Tag Archives: gradius

FGC #635 Rocket Knight

Let's rocket alongThe Rocket Knight franchise is a great collection of games starring a possum with a jetpack. Did you see the way he dangles on his little tail? Totally adorbs. Unfortunately, these four games contain one of the most confusing naming schemes in the history of gaming. So let us take a quick break to review the games starring Sparkster, and delineate which games appeared when and where. This will simultaneously be informative and note how many games contain giant robots (it’s all of them).

Rocket Knight Adventures
1993
Sega Genesis
The Original

This is so coolIf there is a reason there is a “Rocket Knight” franchise in any tangible way, it is because of this game. And not just because this is the one that started it all! Rocket Knight Adventures is clearly a labor of love by a team that not only was interested in what was next for gaming in 1993, but also Konami’s illuminous past.

As an obvious example of Sparkster showcasing what was contemporary in gaming, we have how this awesome possum moves. This little dude is all about speed, and, complete with a jetpack perpetually tied to his back, Sparky is ready to literally fly through levels. But, while much of the level design is built around seeing how far you can get this rocket knight to ricochet around the world, it is not all simply spin-dashing to a brighter future. This knight and his projectile-blade recalls the combat of Mega Man X, and giant, mechanical bosses would be right at home in any Maverick lineup.

Oh, and there’s a minecart stage. You do not get anymore 16-bit than a minecart stage.

But there are also homages to the past of gaming littered across this (then) modern title. For one thing, one of the shoot ‘em up stages straight up includes a pig piloting a Gradius big core. It isn’t remotely subtle! And there are some some more understated “old school” bits tossed around Sparkster’s world, too. It is clear that this game was created by people that were beholden to the glorious arcade past of Konami (or they, ya know, worked there. Could go either way).

Regardless of the reason, Rocket Knight Adventures perfectly balances the contemporary (animal mascot platformers that gotta go fast) with the (oftentimes difficult) past of Rocket Knight’s ancestors. And, couple this with a few amazing gimmick levels (did I mention the giant robot rocking and socking boss?), and Rocket Knight Adventures is a sight to behold.

Sparkster
1994
Super Nintendo
The Port

Play the hitsIn America, the only Rocket Knight title to ever launch on a Nintendo console is simply “Sparkster”. In Japan, it goes by the longer title, “Sparkster: Rocket Knight Adventures 2”. So which is it? A parallel game on an entirely difference videogame system, or a sequel that hopped between platforms? The answer is… confusing.

In a lot of ways, this game feels like an example of the 16-bit mainstay of a game appearing in two totally different versions across two systems. Much like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Hyperstone Heist and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time, this initially looks like two Konami games both playing to their system’s respective strengths. Sparkster seems to showcase a more expressive rodent that moves at a faster clip (yes, Virginia, the SNES was capable of its own kind of blast processing), but entirely drops “hardware tricks” like the Genesis reflection lava cave. The graphics are entirely different, and seem to be deliberately adapted for the different color palette and more integrated HUD. And the plot is much the same (for a 16-bit game), with wolves in place of pigs, and Axel Gear still on the side of the devils.

But then there are bits that seem to paint this as a deliberate sequel. The shoot ‘em up sections have now changed from Gradius-style 2-D horizontal shupping to a top-down, 1942-esque vertical affair. We have lost our giant robot boss fight, but replaced it with a stage full of ridable giant robot ostriches. This satisfies our robot quotient and supplicates the need for a minecart. And, if you really need some giant robots, plenty are offered as all-new, all-different bosses. Sparkster does feel like an improvement over its predecessor in a lot of ways, but not all of those upgrades cannot simply be attributed to moving between systems.

Regardless of how it was created, Sparkster is still an amazing experience. It does not feel quite as artisanal as its prequel/portmate, but it is still one of the best platforming games on the Super Nintendo. And that’s pretty amazing, considering this is the same system that hosted Home Improvement: Power Tool Pursuit!

