The Sonic Wings series, better known as Aero Fighters in the US, was one of the first vertically scrolling arcade games. It spanned six games and ended with Sonic Wings Assault (Aero Fighters Assault in the US). Sonic Wings Special was the only one that never made it to the US, despite the fact that every other game in the series did and that Europe got the game as well. Monkey Paw Games, who also brought over Alundra and the Arc the Lad games onto the PSN, saw fit to fix that by adding this game to the growing list they’ve released in the Import Classics section of the PSN.
So was this a good choice for an import or was it better off left alone?
As this is an import, obviously the text is mostly in Japanese. However, it’s pretty easy to find your way around, as the title screen and options menus are in English. The plot is basically your typical “there’s a big threat, save the world from it” type. The gist: an organization called Fata Morgana has been taking over more and more areas and secretly develops a weapon that can cause widespread catastrophic harm to the world’s population if used. Naturally, that can’t be allowed to pass, so a group of expert pilots from around the world is assembled and deployed to put a stop to Fata Morgana. All the characters in this game are returning characters from previous Sonic Wings games. Each character has their own motivations and personalities, and though these don’t get developed extensively, their endings are amusing to watch even if you don’t understand the text. Of course, few if any play shmups for story, and while this one works fine, it serves more as window dressing. Still, how many games let you play as a dolphin piloting a plane? Who knows how he does it with those flippers, but then again there is also a one year old pilot in the series (though he only makes a cameo in this game).
In terms of modes, the game’s skimpy in that area. There’s also a time attack mode, wherein you tackle all the bosses in a row and try to defeat them as quickly as possible. In two player mode, both players have to pick ships from the same team, and you a different ending than if you play individually. However, if you’re playing on a PSP, you’re out of luck, as this version emulates the PS1 version perfectly, and there’s no way to pull off local play on the PSP given that the PSP’s form of local play is ad-hoc, which is not supported. If you have a PS3, though, you’re set in that area.
The backgrounds are fairly detailed, and they’re relatively nice to look at even if you’ll mostly be focusing on the foreground (namely, your plane and the enemies). For example, in one of the stages, you pass over a building with a giant TV featuring Mao Mao, and you can see cars passing in front of it (all of which you can blow up). The planes themselves are less so, but you can still distinguish them from each other, and they are varied in design. One plane resembles a rabbit, while another is not a plane, but rather a helicopter. Hien’s ship fires kunais, and Mecha-Keaton’s bomb consists of a giant him stomping and punching the enemy. The FMV opening looks dated by today’s standards, but it still holds up decently. There are three display settings, with normal being the standard setting, scrolling moving the screen up and down along with you, and arcade showing everything sideways. I prefer normal over the others because scrolling made it more difficult to keep track of projectiles flying my way, and arcade requires either having your head tilted constantly or holding the PSP (or setting the TV/monitor on its side if you’re playing a PS3) sideways. The music is alright, but it’s not something you’d likely hunt down a soundtrack for. On one of the last stages begins with silence, but then the music gradually starts up and gets louder, which I thought was a nice way of building a bit of tension. The sound effects do their job well, and things explode satisfyingly when shot enough.
The controls are fairly responsive and straightforward. During gameplay, the d-pad moves your ship, square fires a shot, X activates your special weapon, and O rapid fires (especially if you hold it down). You can reconfigure the three buttons if you wish, but I found that the default controls work well enough as is. Pressing both shoulder buttons and start at the same time will bring up a prompt for you to save when you’re between stages. This function comes in handy for if you have to stop at some point or get stuck on a stage. One important thing to keep in mind that this game retains Japanese controls, meaning X cancels and O confirms instead of vice versa as those who don’t usually play on Japanese systems are used to. This only really comes into play on the menus, so it’s not a big deal or huge adjustment to make.
This game is essentially a mash-up of the first three games, with stages and bosses from those games being shuffled around and reused in this game. There are a total of 17 stages in the game, but you’ll only play through nine at a time due to the branching system. Stages two, three, and four are randomly selected out of five possibilities. On the fifth, seventh, and eighth stages, you’ll be given the option to pick between two stages. Some stages and bosses are identical to their counterparts, while others have been modified (for example, Hawaii’s and Panama’s stages from Sonic Wings 2).
