Review by Overdrive

"If you're going to be unoriginal, at least try to be good..."

If you can count on one thing in the wild and wacky world of video games, it’s that if someone comes up with a good idea, other companies will attempt to cash in on it.

For the most part, this is a good thing. After all, it is rare that a game is so like its forefathers that it has no identity of its own. More importantly, a number of quality games have been created due to this. If not for the exploits of a fat plumber in Super Mario Brothers, platform gamers likely would never have experienced such worthy endeavors as Sonic the Hedgehog, Donkey Kong Country, Spyro the Dragon, Crash Bandicoot and others. Or, to get more specific, play Metroid and Super Metroid on the old NES and SNES systems and tell me that the Playstation’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night as well as the three Gameboy Advance Castlevania games didn’t heavily draw on their engine.

Unfortunately, the end result is not always something to take pride in. Sure, it’d be nice to sweep these failed experiments under the rug and pretend they don’t exist — but it would serve much more of a purpose to analyze them and take them apart piece by piece so that all may view the grim spectre of failure that permeates these putrid experiments.

And that brings us to Air Duel, a seven-stage vertically-scrolling shooter by Irem. You remember Irem, don’t you? In keeping with the theme of this review’s introduction, that company’s R-Type series has provided the inspiration for a number of shooters. Sadly, this game is not even close to being in the same league as that venerable giant of the shooting genre.

Air Duel borrows heavily from the formula used in such games as 1942-43, Twin Cobra and others. You pop in your quarters, choose between a plane or helicopter and go off to war, blasting planes, tanks and whatever else dares to get in your way in your quest to destroy the insane super computer that is causing all this strife and conflict.

Not the most original plot, but even games that are generic and unoriginal can still be good, right? Not in this case. Air Duel suffers from a number of flaws which really add up after any extended amount of gameplay.

First off, this game is as unappealing on a visual level as they come. While the graphics aren’t necessarily bad, they are dull and uninspiring. Shades of brown and gray dominate the backgrounds of many of the stages, with many of the various enemy vessels sharing these same general colors.

You start your mission flying over what appears to be some sort of base, then progress to a sky level with one of the ugliest backgrounds I’ve ever seen. From there, the third level takes you over the seas (at least the water is blue) and the fourth takes you to a quite unattractive city. The shades of brown and yellow that are mixed together to create the buildings just didn’t look natural, giving the impression that you are flying over a really ugly painting. Strangely, as you progress through this level, you’ll fly over roads that are suspended far above the actual city. Now I might just be an unwashed country bumpkin, but I can’t think of too many cities on this planet that run their highways above skyscrapers.

After that level, you fly over a wilderness region (yet more brown) that ends with you approaching a ruined city. The sixth level then places you over this destroyed and partially submerged metropolis and the final stage sends you through the super computer’s base on a collision course with that final adversary.

For the most part, bosses use just as little imagination as the background. You start out with a gigantic tank and also “enjoy” battles with a big submarine and oversized planes. The super computer is nothing more than a giant bluish globe. The only boss that actually roused my interest was the fifth level’s. Here, you battle an airship composed of four sections. After destroying each section, they fall off the screen to reveal a smaller vessel with multiple weapons. A nice touch, but unfortunately little else in this game matches the creativity this enemy shows.

But I know what you’re thinking. Sure, on an aesthetic level, this game is garbage, but how does it play? After all, it doesn’t take much effort to find think of at least one game that plays a lot better than it looks.

Well, in some ways you’ll be satisfied, but in a couple of very important aspects, you just might end up mortified.

First off, the play control and hit detection are both good — and you’ll want these categories to rate highly when you get to the last couple levels. For the first four levels, much of the challenge is getting past the bosses, however, as you get closer to the final confrontation, the screen will start to get really cluttered with enemies and bullets. In one nightmarish section of the sixth level, you’ll have to survive a stream of small planes coming at you in seemingly never-ending waves WHILE having to worry about a couple of larger planes that have better weaponry.

Sadly, the joy that such areas would bring any trigger-happy shooter fanatic is tempered by the fact that your plane’s offensive output ranges from bland to pathetic.

You see, you simply have no special weapons in this game. All that’s present is your regular blaster and a limited number of bombs. At least you can power the blaster up from the one shot you start with to a potent little attack that consists of four bullets that can cover a good chunk of the screen. But with no homing missile, no three- or five-way spread shots and no miniature helper ships, you are stuck with no ability to customize your plane. You take what the game gives you and the game doesn’t give you much.

And if you have the misfortune to get blown out of the sky, the game gives you nothing. Your new plane starts at the exact same spot where the old one was shot down — with no power whatsoever. If this happens on one of the advanced levels, the end result likely will be you pumping quarters into this machine with the regularity of a diehard gambler tugging on the arm of his or her favorite slot machine until either the game or your money has reached its end.

Even for an arcade game, where the goal usually is to create opportunities for death so that more money can be pumped in, this is cheap. In many shooters where your new plane enters the screen at the site of the original’s demise, you’ll get the benefit of a power-up magically appearing from the wreckage of the original plane, so the new plane has some way of effectively defending itself. Here, the only thing you’ll have in your favor are three more bombs, which you’ll probably run through quickly in a desperate effort to survive long enough to get some sort of power-up and regain some fraction of your former ship’s glory.

Odds are that will be an impossible task if you’ve reached the fifth or sixth level, though. Only being able to fire one shot at a time against the onslaught you’ll be facing there essentially means that you’re already dead — you just don’t know it yet.

Just save yourself the trouble and frustration and pass this game up. There are many better vertically-scrolling military-themed shooters and there are many better shooters by Irem. Play one of those games, instead — it will be a much more rewarding experience.


Reviewer's Score: 3/10 | Originally Posted: 02/11/04


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