Sparkster: Rocket Knight Adventures 2
1994
Sega Genesis
The Real Sequel

I do not care for sandOkay, maybe the Super Nintendo game is supposed to be a port of this Sparkster title. Whatever! Sparky is back on the Sega Genesis here, and we have another game that is immediately evidently unique and different from the previous two. Much of the same gameplay is carried forward (rocketing around, spinning when allowed, firing endless sword beams), but there are a number of innovations across the title. Not all of them are strictly upgrades, though…

Look, your mileage may vary on whether or not you see an improvement here, but Sparkster: Rocket Knight Adventures 2 gets pretty close to going full collectathon. Whereas previous Rocket Knight titles locked their best endings behind difficulty levels (old school!), now you are going to have to find a hidden sword in each stage (and never skip the intro level) if you want to see “Golden Sparkster” conquer this latest threat. And, while the powered up yellow possum is highly reminiscent of Super Sonic, this is a much less useful hyper mode, as it is impossible to obtain before the absolute final battle. Couple this with some sprawling stages that require a lot more exploration than previous titles (and, by “exploration”, we mean “it is entirely possible you will get lost going up and down the same stupid pipes in that same stupid airship stage”), and it seems like the directors of Sparkster: Rocket Knight Adventures 2 wanted more than another straightforward action game. Unfortunately, when “straightforward action game” is the reason you’re playing the game in the first place…

But this is still a great game! The final boss fight includes one of the greatest gimmicks that has ever existed in an action game (you and the main villain “swap brains”), and, while it may not immediately lend itself to other climaxes, it is surprising and a curious way to play the game. Similarly, the giant robot boss fight of the first Sparkster has now been expanded to a giant robot level, and I cannot be the only person that was begging for such a thing after getting a taste of it in the first title. And, again, this is still a Sparkster game, so even when you are stuck trying to find the right way out of a pyramid, it is fun to play. Sparkster still sparks around… just he might be better suited to his earlier adventures.

Rocket Knight
2010
Xbox 360 / Playstation 3
The Modern Remake

Do not touchAfter a little over fifteen years, Sparkster returned to us via a downloadable title created by Konami fans that were now firmly established on Konami’s payroll. Rocket Knight is a very different animal from its forebears (well, still a possum), as the “charging” system for causing this knight to rocket around has been dramatically altered. The ABC rule of “always be charging” has now been forsaken for something slightly less active, and it does create a slightly more leisurely feel. However, once you get past that change, this is definitely Rocket Knight like you remember it, with enough ricocheting to make a Hanna-Barbera rabbit blush. And new innovations like projectile reflection or drilling add just enough new gameplay variety to make your average wolf/pig encounter more remarkable than in the 16-bit days.

Unfortunately, some of those innovations just make you long for what may have been. Rocket Knight feels like the definition of a 2010 videogame download title (“Xbox Live Arcade Title”). It is amazing! But it is quick! There are basically four worlds here, and a whole quarter of that count is given over to a few stages that are very much glorified tutorials. By the time we are hitting the interesting stuff (like an icy world that freezes your jetpack or a thrilling escape from an exploding factory), we are already practically done. While Rocket Knight seems to be about the same length as its predecessors, it still feels like it ends just when it was getting exciting.

Oh, and there are plenty of giant robots to fight, but not a single one that you get to ride. I could take that giant pig-bot out for a spin, but noooooo…

But one way or another, this is the end of the Rocket Knight franchise. Will we ever see that possum ever again? Maybe! But at least he flew away on a high note that left us wanting more.

Even if we still need a guide to determine which game was which..

