I’m fresh back from my brother’s wedding, so I’ve been thinking a lot this week about some of the games that we played together when we were small. Indeed, a lot of my early video game meories are tied to my big bro, and although each of these really could deserve their own pixelthèque post, I’ll run down a few of them here. Brian had a friend who “borrowed” DuckTales for the NES and took two years to return it. It was worth the wait, but I must have bugged my brother weekly about why he wouldn’t get my game back (it was his game). There were the times when he would scream at me for cheating at Duck Hunt by sticking the tip of my light gun against the television screen, and then moments later order me to bang my fists on the back buttons of the Power Pad while he ran the races in World Class Track Meet. I remember sitting on the family futon in the living room of our old old old house when he came running in with the box containing our first toaster loading Nintendo Entertainment System, and started this whole mess. Thinking about some of the dates here, and doing the math, it’s probably one of my earliest memories. He says he remembers me forcing him to beat every dungeon in my save game of The Legend of Zelda in order to keep up with his save game, but I can neither confirm nor deny this happening. I remember sitting on the floor of his bedroom for two hours holding down the right arrow on the D-Pad so that he could have super jump all the way through Mega Man 3. And I remember the babysitter who brought over Super Mario Bros. 3, and let us both play, and the anticipation and the wonder being greater than anything I had experienced at that point. There are others, but maybe none so fond as when we used to stay up late in the bed we shared and go through the Nintendo Power Final Fantasy strategy guide and plan out every weapon we’d buy, every spell we’d learn, and where we would grind. Thanks for those memories, GaGa.
One of the games we used to play together, way way way back in the day, was Air Fortress. Created by HAL Laboratory in 1989, Air Fortress was a cutting edge game from near the end of the NES’s development cycle. At first glance, it appears to be your average space shooter, but in fact, it is three games in one. First, a side-scrolling space shooter akin to Gradius and R-Type. Second, a rudimentary platformer a la Metroid with some hellishly hard mazes. And then, a variaton of the second game, where you have to race through levels and escape them in the alotted time.
The premise and story of the game are somewhat notable. TV Tropes labels the game’s story as an excuse plot, but that’s one of those lazy tropes that basically encompasses every video game ever. These giant floating death machines are coming towards the planet Farmel, so the Federation of Intergalactic Powers (this game’s version of George Lucas’s Old Republic or Ursula K. LeGuin’s Ekumen) launches a massive fleet to take out the Air Fortresses. But the superior defenses of the mysterious alien craft utterly destroy the galactic fleet. In a last ditch effort to save Farmel, the people send one space jock by the name of Hal Bailman to infilitrate the Air Fortresses and destroy them one by one. They equip Hal with some prototype gear and send him on his way. It’s a classic into-the-belly-of-the-beast story that will be reminiscient to any fan of The Hobbit, Dragonslayer, or Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, and perhaps inspired works as diverse as Independence Day and Warren Ellis’s The Authority.
Hal Bailman is not your average Spaceman Spiff. The fact that he manages to infiltrate and detonate all eight air fortresses (twice) is impressive enough, but the fact that he does it alone is monumental. Hal is in the tradition of many one-man armies, but draws inspiration most heavily from the Lensman series of E. E. Smith, which in turn inspired Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and pretty much any superhero you can name. He’s the Mace Windu, the James Bond, the Avatar Aang, the Spike Spiegel. And he’s got a damn cool reflective helmet.
The air fortress itself is one of the more fascinating villains in video game history. The key line in that evocative opening title crawl is “[the fortress] was living”. Meaning that each air fortress is in fact a massive organism, an amalgum of mechanical and living tissue. In the gameplay, you witness this in the form of the “cores,” the organic air fortress brains that power each vessel. Without this living component, the fortress self-destructs and breaks apart.
This the-boss-is-the-dungeon-the-dungeon-is-the-boss trope should be familiar to everyone, with literary references as far flung as Greek mythology, the Bible, and Men in Black. In video games it is also common, see Bowser’s Inside Story, Contra, and the Greatest Video Game of All Time. In video games, it gives the player a strong sense of the insurmountable odds he or she must overcome.
If Air Fortress were to be remade today, I’m not sure how it would look. The levels look nothing like the image of the air fortress featured above. But perhaps the inspriation for that design is more far out. One of my all-time favorite films is Castle in the Sky. The floating continent, another notable trope, is the focus of one of Hayao Miyazaki’s greatest films. Could the inspiration be deliberate?
I’m not sure I knew how to tie my shoes back when my brother and I played Air Fortress. It was Nintendo Hard, epic, and intense. But it was a game, like Battletoads, that I strove to conquer. Revisiting the game for this post, I am still able to get to only the second air fortress on a single life. I doubt I’ll ever win the game, but for me, simply knowing that Hal Bailman is out there, defending Farmel from deadly sentient floating cities, is enough.