Air Fortress Review (NES)
Destroy the core…then escape!
On consoles with hundreds, even thousands of titles to choose from, it’s inevitable that some games just fall under most people’s radar despite being good. The NES has many examples of this from Gun-Nac and Shatterhand to The Guardian Legend and Vice: Project Doom. One such good game that fell under most people’s radar is HAL Laboratory’s action shooter game Air Fortress, despite even being featured in the 1990 Nintendo World Championships.
Air Fortress attempts to combine gameplay elements from shoot ’em ups like Gradius and action-adventure sidescrollers like Metroid, all while being one of HAL’s first games for the Famicom/NES. How well did HAL succeed in their efforts? Let’s fine out.
Of course, the whole game does beg the question of why the Space Stations fortresses are called “Air Fortresses”? They’re in space!
As you continue to get further in the game, there’s a surprisingly large verity in enemies you normally wouldn’t expect form a game of this type. The more I played, the more I was repeatedly shocked at each new enemy that I didn’t previously seen before, and then often times I see that new enemy only a few times from then on. Not bad HAL!
One of the cooler effects is after you destroy a Fortress Reactor Core, all of the colors dim and it gives an eerie feeling of being in the dark. a sense of dread of what might happen as the station builds for an overload….
Air Fortress isn’t exactly a standout title for sound design on the NES. Most of the tracks are fairly forgettable, but none are annoying in the way that is most often the case for forgettable soundtracks in gaming. That said, Air Fortress does nevertheless have a few tracks that are well worth listening to buried amongst the rest.
While most of the music is largely there just for background noise, HAL knew the impact music can have by carefully positioning tracks around the interior of the fortresses. When you destroy the reactor core, all traces of melody subside, replaced by distant sounds and the eerie sense of silence builds tension as you desperately search for the exit before the whole station explodes.
Personally, my favorite by far is the titlescreen track which has this cheesy yet satisfying melody that invokes visions of 1950’s sci-fi films and just plain adventure.
As always, here’s the track for you to enjoy.
Air Fortress is a mix of two kinds of gameplay – standard shoot ’em up and action-adventure sidescrolling. First type has you flying your space skidoo (seriously) as you approcach each Air Fortress and deal with the outer defenses. These sections are horizontal shooter auto scrolling segments where you shoot, dodge and collect power ups, but the stages are short, without bosses are are pretty much just an endurance test until you reach the fortress.
Once inside the fortress, Hal abandons his skidoo and sets out on foot and jetpack. Here he can fire bombs now and gains a health bar and can fly with his jetpack. The jetpack itself is one of the coolest features in Air Fortress.
Hal’s armored suit has a power meter that depletes energy when he moves and restores itself when Hal his at rest. As you play, you’ll encounter Energy power ups, which give Hal an additional 100 units of energy. the energy also allows Hal to take more hits from enemies. Damage caused by enemies depletes the overall power of Hal’s suit and won’t regenerate, but this is system allows the game to be much more forgiving than other games of it’s type.
The goal of every stage is to infiltrate the Air Fortress, locate the reactor core, destroy it and escape to saftety before the entire fortress explodes. It’s pretty intense!
Air Fortress employs a gravity-like effect that can almost be called a physics engine, a feat very very few NES games can claim. As such, you’ll quickly notice that HAL has the greatest difficulty moving from rest but once he starts moving it’s sometimes difficult to stop. In addition to that, firing Hal’s hand weapons results in recoil, so it is sometimes useful to fire in the opposite direction you want to go in order to quickly evade enemy fire. Other than that though, the controls are all very simple and work extremely well.
D-pad: Movement; inside the fortresses, hold Up to hover and press down to enter elevators
A: Fire; fire handgun
B: Fire, fire bomb
Select: No function
Air Fortress is not a particularly difficult game by NES standards, but this game won’t be easily beaten by novices either. The game’s difficulty lies in how diverse the challenges themselves are. During the shoot ’em up segments as you approach each fortress, you can be killed in one hit from contacting any object, enemy or projectile. Once inside the fortress, you’ll trade instant death for a heath bar, but now have to contend with gravitational forces, a limited supply of bombs, the complete lack of any map to guide you and of course, all the enemies and environmental hazards.
As you progress in the game, one final challenge comes in the form of finding an escape route after you destroy the reactor core of the fortress. Very much like the self-destruct escape in the end of Metroid, you’ll have a limited time to escape to safety before the space station explodes and you’ll have to do it all over again.
Availability & Price
Air Fortress is available on the Famicom and NES only.Expect to pay between $5 – 15 for the NES version and approximately the same range for the Famicom. The game is far from rare being released for the NES in 1989 during the system’s peak.
Despite being a simple game made by one of Nintendo’s second party developers, Air Fortress is not on the Wii’s Virtual Console in any region whatsoever.
Air Fortress was developed by HAL Laboratories, now famous for the Kirby games and especially the Super Smash Bros. series of pseudo-fighting games. As HAL Labs were an espically small developer in the 1980’s, the game was released in very limited numbers in the first years of the NES’s life in North America, with estimates of just twenty copies for the test run of the system in 1985 and then an additional 385 copies shipped for the North American launch of the NES in September of 1987. It wasn’t until early 1989 that a major production run for the game was issued.
To help promote the game, HAL Labs offered consumers the ability to buy a copy directly from them via mail order, which would include a Air Fortress t-shirt and poster of the boxart as a free gift. Obviously, these shirts and posters are highly sought after collector’s items today due to both their history and rarity.
For your viewing pleasure, I’ve dug out an original TV commerical for the game which mentions the t-shirt and poster HAL were giving away. It also mentions that Air Fortress was among the qualifying games for the 1990 Nintendo World Championship!
- Innovate control and varied gameplay
- Large verity of enemies
- Kooky story full of Engrish. Who doesn’t love that?!
- Password system characters are easy to read and short to write down and reenter.
- Dat titlescreen music
- Over time the game can get a little stale; best played one stage at a time rather than trying to beat the whole game in one sitting
- You might find yourself reaching for a turbo fire controller as some of the shmup sections are ridiculous
- Most of the music is somewhat forgettable
- There’s no HD remake or any clones. It’s not even on the Wii’s Virtual Console. What’s up with that??
Air Fortress is one of the most unique games on the NES and is one that every retro gamer should check out. Perhaps one could even say it was ahead of its time as no other game ever copied and perfected the design. Even though it wasn’t extremely successful however, HAL was brave to try something different and that is why I feel it is worth a second look now. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Air Fortress is one blend of Retro awesomeness you should try at least once.
Platform: Famicom, Nintendo Entertainment System
Genre: Shmup/Action-Adventure Sidescroller
Original Release Dates: September 1987 (limited run), January 1989 (major run)
Developer: HAL Labs
Also from the developer: The Adventures of Lolo, Kirby’s Adventure, Kabuki Quantum Fighter, Super Smash Bros. Melee, etc
Similar games: None
Game Length: ~6 hours
ESRB: None, but would be “E”
Buy, rent or skip: Buy if you can, emulate if you must, but damnit, just play it!