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Air Fortress (NES) artwork

Air Fortress (NES) review


One might think a game simply named Air Fortress wouldn't have a silly premise, but this action title quickly proves that thought wrong with a brief scan of the manual's plot. Developed by HAL Laboratory, this sci-fi tale involves the daring exploits of Hal Bailman, who must infiltrate a group of ice cream cone-shaped fortresses in space and destroy them from within, potentially ending their reign of terror throughout the cosmos. Aiding in his heroic, one-man mission is the Light Blaster, a flying contraption-and-weapon capable of weaving in and out of a fortress' exterior hazards. And depending on how hard you're staring or squinting at the screen, the thing either looks like the weirdest banana or a Super Armored Space Sphinx. Or, based on the Japanese box art, the strangest sequel to Majora's Mask.

If this is sounding like some sort of shoot 'em up, that's because it is. Kinda. During the first half of each stage, you'll be in a horizontal auto-scroll segment firing at incoming, robotic formations of varying odd shapes and collecting encased letters scattered all around. What purpose do said letters serve for your flying banana Sphinx? Absolutely nothing. Once these portions conclude and your ship lands near an entrance, Air Fortress' flow suddenly shifts: now on foot and inside, your protagonist ventures through maze-like environments in an action-exploration style segment. From one room to the next, with the use of elevators or suction tubes, Hal Bailman must shoot and float, with the help of his jetpack, to the core. Which... is actually a big 'ol giant core.

Getting to each core is going to be tricky, since the game incorporates an interesting survival mechanism. When you're injured, whether it be with tracking projectiles or spikes, you lose some health. Usual stuff in video games. However, whenever you move, you also lose health, even more when using the jetpack. Sounds like an issue. Thankfully, health loss is temporary, as life charges back to its original state when you land and rest for a second. But that's what makes it interesting: the handicap acts as a counter to jetpack abuse, especially since you also have to worry about getting damaged when flying. Health management is vital in these exploration sections, and that's where the shoot 'em up sections play a key role. Those letters being collected? Their purpose is to build up your health percentage and bomb stock prior to entering each air fortress.

It's an interesting mesh of ideas and genres for an action title of its era, trapped inside a really boring, repetitive, and unfair game. For the first four stages, the shoot 'em up segments are ridiculously uninspiring to where it feels like an afterthought to the concept of strengthening your character. The screen scrolls at such a slow pace, which is bad considering you can easily move in, over, and under structural obstacles without much hassle. Enemy encounters and the very few types available are no better, as you'll "battle" generic, wavy formations that approach in such a nonchalant manner. It's one thing to experience this in the very first stage, as a sort of introduction to how opponents attack... but the devs use the same bland opposition in subsequent stages...

The confrontations during the exploration bits are an improvement, but that's just a minor compliment. Outside of managing health, there's a lack of legitimate threats. "Normal" enemy encounters mostly consist of projectiles being fired at your last stationary location, pausing for a second, and repeating this pattern until you destroy them. Considering you can float around the environment, they're... not really hard to avoid, even with the health handicap. What's another enemy type? Get this: it's the same enemy... except the intervals last longer! As for "stronger" enemies, who perform rapid-fire and spreadshot attacks, you just use a bomb before getting mass injured. There's really no other reason to use the bombs, too, so this immediately negates their "strong" status.

However, beginning at stage five, Air Fortress abruptly makes enemies threatening. For the shoot 'em up sections, most enemy formations now appear at appropriate times, usually when you need to grab a vital letter or when you're dealing with another enemy formation. While not too intense, it provides enough challenge to the point where you need to concentrate properly. The exploration segments also go through a rework... and this is where the game's unfair design creeps in. Normal and strong enemies are paired more frequently, in larger numbers, which is a genuine issue since rooms are more compact. It gets so bad that, in sections where you arrive via elevator, you legitimately can't leave said elevator without getting hit by four projectiles in a room filled with five opponents moving around... You have to take the hits to advance, which is absurd if you're low on health.

Suffice it to say, health management is stressful in the later stages. To make matters worse, the interior layouts go from being "maze-like" to actual confusing mazes. Stage six is where the real woes begin, as you're presented with numerous paths, each with their own gauntlet of foes in cramped spaces. Choose one path, fight through several rooms while trying your best to manage health, and... your reward is either a dead end or a tube that teleports you to the beginning of the maze. There isn't just one wrong path, as well. The worst part? Unlike the shoot 'em up sections, the exploration sections only give you one life to work with. Die, and you restart from the shooting portions. Thankfully, there's a password system, because the game would've been outright torture if you had to finish everything in one sitting.

Air Fortress is an unbalanced mess with literally no middle ground. For its first four stages, the game almost convinces you to quit thanks to dispassionate enemy encounters; then out of nowhere, for the remaining four stages, this very same game suddenly suffocates you with an unnecessary number of fighters in confined, confusing, and punishing environments. In terms of difficulty, the whole thing is abstractly designed, almost as if the developers had a masochistic frame of mind. Which is weird to think about, since the team later went on to create the friendly Kirby series. Considering the NES is beaming with a huge selection of adequate shoot 'em up, action, and adventure titles, you're better off passing on Air Fortress for something better.

The harrowing adventures of Hal Bailman and his space banana could have been so much more.


pickhut's avatar
Community review by pickhut (May 05, 2019)

Though, I will say that the Deepest Sleep makes me want to watch Tremors again.

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hastypixels posted May 05, 2019:

The first screenshot you chose had a striking impact on my memory, as the narrow column was created for the Kirby game Milkway Wishes fight inside of that giant clockwork wish-granty-thing. I can say I don't find it surprising that level design is such a mishmash here because Kirby has issues to, but being easy nullifies the majority of them as the team improves at their jobs.

Interesting read, thank you.
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pickhut posted May 05, 2019:

Never played far into that rendition of Kirby (Super Star, I think?), but considering they're both by the same devs, I can imagine the nod, if it is one. In fact, I haven't played any Kirby games past the SNES-era, so I'll take your word about the games being a mesh. Been meaning to get into them, I even bought the Kirby collection that came out on Wii a years back, but I just never found the time.

Thanks for reading the review, too!
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hastypixels posted May 07, 2019:

I've always enjoyed the Kirby games. They're just easy enough to dive head first into, but hard enough to provide a modicum of challenge. Two player in Super Star is a lot of fun to. It'd be a natural addition to Nintendo Online, and it's a missed opportunity that they haven't done so.

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