"The game treats you much differently depending on the choices you make and it never coddles you. Souping up your special weapons right away so that you can fire amazing rapid-fire bursts or shell your enemies relentlessly with a barrage of missiles might seem like a winning strategy at first, but it's also an effective way to cheat yourself out of a lengthy life expectancy."
According to my dad, my great uncle Jasper was a tail gunner in World War 2. He apparently came home from the war in one piece, but the memory of his role in that terrible conflict stayed with him and he used to tell stories to attentive relatives at family gatherings. Years later, when my dad saw 1943: The Battle of Midway sitting on the shelf at the store, he remembered those narrations and bought the game.
It sounds horrible to say it, but a part of me is thankful that my great uncle had those experiences to share, traumatic though they may have been. Someone had to take that risk, after all, and his heroics were my gateway to experiencing one of the best shooting games ever released on the NES or any other system.
1943: The Battle of Midway is great, but not for the reasons my dad had in mind when he brought it home. It's not realistic at all. I'm sure my great uncle would have found little in common with his own experiences and those depicted in the game. World War 2's air combat consisted of a lot more than one scrappy airplane bringing down the monstrosity that was the Japanese airborne fleet. Such an accomplishment would be impossible for even the best of pilots, yet that's precisely what happens in Capcom's vertically-scrolling shooter.
Without anyone at your side except for a few small planes that briefly swoop in to provide peripheral fire on a select few stages, you'll go up against an armada of heavily-armed ships and massive war planes that are supplemented ever so efficiently by a host of smaller aircraft much like your own. Sometimes the screen is so full of dipping and diving opponents that activity slows to a crawl while bullets zip toward you and force you prematurely to unleash swaths of lightning tear through your opponents in a blinding flash. It's as intense as anything the NES ever produced.
You'll dodge and weave through 24 stages--if you're good enough--alternately holding your breath as you swoop through a gauntlet of bullets, then expelling air in either a jubilant shout or a stream of profanity as you either pull through near disaster or watch your airplane plummet toward the sea in a fiery inferno. In some games, those moments are few and far between. Here, they're a part of nearly every mission.
When the game begins, your plane might charitably be called 'weak.' A few shots from the enemy and you're toast. That's fine, though, because the resistance you'll face in those first few stages is token at best. Your enemies don't even fire bullets, most of them, just zig-zag across the screen as if to say “Shoot me, shoot me!” That's not to say that you can blindly glide through even the first area, but the developers definitely ease you into a conflict that will quickly progress from hectic to unrelenting.
As you progress, you'll find power-ups for your plane. You can boost its rating in five key areas--offensive power, defenses, special weapons and timers for energy and power-ups--in any order you like. Most missions contain a hangar where you can make a modification and it's a lot of fun to replay the early areas of the game and experiment with the possibilities while you're given leeway to do so. The game treats you much differently depending on the choices you make and it never coddles you. Souping up your special weapons right away so that you can fire amazing rapid-fire bursts or shell your enemies relentlessly with a barrage of missiles might seem like a winning strategy at first, but it's also an effective way to cheat yourself out of a lengthy life expectancy.
Stages are generally divided in two parts. The first portion takes place in the clouds high above a mostly featureless sea. You might see a few islands on occasion, but they're never occupied and most of your attention is devoted by necessity to the swarming fighter pilots around you. That usually goes on for around a minute and a half, at which point you finally find yourself approaching a naval fleet. That's when you dive toward the surface and come in close contact with still more planes but also an assortment of smaller vessels leading up to an area boss.
Boss confrontations in 1943: The Battle of Midway are one of the game's highlights. There are only a few varieties of ship and plane that you'll face, yet each encounter feels unique because of the challenges you've faced on your way to each showdown. It's amazing just how much difference a dwindling supply of special weapons can make from one stage to the next. A ship you remember easily reducing to scrap metal a few stages ago can suddenly obliterate you several missions later. There also are requirements for damage dealt. If you spend too much time avoiding attacks, you won't be able to return enough of your own and will have to make a second pass to finish the job. Most players won't survive that second pass.
Somehow, despite boasting graphics that one might describe merely as 'efficient' and a soundtrack and special effects that are much the same, 1943: The Battle of Midway remains a fun game to play even in the 21st century. From the very first mission, it's clear that you're not intended to survive long, yet if you do you'll find yourself playing time and time again as you search for bonus items you missed or try to top your previous best score. This is one of those addictive titles where a 'Game Over' screen is never the end. There's always some new experience available, so that it's natural to start playing in the early afternoon and quit only when your stomach starts growling and you look outside to see that night has fallen.
The shooter genre has come a long way since 1988. We've battled aliens, marveled at screen-filling explosions and walls of bullets that undulate hypnotically. There's none of that here, but it doesn't matter. 1943: The Battle of Midway stands proud as one of the finest of its kind and it always will. Thank you, Uncle Jasper--for everything--and thank you, Capcom, for this game!
Staff review by Jason Venter (April 26, 2008)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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