FGC #635 Rocket Knight

  • A bit chilly hereSystem: Xbox 360 to start, with Playstation 3 and PC following shortly thereafter. Full disclosure: this whole article was inspired by purchasing an Xbox Series X, and discovering to my delight that Rocket Knight was fully backwards compatible and waiting for me on the new system.
  • Number of players: One of these days that princess is going to have to suit up and be player two. Until then, we are sticking with one rocket knight.
  • Favorite Level: I cannot emphasize enough how the gimmick of the ice level freezing Sparkster’s rocket pack makes for simultaneously new/exciting gameplay and makes perfect, in-plot sense. A miraculous combination of gameplay and setting. Really makes me beg for a universe where this title had a little room to stretch its legs.
  • Favorite Boss: I generally do not like the final boss, as it spends way too much of its existence in something of an invincible/unhittable state. That said, he is a giant, golden pig robot… so I kind of have a hard time getting mad at the guy.
  • Shoot ‘em Up: Rocket Knight returns to the 2-D, horizontal scrolling shoot ‘em up levels of the original adventure. However, it would not be incorrect to state that these levels are much more robust than anything that appeared back in the 90’s, and flying around with this possum leads to some of the best experiences in the game. So what I’m saying is can we finally get a modern Gradius from the same team? Please?
  • Pow powGotta Collect ‘Em All: Rocket Knight now has collectathon elements, as a ranking on each level is based on finding every last gem and doodad throughout the level. A number of these items are “normal”, and would be found easily through traditional level traversal. Unfortunately, there seem to be a couple in every stage that require some dedicated searching or jump-blast coordination, and… Can we not? Can we just have fun zooming around, and not worrying if a 1-Up is hidden in that little alcove over there? This was the worst part of Rocket Knight Adventures 2…
  • Goggle Bob Fact: Like Mega Man 9, this is one of the first titles I bought as “digital only”, and did not simply wait for a physical release like I had for every other title. It seems appropriate that it used to require “modern update on retro franchise” to get me to go outside my comfort zone.
  • Did you know? Rocket Knight was a free “games with gold” title for Xbox in November of 2021, eleven years after its release. So if you were waiting for a “sale” for over a decade, have I got a deal for you! That expired!
  • Would I play again: Probably… albeit in another few years. Even with all the baubles to collect, there isn’t much to this game. It is there, it is fun, and then it ends. I have no great drive to immediately return… but I know it will happen eventually. Thus is the magnetic pull of such an excellent possum.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Conker’s Bad Fur Day for the Nintendo 64! We’re going from the squeaky clean knight to the belligerent squirrel. Please look forward to it!

Zzzzzap

FGC #609 Zero Wing

The most zero of wingsNFTs are terrible. I also hate the fact that when it comes to the existence of NFTs, I… get it?

I believe understanding the drive for NFTs is the source of some self-loathing.

Since my mom occasionally remembers I have a blog, let us define NFTs. At the absolute base level, a non-fungible token (NFT) is a receipt. It is a proof of ownership for a “thing”. In the case of NFTs as they are currently exploding across the internet, this “thing” is traditionally art of some kind. In many cases, the NFT being sold is a unique graphic, and, in much the same way you could purchase a painting from a gallery that also has multiple poster reproductions, the owner of the NFT owns the “original”. And, yes, this ownership is wholly virtual, and you absolutely do need to invest in a color printer if you want something that you could easily display for your grandma. But we have been living in a world with horse armor for over a decade, so spending money in an effort to own a virtual resource is kind of inevitable in today’s society. So what is the problem with owning a Lazy Lion or two?

Well, there is the whole “NFTs are hastening the degradation of our entire planet” thing. The blockchain that powers non-fungible tokens is a wonderous invention that can theoretically be used as 100% proof a transaction has occurred without the involvement of an all-seeing, all-powerful corporate entity being involved. It is commerce sponsored by true anonymity! Unfortunately, maintaining such a database requires a whole lot of computer processing per transaction/verification, and we are not so much talking about “mom ran the vacuum too long” as we are looking at “mom just burned down the entire South American Rainforest”. And never mind that that whole “outlaw capitalism” thing is its own kind of delusion, too, as the blockchains are controlled by companies like publicly traded Etherium. Does this mean Etherium is going to bust down your door with incriminating crypto receipts the minute it becomes slightly financially or ethically profitable? Probably not, but it does mean that there is a company profiting from literally every NFT transaction, which translates to another situation wherein the mere act of buying/selling is a revenue stream unto itself. Etherium wants to be the next Visa, and NFTs are a big part of that plan. Also, there is a significant link between the boom of NFTs and their overt links to white collar crime/money laundering. In much the same way the second largest usage of bitcoin is paying digital ransoms, there is a not insignificant number of NFT transactions that can only be explained by “crime is happening”.

