Review: Captain SkyHawk

I must apologize profusely for the lack of a post last Friday.  To make up for that, here’s another game review—and even a Let’s Play!

Alright, so, you’re picking through old games at the local shop, or you’re clicking through the bargain pages of a web site. Either way, you come across Captain SkyHawk for the N.E.S., and you’re pondering picking it up. Sure, you can go off of reviews written when the game was new–but what was fresh as funk then may be trifling better than bad disco now. So how’s one to know? That’s what I’m here for.

In Nineteen Ninety, the Nintendo Entertainment System was getting ready to ride off into the sunset.  The Super Nintendo was on the horizon, being released in Japan late that year.  The N.E.S. wasn’t going to leave with a whimper, though.  One of the games produced that year was this one, Captain SkyHawk.

The story was told almost exclusively in the manual, with only one mention of what you’re ostensibly supposed to be doing and why given at the end of the game.  Still, for the time it was a fine game, putting the N.E.S. through its paces to try and offer something interesting to gamers.  Today, we’ll see how it stands up almost eighteen years later.

Game Play
When first starting up the game, you sit through the title and credits screens, then are thrust right into your first mission.  Since the developers assume you’ve read the manual, you aren’t told anything.  At all.  You just get “GET READY FOR MISSION 1” and off you go.

In a more contemporary point of view, that’s not so bad.  After all, space freed from being spent on back story is space available for the game world and enemies within it.  Almost eighteen years later, though, it’s not too unlikely that someone may have lost the manual, or if they purchase it from a store or an on-line site like eBay, the game may not come with it.

Even if you have no idea whatsoever what the back story is, it’s easy to get into what you’re supposed to be doing.  The game gives you a few moments at the start of the first mission to figure out the controls, which are rather simple.  Since it is the N.E.S., though, that’s not exactly surprising.

Anyway, D-pad for moving your fighter jet—pressing up makes you dive, pressing down makes you climb—the A button for your cannon, and the B button for your missiles.  Tap B for one missile type, hold it down for another, hold it down and release for yet another.  Not exactly rocket surgery, that.

You’re taken through eight missions—four are basic “destroy enemy base” missions, where the entire point is to get through the level to the end, where an enemy base awaits.  Enemy bases are usually spheres—four set in a diamond pattern with one in the middle.  Destroy the outer four first, then go after the center one.

Two missions are dropping off supplies for scientists, and those entail flying through a level and tapping the B button over two crosses to drop said supplies.  If you miss, the level loops endlessly, so not only do you have as many chances as you need to drop the supplies, but these also make good levels to spend more time on to earn a lot of points (and we’ll get to the usage of points in a bit).  These are the only missions where you really have to watch your fuel gauge.  You can technically run out of fuel, but it will be a very rare event.

Two missions are rescuing scientists, and these entail flying through a level, defeating something like an enemy base at the end, then landing to pick up a scientist.

Next to the goals, the main differences in the levels are aesthetics.  They’re laid out a bit differently, colored drastically differently, and contain aesthetically-different enemies peppered throughout.  The missions where you drop off supplies are desert-themed, for example, complete with volcanoes and Sphinxes (don’t ask me), while the missions where you rescue scientists are designed to look like islands.

The missions all have a top-down perspective, and you’re zooming through the levels without being able to alter your speed.  That adds a bit of excitement and danger, as you swerve to one side to narrowly avoid canyon walls and the like.

For enemies, they come in all shapes and sizes—you have hovercraft-looking things that look like they just game off the beach, and you have mutant dune buggies, and more alien-looking things besides like spidery things.  Many enemies move, usually back and forth, but in the two island-ish levels that have water-themed enemies, many dive beneath the water.

You also have certain stationary hazards—and I say “hazards” because many can’t be harmed like an enemy.  Some can—sort of.  While something like a mutant dune buggy can be splodified by your weapons, something like a Sphinx can’t be—but it can be damaged once and thus made to stop firing at you.

Sometimes you’ll come across five or six of the same enemy type more or less clustered together; if you can get all of them, you’ll earn a bonus to your point total.  That’s usually not very easy, especially if you don’t remember their pattern, but it can be done.  It’s usually easier if you use the missiles which shoot out little things that hunt down an enemy on their own in addition to your cannon.

After each mission, you have something like a “mini-mission”, where you destroy enemy planes in a third-person perspective.  Enemy fighter jets come at you from in front as well as behind; each of these “destroy enemy fighters” missions are almost identical—they come at you in the same numbers, in the same patterns.  The only difference is that after the first one, they start firing missiles at you.  At first, they’re few, but by the end, almost every enemy is firing at you.

The main reason for those “mini-missions” is to gain points, and aside from bragging rights the reason to gain points is that they’re converted into “credits” which you use at your space station (yes, your fighter jet can fly right into space; again, don’t ask me).  You visit the space station seven times, after every main mission but the last, and you can upgrade your cannon, as well as purchase more missiles.  The main weapon to use is the cannon, so you shouldn’t need to even worry about the others that much, and as a result you’ll be rolling in credits before long.

After the last main mission and the “destroy enemy fighters” mini-mission, you’ll face the end-of-game boss, the enemy space station.  This is why you’ve been dropping supplies off and picking up scientists—they’ve been installing a “super weapon” into your fighter jet, which is what you’ll use on the enemy space station.  This last battle is done with a third-person view, and you have to dodge two enemy missile-things at a time until you destroy all of the ports, then the eye in the middle opens up.  You have to then dodge two more missile-things at a time while firing at it.

