Article by Ben Elgin | October 2, 2010
If you started up a game of Air Fortress blind, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into a rather bland and uninspiring shooter. Sure, the background art is kind of nice, but other than that you’re in a slow-moving side-scroller, wielding nothing but a one-hit-kill pea-shooter against sparse, predictable waves of enemies and some random destructable obstacles. There’s screen-clearing and temporarily invincibility drops, as well as “E” and “B” capsules that don’t seem to do much except raise some numbers on a screen readout.
But then, something different happens. Your “ship,” which turns out to be little more than a small sled, lands, and what you thought was the front window actually turns out to be your helmet. You are spaceman Hal Bailman (almost certainly named in homage to the main characters of Arthur C Clarke’s 2001, astronaut Dave Bowman and artificial intelligence HAL), and you are infiltrating this fortress on foot. Or at least by jetpack.
At this point the game becomes a non-linear action platformer as Hal battles his way through increasingly devious fortresses guarded by a multitude of robotic defense systems, in search of power cores that, when destroyed, will take down the whole edifice Death Star-style. The jetpack mechanics have a relatively realistic inertial feel, complete with kick-back from your gun when airborne. That “E” number is now your energy, used up during jet-pack maneuvers and replenished when resting, with the maximum amount reduced by enemy damage; let it get too low and you quickly hit a point of no return. Just as important, the ‘B’ counter denotes special Crash Beam Bullets, many times more powerful than your standard gun but in woefully short supply. You’ll want to hold some of those in reserve if you don’t fancy spending all day plinking away at the core once you’ve finally found it.
The somber blue or orange corridors and mechanical enemies in the fortress evoke a lonely, oppressive atmosphere somewhat reminiscent of Metroid, though the pace soon becomes more frantic than that game. And speaking of Metroid, I hope you liked the escape sequence, because we’ve got that in spades. After each core is destroyed, Hal has a very limited time to get off the fortress before the big boom, a task which involves finding the “ONLY ESCAPE” hatch in a different location from where he entered. Instead of a visible timer, each station’s rapidly impending doom is indicated by environmental effects—starting off dark and nearly silent after blowing the core cuts off the lights, progressing to increasingly violent shaking and then bright flashing lights just before the end. It makes for a tense, effective, and satisfying sequence... at least, for the first few fortresses, before things get insane.
That’s right, Air Fortress is another stellar example of the legendary “NES difficulty” that few companies are willing to inflict on players today. By the midway point through the enemy’s fleet of eight fortresses, the difficulty ramps up considerably. The increasingly maze-like layouts are one thing, but then there’s the contents—magnetic spikes, homing enemies, evil clones of Hal, teleport tubes that drop you right in the middle of enemy formations, absolute hails of bullets, if not hails of homing bullets. Using gun recoil to your advantage quickly becomes necessary, but even then only nerves of steel and reflexes of lightning (or, perhaps, save states and map FAQs) will see you through.
It’s probably safe to say that not a lot of children saw the end of Air Fortress when it was released for the NES. But for those who did, a special present was waiting at the end of the eighth fortress. That’s right: hard difficulty! I hope Hal brought his Excedrin.