Review by mark1bdi

Reviewed: 12/05/04

You say Air Buster I say Aero Blasters

Picture the scene. A suede psychiatrist's couch, direction-stained from careless brushes, seats a young man in the midst of a word-association session. The picture he is given is that of a logo reading Megadrive. From an eerie silence, the man stammers the word "shooter", followed by an involuntary spasm, followed by the word "horizontal" and a flutter of his left eye that could easily be taken for a nervous twitch.

Associating the Sega Megadrive with shooters would not be considered unusual. The console was spoiled with quality shooting action throughout its seven-year life. From Thunderforce to Zero Wing. From Gunstar Heroes to Desert Strike. From Contra to Vectorman. There seemed a never ending supply of finger twitching action for a public brought up in the Arcades and used to the simple thrills of an energetic blaster.

Of all these shooters, most were granted a worldwide release. Some (mostly bad ones) were limited to release only the USA. Others (arguably the better ones) were restricted to a Japanese only release. Games from the second group regularly fetch the highest of all Ebay auction prices, with the holy grail of all these titles; Gleylancer, fetching nearly two hundred pounds when it appears.

Aero Blasters, an arcade shooter, was converted originally from a Kaneko coin-op exclusive to Japan and released on the PC Engine (TurboGrafx in the USA). The game was of above average quality and therefore qualified as a candidate for conversion to the relatively new Sega Megadrive. Kaneko performed the conversion with aplomb and released the game in Japan with its original title but for reasons unknown, decided upon a name change for its American release, hence Air Buster. Almost unheard of in the USA, the Japanese version remains a niche title for Western collectors.

In style, the game itself is very similar to UN Squadron (Arcade and SNES), in that it is set around the present time (2030) and offers the player two dimensional, horizontal shooting action that scrolls from right to left. Style is pretty much where the comparison to other titles end as to describe the difficulty of Aero Blasters without expressing expletives would be impossible. It is really that [censored] hard.

Throughout its six levels (although the game insists upon calling them phases), Aero Blasters traverses the scales of difficulty to the point of lunacy. During phases five and six, the set pieces become almost comically hard requiring precision and timing that humans shouldn't chemically possess. And there is a hard difficulty level. This reviewer would not like to meet the person who plays Aero Blasters on the hard difficulty setting and wins. If Max Payne in bullet time couldn't do it, neither should you.

Kaneko have ticked all the right shooter boxes with Aero Blasters game, offering both a single player and cooperative multi-player option. It is interesting to note also that despite the screen sometimes becoming cluttered with two players playing at once, never does the software show any signs of struggling under the load.

In general the speed of the game is perfect. Shooting is performed quickly and is best done by holding the B button down which avoids the callus-inducing necessity to tap a button to increase shot frequency. Manoeuvrability is also consistently responsive, with the digital control pad making swift work of shot dodging throughout the entire game.

Complementing the games performance is the standard of its presentation. Each of the six phases (levels) is presented in a different style and colour scheme with scenery interchanging regularly to break up the action. Music, whilst annoying after getting used to modern equivalents, is fairly harmless and can be turned down if required. Comparing audio and visuals to other Megadrive titles of a similar type and age and Aero Blasters stands up very well indeed. It would be fair to say that the game excels in these areas.

All is not perfect however; Aero Blasters does have two significant problems. The first stems from an over-ambitious use of colour. In porting the game onto the Megadrive and trying to keep the look of the conversion consistent, the developers have made the game very difficult to visually navigate. It is no exaggeration to say that two out of every three deaths result in an unseen bullet floating into the path of the player. Never is this so obvious than when the red missile weapon is equipped. As the missiles look very similar to the aircraft you (by default) pilot it is easy to become distracted as they seek a target and subsequently lose a valuable life.

The game's second, and main problem is its weapon system. Aero Blasters is an intensely difficult game, almost impossible to navigate without loss in some sections. As the game progresses, the default laser cannon can be powered up by collecting coloured P icons from destroying passing supply craft. With a full complement of weapons, some intensely difficult sections of game become bearable and sometimes enjoyable. Lose a life and the game puts you back at square one; standard issue single-stream laser. After phase four this weapon is about as much use as shouting loudly at the screen and leads to almost inevitable death.

Although weapons systems in shooting games are never perfect, the difficulty of Aero Blasters makes the complete stripping of upgrades upon death seem overly harsh. But despite this and despite its other problems, Aero Blasters is a challenging and attractive game that is strangely compelling to play and subsequently (with time and patience) beat. Whether it be the excellent way in which the game is broken up into distinct areas or the amount of replay time the game offers with its three difficulty settings and adjustable life span, Aero Blasters stands as a good example of shooting games of the period and is an enjoyable distraction whatever style of game you normally enjoy.

Rating:   3.0 - Fair

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