Genre: Shmup Developer: Asmik Publisher: Seismic Players: 1 Released: 1990
I’ve got the need… the need for speed!
That has to be my favorite line from modern cinema’s ode to testosterone, Top Gun. Zipping through the sky faster than the speed of sound in a fighter armed to the teeth is something every man can appreciate, and Sega knows this well. That’s probably why it’s used the formula on several occasions for its Afterburner series, as well as for the lesser known G-LOC. It was successful for Sega on the Genesis, which saw a port of Afterburner II and G-LOC, and that’s probably why Seismic decided to have a go at it when it released Asmik’s Air Diver in 1990. It’s just a pity that you don’t feel a hormone rush of any kind when you play it.
Sad news indeed, because I love Seismic. It’s catalog is small but has solid traditional shooters in the awesome M.U.S.H.A and Hellfire, and a great action/RPG in Super Hydlide. Air Diver rounds out the quartet, giving the company the trifecta of shmup gameplay styles (vertical, horizontal, and pseudo-3D). The game seems more than a bit inspired by Sega’s arcade classic, but it lacks the polish and thrill of its source material. You’re still roaring around the clouds, taking out enemy fighters, but there’s no sense of urgency in the action, save for your ever-decreasing full gauge. When you stand back and get a good look at the overall package, the whole thing seems kind of slapped together.
Take the incoherent plot, for instance. According to the opening text, you’re an F-119 Stealth Fighter pilot who’s supposed to be defending the world against Middle Eastern terrorists that “have the backing of several unfriendly extraterrestrial nations.” After some thought, that sounds plausible enough (this is a shmup, remember?), until you realize that the opening text is the only semblance of a story you’re going to find until the very end of the game. Oh, did I mention that you’ll be piloting your fighter into space to fight massive alien boss ships? Maybe that’s where Saddam sent those WMDs!
Of course, no one plays a shmup for its story, and as long as there’s lots of action and plenty of things to blow up, I’m usually a happy camper. Again, Air Diver tries to deliver the goods, and it puts up a great effort, but ultimately it fumbles the execution just enough for you to notice the difference. You only fight the same type of fighters over and over again above bland, undetailed terrain, and each stage basically boils down to trying to eliminate them all before your fuel runs out. Take out a certain amount of planes and the stage changes to something equally unimpressive. Take out another load, and you fight against a “mini boss,” which is really just a tougher fighter. You’ll spend a good amount of time just trying to get him in front of you, and this can lead to a war of attrition that usually ends with you running out of fuel. Should you manage to take him out, then you’re catapulted into space to take on an enemy “carrier” (those alien craft I mentioned). You can’t really fly here, and instead you’re forced to dodge its fire as you try to empty your Vulcan cannon and missiles into its soft spot. The control in these battles is skittish at best, and it can be quite hard to find a rhythm for dodging and firing.
I find it hard that a game that uses three buttons could have such dramatic control problems during boss battles. Chalk it up to the whole “fighting in space” aspect, I guess. Stealth is useless there, as is the powerful afterburner you have for outrunning enemy missiles. It’s odd, because the control is pretty solid during the stages themselves. Asmik was even thoughtful enough to include an option to reverse the Y-axis of your plane.
Asmik also attempted to inject a bit of realism into the gameplay by having enemy fire effect your fighter’s performance. Too much damage to your flaps causes you to lose fuel at a faster rate, and damage to your engines prevents you from using the aforementioned afterburner. Just using said afterburner at all increases fuel consumption, so you can’t just blast your way through the air without a care. Even selecting a destination from the map screen must be done with care. Should you pick spots too far away, your Super Transport will run out of fuel and the game will be over.
Taken as a whole, Air Diver is a fun diversion that can be had for a small price. Just be sure to not compare it to any of the other games that share its genre, or you’re going to be disappointed. I really did like the alien bosses, and had the control been as good as the music (which is great!), this could have gone a long way towards making the game a better experience. Had Asmik pursued a sequel, there was plenty of room for improvement, and a second attempt could have produced something truly special. As it is, Air Diver needs its afterburners just to keep up with the competition.