“Today the guns are silent. A great tragedy has ended. A great victory has been won. The skies no longer rain death – the seas bear only commerce – men everywhere walk upright in the sunlight. The entire world is quietly at peace.”
-General Douglas MacArthur
Recently we celebrated Veteran’s Day here in the States. Finally, something that could bring us together: honoring and remembering the brave men and women who fought for this country, many of whom paid the ultimate price so that America can enjoy its freedoms. It was a tender reprieve from much of the divisiveness of a brutal and bitter campaign, as well as the continuing aftermath.
In honor of Veteran’s Day, I’ve decided to review one of the oldest NES games: 1942. No, it wasn’t released in 1942. The vertical-scrolling shooter first appeared in arcades in 1984, 42 years after 1942. The game is historically significant for two reasons: it is based on the year 1942 which saw the US involved in World War II in response to the Pearl Harbor attack, and the game itself represents an early arcade dominance by a pre-Street Fighter Capcom.Capcom’s 19XX series which began with 1942 helped them to establish dominance in the arcades. The version I’m familiar with is the 1985 version on the NES. 1942 also reached other platforms such as the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, and Game Boy Color. As a port of an arcade game, 1942 is heavy on challenge and replayability but also heavy on tedium, and a lot of it seems to have been scaled back for the NES.
1942 is set in the Pacific theater of the Second World War, and the player takes control of the Super Ace fighter plane. The goal is to reach the end of each stage without dying, destroying enemy craft along the way, getting closer and closer to Tokyo and confronting the heart of the Imperial Japanese fleet. There are 36 stages in total.
Though 1942 doesn’t pretend to too much realism with its idea of a single fighter taking on the entire Japanese air force, the game’s few enemies are designed after actual historical war planes. The Kawasaki Ki-61 Hien, known to the Allies as “Tony”, was a mass-produced fighter with over 3,000 of them made.
The Mitsubishi A6M Reisen, aka”Zero”, the ship that attacked Pearl Harbor, was a long-range fighter made by the same company that manufactured some of your cars. Allies also referred to the “Zero” as “Zeke”. It was considered one of the best fighter planes of World War II for its maneuverability and long range.
The Kawasaki Ki-48 Sokei was known to the Allies as “Lily”, a twin-engine bomber. It was built with speed in mind and therefore given only a light armament of three machine guns. Toward the end of the War it was converted into a kamikaze aircraft carrying a 800kg bomb.
And finally the Nakajima G8N Renzan, code named “Rita” by Allied forces, was a huge four-engine long-range heavy bomber. Though it first flew in history in 1944, here in 1942 it serves as the boss of the game.
So aside from being a piece of history, how does 1942 play? It’ll make you wish you had a turbo button. The 36 stages are all fairly similar with enemy ships dive bombing you, shooting at you, attempting to crash into you. They fly in various formations but there are so few different enemies in the game that it quickly becomes a true test of both patience and timing, rather than demanding your react to new situations.
The Super Ace launches off of an airship carrier into battle and the screen scrolls vertically across the ocean. This had to be impressive back in 1984 when it hit arcades, and even ’85 on the NES. Most games from this time period had black backgrounds with bright but simple characters or objects moving across the screen. Here, all of the colors are bright, though crude. It may not have aged well but it’s not hard to imagine how this would have originally struck gamers in the mid 80’s as something attractive.
The basic controls consist of shooting and performing “aerial maneuvers”. I will resist the temptation to make a certain Star Fox 64 reference here. When performing a barrel roll, the Super Ace is temporarily invulnerable. It is slow and cumbersome to perform but in a tight fix it can get you out of a jam that would otherwise down your ship. ‘Cause you can be sure that since this was an arcade game, you get hit once and you’re done.
Three lives will start you off on a new game and you can earn more by racking up points. If you lose all your lives, it’s a game over and the game will tally up how many enemy planes you took down and measure your accuracy. Thanks for that.