Look at this guyIn the end, depending on exactly how you look at NFTs, you could make the claim that they are simply vanity items roughly on par with custom license plates or purchased PSN avatars. If you are being tremendously less generous, you can also claim that NFTs are multi-level marketing schemes for a whole new “tech bro” generation, and anyone getting involved at the moment is firmly at the bottom of the pyramid. But regardless of your feelings on NFTs as a whole, they seem to be sticking around, and services like Twitter and Adobe are making distinct spaces for people to create/peddle/showcase their NFT collections.

And it is a goddamned shame this whole process is so toxic, because the greatest appeal of NFTs is something my generation has been begging for for decades.

Today’s title is Zero Wing. It was initially an arcade jaunt that migrated to various consoles in disparate regions, and is little more than the flavor of the week of the (then extremely popular) shoot ‘em up genre. It scrolls from left to right (like Gradius), features levels that generally start with comfortable generic areas before ramping up to distinctive, gimmicky challenges (like Gradius), and you have a number of options for upgrades earned by destroying distinct opponents (like Gradius). In this case, your powerups can be a sequential graduation of firepower if you stick to the same color-coded pickups, or you can toggle between power lasers to spread blasts if you change lanes/colors. The most unique thing in Zero Wing gameplay is an extra button for a sort of “tractor beam” that allows you to not only collect abilities, but also grab some of your smaller foes and fling them at larger opponents. This creates a very exceptional situation wherein you are almost happy when a boss brings an entourage to a fight, as it means a whole host of fresh projectiles just wandered into your armory. Defeating a big boss by chucking infinite minions really is the most distinctive, remarkable part of Zero Wing.

Well, I mean, that is if you ignore this…

Somebody set us up the GIF

The Sega Mega Drive version of Zero Wing, only released in European regions, has a legendarily “Engrish” introduction cinema. While this European title did not see any success in America for obvious reasons (nobody was scrambling to import a console port of a lesser shoot ‘em up from the late 80s), when the world of emulation got hold of “5,000 Sega Genesis ROMs FREE”, Zero Wing saw a significant resurgence in popularity…

Around 1998, “All your base are belong to us” invaded the internet at large. It started somewhere around Rage Games, migrated over to Zany Video Game Quotes, and from there dragged itself across various forums and chatrooms. By 2000, the meme had been featured in some way or another on every major nerd entertainment site that existed at the time. In 2001, Wired wrote an article on the meme, and it was subsequently covered in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian, and USA Today. In 2004, it was hacked into a news/weather broadcast. In 2006, it came part and parcel with a YouTube site update. In 2014, Elon Musk parodied it in a desperate post regarding patents. To this very day, segments from the Zero Wing intro are quoted by people of a certain age, and it likely will be repeated “for great justice” until the end of human civilization. In short, Zero Wing somehow contained a segment of dialogue that is going to be around for at least a generation, a trend that defined the concept of memes before the descriptor was widely used, and a collective template for the masses that populated the “early days” of the internet. Even if it was not deliberate, Zero Wing became an inexorable part of our culture.

And, incidentally, the creators of Zero Wing didn’t see a dime for creating this artistic touchstone.

I like these colorsI saw the credits roll on this (kinda) Sega Genesis game, so I can safely say Zero Wing was forged by, like, twelve people. As a company, it was created by Toaplan Co, founded in 1979, but defunct by 1994. While many people that worked for Toaplan migrated to other, more modern developers like Square Enix and Taito, but the time Toaplan was releasing Snow Bros. 2: With New Elves (you’ve played that, right?), it was pretty much done. The rights to Toaplan games are now in the possession of Tatsujin, and if that was ever a company that wanted to capitalize on the Zero Wing mania of the early 21st Century, they certainly didn’t get off their duffs to do anything about it. So, basically, in the absence of a “Zero Wing Project” to promote, and the fact that you did not have to purchase Zero Wing to participate in that global meme, there was no way that the popularity of Zero Wing would translate into a penny for the people that actually made the thing.

