Usually, Paul is the one who delivers the weekly Fair Shake column. However, blizzard-related conditions have knocked out his power! So, lacking electricity and the means to effectively deliver content over the Internet, we wish Paul well. In the meantime, I, Eric Bailey, Editor-In-Chief of this here crazy collaborative retro gaming features website, will be filling in. I did this once before, with my Fair Shake treatment of Kid Icarus on NES.
This time, I will by sticking to the NES, my specialty, again, and hoping to reduce my dependency on commas in the coming paragraphs. At any rate, I chose something a little more obscure this time: A 1990 diamond in the rough from Rare called Solar Jetman.
The full name of this 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System cartridge title is Solar Jetman: Hunt for the Golden Warship. Really, the word “Hunt” here is just being a bit over-aggressive, as the term “Search” would have been just fine. Also, after a while of gameplay, one may wonder why the protagonist is looking for the so-called Golden Warship anyway, since the ship he already has seems to be quite capable on its own. Motivational issues aside, what sort of game is Jetman?
But what kind of game is Solar Jetman, anyway? Well, you could say it is a sci-fi themed shooter, but you would only be scraping the tip of the tip of the iceberg. Gameplay involves precision control of a small blue spaceship that explores planet after planet, seeking to bring back ship parts and other items to its home base. The control pad rotates the craft to an impressive degree of articulation, though, far more than even the eight-directional input that would usually get an 8-bit game to be praised for its control scheme. Firing the thruster will push the ship into the direction it is pointed. So far, this means we have the foundation for a game like Asteroids or Gravitar.
This goes far beyond Asteroids, however. This was a game with much quality craftsmanship put into it. Love and care went into this cartridge production. I mean, look at that screenshot, of the prelude screen to the first planet level to explore. The planet is called Preludon. This is brilliant.
The ship can also fire a weapon, though, which will be put into frequent use against the various enemy vehicles and other obstacles encountered on each planet. The thrusters and weapon can be upgraded with purchases between levels. This really puts the player into the pilot’s seat, figuratively speaking, in terms of customizing the Solar Jetman experience to fit playing taste. Players with honed senses of reflexes and precise control will still have to contend with using their brains for resource-specific decision-making as well, demanding a truly all-around set of skills in order to succeed.
And succeeding will definitely be quite a task, since Solar Jetman is challenging. Which is great, because any true gamer, especially a retro gamer, does not want to sit down and waste their time playing an easy, kiddie, softie, silly little no-thrills boring too-easy title. Now, people do not want to be tortured either, of course, but Solar Jetman strikes a wonderful balance: A password system, that tracks not only completed planets, but the resource configuration of the player’s ship.
The player must track fuel and hit points on two meters for their ship. Honestly, though, both portions are generous, and can be refilled via item pick-ups. Even if the ship loses hull integrity completely, this merely ejects the spaceman from the spaceship. Although he is now exposed and much more vulnerable, if the little guy can navigate back to the mothership/home base, he can be equipped with a new craft. He will even have a laser pistol to help carve his return path.
Some of the stages can be rather grueling, but one way Solar Jetman helps balance the pace between arduous patience-laden planetary missions is the use of bonus levels, which frantically rack up money for use in the between-environments shop.
Did I mention that each planet has its own distinctive appearance, theme music, and differing gravity? Yeah, that gravity is a key element to playing Solar Jetman, placing constant demand on the player to continually re-adjust flight paths accordingly. Some planets will exert a strong downward pull the entire time, while some cave systems exert such a weak system that it feels more like a spaceborne free flight.
Solar Jetman is gorgeous. The detail in the backgrounds is amazing, the starfields are always good to help encapsulate a sense of isolationism alongside awe, and the sprite animations are simply beautiful. My words may sound rather extreme, but they are not an exaggeration: Among the entire NES library, Solar Jetman legitimately belongs as one of the most visually distinctive experiences a player can have.
To complement the pleasure of the eyes is an ear-pleasing soundtrack, replete with well-tuned sound effects alongside a memorable, evocative soundtrack. Here, take a listen to the theme for the seventh planet, Chorlton.
Listen to the skillful layering of the sound channels, the solid melody composition, the signature Rare style of those deep low notes, the way the whole mess locks together in arrangement, and how the mood starts to really climb around the 45-second mark. This is just one track among many, with something for everyone, from triumphant calls to woeful minor-key dives.
The idea of a “hidden gem” is a great concept within vintage gaming; this thought that you can discover, amid hundreds of other ho-hum titles, an eye-opening game that not just plays unlike anything you have ever touched before, but gives you a feeling no other game ever has. For some of us, that sensation is the reason we still hunt for old games (our own Golden Warships) and keep playing decades-old titles.
What more can I say? With Solar Jetman, we have a game unlike any other on the NES, with well-thought-out gameplay mechanics, a steep difficulty tempered by a robust password system, quality spacey visuals, and a hallmark soundtrack.
Every gamer has a different taste, and our differences within this passionate hobby of ours is part of what makes the retro gaming community so great. That being said, if you have never played Solar Jetman on NES, I can highly recommend giving it a shot. At the very least, the fun of piloting the craft with such precision in the low-gravity atmosphere of the first level is a signature moment in the 8-bit sphere.
Suit up, strap in, and give Solar Jetman the Fair Shake.