As you fly through, you can pick up power-ups (or firepower as they’re referred to on Monkey Paw Game’s page for the game) and bombs, though the latter is more scarce. Firepower have a P on them and increase the power of your shots by one level, and how many it takes for it to reach full power depends on the plane you’re using. There’s also full power power-ups, which have an F on them brings up firepower to maximum level. Bombs bear a B and grant you another bomb to use, and how many you can have at a time also depends on the plane. Bombs can usually cause widespread damage and make you impervious to attack while the bomb is going off, though not all planes have one of those effects. For example, Mao Mao’s bomb freezes the enemy and removes all projectiles for a few seconds but doesn’t deal damage by itself, while Whity’s consists of big black bombs drifting outward without a discernible invincibility period (except for being able to duck being one of the bombs).
While the game doesn’t take long to go through if you’re just looking to beat it once, the branching stages, variety of ships, unlockables, and of course the stalwart lure of beating high scores add incentive to keep replaying it. Each pilot has a second ship that’s unlocked after you’ve beaten the game with them once which works differently from their default ship. In addition, one of the pilots changes form and ship after you beat the game with him, and while there seems to be no way to be able to play the regular version of him again his default ship works just like before. You can also unlock four more pilots by beating the game with every regular pilot, though you have to either press up or down to select the last two. Those pilots go through a couple of stages that the regular pilots don’t, and they can’t go through the regular versions of those stages. Though for your sanity’s sake, remember to save in the option menu after you’ve unlocked something so that it’s still there when you reload the game.
You can adjust the enemy difficulty and the amount of credits at your disposal. On Easy you can have up to infinite credits, whereas on Pro you can only have up to three. At higher difficulties, the enemies fire more shots, which gives you less room to dodge and more room for error. At the 50,000 point mark you earn another life, though that doesn’t seem to apply for 100,000, 150,000, or so on. In earlier stages, you can start from where you lost your last life. However, in later stages you’ll have to start from the beginning of the level. While this helps ease you into the game initially, it can get frustrating if, say, you’re on the final boss and are defeated, meaning you’d have to face down the midboss along with playing through the level again. The levels aren’t that long, though, so playing through them again won’t take that much time unless you die repeatedly. Plus, boss fights do become a bit easier once you learn their attack patterns. Each plane handles differently and have different shots and bombs, and naturally some are better than others. But it’s still perfectly feasible to beat the game even with the “worst” planes if you know what you’re doing.
Given that this is a bunch of things from previous games thrown into a blender and that this is a port, there’s not much new here. However, this is the first time the US is seeing this game, as it was never released here even when Europe got it. That being said, the game itself is rather enjoyable, and even now I’m still working on unlocking more planes. I like trying out all the different planes, as some of the bomb effects are amusing (such as the Russian dolls spinning around the screen while Russian music plays), and varying up which stages to go through each playthrough. Even if I manage to hit a wall (of projectiles), the stubborn part of me still wants to keep trying until I get past it.
The fact that this is an import and thus in Japanese might turn off some people who don’t know Japanese. In addition, shmups aren’t exactly a mainstream genre, and some people might not recognize that Sonic Wings and Aero Fighters are referring to the same series, so that’s another mark against this game. However, the game is still very accessible to those that don’t understand Japanese, and Monkey Paw Games has explanations of the menus and controls on its site to help out those who fit in that category. It might seem strange that the Japanese version was released when there was a European release that was presumably translated, but given the fact that the endings and stage dialogues were cut from the latter in order to avoid having to shell out for translations, releasing the game as an import on the PSN was the right call.
Control and Gameplay: Good
Balance: Above Average
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
Miscellaneous: Above Average
FINAL SCORE: ABOVE AVERAGE GAME
Short Attention Span Summary:
Sonic Wings Special is an amalgamation of the in the first three Sonic Wings games and up to now never saw a US release. There’s a relatively large variety of planes to play with and unlock, with each having their own strengths and weaknesses. Given that this is an import and thus all in Japanese, plus the lack of mainstream appeal shmups have, some people might not give this a second look. However, it’s quite playable even if you don’t know any Japanese, and it’s a fairly solid shmup and well worth the $5.99.