I’m pretty sure Aero Blasters is my favorite PC Engine shmup. There’s so much to love about it!
The game moves fast, the graphics are great, the music is catchy, and it plays like buttah. It’s so smooth! It’s sort of Gradius-esque, except when you get killed and respawn with your standard-issue peashooter, it’s not totally underpowered and you feel like you still have a fighting chance even with no power-ups (as opposed to Gradius games, where you die and lose all your power-ups and it makes you just want to stop playing videogames forever and sell your consoles).
Even the logo is rad! (One of the all-time best game logos IMHO!)
From some perspectives, the PC-Engine version of Aero Blasters might be the least impressive of the three versions of the game that were released. But I think it’s the best.
Aero Blasters has a slightly convoluted history of cross-porting and name changes, but I’m here to help. (At least, I’m pretty sure I’m right about all this.)
So Aero Blasters was originally an arcade game by Kaneko and distributed by Namco, called Aero Blasters in Japan and Air Buster in the US. It was ported to both the PC-Engine/TurboGrafx-16 and the Sega MegaDrive/Genesis. Anyway, in Japan, the MD and PCE versions of the game are both called Aero Blasters; in the US, the TG16 version retained the name Aero Blasters, but the Genesis version reclaimed the name Air Buster.
I remember the game magazines (EGM in particular) made a big deal out of this game getting a cross-platform release — this was right smack in the middle of the 16-bit Console Wars, remember, and although the TG16 wasn’t much of a contender in the US when going up against the Genesis and the SNES, the PC-Engine had a huge fanbase in Japan. Cross-platform releases were almost unheard of in the US, because Nintendo, Sega, and NEC all wanted exclusive titles to “show up” the competition.
The games are basically the same, but also very different. Without getting too in-depth, the MegaDrive/Genesis version is closer to the arcade game, with bigger (some may argue better) graphics and beefier sound effects. (I wonder if this is why the US version took the name of the US arcade game.) The PCE/TG’s version has slightly scaled-back graphics, although no less attractive.
However, played back-to-back, I honestly have to give it to the PC-Engine/TurboGrafx version, hands-down. Here’s a quick rundown of why:
- The PCE version’s game field does not quite fill the screen — the score, life, and power meter are in a black bar on top, while the MD and arcade have the HUD floating over the game field. This gives the PCE version a slightly “widescreen” effect, which, when coupled with the slightly smaller player and enemy sprites, makes it feel more “free” and “loose,” whereas the MD — and to a lesser extent, the arcade — feels more “cramped.” I feel like the PCE version gives you more room to move around and dodge bullets.
- The PCE version scrolls and moves notably faster than both the arcade and MD versions. This ramps up the intensity and makes the cool effects — like the way the enemies’ explosions fly off to the left, rather than stay where they were killed, or the way your ship goes down in flames and smoke when you die — even more convincing.
- When you get blown up, in the PCE version your ship respawns from the left and you are able to control your ship and shoot immediately during your brief period of invincibility. In both the arcade and MD versions, your respawned ship flies in from the left to about two-thirds of the way across the screen, then drifts back to about the center, then lets you start controlling. This seems like only an aesthetic difference, but actually it can lead to unfortunate placement of your ship into a moving enemy or a hail of bullets, or a missed power-up pod which flies on by because you were unable to shoot it.
- Your basic, non-powered-up weapon is a stream of bullets. In the MD version, it’s a burst, whereas on the PCE it’s a constant stream. More bullets = always better.
If I had to rank the three versions, I would put the PC-Engine version as my favorite, the arcade version second, and the MD version last. Control of your ship in the arcade game does feel a little quicker than the MD version, which gives it the edge.
My educated guess is that Kaneko probably developed the Mega Drive port of their arcade game, while Hudson programmed their own version for the PCE (as they usually did with licensed games), leading to the differences. I’m not sure if Hudson would have intentionally improved on the original, or if their version just came out with more streamlined gameplay.
Either way, Aero Blasters on the PC-Engine — while not always getting as much attention as other PCE shootemups like Gunhed/Blazing Lazers or Super Star Soldier — is my favorite shmup on the console, and a really great example of how better graphics or more arcade accuracy doesn’t always make a better game!