Air Fortress (NES, 1989)
When I first discovered the joys of emulation some 12 years or so - before Nintendo, Sega, and other publishers really got into the compilation/Virtual Console game - the first ROMs I always hunted down were the games from my childhood, having since been sold. One of them always eluded me... some weird little game that combined shoot-em-up and platforming... with a great soundtrack and moody graphics... and unique gravity-based physics... except I couldn't remember the damn name.
It was a while before I rediscovered Air Fortress on NES, and there's a reason for that. You won't find it in any list of the console's greatest, nor in many "hidden gem" type lists; and that's a shame, because it truly is one of the best overlooked NES games. The premise is simple, as laid out in the game's Star Wars-style text crawl: you play as Hal Bailman, a last resort in a desperate fight against the titular fortresses. The gameplay is not as easily defined.
Each level starts with a shoot-em-up segment, as Hal approaches each Air Fortress in a ship that looks sort of like - well, it looks like a dude riding a spaceship. That's because that's exactly what it is - at the end of the shooter segments, the ship automatically lands, and Hal jumps right off, taking an elevator down into the fortress. I'm no shmup expert, but even I can tell you these levels are bog-standard - no power-ups other than rudimentary stuff like kill-all bombs and invincibility, and no upgrading your weapons, either. That doesn't make them bad, though; they're really just designed as an extended intro to the meat of the game. Along the way, you'll be picking up "E" and "B" power-ups that don't do anything just yet - not until you hop out of your ship and drop down on foot into the fortress.
This is the real meat of the game, except here the game differs from the average NES action game. One button fires your gun, and the other fires the more powerful bombs (the "B" power-ups from the shooting segments); there is no jump. Instead, pressing up will let you fly (more like float) the entire length and width of the screen, indefinitely. Movement is slowed to simulate the low-G physics, and the recoil from firing either weapon will push you back a pace. I'm no game historian, but I've never played anything else that handles similarly so early in the NES' lifespan - and certainly not as intuitively. It handles so smoothy, and plays so naturally, that it doesn't take long to get acclimated.
The goal of each level is to find the fortress' main power core and destroy it. Upon doing this in the first, fairly linear level, the lights go out, an eerie song replaces the excellent chiptune music, and you'll find your ship, not outside the fortress where you left it, but just on the other side of where the power core used to be. It's only in the second level where you'll find that destroying the power core is only half the story. Once the lights go dim, you're tasked with finding your ship within a time limit, hidden somewhere within the labyrinthine stages. The time limit is purely visual: the screen gradually starts shaking with flashes of white until it finally explodes if you don't reach it in time. There is zero logic as to why your ship is not where you left it outside, but that's retro gaming for you.
These segments are tense - with the menacing atmosphere and music, the empty rooms (most enemies don't respawn), and the impending destruction of the fortress, they're in stark contrast to the peppy, almost heroic feeling of the earlier parts. They also give the player a reason to explore the fortress and make a mental note of where your ship lies before taking on the power core. Which is easier said than done - those "E" power-ups you picked up in the shooting segment turn out to be your health, which also doubles as an ever-decreasing air supply. The first half of the game is pure 8-bit joy, a brilliant combination of playstyles and unique mechanics.
I say the first half - not because the second is bad, but because that's when things get hard. You know you're in for a long ride when you start racking up tons of "E" bubbles on the shooting segment - it just means the fortress is going to be that much bigger than usual. Enemies get tougher and more numerous, but the real challenge is in finding your ship. The massive levels in the second half get a little too ambitious for their own good; finding your way to your ship can be a frustrating experience. And then later on, even if you know the precise route to take, it's such a long path that you will be required to fire your gun backwards, using the game's unique physics, just so you can push through the levels that much more quickly. The 6th fortress (out of 8) feels like it might have been the game's final stage; it probably should have been.
Which doesn't take away from the unique pleasures of the earlier stages. On top of the excellent, mood-appropriate music, the game is a real treat for NES sprite fans. The game uses the console's limited color palette to great effect; metallic greys offset by rich blues or moody turquoise or discomfiting yellows, all colored over impressively intricate background textures. The game's unique physics aren't so unlike to when the titular star would blow up and fly in Kirby's Adventure (NES, and there's a reason for that: both were developed by HAL Laboratories. Except that game, one of the finest looking games on the system, was released in 1993; Air Fortress came out in the US in 1989. That would be impressive enough, but consider that it was originally released in Japan in 1987, and it becomes one of the finest looking Nintendo games of the '80s.
Never mind the game's unwieldy difficulty in later stages or its slightly unwelcome extended play time. The game's fantastic visuals and music, and unique combination of playstyles, in another world, might have let history remember it as an NES classic. Instead, most people have never heard of it, making it truly one of the console's hidden gems.
All screenshots are my own; box art from GameFAQs.