Air combat games for consoles and handhelds are often a hit-or-miss affair. Some games, like Ace Combat, are quite good and bring the thrill of fighter combat across in the game without all the minutiae of hardcore flight combat sims on the PC. Many of the games in the genre leave a lot to be desired, though, and Top Gun for the DS is a prime example. Top Gun's poor presentation and dull, sometimes cheap design make it a game that never should have gotten off the ground in the first place.
First of all, it's quite odd that 20 years after Top Gun sent Tom Cruise into superstardom, someone would choose to make a game based on the film. No, the title of the game is not a coincidence, as you'll discover when Harold Faltermeyer's "Top Gun Anthem" starts playing when you boot up the game. Sadly, that's pretty much the highlight of the game. After you choose which of four characters you want to play as, from Maverick, Iceman, Jester, and the lovable Slider, you can embark on the game's 11 mission campaigns, which will take you from flight training school right into combat against MiG fighters, warships, surface-to-air missile launchers, tanks, and more. It turns out that it doesn't make much difference which pilot you choose, as the game plays out the same each way.
Over the course of the campaign you'll unlock three different fighters, which include the F-14 Tomcat featured in the film, as well as the F-16 Fighting Falcon (which is an odd choice as it's not a Navy plane), and the F/A-18 Hornet. These all seem to have the proper shape and silhouette, with the Tomcat exhibiting its swing-wing design where the wings sweep back as you increase speed, and swing out at lower speeds. The unfortunate problem is that all the jets still look quite ugly, with muddy-looking textures. Other than the obvious cosmetic differences, there's little else that separates the planes, other than slightly different amounts of missiles that the three jets can carry.
The flight model in Top Gun is very simple. You use the D pad to climb, dive, or bank. The X and Y buttons control the throttle, B locks and fires your guided missiles, A shoots the Vulcan cannon (which never runs out of bullets), R cycles between your available targets, and the L button fires your unguided rockets. There's a so-called "flight-sim" control model available, but it doesn't appreciably change the way the plane is controlled. There are no real complicated moves you can pull off, so forget about Immelmann turns or even simple loops--pulling back on the stick awkwardly and automatically flips your aircraft over after you've reached the apex of your climb, which looks and feels disorienting, mostly because the game's graphics are so poor at rendering terrain or cloud cover that you never get a good sense of speed, or much of a reference to discern the direction you're flying in, other than the primitive radar on the bottom screen. If you need to change direction, you're generally better off just making a wide turn.
The actual flying in Top Gun feels extremely arcadelike, similar to something like the classic Afterburner games or even the original Top Gun on the NES. Unlike those games, Top Gun for the DS is not set on rails--you have freedom to fly within a designated combat area. Your plane can also carry dozens of each type of missile, which is unrealistic, but given the number of enemies you'll take on by yourself or with just one or two wingmen to help you, you'll need all the ordnance you can get.
After the first two training missions, the combat in Top Gun gets repetitive quickly. You're given objectives before and during the course of the mission, such as taking out some enemy ships that are attacking your aircraft carrier, all while fending off MiGs that are circling overhead. Other missions will have you winding through canyons or taking out ground targets around some oil fields. One of the biggest problems with the game is that it will sometimes resort to cheap tactics in order to artificially increase the difficulty of a mission. The computer, for example, may spawn an infinite number of fighters to harass you while you try and take out ground targets. Instead of allowing you to do the sensible thing, which would be to eliminate all air cover so you can bomb the ground targets safely, Top Gun often eliminates this strategic choice with its cheap design.
This might not have been such a bad thing if the basic combat in Top Gun was any good. But ground attacks are much like shooting fish in a barrel, and air combat isn't much better, as it basically boils down to pointing your screen at an enemy plane, getting a lock-on, and firing a guided missile. If you shoot from too far away, the computer-controlled fighters can break missile lock, but when you find the magic range at which to fire your missiles, they pretty much always hit for a one-shot kill. Taking out enemy targets isn't at all satisfying, either, as the "explosions" in the game consist of the targets disappearing in a thin puff of smoke. The rest of the graphics in the game, including ground textures and object models, are about as ugly and underwhelming as the explosions. There isn't much salvation to find in the sound, either, as a couple songs play during the missions; and the voice acting in the game is terrible, mixed poorly, and repetitive. After about the 200th time your character yells "He's got a lock on me!" you'll need to lower the volume or fight the urge to throw your DS through the nearest window.
Beyond the campaign mode, there's a single-mission mode that includes all the campaign missions and a couple of bonus missions. There's also four-player multiplayer that lets you dogfight with a few of your friends. You don't get the full array of aircraft choices if you choose to go with single-card sharing, but not to worry--the game's not very fun or compelling in multiplayer either, so you're not missing out on much.
There's really little redeeming value to Top Gun, with its boring gameplay and lackluster presentation. The developer didn't even really make use of the Top Gun license, other than using the names of the movie characters as selectable pilots and taking just one song from the soundtrack. Sorry, Ghostrider, but permission to fly by our DS is denied--the pattern is full.