"Gather yee, gather yee for tales of generations past. Today the unsung ace of Project Aces, lost in a sea of casual titles and misunderstood by the audience, it's time this bird flies proud and high once and for all."
Ah, the Ace Combat series. A personal favourite of mine that I saw grow from Arcade and PSX to current generation hardware with the odd crash & burn along the way. You will find the word "niche" and average the 75% mark on pretty much every review of every game in the series. They mean nothing to you and me, fellow child of the 80's who grow up on Brian de Palma's "Top Gun" and SEGA's "AfterBurner". Did you too wanted to grow up to become a fighter pilot, I wonder?
"The Sky Crawlers" are a series of Japanese novels written by Hiroshi Mori. His vision of an alternate history Europe where World War II never happened is very much fertile ground for the imagination run wild. Although a time of peace, conflicts are arranged between rival corporations in order to advance whatever their individual goals may be. The jet engine has yet to happen.
"The Sky Crawlers" picked up quite some steam once it was announced that director Mamoru Oshii was suiting up to direct an animated adaptation of the novels. You may be familiar with his name and his deep intertwined and sometimes down right depressing characters and dialogues. I believe only someone like him could bring manga adaptations such as "Ghost In The Shell" to the screen in such a meaningful way but I will leave Oshii's works to my fellow peps at AniTAY. Because some surprising news soon after surfaced...
I had my launch day Wii for a few months when the news hit early 2008 straight out of Famitsu: "Project Aces developing exclusive Sky Crawlers entry for Wii". The images looked on par with previous PS2 entries, but how would it play? I had to wait quite about a year to find out and even that was by pure luck. A couple of my friends went to Japan early 2009 and I had them pick up for me both "Innocent Aces" and "Tatsukoko vs Capcom", years before anything was heard about either game having a western official localization. It was unique to the series in many ways I could not even imagine!
Forget any real-life jet planes carrying 80+ missiles for this one. In this alternate history, the propeller is king and working with Mori, Project Aces delivered an amazing selection of unique, even some really radical propeller plane designs from both factions (Rostock and Lautern) as envisioned in both the novels and the animated movie. The following video shows off the complete hangar with every plane you can fly in the game:
Your wing and tip mounted machine guns are your best friend. There are special weapons for each plane that you can unlock along (free fall bombs, cannons... even shotguns!) with upgrades and colour schemes by destroying certain targets of performing S ranks, making sure that the 17 missions in the campaign offer plenty of re-playability. My advice is to drop the motions controls from the go. Oh, don't worry, they are well implemented and work much better than anything else in the genre on the Wii, but for me it was GameCube joypad right from the start, along with expert mode that allows you to rotate your plane on it's axis freely, something that feels rather more natural in every game you're controlling an air plane in a 3D environment.
There are a couple of interesting features introduced in this game, such as the ability to perform manoeuvres on command by performing certain thumb stick combinations along with L+R, something that I often found saving me from fiery death. The other major new feature is the ability to start filling a gauge by tailing enemy planes and when you desire or it's filled to your liking, press Z to perform an automatic manoeuvre that will put your plane straight on the enemies tail, allowing to fill him with all new air holes to make their planes go faster. Don't worry, this is not something you can abuse or rely all the time if you're playing on Ace difficulty, making sure it does not ruin the experience. You can even play the whole thing without using it, but be prepared for some serious tailing and sore thumbs. Well played, Project Aces!
So we have the backdrop, we have the team and the game mechanics all in there, how does "The Skycrawlers: Innocent Aces" fare on plot? That I will not spoil! It's best to be experienced spoiler free the first time you're getting into this. Know that the game takes place before Oshii's animated movie story wise, the genetic engineered children (Kildren) that will replace all pilots in the conflict are slowly introduced to the player, a rookie from Rostock, under the call-sign Lynx. I did see the OVA first, so I have no clue how I let it fly by me, but it was only at the very end I realized exactly who we were playing and it hit me like a Mach 3 punch to the stomach. Again, no spoilers here, go play the game already!
Early in 2010 the game was finally released in Europe and USA. Labelled "niche" and "core" meant it had no chance to strive on the Wii market. So I hereby leave you this reminder of this wonderful package, labour of many people to bring you the alternate history Europe of the novels. It can now be picked up very cheaply from bargain bins everywhere. Project Aces delivered the best arcade flight simulator on the Wii and for me personally one of the finest entries into the Ace Combat series even without bearing it's name. "The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces" is without a doubt one of my favourite games in the Wii's whole game library, I would certainly love to see Project Aces return to this unique alternate universe, who knows maybe a new 3DS or even Wii U entry? One can dream, fly close to the sun without getting his wings burned...
Here is Mission 1 on on Ace difficulty setting. It's perfect for anyone unfamiliar with the game because it shows some core game play but doesn't really show off anything amazing and extraordinary, which I assure this has more than it's fair share down the road:
Oh, I had forgotten how amazing the music was in this game. Another often overlooked staple of Project Aces... time once more to throttle up my custom red Suiga! Tally-ho!
PS: I made a track in tribute of this game back in the day. Even made a instrumental version by request. Enjoy!