3 Difficulty levels
Ship speed fixed
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Developed by Kaneko
Published by Kaneko in 1991
For some very personal reasons, I always thought that jet/airplane-based horizontal shmups were the quintessential image of the genre. Maybe that’s related to my preference for horis and to my childhood memories of Top Gun, Iron Eagle and After Burner, but it sort of induces me to enjoy a bit more games like Air Buster – a very decent arcade conversion that’s also known as Aero Blasters (if we’re talking about the Japanese release). The name Air Buster does sound generic but in time I’ve come to like it, since this way it’s harder to mistake the game for Aero Fighters, which is the western name for the first title in the famed Sonic Wings series.
I don’t want to sound cliché, but at first sight playing Air Buster does feel like playing a generic, out-of-the-mill updated version from an old shooter of the Atari 2600 era. But soon enough you’ll realize this is a real 16 bit shooter, and as such it will present variety both graphically and challengewise. That’s one of the key differences between good and bad horizontal shmups, and fortunately this game follows the path of the enlightened, diverse iterations to the formula. Yes, the first stage is all colorful, with fine albeit simple parallax in the backgrounds and very easy enemies to dispatch. Should we expect the same for the upcoming stages? Definitely no.
While still being very colorful, sharp and well designed, with nice mechanical craft and machinery as enemies, further challenges throughout the game will demand a fine deal of skill if the player wants to reach the end of the journey. There’s a long and narrow tunnel in the 2nd stage, followed by a crowded flight into outer space in the 3rd level and an unexpected change of pace right afterwards. This change of pace is the reason why some people reject Air Buster as being badly designed or unfairly difficult. Since you’re in outer space, you’re out of gravity and the ship never stops moving. It makes maneuvering and dodging twice as difficult, and the only way to stop moving is to lean against the border of the screen. This is when you notice that the game unfolds in a very logical manner: (stage 1) fly over a city, (stage 2) invade a tunnel base, (stage 3) scramble into the stratosphere and (stage 4) make your way through enemies and debris in outer space!
Absence of gravity lasts until the boss of stage 5, when you re-enter a closed environment in order to play the rest of the game. That’s not much of a refresher because for the most part the Death Circus (stage 6) is an exercise in precise positioning through a moving maze.
In order to deal with all the baddies, the jet must be powered up. Though they might appear floating for free pick-up, most power-ups are released in groups of five items by destroying a chunky orange carrier. The player has to be quick to get the desired items because they fall off the screen very fast. Getting the best icons doesn’t come easily, so it will only get natural after a bit of practice. The main one is P (power-up), followed by the icons for secondary attacks/features: S (side fighters), R (rear shot), red M (straight missiles), green M (homing missiles), 6 (6-way shot), H (revolving turret), B (bumper, essential during the fast tunnel run in the 2nd stage) and $ (points). There’s also the chargeable "buster" flash (activated with buttons A or C) that disintegrates on-screen bullets and popcorn enemies – although weak and seemingly useless it can be very handy in certain situations, such as the glut of heat-seeking missiles in the last stage. There are no speed-ups, and the only extra life is gained upon reaching 200.000 points.
Air Buster's first stage
(courtesy of YouTube user EnciclopediaLusa)
(courtesy of YouTube user EnciclopediaLusa)
Make no mistake, this is a game that tricks you into thinking it’s easy. It has a lighthearted feel that’s perfectly matched by the upbeat soundtrack (I love how the music picks up in synch with the action during the tunnel section). However, the truth is that Air Buster is a cruel, mean game. It has a deadly ability to rip you to shreds and empty your life stock in a snap. Getting stripped to nothing in busy parts is disheartening. And when you die you have to wait for the death animation and the repositioning of the jet, which takes a while and definitely pisses me off when a precious power-up carrier goes by. Those pesky globes that materialize out of nowhere are a pain in the ass, but the trickiest part for me is the first half of the 5th stage. Confession: I practiced this part in an emulator on my PC before playing in on real hardware (this part was the reason I gave up on the game months ago).
Air Buster is fun and addictive, as long as you can cope with the tricky challenge factor of later stages. Co-op play is possible, and it's just as fluid as when you're playing solo, with no slowdown or noticeable flicker at all. Compared to the PC Engine port the Mega Drive version of Air Buster seems to be the superior game, both in graphics and sound. There's a weird thing in the Mega Drive port though: it has a kind of short delay every time a stage starts, as if it was actually “loading”. Thankfully it’s nothing gamebreaking.
I’m really glad I could finally 1CC this after having given up on it once. Here’s my high score for the successful run (NORMAL):