Bitter Nerd™ Review: Airburst Extreme

How Do You Improve upon Airburst?

[airburst logo]

Back when MacOSX was still in its infancy, a little game by a pair of unknown British game developers made its unobtrusive debut. Less than a year later, it took Best Old-School Arcade Game from MacWorld.

Airburst was beautiful in both its rich graphics and simple play. Four players (human or computer-controlled) sat upon large balloons, surrounded by three layers of smaller balloons. A razor-edged disc then drops into the arena. Characters would use their bats to keep the disc from popping their balloons. Once his large balloon popped, that character fell out of the game. If a human player was the last survivor, everyone moved on to the next round; otherwise, the game is over. Fortunately, once a level had been successfully passed, it was no longer necessary to repeat it. (Combined, these made for a cheat to get to advanced levels: simply make all the players human and let the game run through the night.)

The game sounds boring, but it was bedlam thanks to the random power-ups. When a character hit the disc, the disc changed color to reflect who “owned” it. If the disc went through a power-up, then the “owner” gained that power, for better or for worse. The variety of effects were maddening: power-ups that created multiple discs; power-ups that enabled the character to shoot out his opponent’s balloons; power-ups that made the disc warp around the screen; power-ups that caused the characters bounce off the walls of the arena like a mad pinball game; power-ups that froze the bat in place, or worse, took it away.

By the time the first opponent had been eliminated, bombs were flying all over the place, multiple discs were coming at you from all directions, the other players were shooting at you, and physics was off taking a coffee break.

Airburst Battle
(click image to enlarge)

Airburst Extreme is the commercial version of this game. While the original costs a mere $5, the commercial version comes in at six times that. The question is, does the additional features justify such a price increase?

Is It Worth It?

AE Logo For most people, the $30 price tag is going to be a major turn-off, and for once I agree with the cheapskates. The sweet spot for this game is probably more in the $20 range; I rationalized paying the extra money as a means of recompensating the game designer for seriously undercharging for the original. Five dollars was a superb bargain for a robust, fast-paced game with professional graphics and sound; especially when you realize that the payment service the Fothergills were using took over a third of that fee.

On the other hand, in a year or so they can discount it to $20, leaving the early adopters bitter and angry. C’est la vie.

The other justification is their development model. They have decided to buck tradition and develop exclusively for MacOS. That’s right: there is no Windows version of Airburst; if one ever is ported, it would have to come from a third-party porting house. You have to admire the near-fanatical devotion to the platform: they sacrificed a decent job developing console games to support an operating system that nobody would consider a “gaming platform.”

Crazy? Maybe. But at least they got free advertising from the mothership, while they barely would make a blip in the rest of the gaming world.

If you’re trying to justify the price to someone else, simply point out that it really is like getting 30 games for $30. That should do it.

Getting the Lead Out

My “testing platform” is far from ideal—like most Macintosh users, I don’t purchase a new computer every other year. My computer is a first-generation Titanium PowerBook G4, which means my ancient 500 MHz G4 processor is barely fast enough for smooth play, and my measly 8MB of VRAM just enough for color graphics.

Reducing the graphics parameters to near minimum involves launching the application while holding down the ‘L’ key, which leaves the menuing system just barely working, then adjusting the parameters to be tolerable. The defaults the game chose for my computer were a little more than it could handle; in the game’s defense, I have a few background processes that take up more than their share of cycles.

Under restricted graphics, most of the games played perfectly reasonable; the exception was “Classic Burst,” where everything left unintentional trails across the background, leaving the screen a bloody mess.

Fight the MMMC or Just Play Airburst

There are two basic ways of playing Airburst Extreme: the story game and the arcade games.

All Problems Can Be Solved through Sport

The original background story of Airburst was that the Mars Media Mega Corporation had bought the broadcast rights to all sports played on Earth, but a loophole in the contract said nothing about sports played in the air. Aside from tacitly explaining why people in colorful battle armor were sitting on balloons floating above Egyptian pyramids, no more was said about this story.

In the sequel, this background is key to understanding the “story game,” in which the characters hop around the solar system trying to figure out why other characters are disappearing and why strange weather conditions are happening on the inner planets. Of course, along the way the characters must engage in airburst to move the plot along.

In many ways, the concept is as cliché as athletic anime: all the problems of the universe can be solved through sport. The game itself acknowledges the ludicrousness of this plot point through mimesis-breaking moments such as BCM asking why they play so much airburst when there is a universe to save.

BCM Bashes Brains

For those that find the concept too much to swallow, I have two words for you: Space Jam.

Speaking of mimesis, the game breaks it frequently. Not being a purist, I do not find these moments of anachronism objectionable; those that demand completely immersive storylines should go somewhere else.

BCM Discusses Football

(I’ll forgive Inku for not using the subjunctive mood, but just this once.)

The story is divided into chapters, such as “BCM and the Invaders from Space,” “Flux and the Case of the Ghostly Gamers,” et cetera. In each chapter, the player is a different character, and plays a different set of airburst games. BCM ends his adventure by playing the Airburst Extreme equivalent of Space Invaders, and Flux confuses all around him by narrating his life in the style of a film noir detective. Successfully navigating a chapter unlocks additional games on the arcade menu.

