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Air Buster (Genesis) artwork

Air Buster (Genesis) review

"So much for feeling nostalgic about a game I'd played a long time ago..."

Every so often, even if extremely infrequently, I feel the need to apologize for — or at least recant — one of my old takes. It's rare because I'm ever so shameless, but it does occur, even if I try to downplay it and pretend it didn't happen mere moments after that mea culpa.

Once upon a time, back in the days when I was penning crude and primitive sectioned reviews, I wrote about 1991 Genesis shooter Air Buster and seemed to consider it a pretty enjoyable offering. It wasn't quite at the level of the retro shooter elites and it did have a few "interesting" aspects, but it offered a perfectly acceptable experience over its six levels of horizontally-scrolling action that progressed from a city under assault from alien forces up through outer space and finally to the base of those hostile beings.

Now, roughly 20 years later, all I can do is wonder what I was thinking back then. Today, I find Air Buster to be an oft-frustrating experience where two of those six stages are about as far from enjoyable as a person could imagine. We're talking about a situation where I was actively miserable for lengthy stretches of my time playing this game and, really, only sticking to it in the hope that I could remember just why I kind of liked it back in the day.

The way I found it to be quite difficult, I can understand. Back in the early 00s, I was frequently reviewing shooters along these lines, so I was constantly being challenged by how brutal and unforgiving so many of them could be. After a while, all that difficulty blends together whether it's derived by scarcely-placed checkpoints, intricate stage design or the way your ship loses all those power-ups you spent so much time amassing whenever one measly enemy is able to slip one measly bullet past your defenses.

So, I found Air Buster — also known as Aeroblasters in some circles — to be a tough experience that probably shouldn't' be the starting point for a guy who's only played these games infrequently recently, but is feeling the itch to dive back into them with gusto. That's not a big deal, even if some of the challenges, such as the lengthy and often narrow high-speed tunnels of the second stage seemed designed to raise one's blood pressure. But the fourth and fifth levels? Those abominations skipped past the blood pressure thing right up to aneurysm-risking mode.

Air Buster screenshot Air Buster screenshot

These two both take place in outer space. Perhaps to illustrate how things like gravity and physics work differently in that atmosphere than they do where we all live, your ship controls differently. For the rest of the game, play control is about what you'd expect. You move the control pad one way, your ship moves that way. You stop pressing on the pad, it stops. In Air Buster's outer space, it will keep moving until you either hit the edge of the screen or you press the control pad in another direction.

Suddenly, you've gone from regular play control to something that feels like you're on ice and at the mercy of momentum while in a pair of levels boasting lots of frenetic, chaotic action. In the fourth level, you'll frequently have to deal with enemies that quickly warp onto the screen and immediately try to ram into you. The fifth stage has a lengthy descent at an angle where both stationary guns and quickly-flying foes conspire to make survival something only the fittest can hope to attain. All the enemies and ammo flooding the screen ensure these levels would be far from easy if the controls were normal. Making it so that you have to constantly micromanage your ship's movements while dealing with everything else…insert any number of lines about throwing or breaking your controller out of frustration and rage.

Heh, I really can't believe that when I initially wrote about this game, my feelings about this were summed up by some muted, "It's kind of weird and different, but doesn't make things all that bad" line. No, it definitely did make things all that bad. Bad to the degree my entire opinion of Air Buster took a huge hit simply due to that pair of levels. It's kind of a shame, really, as otherwise, I'd say those old feelings hold reasonably true.

I really dug the first stage. You'll fly over a city shooting down enemies and working to amass power. Partway through the level, though, things get really bad for all those unseen residents of that metropolis. A massive ship starts to descend onto the screen and large blasts start taking place, leading to the sky taking on a reddish hue with a ruined cityscape below it. Now that's an effective way to illustrate that you're in a high-stakes conflict!

Air Buster screenshot Air Buster screenshot

The action ramps up from there, whether you're in a cave, going from the mountains to the sky, traveling through space or in the enemy base. There is a variety of play styles you'll have to master. Some stages have you in wide open screens where you'll have to overcome large numbers of foes and their attacks, while others are more claustrophobic, with lethal-to-touch walls and all sorts of R-Type-esque touches such as a lengthy maze polluted with moving blocks serving as lethal obstructions. There might only be six levels here, but it does feel like a robust experience simply due to the variety of challenges you'll have to overcome.

I just wish one of those challenges wasn't simply trying to control your damn ship in two levels. And I also wish power-ups were a bit more conventional to acquire. Frequently, you'll see large containers bobbing up and down across the screen. Shoot them enough times and five power-ups come flying out, only to descend down and off the screen. A couple of them might be used to strengthen your main gun, while the rest will bestow any of a handful of sub-weapons — of which I found the homing missiles to be the most useful.

So, remember what I said about it being brutally difficult to handle all the enemies and bullets in the space levels due to also having to deal with a ship determined to be in constant motion? Well, getting the power-ups you want while dodging the rest also is a real pain whether you're in space or not. Believe me, it is E-A-S-Y to go from the sub-weapon you like to a different one unless you're paying attention to what icon is what and their trajectory as they plummet downward. And if you're paying attention to that, there probably are a few lethal objects slipping your notice.

Maybe none of this stuff really did bother me when I first played Air Buster. I just know it did now. I'd still have a good opinion of things if this was just a very difficult game. After all, some shooters are meant to be accessible and others are designed for pros who want to sweat. But those two space stages and their screwy controls? That's just a deal-breaker — both for abruptly changing how the game plays for an extended period of time and for adding an element of fake difficulty into a game that's challenging enough without that sort of nonsense.

overdrive's avatar
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (February 09, 2023)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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Masters posted February 13, 2023:

Hey Rob, nice review. Yeah, I don't much like this game, but I remember wanting Aero Blasters badly back in the Turbo's heyday. I've played it since and feel about the same way you do. Generally, I don't like shooters that necessitate a ton of dodging of unhelpful power ups -- like you don't have enough things to worry about.
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overdrive posted February 16, 2023:

Thanks! It was kind of a depressing experience for me. Was looking to break back into doing shooter reviews and, for some reason, decided this would be a good start since I remembered playing and reviewing it back in the GameFAQs days before I broke out of generic sectioned reviews and my memory had it as a good game that just wasn't up there with the greats.

And then I replayed it 20 or so years later and have a lot of questions about what early 2000s Rob was thinking. I was not having much fun, especially with those two outer space stages and their wonky controls. Oh well, there's always others!

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