Video games are, of course, no different. Mega Man Volnutt is never going to get down from the moon, and the chance of us ever seeing another World Heroes is just getting slimmer and slimmer. Heck, I’m the kind of guy that’s still waiting for The Bouncer 2.
The Video Game medium might even be the hardest hit by “cancelled” series. Mario, for instance, will probably be still staring in games twenty years after I’m dead, but it’s unlikely a single one of those games will ever see FLUDD again, as its premiere game was generally regarded as one of the rare Mario misses. Sorry if you enjoyed the gameplay of Super Mario Sunshine, boys and girls, but it’s back to the old faithful of run and jump until we come up with an entirely separate gimmick. Similarly, Demon’s Crest could be described as “a Mega Man game with wings”, but thanks to the fact that that amazing game somehow had negative sales, we haven’t seen such a thing again for at least a decade or two. Mega Man has had more spin-offs than there have been games showcasing Firebrand, and it’s not the flaming red gargoyle that I miss, it’s how he controlled, how his game played.
And then we have the evolutionary dead-end that is Solar Jetman.
Unbeknownst to me when I first picked up the game, Solar Jetman is the third game in a trilogy. Jetpac begot Lunar Jetman begot Solar Jetman. See? Now the title makes a modicum of sense. Despite the fact that the games are generally very different from each other, gameplay-wise, there is a solid line through the series of a lil’ dude with a jetpack trying collect doodads and avoid being exploded. A noble goal for any spaceman. Solar Jetman was, obviously, the apex of the trilogy, featuring worlds on a dramatically greater scale than anything seen in the prequels, and a sort of “scope” advancement that seems appropriate considering the game was released a full seven years after its predecessors.
Solar Jetman sees… uh… Solar Jetman searching for the pieces of The Golden Warpship, which was somehow spread across a good thirteen or so planets. Solar Jetman must take his giant spaceship and park it on each planet, and then pilot his dinky little pod around the area and tow back any ship pieces, fuel tankers, and treasures he can find. It’s a pretty standard video game setup, so from the description you might be expecting a shooter like Gradius or maybe some kind of “space platformer” akin to certain stages from Super Mario Land 2. But, no, Solar Jetman plays very uniquely for a NES game. In fact, its closest, most popular cousin might be Asteroids.
The Solar Jetman pod controls about how you might expect a spaceship to operate in near-zero gravity, which is to say, terribly. Momentum is your greatest enemy on every planet, and about 98% of damage taken will be at the hands of inanimate ground. Yes, there are gun turrets and rival ships and even larger gun turrets, but the only reason they’ll ever hit you is because your pod is spiraling out of control from hitting the super thruster at exactly the wrong moment. And remember my mention of towing treasures back to the main ship? This ain’t Final Fantasy where your party has no problem lugging around eight swords, twelve suits of armor, and nearly a hundred potions; no, Solar Jetman has to literally tow every last item back to his ship, and the extra weight of riches that are heavier than your own pod makes these haul jobs difficult on some levels, and nearly impossible on worlds with increased gravity. And don’t worry, everything shooting at you won’t stop just because you’re carrying potentially volatile fuel through a tight space. Your opponents are just generous like that, always sharing their lasers.
And it’s not just the thrusters, everything about this game is very difficult. Sometimes, just trying to coordinate steering your own pod into your own ship leads to catastrophic detonation. You’re offered some concessions, like after your pod inevitably explodes, the stranded Solar Jetman can jetpack his way back to the main ship and pick up a new pod at absolutely no charge. Of course, “naked” Solar Jetman has no access to advanced weaponry or the towing capability of the pod, so sometimes you’d rather just see an exploded pod lead to a speedy respawn, rather than the trip back to the main ship that will almost certainly end in total destruction inches from the finish line. Never try, kids! And there’s a shop where you can spend all that treasure you’ve lugged back to the ship, but you can only access the shop between levels, and good luck just knowing which items are going to be useful and which are going to last for five seconds and only be effective against one enemy that may or may not be on the planet you’re visiting. Oh, but you can find a shield on the first level! That helps a lot… except when you’re hauling, and then you can’t use your shields at all. Oh well.
