1 Difficulty level
Ship speed variable
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Developed by Rare
Published by Tradewest in 1990
I often get asked by some people why I don't play adventure/action games anymore. It doesn't matter what I answer, I inevitably end up labeled as an "elitist" or a "weirdo" for my tastes in gaming. Well, this post is for them. I gotta say I finally went into some adventure time, complete with deep exploration and secret-finding. And it was all intertwined with the shooting aspect of Solar Jetman - Hunt for the Golden Warship, one of the cornerstones of the gravity arena subgenre. While some will disregard this game as being a real shmup, my feelings towards it are very clear: you pilot a spaceship and shoot to make progress - associated with the fact that the ship is seen in its entirety, this is the basis for a game to be called a shmup, borderliner or not.
Solar Jetman is, in fact, the third in a trilogy that has Jetpac and Lunar Jetman as first installments, both appearing only on the ZX Spectrum. They seem to have nothing in common with the NES title except for the pilot, the spacesuit and the idea that you have to fulfill a mission in order to go on to the next level. Solar Jetman is probably the first full blown game to arise from the seed planted by Gravitar, which was the first gravity arena shooter to see the light of day. As with almost all gravity shooters, it is widely considered to be extremely difficult, a general misconception related to this fascinating subgenre and here exacerbated by the fact that Rare/Tradewest were responsible for its creation. If this doesn't ring any bells, these are the same people who would release Battletoads in the following year...
The basic story in the game is that you're a member of the Federation of Space Loonies, and you fly across the galaxy to get the necessary pieces to assemble the golden warship. Each planet/stage has one piece of this golden warship, which you will find by piloting a "pod" that always departs from a stationary mothership. In order to get to the next planet it's necessary to gather enough fuel so that your mothership can blast off. In all missions the hero will face lots of menaces, but the most dangerous one is gravity. Every planet has its own gravity level, sometimes weaker and sometimes stronger, as well as its own set of perils and treasures to be collected. Exploring is a must, as well as memorization and a certain dose of strategy.
As an NES game, there's no denying that Solar Jetman is an outstanding achievement in gameplay. It uses the NES controller like very few other games do: button A is shoot, button B is thrust, SELECT + A uses special weapons, SELECT + B activates boosters (stronger thrust), ← and → rotate the ship, ↓ activates the shield, ↑ deactivates the shield, START + SELECT shows a map of the planet. These inputs are all essential for survival, and some of them must be unlocked by collecting special items. But that's not all, the gameplay goes way beyond that! There are two energy bars, one for the pod's power and another for the selected special weapon (special weapons and upgrades can be bought in the shop that appears prior to all even-numbered planets). Pod power is consumed by thrusting or by being hit. Getting hit by an enemy bullet will instantaneously destroy the pod and leave you in your spacesuit, but even though this spacesuit has a full power gauge and better maneuvering capabilities it can't activate shields or special weapons. Therefore, it's just a weak albeit useful means of displacement. To get into a pod again you have to fly back to the mothership or fly into a small wormhole, which then sends you back to the mothership. In fact, the mothership is where you want to go whenever you're low on power - it will always refill both meters. Lives are only lost when your power meter is depleted while in the spacesuit.
Another important aspect of the gameplay is the ability to drag objects. As long as the shield is down, a tractor connection is activated automatically whenever you're close to an object that can be carried. Fuel cells, crystals and treasures all have to be brought to a collecting point, which can be the mothership or one of the small wormholes spread around the planet. Once you have enough fuel cells, look for the big wormhole so that you can fly through it and get the piece of the golden warship.
I could go on and on talking about specifics on Solar Jetman's gameplay. It's that dense and rich. Fuel tanks to replenish pod power, spare ships, improved pods, water areas, inversed gravity, gravity spheres, cyberzones and warpzones. At least one warpzone was important for me, because I adopted it as part of my strategy to beat the game. Right at the start of planet 8, I took it to travel to the extra planet (13) and continue the journey on the last planet (12). And even doing so, I think my complete playthrough clocked in almost 3 straight hours.
Preludon, the 1st planet - spacesuit + special zone + shield probes + crystal + fuel + WIN
(courtesy of YouTube user Ferret5317)
The technical highlights of Solar Jetman, besides the addictive and challenging gameplay, are the music and the sound effects. Sometimes minimalistic and increasingly haunting, the songs surely get you in the mood for serious deep space adventure. Graphically, the game is decent. You can see that a good deal of effort was applied to the design of every planet, to the point you can face each one of them as a sort of mini-game to be won. I only wish there was more detail in the backgrounds other than the star dots, because when you're flying through vast spaces it's hard to know exactly where you're going to. The game is also known for having bugs, but the only one I ran into is when you accidentally let go of an item when it is inside a wall/rock. Depending on how it happens, it gets impossible to reach it again, and if we're talking about a fuel cell this might disrupt and ruin the whole game. It happened to me twice, but fortunately I got smart after that.
When I started playing the game I thought it was a little slow, but then it came to me that it was running on an NES. And later on I was thankful that it ran at that speed, because when things get nasty you'll want to have control over that little oval ship. After weeks of sparse plays I finally gave Solar Jetman the proper attention during part of my vacation, with the FAQ provided by the StrategyWiki on the game (a big thanks to everyone involved in it!). I would play one stage per day in an emulator, practicing it to exhaustion and even recording my runs. For such a heavy exploratory shooter, it worked wonders and gave me the confidence to go for a 1CC on the real thing (since the game gives passwords for each stage, it's still possible to practice in a real NES). No matter what your choice is, you're up for a hell of a ride, and that makes this definitely one of the best and most fulfilling NES games ever released.
Solar Jetman is not the hardest game ever, but it's got its hairy moments. The highest tension comes with the fight against the last boss, when you finally get to fly the golden warship in a jerky horizontal scrolling section. Regardless of life stock, you have only one shot at succeeding! Don't go chickening out after all the hard work, OK?
Instead of a proper score, progress is measured by a money counter, and in the picture below when I'm about to beat the last boss my standings are $ 7.904. If I consider all the items I bought, such as anti gravity (most important special weapon in the game), the super map and the two permanent pod upgrades, my total wallet would be $ 55.904. I played stages 1 through 7, warped from 8 to 13 and continued till the end. 1CC mission accomplished!