RELEASE DATE: 01/31/91 – (JP), 02/91 – (US)
Another day at Sega Does HQ, another Genesis shoot-em-up crying out for recognition. And how does Air Buster: Trouble Specialty Raid Unit plan to capture our hearts? Two player co-op! Six stages! Load times! Yes, you read right, load times! What other shoot-em-up on the Genesis has load times? None of ’em, that’s who!*
But it’s not enough for Air Buster to have load times. It has to earn them with top-notch shooting action, action, action!
Spoilers: it doesn’t. Air Buster is just another shoot-em-up. Just. Another. Shoot-em-up.
Maybe you haven’t played Air Buster before, but if you’re a fan of the genre, you’ve contended with shmups like it. The game is completely playable, but it’s so unbelievably mediocre that it’s almost unplayable. There’s not one feature it presents that hasn’t been done before, and better, by other shmups.
Consider that, even by early 1991, the Genesis had already amassed an astounding number of shoot-em-ups. If you liked the genre and you had the funds, you probably owned the Genesis along with games like Truxton, Thunder Force III, and maybe even M.U.S.H.A. if you were lucky.
Not only did you, a shoot-em-up fan, have plenty of options, but you had many excellent games at your disposal. You could choose to purchase wisely. Within that context, if you’re a development company like Kaneko who wants to release a shoot-em-up on the Genesis in 1991, you better look at your competition and step up your game. Either that or hope that your potential audience doesn’t care if your shmup is merely passable. Air Buster lingers at passable and remains there for all six of its stages.
Let’s start with weapons. Your Buster has two attacks, a standard Normal Shot which can be upgraded and a Buster Flash, used by holding down buttons ‘A’ and ‘C’ together. The Buster Flash supposedly destroys all weaker enemies, but every time I used it, it didn’t seemed to do anything; the screen was just as cluttered post-Buster Flash. The Normal Shot has about seven upgrades, three of which are useful. Find the Side Fighter, the Bumper or the Guided Missile upgrades and keep ’em as long as you can. The rest are worthless.
Air Buster starts slow and stays that way. Your ship moves slow, the enemies move slow, the projectiles move slow. Not slowdown. The action (such as it is) never falters. More like driving behind a bus in the middle of rush hour. Or like the game chugged a nice cup of chamomile tea before you turned it on. Not exactly what one’s looking for in the genre.
I have a hunch as to why Air Buster moves like it’s on pain meds. If the game moved any faster, the player would notice the brevity of each stage. I didn’t notice their length at first, but around the fifth stage, I realized I had only been playing about twenty minutes. This means that, even with the slowness, each stage only took about an average of four-five minutes to clear.
One might think a slow-paced shoot-em-up would be easy, and for the first three stages, you’d be right. By the end of the third boss, I had only used one of my five continues (about five lives). By the fourth stage, however, Air Buster decided that it hated me. Stages four through six have no gravity, so you have to keep your ship steady with the D-pad lest it float down by itself. Enemies flood the screen and release projectiles, then linger around waiting for your ship to hit them. Lack of gravity mixed with a screen full of crap makes for tough navigation makes for lots of deaths.
There is one moment – one solitary moment – that makes Air Buster worth experiencing. In level two, the game speeds up without warning and your area of flight narrows to a sliver. For the next minute or so, you fly your ship down incredibly lean corridors at tremendous speeds, and it is a blast. If the game contained more inspired moments like this, perhaps gamers would remember Air Buster with fondness instead of not at all.
Outside of that brief section, Air Buster is void of excitement or creativity. A screen full of enemies and projectiles with a ship that moves at the opposite of light speed is not exciting, it’s annoying. I kept waiting for an energetic piece of music or an intense boss battle or literally anything to make me feel like, yes, I am experiencing a shoot-em-up and I am ALIVE! But no. With limited rush comes limited returns. Air Buster is a bust.