And did I forget to mention that even the lowliest, level one turret fires blasts that are one-hit kills? Yep! That’s a thing!
Now, I realize this may make Solar Jetman sound like some grueling torture game, but that’s only on the surface. Once you “master” the controls of Solar Jetman, it becomes a surprisingly fun experience that is unlike nearly everything else on the NES. It’s practically its own genre, and it really gives the impression that a few improvements could make for a nearly perfect, unique experience.
Some “simple” improvements that would make for a better Solar Jetman:
- Zoom the camera out just a little more, so ol’ Solar Jetman can see some of those walls he’s predictably going to crash into.
- Either allow access the shop at all times, or let one “test” purchasable items. Or maybe just in-depth descriptions of what’s available, how long it lasts, and what it does. Shopping should be fun!
- The controls beg for L/R buttons. Super Thrusters require you hold the select and A buttons together, which is exactly as clunky as it sounds for a maneuver that is all but required starting on like the fourth planet.
- An “escape beacon” or some such item would be ideal for situations when you’re deep in some cavern and your pod takes a fatal shot. Any game that makes suicide the most expedient route to the goal is doing something wrong.
All of these advances (and more!) could have been implemented for Super Solar Jetman, but we would never see such a thing, because Solar Jetman flopped harder than a magikarp. For all the promise Solar Jetman showed, it ran out of fuel on the NES, and was lost in space forever. Poor sales sealed its fate, and a trilogy ended with its most interesting entry.
And it’s a shame, too. I’ll be the first to admit that, when I played the game at, what, I’m betting I was eight or so, the game seemed difficult and annoying and not worth it when Super Mario Bros. 3 or Ducktales was sitting right there, but, replaying the game as an adult, there’s definitely something here, even though we’ll never see where it might have gone. Maybe one day Solar Jetman will ride again, but until then The Federation of Space Loonies sleeps in the Entertainment Graveyard. Maybe Solar Jetman and Malcolm Reynolds play poker sometimes…
FGC #22 Solar Jetman
- System: Nintendo Entertainment System, though now available for the Xbox One. What a jump.
- Number of Players: One Solar Jetman or Jetwoman.
- Is it funny? Kinda! The whole thing seems to have a humorous “edge” to it. It all seems kind of… British, though, like the jokes are from one culture to the left, and you realize it’s supposed to be funny, and you kinda chuckle half-heartedly. Still means more laughs than about 90% of the NES library though. Well, deliberate laughs, not Deadly Towers laughs.
- Goggle Bob Historical Fact: My parents bought this game for me because I had done something worthwhile as a child (I don’t know, maybe I spelled something correctly), and I could pick any game I wanted… from the discount bin. I chose Solar Jetman because I had rented it and enjoyed it quite a bit despite not getting very far. Except, it wasn’t Solar Jetman I had rented, it was Abadox. Whoops. I knew there was a spaceship in it!
- So did you ever beat this game? After much trial and error and password inscribing, a young Goggle Bob was finally able to retrieve the The Golden Warpship. Steering the dang thing was another story, though, so I didn’t see the real finale until savestates were invented.
- Did you know? The full title of the game is Solar Jetman: Hunt for the Golden Warpship, but I did not know this until about ten minutes before I started this article, despite the fact that the full title is right there in the logo, just hiding in the underline. Poor graphic design, guys.
- Would I play again? I’d love to see an improved Solar Jetman HD or whatever, but, as the game is, it’s very unlikely. It’s a neat curiosity, but, as ever, Super Mario Bros. 3 is, like, right there, and it’s actually fun!
What’s Next? Random ROB has chosen…. Blast Corps! Sometimes you need to explode a lot of little things to avoid a great big explosion. Please look forward to it!