Addictive Aerial Action: MiniSquadron
MiniSquadron may have been inspired by the Amiga classic Bip, but its gameplay goes well beyond anything found in that game. In that title, two creaky little biplanes zipped around trying to take each other down. Though its physics were a bit more advanced, it functionally wasn’t all that different from the kinds of games you could find on an Atari 2600. In Bip’s early days, that comparison extended as far as not being able to play without having a second player take control of the opponent.
To be sure, there is a multiplayer mode in MiniSquadron. If you have people to play with locally, it’s quite a bit of fun. But where MiniSquadron diverges from the game it pays homage to is in its implementation of robust and enjoyable single-player content. You take to the skies not just in a biplane but also in jets, UFOs, and even flying sharks. You aren’t battling merely one opponent, but sometimes as many as 15 to 20 at a time. Rather than offering a single screen to do battle on, MiniSquadron features 8 arenas that scroll vertically and horizontally. It’s a much more action-packed affair than Bip, to be sure.
And yet at its core, it retains what makes those classic dogfighting games so appealing. Flight simulators tend to be extremely complicated in their design as they strive for realism above all else. Some players can really get into that kind of experience, but others are just looking to get a bit of that excitement they see in the movies. Games like MiniSquadron may not offer the realism of advanced simulations, but they do a great job of re-creating that exhilarating feeling of dancing through the skies and riddling enemy planes with a spray of machine gun fire.
Controlling your plane is simple, as a virtual stick allows you to move in whatever direction you please. You can do loops, dive, and climb as needed, and the only two real piloting problems you need to worry about are stalling out and crashing into the ground. Various situations can cause your plane to stall, and if you’re flying too low when that happens you won’t have enough time to pull out of it. The most common cause of this is flying too high in the arenas, however, so you’ll usually be able to steer your way to safety. Hitting the ground, on the other hand, is immediately fatal. You’ll lose one of your precious lives if this happens, so don’t cut your loops too close.
Each aircraft has its own properties. Some turn more quickly than others. Some fly faster. Some are packing heavy armor, while others are little more than glass cannons. One of several different main weapons is assigned to each plane, from a basic cannon to bombs or even a laser beam, and the weapon your plane of choice uses will have a major effect on your in-game strategy. In the beginning, you don’t get to choose your plane, however. You’re stuck with the humble little Falcon until you can unlock something better. That will happen fairly quickly, luckily.
The main campaign features 8 different stages that each contain 12 waves of attackers. Your goal is simply to defeat all of the enemy planes and aircraft without running out of lives. The game is quite lenient on the whole, however, marking checkpoints after every three waves. As long as you can survive a few waves on a full stock of lives, you will make steady progress. The deeper you go into the game, the larger and more varied the enemy waves will be, and it all caps off with a ridiculous battle against a laser-equipped giant squid. This campaign mode is where you’ll unlock all of the other aircraft, so you should expect to spend a lot of time here trying to get the appropriate scores needed.
The other single-player mode is the survival mode. As you would likely guess from the name, this sees you taking on an endless number of enemy waves on your stage of choice. It’s a fun way to extend the game after you’ve beaten the main campaign mode and unlocked every aircraft, as you can always try to get a higher score here. All the usual rules from the normal mode apply, so you have a limited stock of lives, can choose whichever plane you like, and will have access to random power-ups.
Those power-ups are another fun twist on the classic formula. Every so often, a star will drop from the sky. If you collect it, you’ll get a temporary power-up of some kind according to the color of the pick-up. It could be invincibility, rapid-fire, a speed-up, or something really interesting like a flash of light that sends every other plane into a stall. Don’t think that those power-ups are just there for your benefit, either. Enemy planes can pick them up and use them just the same as you can. Once in a while, a heart will start zooming erratically around the play area. Grab that, and you’ll get an extra life. Fortunately, this doesn’t seem to work for enemies the way other power-ups do.
MiniSquadron works well because of a combination of truly enjoyable core gameplay mechanics, a strong, stylistic presentation, and the fun meta-game of collecting all of the aircraft. Being able to make use of more than 50 different playable craft adds a great extra element to a game that probably could have gotten away without it. The colorful graphics and cheeky sense of humor give the game a light touch, while the sound effects of the weapons and explosions give the action the right amount of heft. It’s one of those excellent pick-up-and-play titles that sometimes has you playing a lot longer than you intended to when you picked it up.