There is however a continue feature once you return to the title screen after a game over. This will let you continue from the stage you died on, though if you shut the console off and did a hard reset, it would erase the continues. That prompted many gamers back then to just leave their NES on constantly untilt the game could be plodded through until its conclusion. Ah, the good old days.
The 8-bit Review
A lot of 1942 looks like this: blue ocean with green and grey aircraft flying around. There are the occasional orange ships but there are so few different planes in the game that it is visually monotonous. It’s impossible not to be less than thrilled at the graphics today in 2016, but if we’re talking about ’84 then we’re talking about a fully textured vertical scroller with a lot of moving sprites. Sure, there’s a lot of lag as well, but they managed to fit many aircraft on the screen at the same time, creating some illusion of being in a dogfight. Also, the green planes almost disappear when flying over grassy islands. Diabolical stealth technology!
Definitely the worst part of the game, especially on the NES version. It will quickly be one you’re going to play on mute. Maybe put on the soundtrack to Saving Private Ryan, Defiance, or Unbroken before letting this soak into your ears for hours:
That’s the stage theme and it plays constantly over the 36 stages. At first you might be tempted to think it’s just glitchy sound effects. Nope. It’s actually a condensed version of the original arcade stage theme, which sounds admittedly more like drums and whistles. And that’s it. It is literally just those two sounds:
1942 helps to introduce a power-up collecting system that came to define the scrolling shooter genre. By defeating certain formations of aircraft, Super Ace can pick up power-ups marked as “POW”. There were probably a hundred other better ideas than the acronym for Prisoner of War, but that was what they went with. The power-ups include the following: an item that increases the amount of bullets your plane can shoot at once, a bomb that instantly destroys every enemy plane on screen (would’ve come in handy during the actual Second World War), and an item that summons two smaller planes to fly in tip tow formation alongside your fighter.
The game also supports two player alternating play, and it was later rereleased as 1942: Joint Strike with a lot more spit and shine.
With only two buttons, one for shooting and one for a single maneuver, this is about as simple as it gets. The power-ups do little to complicate the basic gameplay. Shooting more bullets in a slightly wider way doesn’t help much. The tip tow formation is the best, though. Easy enough for any little kid to pick up and save the world.
1942 is indeed old school hard. One hit and you’re done. Graphics that make enemies and enemy fire hard to see. The biggest element of challenge is the level of patience it takes to get to the end, but with infinite continues it’s not impossible. In fact, the continues make it impossible to lose so long as you keep up the determination. Remember, this was a game originally designed to eat coins. As many as possible.
Being an arcade game at heart, there’s a level of replay value to it. I always wanted to try to make it further. But its gameplay drudge is a sure roadblock to true addictiveness.
As one of Capcom’s earliest hits and a definitive mid-80’s arcade title, 1942 is set apart as a groundbreaker and a foundation for what was to come. It helped set the tone for this genre of game. It’s use of actual historical aircraft and setting is also something that gave it a different flavor than the many, many space and fantasy shooters on the market.
My Personal Grade: 5/10
1942 shows its age but its significance as an arcade relic as well as a peek back through history to the valiance of the greatest generation that ever lived shouldn’t be quickly dismissed. It may not be the best vertical-scrolling shooter out there. It may not have the most polish or the most bells and whistles.
But you can’t fault it for being first in line. Without 1942, we wouldn’t have one more thing to remind us of the heroes of World War II, and without them we would be living in a world dramatically darker than the one we do today. Thank you, veterans! It’s because of you that I’m free to blog on whatever subject I want, rather than be forced into service in a Nazi propaganda paper.
Also, the irony isn’t lost on me that this is a game about taking down the Japanese air force released in Japan.
Aggregated Score: 5.4
Did you enjoy this post? Consider becoming a Warrior of Light and join us in restoring integrity and quality to entertainment journalism. We specialize in long-form, analytical reviews and we aim to expand into a podcast and webzine with paid contributors! See our Patreon page for more info!