And, on one hand, who cares? They made a videogame, they were compensated for making a videogame, and, end of the day, that should be enough. It became a meme? Well, sure, but so did that one dude scribbling on stone tablets about Ea-nasir, and you don’t see his estate getting a retroactive payout. Companies being paid perpetually for accomplishments from 1928 is exactly what is wrong with copyright law right now. Just be happy Zero Wing made people happy, guys.

Keep on diggingBut we do live in a capitalist society. We do not measure success by how much happiness you have brought to others, or how content you are with the creations you have produced. We live in a world wherein there is a monthly ranking of who are the richest, most successful people in the country, and we never for a moment consider why we automatically conflate “rich” and “successful”. By this rubric, being responsible for a meme that is shared by millions should be considered “successful”, and thus should translate into untold riches. And, while the exchange rate for how popularity should trade is difficult to define, it would be nice if, ya know, there was at least something tossed at the creators beyond a niche interview titled something like Meme: Origins.

And, in a more personal way, this has been the problem of my entire generation. You produce a cute bit of art, it is copied by a popular online account, and you watch thousands of likes go to your creation that has now, incidentally, been shared without so much as a note that it was authored by a human being. Or you start a blog with your name on it containing articles that people read on a weekly basis, it gets promoted by some random share on Redditt, and the best you get for your troubles is a complaint from your hosting company that too damn many people visited your site this week. Or you get a Patreon going, and then discover that literally every other website available will drop your posts like hot garbage the minute you link to the one place where you may actually receive the tiniest of financial contributions. But don’t worry, Millennials! You can survive without a thousand followers, you just have to know that you are wasting your “brand”, and you might not ever be able to achieve your dreams because you don’t have enough of an online footprint to warrant the ability to afford health insurance. I do not understand why everyone I know is depressed!

… Er-hem.

Tanks a lotThis is why I understand the appeal of NFTs. The concept of “minting” your art, meme, or idea is attractive. The fact that you have produced something, it has a set value, and someone will eventually pay that value for said something is amazing as a concept. It may be exactly how commerce has worked since the days of Ea-nasir, but, for a generation that has been told to hustle for exposure for the last twenty years, it seems downright revolutionary. For people that watched a mediocre videogame become a universal meme that still didn’t mean a cent for its actual creators, an NFT can look like salvation. That could happen to you! Without even knowing it is happening, you could create the next Pepe. You could be the next distracted boyfriend meme. And it could change your life… but not change how you still have to report to a job you hate 40 hours a week. Actually monetizing how the internet as we know it “works” would change a lot of lives, and potentially create an artistic revolution.

But NFTs ain’t it. Maybe something like that will be available in the future, but the solution is not in this blockchain. One day, we will have an answer that actually helps individuals and the world as a whole. One day, people will not have to beg for scraps when their faces are used in GIFs distributed by wealthy tech giants. In the meanwhile, NFTs are not a solution to this problem. NFTs are simply… someone setting us up the bomb.

FGC #609 Zero Wing

  • System: Arcade initially, and then whatever passes for a Sega Genesis in Japan and Europe. It also saw a PC Engine CD-Rom port in Japan, too.
  • Number of players: Oh! It’s two players! I guess that makes it slightly distinctive, too!
  • GrossAnything else of note? Yes, the monsters (or whatever) of the piece all seem to lean closer to biological than mechanical. This creates a lovely little Geiger-esque world wherein the final boss being a giant brain in a jar feels positively mundane next to some of the other creatures skulking around.
  • So, does that intro actually impact anything in the game: Nope! It was created exclusively for the home game, and does not exist in the original arcade version. I guess we all had to know why we were launching every Zig (or why that one big ship was exploding at the top of the first level). But, sorry, ol’ Cats is barely recognizable as the same cyborg during the finale, so don’t expect any closure for that sad space captain facepalming forever.
  • Favorite Weapon: Lasers. Lasers everywhere. Lasers for president of the universe.
  • Did you know? According to Tatsuya Uemura, the lead programmer of the arcade and Sega Genesis versions of Zero Wing, the opening crawl was translated by an employee whose English was “really terrible”. You… probably already knew that.
  • Would I play again: This was probably a pretty good shoot ‘em up for 1989. It is no great shakes in 2021. I like it! It’s not bad! I am just never going to bother with this ever again. Enjoy your spot in history, though, Zero Wing!

