System: Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
Release Date: 1990
Genre: Scrolling Shooter
Publisher/Developer: Milton Bradley/Rare Ltd.
Imagine a world where everything is a geometric shape, and all the terrain around you is one color. Imagine flying over this simulated 3-D landscape in a fighter jet, blasting alien enemies shooting diamonds at you. Have you got a mental image? Good. You just visualized the 1990 NES game Captain Skyhawk.
I don't recall how I came to know about this game's existence, but I do remember that I wanted this game very badly. I think I had seen an advertisement in Nintendo Power, and fell in love with the concept of flying over landscapes destroying enemies. Little did I know that it would be a short-lived affair.
As I mentioned in my opening, the graphics of this game are simple. Hell even using the word "simple" to describe them doesn't truly describe how plain and boring the game graphics are. I have played a lot of Nintendo games in my life, and have seen what can be done with 8-bit graphics (Karnov, for example). Also consider the fact that Nintendo had been in existence for 5 years by the time Captain Skyhawk was released (1990), and you can see why this games graphics fail to meet expectations. Compare the graphics to another 1990 NES game like Sunsoft's Batman, and you will see what I mean.
Now that we have gotten the graphics out of the way, it's time to move on to the mechanics of the game. While not terrible, this game is definitely far from being great. As would be expected in any flying game from the 8-bit era, you use the D-pad to maneuver your jet (down = up; up = down; left = left; right = right - basic flight controls). The A and B button of course, are used to fire your primary and secondary weapons (and to drop supplies in some stages).
The biggest problem with the controls, is that sometimes your plane loses altitude while you are flying. This could be just a matter of accidentally hitting the up button on the D-pad while you are going through the normal flying procedures, but nothing sucks worse than smacking unexpectedly in to a mountain side because your plane has lost enough altitude to be able to clear it. I know there is an altimeter on the screen that shows you how high you are, but to be honest, with the number of enemies, and the rate of flight, who has time to check. If you take your eyes away from the action for even a split second, you are dead.
This brings me to my next point. The game play itself. To be honest, the game play itself is not all that bad. The worst aspects of this game are simply that there are too many enemies stuffed in to the tight space they give you to operate in. Our hero, Captain Skyhawk, maneuvers through narrow canyons, evading the gunfire from enemies. The narrowness of the canyon, and the density of the enemies really does provide a challenge, but due to the graphics, it's often difficult to see the enemies bullets, so you usually end up dying for no apparent reason.
If you manage to survive this mission, and defeat the fortress at the end of stage 1, you will be treated to a blatant Top Gun ripoff stage. Yes, you now get to destroy enemy fighters from a first-person perspective, just like the NES game Top Gun. And if that weren't enough, the final stage of level 1 is to dock your ship in your home base. While different in the mechanics, this is basically the same stupid Top Gun bullshit, where you are required to land on the aircraft carrier. The only difference is, that you are in space, and the docking bay to your base is a spinning slot. To succeed you must line up horizontally to the opening, and then initiate the "spin" dive when you and the opening are lined up. Should you make the mistake of acidentally tapping right or left on the D-pad, consider yourself dead. No amount of readjusting will ever bring you back in to the dead center of the screen. The easiest way to dock is to wait until the base stops moving, then use up and down on the D-pad to bring yourself in to alignment with the opening. Then, once the rotating bay is aligned with your wingspan, hit the A button, and hope for the best. It baffles me that even entering your home base could potentially kill you.
Level 2 is almost the same as level 1, except for this time, your goal is to drop supplies off to scientists working on some top secret weapon. Normally the B button would be used to launch your secondary weapon (missiles, bombs, etc.) but on this stage, it is used to drop the supply crate, parachute included, in to the 2 drop off points. The biggest challenge, outside of maneuvering through the narrow enemy infested canyons is the timing on dropping the supplies. It's difficult to know how to time them, and may take you a few passes before you get it right. The fact that they recycle the stage until you complete both drops is nice, but like Top Gun, you can run out of fuel, and crash, so you better learn how to drop these supplies quickly, or you will be eating an Alcatraz Sandwich.
The rest of the game is basically a repeat of the two stages listed above, but in different colors, and with a few different enemies. There is also at least one stage that has water instead of the standard ground, but you are still navigating a narrow canyon, while being blasted by the enemies naval forces.
If you are still with me, and haven't left, here are the better aspects of the game that make it at least somewhat playable.
One of the things that makes this game decent is the music. I realize that there is no music during the actual game play, but the musical score during the opening sequence, and the stage intro screens are pretty good, not great, but good enough. I think adding some music to the actual game play would have made this game a hell of a lot better, but I guess I can't expect much from a game designer that chose to use such rudimentary graphics to begin with.
Aside from the music, or lack there-of, the sound effects are actually quite good. The explosions, and the sound of the jet engine are all quite nice, even if they are exactly like the sound effects from Top Gun.
The game play itself, is nothing to write home about, and as mentioned above, it has its issues. This does not mean that it holds no merit though. For me, the challenges and frustrations associated with the poor game design do actually make the game somewhat enjoyable to play.
If you enjoyed Top Gun on the NES, then Captain Skyhawk is for you. Considering that this game borrowed a lot of it's graphics and features from Konami's worst game, some may consider Captain Skyhawk to have a Top Gun sequel feel to it. While I may still play this game on occasion, it is not one that I regularly reach for when I am in the mood for some classic console fun.
Milton Bradley made some great board games during my childhood, so I expected their venture in to the video game world to be on par with their board games. Unfortunately their vision of Captain Skyhawk was not fulfilled through Rare Ltd. I feel like this game could have been better by adding music to the game play sections, and by using better graphics. I imagine that Captain Skyhawk could have done really well had it been designed as a side-scrolling game similar to Life Force or Gradius. But alas we are left with a boring, bland, game that will fade quietly in to history.