Paradigm Entertainment's second N64 offering, Aero Fighters Assault, is a mission-based air combat game codeveloped with Japan's Video System. The title, known as Sonic Wings in Japan, was constructed with the aid of an ex-F-14 fighter pilot onboard as a programmer. But even with the expertise and first-hand experience behind it, the designers seem to have left something out. While managing combat aircraft may be a breeze to a retired fighter pilot, to anyone else, handling a mechanically precise air vehicle will likely present a struggle just in keeping the ground in the right place. But that's just the beginning, as AF truly gives the saying "fight or flight" new meaning.
Collaborative play is key, as you and your team represent Project Blue, a UN-style military airforce that must keep the enemy contingent, Phutta Morgana, from world domination. In the beginning, you learn through a briefing that Tokyo has been flooded as the result of a thermonuclear bomb detonated in the South Pole (what about Australia and New Zealand?). Your first-level goal is to protect a hidden, subterranean factory from the enemy's onslaught. You'll also be informed, wasting no time, that the overall objective of the game is to bomb New York City to pieces. While this certainly poses a stunning project, you'll quickly realize this is the Phutta's objective, and your mission is to stop them. And you'll see quite a few locations from sea to shining sea before you get the chance, as the levels include sinking submarines in the Pacific Ocean, destroying a large mech-crab in a marinated Tokyo, gunning down the enemy in a desert canyon, and much more.
Characters Volk, Hien, Glenda, and Hawk pilot the various planes made available to you, for example, the F-14B Tomcat, A-10A Thunderbolt II, SU-35 Super Flanker, and the FS-X, each equipped with a combination of four distinct weapons. The planes and pilots you don't choose will be your crew for the level. Each fighter has guided missiles, rockets, 20 and 30mm gunfire, fireballs, fire arrows, air mines, as well as other, special signature weapons that fall under names like the Phoenix, Stars, Tomahawk, Makibishi, Hunai Shot, and the Ninja Beam. The Z-trigger is the main weapon of which you have an unlimited arsenal; the A-button is your subweapon - also unlimited; the B-button is your chaff (a defense mechanism that breaks opponents' missile locks) or your air mines, with only 10 available; and the right shoulder button is your special, which unfortunately can only be used twice per round. Ammunition, however, does not mark the only variation in the aircraft. Each model has a distinct turning radius as well as speed and power capabilities - two features that you must master to adequately fend off the numerous enemy craft.
But real-life flight experience and unusual weapons aside, Aero Fighters, while being a full 3D, rip-roaring air combat game for the N64, has trouble standing up next to Ace Combat 2, Namco's same-genre title for the Sony PlayStation. Aero Fighters has nice graphics - until they're actually put to the test. As soon as lots of images appear on the screen, the frame rate slows down noticeably, resulting in choppy and inconsistent gameplay. In AC2, the frame rate is naturally a bit slower, but play is still fluid throughout. Aero Fighters' short cinema sequences between levels are also somewhat rough and blurry compared to the clarity of the graphics in AC2. Aero Fighters' sound is not exempt from criticism either. The music is not appalling but not really very good. And there's no good excuse for the endless loop of garish banter from pilots. Would top-notch pilots engaging in life-threatening battle actually have nothing else to say besides: "Whoa, gnarly; this guy's toast; Borscht," and "Bummer, that's bogus"? And while the chatter may be a soothing reminder that you're "not alone out there," it very quickly becomes an aggravating nuisance and reason to hit the mute button. And while on the topic of sound, unless you're paying close attention or have a Rumble Pak plugged in, you may not notice that you are being shot at until about half your life is gone. The first few times your plane takes a hit result in a sound more like the impotent chirping of a moribund bird. Later on, lots of black smoke and flames shooting from your tail will clue you in that the end is near.
Nevertheless, the game does have some solid features. The special skills, for example, are challenging and presumably realistic enough to keep you busy for hours. Once you learn to master, or at least moderately use, the Padlock view (an alternative to the trail view or cockpit view in that you actually see your entire plane and its relative position to the other fighters as if you were watching from a third-party location), you'll find it adds depth to otherwise somewhat dull, repetitive missions. In fact, it's almost exciting to see your flight skills improve on the screen through this view; however, it will take some time to get used to. Those who aren't used to flight sims may find repose in the N64 analog stick controls or novice level that doesn't give a lot of freedom of movement, but lessens the pressure of flying like a pro and dealing with aero-disorientation from the start.
Aero Fighters also has special moves incorporated into the gameplay that are actual maneuvers performed regularly at air shows. The Cobra is a move in which you laterally drop altitude, maintaining your flight path as you decrease speed, making the plane trailing you zip past. Another is the Culbit, essentially a back flip in which you can, if done correctly, end up behind your predator. Neither move is easy to execute, so chalk up about 30 minutes of your learning curve right there. Aero Fighters races ahead of AC2 in two areas. One, your plane won't stall in Aero Fighters; the developers designed the fighters with a minimum speed and minimum turning radius. Also, AF can't be called easy. With the N64 control, you must learn to maneuver with precision, as it's not as forgiving as AC2.
In a word, realism may be the problem. Theoretically, it's great that you can barrel-roll, slip between 3D-rendered skyscrapers, dive-bomb submersibles, and perform death-defying acts you've only seen at air shows, but where's the fun? This title is lots of work for not a lot of payoff. For a change of pace, you can elect to go directly after the big guys in the boss attack level, or you can dogfight your friends in the death match and at least fight someone as lousy as yourself. Though the latter suffers from the same "Where the hell are you?" quality found in the multiplayer mode of Starfox 64. Overall, the game is frustrating, slow, and boring enough that you might want to make sure you have a copy of your favorite game nearby just so, through your suspension of disbelief, you don't forget that games are actually supposed to be fun.