Retro Review: “Airwolf” (NES, Attack Helicopter Week Special)
Welcome back to Attack Helicopter Week here at The Splintering, where we celebrate all things attack helicopter, whether good or bad!
And today we have “bad” in spades, folks, as we’ve chosen to subject ourselves to critiquing Airwolf published by… Acclaim. (*Shudder!*)
So everyone find your seat, buckle up, and keep your hands close to yourself, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Developed by Beam Software and released for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1989, Airwolf is a pseudo-3D flying action game based on the tv show by the same name. It is not, however, based on the 1987 Airwolf arcade game by Kyugo.
You play as Hawke, the pilot of the high tech helicopter known as Airwolf, and you must use your flight expertise to infiltrate enemy lines and rescue hostages. Fortunately, you won’t be relying solely on your piloting skills, as Airwolf comes equipped with a machine gun, rockets, tactical nukes (holy shit!) that kill everything on the screen, and the smallest fucking fuel tank ever devised by earthly engineers.
Hawke must use all of these weapons to take down the blue planes, reddish-orange planes, and gun towers scattered throughout each stage. The actual gameplay area is just over half the screen, but the scaling and rotation, while clunky, really isn’t that bad for the 8-bit NES. The small play area makes it hard to maneuver and react, though. Enemies just sort of pop up, as do their missiles. They aren’t on your radar. The only things that are on your radar are the locations of escaped hostages, refueling points, and enemy airfields.
I hope you were paying attention when I said “refueling points”, because you’re going to need them. Airwolf burns gas waaay too quickly, and most stages will require you to refuel multiple times to succeed. Run out of gas? You die. Since fuel is so limited, you’ll have to use the pre-stage map and plan out your route pretty carefully. The shortage of gas also makes you watch your radar far too often than you should, because going off course means certain death by crash landing.
Your helicopter can speed up and slow down using the start and select buttons. This certainly helps you traverse large spans of ground, but given my noted frustration with how quickly your fuel is used up, you can imagine how well your speed affects your gas consumption. If you need to pause the game, you’ll have to mash down both start and select simultaneously. Not that big of a deal, really.
Once you do reach either a refueling point or hostage pickup site, the gameplay shifts into an annoying 2D landing sequence where you have to land – not too fast! – while fighting the wind from blowing you into towering structures, all of which mean death. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not NES Top Gun landing sequence levels of annoying, but landing still feels really arbitrary and ill-conceived.
Immediately upon picking up your last hostage, you need to high tail it to the border of the map and escape (otherwise you can still run out of fuel and die, remember?). If you touch the borders of the map any time before this, your helicopter stops dead in its tracks, and it’s often difficult to get “unstuck” off of it.
So how many times do you have to do this? The answer is either 20, 30, or maybe infinitely. Why so confusing? Because stages 21-30 are carbon copies of previous stages in the game, so you’ve seen it all once you complete stage 20. However, the only thing that I would even remotely consider an “ending” is after stage 30, when the message you receive from Archangel is slightly different than after any other stage. Of course, this screen goes by too quickly for you to read, so fuck you, but then the stages just keep repeating again with stage 31. I honestly don’t know if Airwolf ever truly ends. Perhaps it’s the lesser-known tenth circle of Dante’s Hell.
Whether there’s 20, 30, or 110 stages, there’s no real mission variation between them. Everything revolves around rescuing hostages. If the game was going to be so long, why not have different objectives? Why not have a stage where you destroy all of the airfields? Or use your tactical nuke to take out a small, belligerent country and then get the hell out of there? Would that have been too much to ask, Acclaim?
Aesthetically, Airwolf is pretty drab. Every stage features completely flat ground, but this isn’t much of a shock given the low power of the 8-bit NES. The sky will change from light blue to dark blue signifying a shift between day and night, so that’s something, I suppose.
The good news is, the catchy theme song from the Airwolf tv is used in the game. Unfortunately, it’s pretty much the only song you hear, and it only plays between stages, or when you’re playing through the damn landing sequences. When you’re actually doing the flying through the air and blowing stuff up? Nothing. No music. Just the farting drone of your guns and the pops of your brain cells as they explode one-by-one in your head.
However, there is one aesthetic decision that works pretty well in Airwolf, and that is the “cinematic” sequences that show off characters from the show and the Airwolf helicopter itself. You get a mission briefing from Archangel before each stage, your chopper’s take off animation is pretty cool for an NES game, and the perky final hostage you pick up is always doubly charmed that you came to her rescue.
Airwolf’s biggest problem isn’t the lack of variation, or that it’s too long, or even the fuel thing. No, the biggest problem with the game is that it’s painfully boring after just one or two stages. Many of Airwolf’s flaws could be forgiven if the base game was fun to play, but it isn’t. Not even close. You simply don’t have much incentive to keep playing, and if I want to fly a helicopter around and rescue hostages, I’d much rather be playing Choplifter.
To be fair, I can give Airwolf some credit in that it’s a functional 3D flying shooter for the NES, which is commendable. However, I have to ask, why the hell didn’t they simply port the Airwolf arcade game? It was a side-scrolling shoot-em-up for Christ’s sake, and that would have lent itself far better to the 8-bit NES than 30+ million droning stages of a 3D refueling simulator.
In the end, I cannot in good conscience recommend Airwolf on NES to anyone except the most hardcore fans of the tv show. Even then, I’m sure that whatever nostalgia high is driving their excitement will wear off pretty damn fast.
Oh, there’s also no inverted controls. Why? Because “Fuck you”, that’s why.
No. Fuck you, Acclaim. And fuck Airwolf.
Thanks for reading!
To check out more of The Splintering’s Attack Helicopter Week content, go here!