The eye-ball-thing is actually easier, since it fires two missile-things at a time but in random directions.  All you need to do is stay near the center of the screen and you usually have enough time to dodge them.  It’s getting to that stage of the fight that can be a pain, since the missile-things that the other ports fire are aimed at your position when the missile-things are fired.  There are, initially, a lot of ports, and you don’t really know where the missile-things will be fired from, so it can be a bit of a frenzied dance to stay in one piece.

All in all, it shouldn’t take you too long to complete.  For a first-time player, it can take an hour or so.  For someone well used to games of this era, I’d say around a half-hour, maybe forty minutes.  It’s not a long game at all.

From the manual:

Aliens have secretly invaded our planet.  Their mission: destroy Earth!

In remote corners of the globe, these evil invaders have built four land bases—each designed to drain Earth’s energy and “feel” it to their space station.  In just a few days, the power drain will be complete.  Then the alien space station will vaporize Earth with a deadly laser blast.

Only you can stop this horror!

To accomplish this, you get a special jet—something they’re calling an F-14VTS.  And no, the manual doesn’t say what “VTS” stands for.  It is, though, something apparently super nifty-keen.

The story is really light, but that’s expected.  Mind the era and platform we’re talking about.  That said, it’s not as light as some other games of the time.  There’s good, solid reasoning behind everything—you’re dropping supplies off to scientists working underground so they can build the “ultimate weapon”, and picking them up so they can install it.  They need their supplies dropped off, and they need to be rescued later, because they’re hiding out from the aliens.  Makes sense, doesn’t it?

On the whole, it’s actually a rather good story.  Short, yes, definitely light—but it’s coherent and serves its purpose very well.

Ah, the eight-bit era.  Conservation was the name of the game, and plenty of tricks were used to make each mission interesting and distinct.  The color palette is of course somewhat limited, but used nicely nonetheless.  The desert levels are tan and brown, the missions set in islands have green hills amongst blue water, so on and so on.  Some color options are a bit odd, like the neon-pink level, but each level does look interesting and distinct from the others.

The enemies are one of the more appealing aspects of the game.  From the enemy fighter jets to the mutant dune buggies to the circular hovering fan-things and on and on and on—they all look pretty interesting.  It’s actually something like a game to see what enemies you’ll face next—and what makes them even more interesting is that they each have somewhat different movement patterns.  Some just go side to side, some move just in diagonals, so on and so forth.

The sound work is really good.  Each weapon you fire has a distinct sound, from the budda-budda-budda-budda of the cannon to the FWISH of a missile—they all sound good, even if you hear them often—and you will be hearing the cannon often.

The enemies don’t really have many sounds related to them, aside from the explosions when you kill them.  Speaking of them, the explosions do all sound rather good, making destroying them rather satisfying.

The music is one of the biggest draws of the game.  The opening theme is evocative of space-related television shows of the ‘Eighties, and is certainly similar to a few other N.E.S. titles at the time, though that’s not a bad thing by any stretch.  It’s solid music, really, and it’s a shame that it doesn’t pop up in the missions themselves.  That said, though, aside from technical limitations being the likely reason for music not appearing in the missions, that also means that it doesn’t get aurally confusing, that the music doesn’t “battle” with the sound effects.

Unfortunately, this is the area where the game truly lacks.  Save for a few missions, there really aren’t anything like diverging paths or the like, and few missions where they are there, there’s not much difference beyond number and layout of enemies.  This path will have fewer than the other.

You can try to get a higher point total, which will earn you a higher spot on the top scorers list at the very end—but there’s no way to save your score, so you can’t exactly come back later to try and beat your old score.

Now, that said, it’s definitely a fun game, one you’ll pop in now and then if you have even the slightest interest in retro gaming and/or plane-related gaming.  Still, it’s for those reasons that you’ll replay it—you won’t really get a difference experience the next time you play it.

Final Recommendation
This is one of the games that isn’t really talked about when gamers discuss the N.E.S., and that’s something of a shame.  Part of the problem is that it was nearly the end of the N.E.S.’ life, and another part is that it’s not exactly a long game.  Still, it deserves to be in any gamer’s collection—but that’s with the caveat that it won’t be played often.

One could be the most hard-core retro gamer out there, who thinks the SEGA Saturn is too modern, and play Super Mario Bros. twice a day with Duck Hunt on weekends—as much fun as Captain SkyHawk is, though, its comparatively short game play means that the player isn’t really allowed to get a different experience.  It’s not a long game by any stretch—but that’s not inherently a bad thing.  The gamer can pop it in, play it, and beat it, all relatively quickly.  In an era when we may not get more than an hour to play a game, being able to beat one in that time can actually be rather nice, even rewarding.

On the whole, it’s a fun game, it really is, and, again, it deserves to be in any gamer’s library—but it won’t be one you’ll play often.

Game Play: GOOD
Solid shoot-everything-in-sight game play backed up with a decent variety in the levels.  A wide variety of enemies that will pester you.

No real mention of the story in-game, but if you read the manual you get a solid, coherent tale of alien invasion.

Graphics: GOOD
Though there isn’t much variation in the hills in each mission, that is more than made up for in the design of the enemies.  There are all kinds of enemy types—submarine-like things, buggies, insectoid things, fighter jets—the list is extensive.

Sound: GOOD
Really nice theme music; it’s almost worth letting the game idle at the start screen just to listen to it.  The sound effects are equally enjoyable, from the satisfying explosions to the deep booming of the missiles.

Replayability: BAD
There’s just not much to do.  You can submit a high score, sure, but it’s not saved, so you can’t really try to beat your old score unless you use a pencil and paper or some similar.

It’s a great game that you’ll enjoy—but you won’t put it in very often at a time.  Still, it’s perfect to kill thirty minutes or an hour, as it’s one of the few games that can be beaten, start to finish, that quickly.


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