Air Fortress

Air Fortress

Air Fortress is a strange name for a video game, but this did not stop HAL Laboratories from developing and producing this odd title, released in North America in 1989. Did the makers of such cult classics as Rollerball and Adventures of Lolo have another lovable hit on their hands?

Air Fortress - NES


Air Fortress has unusual gameplay, formed of a hybrid between shoot-’em-up action and platforming segments. There are eight eponymous Air Fortresses, and they are evil. In fact, they have been destroying entire civilizations, and it is up to our hero character, at the player’s control, to destroy them.

Each stage begins with your standard fare of side-scrolling science-fiction shooter action. While blazing laser cannons with either the A or B button, dodging obstacles, and firing at enemy craft, icons “B” and “E” will also be collected, which form the Bombs and Energy inventory for the next half of the level.

Air Fortress - NES

In those latter halves, the player goes into a multi-directional scrolling platform environment that takes place in the Air Fortress itself. Firing a laser pistol with the A button, or those oh-so-powerful and limited Bombs with the B button, the player must venture further into the depths of the Fortress. There are many sorts of enemies, ranging from free-roving dive bombers to stationary platform guns, for the player to conquer, along with precision-movement puzzles and occasional timing challenges.

Eventually, the core is reached. Much like in Bionic Commando, but unlike Captain Skyhawk, the core is the target to be destroyed, done quickly using those special Bombs, but does not even bother firing back at the player. Once the core is destroyed, the level goes dark, and the player must get back to their spaceship for another round of Fortress-blasting patrol.

Air Fortress - NES

Really, that is about it. A few mechanical flourishes are interesting: The player can have several hundred Energy within the Fortresses, but it slowly depletes no matter whether moving, firing, or even standing still. Furthermore, even those platforming portions take place in zero gravity, allowing the player to jump as high as desired (with the Up button held), along with the neat visual of the player-character jolting backwards with each shot fired in midair.

Overall, however, Air Fortress is a bit dull and tedious. Even though it does show some flair in its design, it just does not feel rewarding enough to make the spent time worthwhile. The shmup segments feel watered down, with the enemies never really mounting an overwhelming attack, while deaths inside the Fortress take forever to accomplish, thanks to the huge amounts of hit-points Energy that can be racked up.

Is this a functional, fully-formed video game? Sure, but one would have to have a special little fetish for hybrid-genre games in order to find Air Fortress landing amongst their favorite NES cartridges. At least there is a password function, accessible at the title screen, for the sake of taking this game in small, healthy chunks.


Air Fortress - NES

The pixel placement in this game approaches a hefty level of niftiness at moments, which cool-lookin’ sprites almost like rotating polygons in some segments, and backgrounds expertly designed to match a sci-fi motif. The player-character itself is oddly bland, and some of the color choices do leave a muddled tone strewn across the screen. Not bad, otherwise, ending up a little more appealing than not so.


Air Fortress - NES

The music is similar to the graphics, in terms of its quality: Composed professionally, and matches the tone of the game, without ever approaching interstellar levels of unforgettability. Above-average, never distracting, no complaints needed.


Air Fortress - NES

Well, Air Fortress sure is different, but difference alone can hardly guarantee a great gaming session. While HAL has managed to craft an 8-bit shooter/platformer hybrid with loving care, it lacks punch and gravity (ironically?), ending up as just another piece of flotsam floating among the morass of its genre competitors.

Overall rating: 2.5/5 stars.

Wing Commander

Classic games are recognizable by both how much fun they are to play and how much they change the genre – or create their own.  Wing Commander by Origin Systems is a game that fits this criteria for greatness.

Wing Commander - PC Gamwplay Screenshot

The original Wing Commander game circa 1990.

Back in 1990, this game pushed the technology envelope.  It needed a 80386 class machine to really run well, and a VGA card to get all the eye candy it had to offer.  A good argument can be made that Wing Commander helped sell a lot of 386 computers to gamers who needed better hardware to get their sci-fi space combat fix!

The creator of Wing Commander, Chris Roberts, characterized his game as “World War II in space.”  The player took the role of a fighter pilot for the Confederation, battling the war machine of the Kilrathi, a race of feline aliens.  Attack runs and defensive missions were launched from a space-going aircraft carrier, the TCS Tiger Claw.  If the player was successful in meeting mission objectives, the storyline continued with Confederation forces pushing back the Kilrathi armada.  If the player failed their objectives, they could continue to the next mission, but too many failures resulted in the Confederation retreating and ceding the sector to the Kilrathi.  This “campaign tree” game system was innovative and fresh in 1990, and a large part of the reason why Wing Commander is a classic.

Wing Commander - PC Gamwplay Screenshot

The First Wing Commander Add-On Pack

Critics agreed: Wing Commander won the Origins Award for Best Fantasy or Science Fiction Game, as well as Computer Gaming World’s Overall Game of the Year award.

The game also spawned an entire series of sequels, add-on packs and stand-alone games: Wing Commander: The Secret Missions, Wing Commander: The Secret Missions 2 – Crusade, Wing Commander II: The Vengeance of the Kilrathi, Wing Commander II: Special Operations 1, Wing Commander II: Special Operations 2, Wing Commander II Speech Accessory Pack, Wing Commander: Privateer, Wing Commander: Academy, Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger, Wing Commander: Armada, Wing Commander Privateer: Righteous Fire, Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom, Wing Commander: Prophecy, Wing Commander: Prophecy – Secret Ops, and Wing Commander: Privateer 2 – The Darkening.  Numerous “gold” editions for the games which combined the add-on packs with the original games or multi-game packs that featured one or more of Origin’s other titles were also published.  Wing Commander was even ported to other game systems, including the Commodore Amiga system, the Sega CD system, and the Super Nintendo (SNES).  The series even crossed over into Hollywood with a feature film release in 1999.

Wing Commander - PC Gamwplay Screenshot

The 2nd Wing Commander Add-On Pack

If you haven’t played the flagship of the Wing Commander universe, pick up a copy and imagine it’s 1990 all over again.  Become a Confederation cadet and fight the Kilrathi menace – you’ll be glad you did.