Air Fortress: Storytelling in a video game

A lot of video games are patterned after movies, with voice acting, cutscenes, and creative use of camera angles.  The goal is to make players feel as if they are controlling the events of the scene they are watching, or even to imagine themselves as a character within the game’s world.  One of the things I love about old video games is that the best of them accomplish this in creative ways, even in a very limited medium.

One of the oldest games on my top 80 list is Air Fortress for the original Nintendo.  The concept is simple, but it combines two different video game “genres” in a clever way and uses music to tell a suspenseful story.

The first thing you’ll see in the video is the poorly translated story of the planet FARMEL, which was having the GLORIEST DAYS before it was attacked by these mysterious AIR FORTRESSES.  In a plot development that gets used more often than you’d think in video games, the leaders decide that because this mission is so dangerous, the best course of action is to send one person to take on the fleet by himself.

That man is the intrepid HAL BAILMAN with his LIGHTBRASNER.  (Based on another version of the game with a better translation, they meant to say “LIGHT-BLASTER.”)

I love those cheesy stories for old video games– they can be hilarious!  Needless to say, this game does its best storytelling without using words.

There are eight levels in the game, one for each Air Fortress in the fleet.  The video shows you level 1, and believe me– the makers of the game were being kind to the player in this level.  Later levels get more difficult very quickly.  I don’t remember if I even made it halfway through this game back when I used to rent it as a kid.

Every level has three basic parts:

1. Approaching the Air Fortress by rocket sled.  This part of the game is a side-scrolling shooter, like Gradius, Defender, and other classic arcade games.  The screen scrolls by itself, and you have to pilot the sled to avoid the walls of the fortress and the enemies that fly around and try to shoot you down.  If you collide with any of these things, your rocket sled is destroyed, and you only have three of them.  It’s crucial at this stage to pick up the energy (E) and bomb (B) power-ups for you to use in the next section.

2. Inside the Air Fortress on foot.  Here, the game turns into more of a standard platforming game, in which you can explore in any direction.  The goal is to find the main power reactor of the Air Fortress and destroy it.  I like the way the energy meter doubles as fuel for your rocket boots in this part of the game.  This means that you have to be careful about how much you use the boots, because draining your energy puts you at more risk of being destroyed by an enemy.  It also places a limit on the amount of flying you can do; if you run low on energy, you will need to stay on the ground for a while as your energy recharges.

3. The escape.  This is where the game really draws you in to the story.  When you destroy the main power reactor, the whole fortress goes dark and quiet, unsettling music begins to play.  The Air Fortress is going to explode in a few minutes, and you need to find your rocket sled and escape before it does!  In the first level, the game designers were feeling generous, so they put the exit right behind the reactor.  But in most of the levels, you have to go searching for it.  You might pass the exit on your way in to the reactor, or it might be in a part of the fortress you haven’t seen yet.

The game doesn’t give you a timer, so you can’t know for sure how much time you have to find the exit. After a while, you start to hear a low rumble and the screen begins to shake.  The shaking gets gradually more severe and the rumble grows louder until it almost drowns out the music.  The screen begins to flash white just before the end until the entire screen is washed out, and — GAME OVER.

The game is great at building tension, and it’s here that you reap the benefits of collecting (E) capsules during the rocket sled section– the more energy you have, the more you can use your rocket boots to hurry through the air fortress.


I think the neatest thing about this game is its music.  Most games from its era would either give each level its own music or assign a type of music based on the terrain (underground, water, etc.).  The order in which the tracks were played wasn’t that significant.  In Air Fortress, the music tracks are more like movements in a symphony– they fit together because of repeated themes and chords, but each one fits the emotion of its own section of the game– they are meant to be played in order.

1.  Title screen and prologue– a grandiose anthem like the final scene of Star Wars.

2.  Stage Intermission– a fast-paced, minor-key sting to convey a sense of danger.

3.  Air Fortress exterior– a very melodic, heroic theme.  (It makes me think of the theme to The Last Starfighter.)

4.  Air Fortress interior– the repetition and incessant rhythm fits with a setting full of machines and metal, but the heroic theme still appears.

5.  Evacuation– The very simple repeating notes make me think of echoes inside the dead space station.

6.  Escaping the Air Fortress– Starts out in a minor key, but switches to major, as the player’s stress turns into relief.  It also leads right into the Stage Intermission, which starts the cycle all over again!

I feel a little bit silly devoting so much detail to a simple video game (my 77th-favorite, in case you were wondering), but it impresses me how much creativity can go into something so seemingly trivial.  Even if the tinny NES music sounds awful to you, do check out that Last Starfighter theme by Craig Safan, though– it’s wonderful!

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