1943: The Battle of Midway
In late 1988, Capcom released a vertically scrolling military-themed shoot-’em-up called 1943: The Battle of Midway, based on a popular arcade machine. How would the home release for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System console compare to the stand-up cabinet?
At the risk of spoiling the entire review by getting straight to the point: 1943 set the golden standard for scrolling shooters on the NES. That is the thesis statement at work here, and it is supported by the tight, richly enjoyable gameplay on hand in the cartridge.
The player controls a P38 fighter plane over the seas by the Midway Islands in the midst of a World War II setting, complete with several types of enemy aircraft with opposing seacraft as well. The B button fires the cannons, while the A button executes a special screen-blasting special attack, at the cost of using up energy. Energy is metered via a counter at the bottom right-hand side of the screen, and costs about 10 to use a special attack, generally speaking. However, it slowly decreases anyway, just from making forward progress, necessitating refills be gained from certain defeated enemy types.
Fortunately, the P38 has quite an armanent at its disposal. Holding the B button for a couple seconds elicits a sound indicating that, upon release of the B button, a more powerful shot will be fired, handing for taking down bigger planes quicker and generally just having at-ready. Pressing A and B together will perform a defensive “loop-de-loop” maneuver to dodge tense situations; perhaps a godsend, considering that the amount of enemy rounds fired and overall on-screen sprites makes this feel like an early “bullet hell” shmup at times.
In fact, this game is somewhat renowned for its toughness, and the evidence supports the reputation. There are a couple dozen meaty levels to be conquered, each with a boss ship or mini-boss challenge to defeat. While power-ups such as more powerful main gains, multi-directional shot, or even little sidearm ships for additional firepower can be gained, they can also be quickly lost as well.
Getting hit by enemy fire or craft does not instantly kill, unlike in other shooters such as 1943’s predecessor, 1942. But they do whittle away at that energy meter, which gets an amount refilled after each level. Adding to the gameplay complexity is the fact that the protagonist plane is rated on a handful of specifications, such as offensive power, defensive strength to offset damange, special attack strength, maximum energy count, etc. These statistics can be given an extra point at designated battleship stations blown up near the end of a level, in addition to a few being designated at the beginning ot the game, too.
The player is offered passwords upon death for later entry; that being said, 1943 is still definitely a challenging game. The good news: It is very fun. This is a fast-paced, relentless, thumb-cripplingshooter, offering as much pure action as any other, yet without any of the usual NES hardware issues concerning flickering and showdown.
This game offers a true test, even for shoot-’em fans. The design is tight, the waves approach with just the right mix of anxious panic without seeming completely impossible, and the entirety feels appropriately tense, even desperate, maybe adrenaline-pumping. The projectiles fly fast, there are pleasant little pacing cuts between levels, and points are kept for those old-school arcade-style high-score seekers. In fact, some bonus items occasionally emerge to be picked up for a tidy allotment, such as a cow or strawberry. Seriously.
This game looks fantastic. As mentioned, the flow is quite smooth, quite pleasurably so. The frenetic action is never interrupted by distracting flickering problems or other graphical headaches. The ship designs are sweet, managing to give each craft a distinct flavor, even with the limited number of pixels available for use. The carrier-sized seafaring ships truly feel huge, as the player fights just a portion of them at a time. Medium-sized green planes might drop miniature black planes. The backgrounds are even gorgeous, with a few different scrolling backdrops of oceanic appearance, and the lazy gliding of puffy clouds passing by. Especially considering the relatively early release of this game in the NES life cycle, kudos to Capcom for managing to seemingly master the palette and animation techniques of the resources provided.
The sound, however, is another matter from visuals entirely. Now, that is not to say that the soundtrack of 1943: The Battle of Midway is terrible or atrocious. No, this is not the case at all. But there are a couple of unfortunate tracks; namely, primarily, the high-pitched wince-worthy nightmare tune that plays whenever the player’s energy level drops to a life-threatening level. There is another background melody that emerges at some points that, although maybe intentionally, manages to offend the senses with a bizarrely arranged minor key, despite the catalogue otherwise showcasing skillful rendering of the available sound channels. The effects themselves are fine enough, giving just enough oomph and noise to support the urgent mood of the game, though not altogether mind-blowing in their delivery.
In terms of originality, this game cannot quite be cited as especially visionary, considering that “military-themed vertically scrolling shoot-’em-up” was already pretty much an established sub-genre by the time this cart arrived, which itself is an arcade port. Even in examining the in-game mechanics, there are some nuanced brushstrokes of innovation, but nothing groundbreaking.
But if the formula works, why tweak it too much? This game, 1943, feels like a near-masterful workshop on the shmup trop, a clinic delivered for old-school fans of the scene. To speak on a first-person note, I think the always-decreasing energy meter is a poor design choice that makes more sense in a quarter-sucking arcade than as a home game that shold be encouraging survival and diligent replay, but other than that, there are no major flaws here. This title truly set the bar, and shoots down four stars out of five for its valiant efforts.
Overall score: 4/5 stars.