Chrono Trigger is one of the greatest videogames ever created… but it is hard to convey that in an advertisement in the pages of Gamepro. So Square USA Advertising had to focus on some less hyperbolic bullet points. Chrono Trigger: It is about time travel! It has character designs from the Dragon Ball Z guy! It was produced by the people behind Final Fantasy! And, most of all, Chrono Trigger has multiple endings! More than ten! That is an amazing number of endings!
And, in the year 2021, it is difficult to understand why “so many endings” was, like, the best thing to ever happen to us 90’s kids.
For a look at why “endings” had a very different meaning back in the day, let us examine Aero Fighters 2.
At first blush, there is not much about Aero Fighters 2 that distinguishes itself from anything else in the shoot ‘em up field of 1994. This is a basic vertical scrolling affair for two players. There are some whimsical enemies, so this is a little better than a mundane 1942, but there are still a lot of tanks, aircraft carriers, and “missile bases” to demolish. Aero Fighters 2 also tries to be “real” by including legitimate locations (Mexico is a real place!) and featuring their attendant national landmarks. Or, put another way, yes, you can get powerups by shooting the Eiffel Tower. Other than that, it is just a two button shooter where powerups just advance your weaponry in a linear fashion, and you can hit that bomb button if things get dicey. Nothing worth writing home about, and certainly not a reason to switch the ol’ Neo Geo over from World Heroes.
Oh, wait, there is the character select screen…
And a friggen flying dolphin. That should raise a few eyebrows.
To be clear about the gameplay of Aero Fighters 2: yes there is a difference between the individual pilots during (aero) fighting. The different attacks and “bombs” of each aero fighter do have distinct effects on the world at large, so there is certainly an incentive to switch after every quarter and see which character better suits your playstyle. But, by the same token, this is not a fighting game. The different flyers have different (mostly real) ships, but they do not have drastically different hitboxes or movements. In other words, you do not have to master a different “flying technique” to compensate for whether or not your chosen hero is a head in a jar. We are working off the same concept we see over and over again in racing games, TRPGs, and even modern mobile slot machines: you can have multiple-limbed aliens battling alongside actual Welsh Corgis, but they are all effectively “the same”, because they all exist in the same car/ship/playing card. Blanka and Ryu are drastically different fighters. Mao Mao and Robo Keaton are, in essence, remarkably similar planes.
But Spanky the Dolphin is an actual goddamned dolphin. That demands an explanation!
And Aero Fighters 2 is ready to fill in the blanks. … Kind of. Right from hitting the start button, any given pilot relays their thoughts, and that segues into a light running narrative through the whole of the game. Every level begins with a sort of “check-in”, and our pilots often communicate deep thoughts like “It’s time to save Mexico!” or “Man, I could use a water.” If you are playing in two player mode, though, these monologues become dialogues, and the different characters bounce off each other in different ways. How does the combined force of Ellen & Cindy deal with Captain Silver? How does that change when a cyborg is involved? Find out! You can learn all sorts of things from seeing how people interact when they are between missions and/or a dolphin.
But it is not enough. Aero Fighters 2 is always a flurry of activity. Even between missions, your pilots only have a sentence or two of narration, because, dammit, there are more aliens to blast! This may be a transcontinental flight, but it is over inside of twenty minutes. There is barely a second to admire the Statue of Liberty as you zoom by with your bullets blasting. The only respite for our heroes lies at the end of this aero fight. And that is also when you will finally get to see an explanation for Spanky’s existence.
… Or you’ll just find out that a dolphin likes swimming.
But wait! There’s more! Spanky has multiple endings! Every duo in Aero Fighters 2 has an ending that is specific to the two characters in question. And this is not a simple “fit the same pieces together with slight variations” deal like Cannon Spike, either. If Spanky and Bobby win the day, you learn that Spanky can “always count on whales”. Hi-En learns to surf on Spanky, and Spanky obliterates Steve when the rockstar suggests that the dolphin join a circus. Spanky, Cindy & Ellen all get to party on a private island, and Robo Keaton only reveals that he is a Transformer when Spanky is present. And when Mao-Mao conscripts Spanky into a variety show (or… something?), Spanky groans that he can do better than being a featured oddity. Oh, and everybody dies in Silver’s ending. There… may be a parrot involved. It is weird. Let’s not dwell on it.
