Scrolling shooters have been around since the dawn of gaming in one form or another, so it is a very laudable feat when I tell you that itís unlikely youíve ever played anything quite like Airstrife. On the surface, it looks like a slightly modernised 1945, replete with vintage fighter crafts slugging it out in the unfriendly skies. But thatís fine, your old-timey plane flies perfectly well, and can both give out and take a beating. Unlike 1945 and its ilk, your Airstrife fighter has limited shields that allow it to absorb a few blows before itís plucked from the skies. It even has a defensive trump card up its sleeve; the barrel roll. Launching yourself into this roll allows you to harmlessly bypass any streams of artillery directed at you, though does temporarily rob you of being able to return fire. It means that thereís no more getting cornered; if a wave of tracer fire and missiles are hounding you across the screen, a good sense of timing will allow you to slip through it unscathed.
Airstrife gives you a lot of tools to survive, that, in isolation, might make the game sound like a bit of a cakewalk. Except it isnít. At all. The barrel roll is only effective if you get the timing down just right, and an out-of-sync roller will simply bank into incoming fire rather than avoid it. And, sure, you can survive some of that because you have a shield to absorb some blows only, once that shieldís gone and you explode, thatís it. No picking back up from where you died, and no checkpoint system reviving you part way into the level. Itís done. You can start the stage from scratch or give up.
In every sense of the word, Airstrife is a grind. In an era when even the hardest scrolling shooters are happy to give you a huge pile of credits so you can just continue-spam your way through games, this one is a throwback in many ways, and something very different in others. Itís almost imperative that you fall back into retro mindsets, playing levels over and over until progressing through is muscle memory as much as it is twitch skills. But repeat plays are offered further reward; complete a normal level, and youíre eligible for a cash recompense at the end. Steady runs where you take little damage and conserve the majority of your ammo are good ways to get rich quick. Except itís not quick. At all. Thereís a hell of a lot of practice that will need to go into scoring a perfect run. Itís of no exaggeration to point out that even on the easiest setting, Airstrife will kick your arse.
Thatís where the grind comes back in, because there has to be some way to spend all that money youíve worked so hard to hoard. Limp yourself through the first few opening stages, and youíll find yourself back in a hanger. The hanger has options; one of which is to carry out playing missions, new and old, to advance the game onward. But thereís also an explore function that carries no narrative weight. It exists for you to go out, take on the usual suspects and, if you do well enough, obtain a blueprint.
Aside from launching missions, the hangerís main function is the steady development of your fighter craft. With the right blueprints and a big enough pile of money, you can engineer your craft to fit numerous different moulds. Or, if you find the right parts, craft a whole new base craft and weld new bits on to that instead. Parts can improve your engine, which improves your speed, or graft on better shielding so you take a few more blows. Thereís a ton of new weapons you can try and bolt on, ranging from cannons, heavy machine guns, torpedoes and missiles, but an unmodified craft will be unlikely to bear the bigger and badder of these. Youíll need to compensate by fiddling around with additions such as the airframe, which youíll need to amend to make more room for the larger weapons, and the hardpoint which will help you deal with the excess payload.
It helps slowly erode the sharp difficulty edge that you can grind away and bolster your chosen fighter, turning it into a meandering brute or a nimble nuisance depending on your whim. Whether or not you lean into this, success ultimately means the same thing; youíre going to be flying missions a lot to either collect resources or perfect enemy flight patterns. Itís a definite plus that you donít need to suffer in solitude, as Airstrife can locally support up to four pilots at once. Because all your weapons are made in the hanger, you even forgo the usual arguments you have with that one uncharitable friend who hangs around the top of the screen to steal all the powerups. You donít need homing missiles AND lasers, Marc; leave some for the rest of us.
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