Reinventing a Classic
During the ’80s the top-down shooter was a staple of arcades. Manufacturers slapped plenty of eight-way joysticks onto arcade cabinets so gamers could get their fix – which usually involved piloting a ship through space or blasting away at aliens and asteroids. Perhaps that’s why Capcom’s 19xx series stood out. It played it safe with a fan-favorite genre – the first entry, 1942, was a top-down shooter. However, it experimented with conventions. Instead of futuristic outer space, 1942 dipped back into history, putting the player in the middle of World War II. Instead of a spacecraft as the vehicle of choice, Capcom threw players into the cockpit of a fighter plane.
That simple historical twist on a familiar arcade genre resulted in an instant classic for Capcom. The company put out five more entries over the next sixteen years (tweaking gameplay mechanics here-and-there) and ended the series in 2000. Now, gamers have a chance to relive the original game in downloadable form. 1942: Joint Strike carries a small price tag ($10) and faithfully updates the classic twitch-based gameplay of the original with a few bonuses (both in graphics and multiplayer) that should please fans and newcomers alike.
The 19xx series has never been big on story – you’re just one man against an entire army of fighter planes – and Joint Strike continues this tradition. You’re thrown into the action and expected to know what to do. This idea begins to make sense as soon as the first set of planes comes near you; you quickly realize it’s kill or be killed.
To take on wave-after-wave of enemy craft (which includes fighter planes, battleships, tanks, and helicopters), you’ve got your main weapon: a standard machine gun. This can be upgraded by picking up power-ups that change it into everything from a rocket launcher to a laser turret. Collecting sequential weapon power-ups widens its spread and increases your firepower. Charge shots can be performed by holding down the fire button for an extended period of time and then releasing it. However, these shots only have one charge level; you can’t build up to higher, more powerful blasts. If you want rapid fire, tough luck. Joint Strike is meant to play like an old school arcade cabinet, so you have to continually hammer down the fire button; there’s no ability to simply hold down fire and rest your poor finger.
Even those with the itchiest of trigger fingers are going to run into a jam – sometimes the screen fills with so many enemies it can be overwhelming. But hey, that’s what bombs are for. You start each life with three, and a simple tap of the bomb button unleashes an explosion that helps clear the screen. The other powerful attack you have in your arsenal is the joint strike. You can store up to eight of these attacks, which dishes out a torrent of missiles at unsuspecting enemies. The joint strike meter can be refilled and is weighted toward offensive players – the quicker you kill more enemies, the faster it refills.
Each of the five stages in Joint Strike follows the same pattern: you try to survive waves of attackers and make it to the final boss. Once the boss is beaten, you’re cleared for the next stage. To keep you from hanging near the back of the screen (and removed from the action), the developers instituted a multiplier mechanic. The closer you get to an enemy before you destroy it, the higher your multiplier. Multipliers (which go up to 16) give your score a boost. For example, if destroying a certain plane type normally nets 500 points, getting a 16 multiplier from it turns it into a 8,000 point kill.
The multiplier concept reinforces Joint Strike’s arcade roots: this is a game all about high scores. You can pick up medals during flight to net points and every level has rankings based on time completion and play style that – you guessed it – reward you with more points. Persistent online leaderboards bring the high score mentality home as well.
Besides an obsession with high scores, Joint Strike has one other thing in common with its predecessors: its difficulty. This is one hard game, but it’s never unfair. Like most top-down shooters, the main gamer characteristic being tested is your reflexes. However, reflexes alone aren’t enough – they need to be combined with a memorization of enemy and boss patterns.
The majority of players – even on easy – won’t beat the game on their first or second try. To help curb the steep difficulty there are four levels of play to choose from, ranging from easy (Penguin) to very hard (Wing King). Starting a game on Penguin will give you nine lives, while embarking on a Wing King mission will test your skill by giving you just a single life. Oh, and lives are important for beginners because the game has no continues. Die and it’s back to the beginning.
Whether players are already veterans of the game or having trouble on their own, online co-op play is a welcome feature. You can have a buddy play the entire game with you. When tested for review, the online play was excellent. There was no lag and it was a painless process joining a custom or quick game. Besides flying with a fellow pilot, co-op allows you to team up with joint strike attacks. You can string a lightning net between your two planes, instantly frying passerby aircraft.
What Joint Strike lacks in graphical fidelity (it’s not a bad looking game by any means – it just never wows) it makes up for in slick presentation. At the beginning of each level a filmstrip spins back-and-forth and sepia tones drench everything in gray and brown. Once the level kicks in gear, the dreary color palate is washed away; it’s a simple effect, but it looks great. Simplicity extends over to the audio as well. The score won’t have you humming along, but it sits fine in the background.
Backbone Entertainment has updated a decades old classic, bringing it into a new millennium. The core gameplay – established by the first game – is still here and shines. Joint Strike’s short length is bolstered by its difficulty, but it’s hard to see gamers coming back for repeated solo player; co-op is the most impressive feature of this update. At such a low price, it’s a great value for those looking for an arcade fix.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.7 Graphics
Even with a massive number of planes on-screen and explosions firing off every half-second, the game rarely slows down. It would have been nice to see a higher level of overall detail, but since this is a downloadable title, what’s here is impressive. 4.0 Control
The control set is bare bones, and for good reason: this isn’t a game about memorizing button combos; it’s aimed at twitch players. 3.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The explosions and gunfire sound crisp. 3.5 Play Value
Since it’s a top-down shooter, the game wraps up fairly quickly. Topping previous high scores and unlocking planes should net some replay, and co-op play mixes things up. 3.6 Overall Rating – Good
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.