Each game is preceded by a short movie in which the character interacts with other airburst atheletes and learns what is going on in the solar system, all while uttering “dude” as frequently as possible.

You’ll quickly become sick of the word “dude,” as it seems that all of the characters were recruited from the world of surfing. Another annoying thing is that when a character activates his special power, the computer screams “EXTREME!” C’mon, it’s the aughties, “extreme” is so last century. (While I’m at it, someone please tell the same to Apple’s marketing division.) This is made more funny because the characters come off as British as their creators, with the occasional “so sorry” and “chap” slipping through all the “radical dude” speak.

These are trivial bugaboos compared to the burden imposed by the intersitial movies. If a player fails to pass a level, the same movie is played. Exactly the same: same athletes, same background, same dialogue. It’s tolerable if you just lose once, but when you’re stuck on a specific game (“Dogs” in my case), seeing the same damn movie over and over and over again is enough to drive me to drink. Well, drink more.

Interplanetary Travel
(click image to enlarge)

The other annoyance is when you save a game. The only time you can save is when you’re in the middle of interplanetary travel; the problem is that on restore you are on the planet you were trying to leave, forced to replay the game on that planet. Logic would say that a game restore should put the character back on the shuttle, ready to travel; this design error is quite vexing. (I can think of better words to describe it, but I’m trying to cut down on my swearing.)

30,000 Feet and Falling…

For those that cannot tolerate tenuous plots, the arcade games are far from wanting. Simply play classic “Levels,” in which you try to be the last one floating; or go for the more combative “Thief,” in which you can steal your opponents balloons to repair your own. “Castle”-style games pit the characters against an unmanned drone, which they must shoot down to win. Then you have team games (not to be confused with network games) such as “Capture The Frog” or my favorite, “Football”:

Football, Airburst Style
(click image to enlarge)

The difficulty with team games is that all of your characters are in lock-step: when one turns, all turn. This simplifies control but gives a distinct advantage to the computer, whose characters work independently and usually end up kicking your ass when multiple discs appear on the screen. Because of this, team games rapidly degenerate into single-character games. (At least for me, but I’m old; the younger generation with their multichannel sensory brains probably would slice me to ribbons. Not that I’m negative on it: multiprocessing beats memorization any day of the week. But enough neuroscience; this is a game review.)

There’s also a “cart” game. Terrence Marks once noted that all video game franchises must eventually spawn a “cart” game. Take that as you will.

Network play is an option, but I cannot test it because of a lack of additional hardware friends. ’nuff said.

Still Lickable After All These Years

The graphics are beautiful, even with my restricted hardware. The screen shots above hardly do them justice. Like the original, everything is fluid and fully takes advantage of any OpenGL hardware acceleration your system may provide (which, alas, mine does not). The customization remains as impressive as in the original Airburst.

BCM Shows His Colors

The interstital movies are a bit stiff, however. None of the scenes exist as raw movies; each is a QuickTime composition of a looped animation coupled with the placement of word balloons. This certainly saved a lot of disk space, and you’re not really playing the game for the intersitial movies anyway, which exist primarily to tell you which planet you must go to next. “He said mysterious things are happening on Neptune. I wonder what planet I should go to next?” That kind of problem-solving. If you want challenging puzzles, play interactive fiction. (Just not 2004’s competition entries. Their suckatude is why I’m reviewing Airburst Extreme instead of reviewing them.)

Speaking of suckatude…

Pardon Me While I Tear My Ears Off

What would be an old-school arcade game without a horrible soundtrack?

Much less likely to inspire painful retching, that’s what.

That is, of course, quite unfair of me. The original Airburst soundtrack was magnificent, and actually inspired a single that is quite good, You Fly. Airburst Extreme follows that tradition with a soundtrack where all but one song is far beyond any commercial game recently released.

But that one remaining song… ouch. One song on the soundtrack—the only one with a vocal, I might add—reanimates the horror of game-themed pop long thought dead and buried.

It’s bad. It’s so bad it’s not good. It’s a performance that gets no applause, a joke that gets no laughs. Which is really really sad, considering how much better the rest of the game is. If I thought I could safely expunge this music from my hard drive without endangering the game, I would. I may try anyway, on the off-chance that the game can survive with a missing file. It’s that bad.

Listen to a sample of “Pop Pop Pop” but be forewarned (604 kbytes)

In Conclusion

I really really wanted to love this game, and not find a single flaw. I was willing to look past the heavy graphics requirements (my machine is five years old) and the silly background story (which nobody expected to be high literature anyway). I was willing to accept the price tag (because the publishing house is tiny) and the lack of hardcopy documentation (since the game is so simple). I was even willing to suffer through “Pop Pop Pop.”

But I had to sit down and ask myself, “What makes Airburst Extreme extreme? What am I getting for my $30 that I couldn’t get for $5?”

The answer: Intersitial movies; more power-ups; more characters; more game scenarios. In short, Airburst Extreme is less of a game in itself as it is an expansion pack for the original Airburst, which is no longer available.

I tried to convince as many Macintosh users as I could to cough up $5 and register the original Airburst; I will be hard-pressed to conjure up the same enthusiasm for Airburst Extreme. Ultimately, I wanted to be as overwhelmed by Airburst Extreme as I was by the original Airburst. Of course, when you start out so near the top, it’s almost impossible to get much higher.