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‘Aero Fighters 2 ACA NEOGEO’ Review – Don’t Underestimate the Power of Dolphin

While I have given up on reviewing every single one of these weekly Arcade Archives releases from SNK and Hamster, I will occasionally be popping in for games that I really like. Aero Fighters 2 ($3.99) is one of those games, so here we are. Unlike many of the games we’ve looked at so far, Aero Fighters 2 wasn’t anywhere near the system’s launch window, hitting instead during the middle of the NEOGEO’s most active period on the market. This is also a noteworthy release in that it’s technically one of the relatively small number of third party games for the console, having been created by Video System.

There’s an interesting history behind the Aero Fighters series, also known under the title Sonic Wings in some countries. The first game, released in 1992, was a vertically-scrolling shooter built on dedicated arcade hardware with the usual tate screen orientation. The main designer on the game was Shin Nakamura, and he put together a rather orthodox Toaplan-style game whose main distinguishing feature was its large cast of eight unique playable characters. The game was a success for Video System, but the company had decided to move all of its arcade game development to SNK’s NEOGEO platform. This was likely a financial decision, as it mitigated some of the considerable risk of making arcade games.

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This choice didn’t sit well with everyone at the company, however. Shin Nakamura was interested in following up Aero Fighters with more games like it, but the NEOGEO’s use of a horizontally-aligned monitor ran somewhat at odds with the conventional set-up for vertical shooters. Nakamura, along with several others, felt so strongly about this that he decided to leave Video System and found a new company. That company, Psikyo, would go on to carve its own legend in the shoot-em-up genre with games like Strikers 1945, Samurai Aces, Gunbird 2, and many more.

Whither Aero Fighters and Video System, then? While the loss of those key staff members no doubt hurt, the show had to go on. The remaining members of the Aero Fighters team, with the support of other Video System employees, got to work on a sequel for SNK’s NEOGEO hardware. Releasing in 1994, Aero Fighters 2 turned out to be a pretty solid success. More sequels would follow until the brand ended in a somewhat tepid fashion with 1999’s AeroFighters Assault for the Nintendo 64. Video System itself would close its doors just two years later.

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Back to the happier days of 1994, however. In terms of mechanics, Aero Fighters 2 plays things pretty safe. Understandable, given the circumstances. You once again choose your favorite pilot and take to the skies in ten stages of vertically-scrolling action. Each character has their own main weapon and special move, with power-ups to boost the main guns and extra pick-ups increasing your stock of specials dropping from certain enemies. You can play this game with another player, and part of the fun comes from finding effective combinations of skills. There are some secrets to find, but for the most part this is a straightforward, well-made shooter.

The novelty in the game is not found in its mechanics, but rather in its tone and story. The characters are absolutely ridiculous, and include a dolphin, a baby, and a head in a jar. They all have things to say between stages, and different teams will produce different dialogues and endings. Aero Fighters 2 is unique in the series for allowing you to partner any two characters together, which leads to this game having more interactions and endings than any other Aero Fighters game. Some of them are poorly translated, but many of them are just intentionally bizarre. You’ve probably seen memes cut from this game at some point in your life.

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Aero Fighters 2 probably isn’t going to be at the top of the list for score attack fans, but there are enough variables here that it’s not a bad game for that purpose. While there are many endings to uncover, the game itself is a little on the shorter side due to the brisk pace of each stage. The difficulty is also rather moderate by the standards of the genre, so just about anyone can make their way through it and probably even take a solid run at score attacking. Very fundamental stuff, but the sense of humor and constant action make Aero Fighters 2 a crowd-pleaser.

Hamster has done its usual job in bringing this game to the Arcade Archives initiative. It’s well-emulated, offers up plenty of options, has support for external controllers (indeed this is the only way to play multiplayer), and has online leaderboards for all four of its main modes. You can play the game in both its Japanese and overseas version, and you can also tackle the High Score and Caravan modes that Hamster always includes. Those modes are both enjoyable to play in this game. It’s hard to find much to fault here in terms of Hamster’s part in the process.

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While the NEOGEO wasn’t exactly known for wall-to-wall bangers in the shoot-em-up category, it did have some very good ones. Among those, the Aero Fighters games were consistently the most popular and arguably the best. I’m sure we’ll be seeing Aero Fighters 3 roll in sooner or later, but Aero Fighters 2 is an excellent game all on its own. It also takes very well to touch controls, making it well-suited to mobile play. Another win for the mobile ACA NEOGEO series.