Once upon a time in the 80s, there was a government of a certain large western power. This government decreed that to meet the stringent demands of modern warfare, a new weapon must be crafted – the Mach 1 plus attack helicopter, codenamed Airwolf. The man asked to test this finely crafted Ferrari of air superiority is Stringfellow Hawke, who loves his new toy so much that he decides to use the chopper to make a getaway, and then keep it for himself. Yes, Stringfellow Hawke stole Airwolf, but I doubt you’ll find any beta testers of the Airwolf game with copies they snuck out from Acclaim. In fact, if anyone stole this game, chances are excellent that they tried to bring it back.
Airwolf is one of those NES games that tried to do more with the console than the console would really have any part of. This one joins the handful of games that attempted to make a first-person cockpit simulator out of monochrome textures and flat sprites. Top Gun tried this same trick, and equally sucked at it. The sky is one color of blue, the ground is one color of green, and two-dimensional planes occasionally appear to fire cloudy looking balls at you that turn out to be missiles. You’d better love the look of old games and have a healthy imagination if you want to enjoy this game.
However, the biggest problem with Airwolf’s graphics isn’t that they just look ugly. Without any landmarks or any form of visual terrain representations whatsoever, you will have no idea where you are, where you are going, or even if you’re turning, because the horizon will always look the same. If the game didn’t provide you with a real-time map, it would be completely unplayable. But they really could have given you the map only, since that’s all you’ll ever look at, and the game wouldn’t lose much.
This might be a slightly better game if it gave you more to do. It does not however, and every mission is introduced by a cutscene of your eyepatched commander instructing you to “go out and bring our people home.” You’re then shown a map of enemy territory, which always is made up of an airbase, a fuel dump, and some hostages. Then you’re sent in to rescue the hostages, which consists of gunning the engines, flying over the X on the map, gently touching down from a side view in a little rip-off of Choplifter, then gunning the engines again until you’re out of the mission area. Every mission will last an absolute maximum of 30 seconds. You can destroy the airbase for points, or hit the fuel dump if you’re low on gas, but the mission areas are so small, the prisoners so few, and Airwolf so damned fast, that you’ll never need to.
That’s the entire game. Once the hostages are home, the game simply loops. The mission number is increased by one and the layout of the camp changes a bit, but you’ll always be saving hostages, and the game will never end. This goes back to the point about not needing anything but the map – since you only have to avoid enemy planes, and never have missions that require you to engage them or destroy airbases or whatever, every mission is reduced to flying to a point on the map, and then hauling ass out to the edge of the map.
The controls are a confusing point, as start and select are used to accelerate and decelerate your craft. Up and down, what you would expect to regulate your speed, are instead used to raise and lower your altitude. This is a completely useless feature, since the only visual representation that you’re getting closer to the ground is your altimeter in the cockpit. Your altitude affects the gameplay in no way whatsoever, except to give you another gauge to keep your eye on. A and B fire missiles and guns, if you feel the need to shoot at the planes swarming around, or more usefully, shoot down cloudy missiles launched at you. Most times you can simply fly around at full speed and avoid them. Sound is average, with a nice rendition of the Airwolf theme, the only music in the game, and a lot of lackluster sound effects for the rest of the time.
Airwolf could certainly be better, but even then it wouldn’t be great. It offers nothing to do justice to the fans of the show, and offers nothing exciting or original for the rest of us. As far as I’m concerned, Stringfellow can keep his stolen Airwolf, because this game has proven to me that I want no part of it.
Airwolf has fantastic hostage-finding and hostage-rescuing abilities, which is good…
…because rescuing hostages is all Airwolf will do… forever.