And what do we learn about Spanky through all of this? Well, it is not exactly a full treatise on a character that clearly deserves his own franchise, but it is something. Spanky is prideful. Spanky is a friend to all sea life. Spanky can have fun with his comrades. Spanky can swim (you probably guessed that one). None of these facts are revelations, but they are information. It is data, and, what’s more, it is entertaining data. It is enjoyable to see the dolphin you have guided through a warzone eventually laze about his own paradise. An ending in Aero Fighters 2 is fun for the player and the characters involved (unless they explode. Then it is just entertaining for the player).
And this brings us to a basic fact about gaming in the 90’s: an “ending” was the only part of a videogame that got to be purely entertaining.
Videogames are (supposed to be) fun. That is irrefutable. But they are also the kind of fun where your chosen hero dies repeatedly. Or maybe they simply suffer. Whatever we have as a “lose condition”, one thing is certain: you are going to see it a lot. You choose Spanky the Dolphin at the arcade, and you know you are going to have to either be a perfect player, or you are going to have to keep feeding that Dolphin quarters to keep him alive and flying. And when you finally see that ending? That is the only time Spanky gets to rest. That is the only occasion that you can bask in the glow of completion, socialize with your favorite marine mammal, and mutually toast a job well done.
And that is exactly why endings were so important in the 90’s, and through much of gaming.
Games have gotten better at this! In much the same way that videogames identified that they do not have to be all bullet hells all the time, many gaming narratives have grown and matured to the point that there is time for the characters to have fun within their own games. Final Fantasy 1’s Fighter never gets a break to enjoy Corneria, but Noctis of Final Fantasy 15 is chilling and cruising through the best time of his life through about 80% of his adventure. And years before that, Cloud got to hash out some of his backstory and enjoy himself around the Golden Saucer. Lest you think this is JRPG exclusive, though, just look at how a testosterone-fueled maniac like Kratos of God of War gets breaks between boss fights to sleep with sexy ladies or push boxes full of dudes around. Whether you are venturing across the world or simply killing ninja in your living room, your modern videogame involves a protagonist that can do more than be an action hero at all times. They can have deep internal monologues about being sad over their daughters for days!
But back in the arcade days? Impossible. Back when 16 bits were all you had to flesh out a creature? Nope. You must save that for the ending. So an “ending” for gamers in the 90’s meant one thing: happiness. Joy. And maybe a side of character development. All this and more in your average ending. And a game like Chrono Trigger or Aero Fighters 2 that boasted multiple endings? Well, damn, that’s some more bang for your buck. Mega Man X might be an amazing game, but that Reploid only gets an ending once. That’s crap! Gimme some nonsense with Reptites ruling the world right now.
Back in the 90’s, so many endings meant a game was so, so good.
FGC #594 Aero Fighters 2
- System: Nintendo Switch or Playstation 4 now, Neo Geo back in the day. This also makes it an arcade game by default.
- Number of players: Definitely two. No way you would get those extra endings without a buddy.
- Favorite Pilot: It cannot be anyone but Spanky the Dolphin, proud representative of the nation of United Nations. With Spanky out of the way, though, Robo Keaton must be appreciated, as he was the hero of Aero Fighters (1) that finished his headlining game by exploding. But he’s okay! Mostly! I mean… being a face in a jar doesn’t seem so bad, and he is still headlining.
- An end: Another reason to “see all the endings” is that there are multiple final bosses, and they seem to be chosen completely randomly. A black eyeball that recalls the finale of Link’s Awakening is your most common opponent, but some manner of ghost doll and a fish from Kirby is also a possible opponent. Mind you, that eyeball appears an awful lot, so it is unlikely anyone even believed those alternate bosses actually existed before the advent of cheap cameras and/or the internet.
- What’s in a name? The Aero Fighters franchise is known as Sonic Wings in Japan. Both titles are frustratingly generic, so it is hard to say why a title change was necessary at all. Are Americans just not that into wings? Make America aero again? Too many unanswered questions…
- Did you know? “Steve” is “Angela” in the original, Japanese version of Sonic Wings 2. However, Steve/Angela notably appears naked with male characteristics in at least one of their endings. And damn near every other ending involving “Steve” comes off as queer-bashing, and… and I don’t even know how to describe it when “Angela” is involved. Steve/Angela is apparently based on a Rose of Versailles character that was a woman raised as a man, so there is definitely a trans origin to the character, and… Ugh. Let’s just say it is probably offensive by any standard, and call it a day.
- Would I play again: Yes. I like aero fighting alien armies, and this is a game that does not wear out its welcome for a play session. And I have to see all those endings…
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… New Pokémon Snap for the Nintendo Switch! Let’s get out there and take some pretty pictures of pretty pikachus! Please look forward to it!