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Air Fortress is a game released in Japan in 1987 by HAL Laboratories, today best known for Kirby and Super Smash Bros. It came to American shores in 1989. Its basic plot will remind you of the end of Star Wars in a way: The planet Farmel finds itself threatened by eight mysterious Air Fortresses. The Federation of Intergalactic Powers has thrown all their defenses at the Fortress to no avail. Now, it's been decided that one man, Hal Bailman, will attempt to infiltrate and blow up the Fortresses from the inside.

The gameplay of Air Fortress combines two genres, and can be said to be composed of three separate parts. The first part of a given level is a Shoot'Em Up where you're trying to get inside the Fortress in question. On your way, you also want to gather as much Energy and Bombs as possible. These will all come in handy in the second part of the level.

In the second part of the level, you're actually inside the Air Fortress in an Action Adventure type of game. This second part of the level can effectively be broken down into two parts in itself:

  1. Find the Fortress's Power Reactor and blow it up.
  2. Get back to your ship (Which will not be at the start of the level) before the Fortress explodes.

The way your Energy works is somewhat notable. Doing pretty much anything — moving, shooting, etc. — drains your Energy, and idling recovers it. Taking damage from enemies both drains your Energy and lowers your maximum Energy, so getting into prolonged firefights is a bad idea.

Tropes used in Air Fortress include:
  • A Winner Is You: The game has a pretty typical 1987 ending. Which is to say, the effort you go through to get it is not nearly worth the reward.
  • Action Adventure: The second part of each level, where you're actually inside the Air Fortresses.
  • Breather Level: Compared to the hell that is navigating level 6's fortress, all of level 7 is considerably easier — the approach only has two squads of moving enemies, and the fortress itself really has only one fork until you get to the Reactor, and both choices ultimately lead to the same place.
  • Difficulty by Region: The North American is brutal. The Japanese version is even worse.
  • Engrish: For some reason, the Japanese version of the game has what little text it does have in English. This leads to such jewels as "You have encounterd the 1st 'Air Fortress'" and "On the planet 'Farmel', they had the gloriest days for two centuries..." This may be because supposedly, a very limited number of copies of the original version came over to the States in 1987 as a "Test run" for HAL Laboratories to release games in the US. Note that the proper US version has a much better translation.
  • Excuse Plot: Translation aside, the actual story of the game never really figures into the gameplay itself.
  • The Maze:
    • Technically speaking, every Air Fortress after the first is non-linear, but they don't get truly mazelike until Level 4 (Where the teleporters first become asymmetric — taking a teleporter at Location A will take you to Location A', but even if there's a teleporter at A', which is far from a certainty, said teleporter at A' is almost guaranteed not to take you back to Location A.), and especially so at Level 6. Trying to determine the best path to the Reactor and then your ship becomes a huge part of the challenge in the later levels — no matter how much Energy you grab, just wandering around the Fortresses aimlessly is guaranteed to get you killed, either by enemies or by failing to find your ship in time.
    • Level 8 takes things to a whole new level of complexity. You almost need to use speed running techniques to make it back to your ship before the fortress explodes.
  • Nintendo Hard: The game stops playing around at about Level 4, but gets downright evil at Level 6. The main reason this game doesn't have the reputation of Battletoads or Ghosts N Goblins is simply that it's not as well known in general. This is without getting into the even more fiendish Japanese version, which sends you back to the beginning of the Approach segments every time you lose a life (The US version lets you respawn where you died providing you still have extra lives), and which generally starts you off with slightly less Energy than its US counterpart. How hard is this game? Frankomatic's Let's Play of the (Japanese version of the) game has him stating that he won't be abusing Save States. By Level 6, he throws this condition out the window... and still fails to beat the level. The next video opens with him saying "As you can see, the sixth Fortress got hit with a big 'Fuck You' bomb that fell out of the cartridge, so we can continue."
For reference, this run shows one of a handful of routes known for the level. At the time, it was a different (and faster) route than was in any walkthrough on GameFAQs, although the use of speed running techniques (Facing the backwards and shooting to propel yourself in the direction you want to go, as in this video, is actually the quickest way to move if you can get the rhyth, down) also helped.
  • Shoot'Em Up: The first part of each level, where you're on the approach to the Air Fortresses.
  • Side View: The entire game.
  • Timed Mission: The fortress will explode and kill you if you don't find your ship in time after destroying the Power Reactor.
  • Video Game Flight: The way health works means you won't spend much time abusing it.
  • Your Princess Is in Another Castle: So you've gotten through the whole game, barely escaping from the last Fortress. You sigh in relief, get ready for the ending...and are greeted with approximately "ATTENTION! The Air Fortress has recovered its function. Hal Bailman must return to the Air Fortresses and disable them completely. You are approaching the 1st Air Fortress." At this point, you will either Rage Quit and never play the game again, or become determined to beat the second quest out of spite at the non-ending you just got handed. Note that the Japanese version actually gives you an ending at the end of the first quest, with an "Input these codes to play the second quest" after the fact.