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Samurai Shodown! Speaking of games with marginally passable translations, it is time to live by the Bushido code in an effort to impress some dork with a pair of flags. Please look forward to it!

ENGAGE

FGC #605 Curses ‘N Chaos

Let's rockSometime around the 14th century, the Black Death was ravaging the European population. Given this highly lethal plague was on everybody’s mind (how could we ever hope to understand?), this seems to have been the time that the anthropomorphism of Death manifested in the public consciousness. As anyone that has ever visited a Spirit Halloween is aware, Death is generally visualized as a skeleton in a black robe wielding scythe. To elaborate for anyone from a foreign culture, the scythe is supposed to symbolize the literal harvesting of souls, and the skeletal body is supposed to be symbolize how bones are scary. Beyond that, ol’ Death is a pretty fundamental part of Western culture, and it is unlikely anyone reading this has missed his familiar iconography.

But what does it mean when Death makes an appearance in a videogame? Well, let us look at how Death has worked his digital magic through the years.

1984
Paperboy

Midway Games
Arcade

Throw some papersWhat’s happening here: Near as we can tell, the first appearance of an active Death in a videogame was in Paperboy. A grim reaper is one of the many, many obstacles that this young boy must face on his way to delivering newspapers to the least appreciative neighborhood on the planet.

Describe your Death: We have a traditional black cloak and scythe here, though it is difficult to tell if we are dealing with a legitimate skeleman. One would suppose this emphasizes the “unknown” nature of Death.

What does it all mean? 1984 was a time for “suburbs fear”, wherein parents were convinced razors were being hidden in Halloween candy, and a scary man in a trench coat was assumed to be on every corner. It was all total nonsense, but it does explain why one would expect to see Death out and menacing an innocent paperboy. Everything wants to kill our innocent young paperboy, why would Death themself be any different?

1985
Gauntlet

Midway Games
Arcade

BEHOLD DEATHWhat’s happening here: Death is one of the many monsters that stalks the world of Gauntlet. They will drain 100 health from a hapless adventurer, and is resistant to all attacks, save the mighty magic bomb. They are not a common creature, but they are a threat every time they appear.

Describe your Death: OG Gauntlet is not exactly known for its huge, expressive sprites, but Death at least has the ol’ black cloak here. If you were to claim this Death was a ninja, you wouldn’t have to change a single thing about their appearance.

What does it all mean? In 1983, Patricia Pulling founded Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (BADD), and significantly contributed to the myth that Dungeons and Dragons was seducing our innocent children to the dark side. This led to years of general concern over D&D, so it was only natural that Death would be haunting dungeons in 1985 videogames. It’s Death! They will kill you! Because of what you are doing! Stay out of fantasy realms, children!

1986
Castlevania

Konami
Nintendo Entertainment System

Sorry SimonWhat’s happening here: Death’s multiple appearances in the Castlevania franchise may be the most iconic in gaming, and it all started here. You can’t have a decent Castlevania game without Death! Eat it, Haunted Castle, you barely get a Frankenstein.

Describe your Death: Skeleton? Check. Scythe? Check. Black cloak? Well… Death has decided to go with something more fuchsia here, but we’re going to allow it. NES color palettes are not kind to classical iconography.

What does it all mean? We will address Death as a greater presence in the franchise soon enough, but this Death is little more than one of many “movie monster” bosses in his first appearance. Apparently he was just a dude in a pink costume going by the pseudonym of Belo Lugosi. That is almost a real person’s name!

1986 also had another familiar Grim Reaper…

FGC #594 Aero Fighters 2

Are we fighting the air?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…

Love that dolphin

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.

Like... to eat?

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.

Try to stay amusedBut 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.

Gradius timeGames 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

  • Pew pewSystem: 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…
  • I know that towerDid 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!

Winner!