A new year is upon us, both in terms of Neo Geo releases and with 100 Days Of MEGASHOCK! itself (KOF III? What’s that? I don’t know. You must have had a fever dream or something). Ghost Pilots, our focus for today, is the first release of 1991 (MVS-wise). 1991 also marks the year the Neo Geo AES is released. So are starting strong in this brand new and important year?
Not really. But let’s not jump to conclusion.
Ghost Pilots is SNK’s first attempt at a vertical scrolling shooter (or flying shooter, or shooting game, or shoot-em-up, or shmup. Pick your favorite) on the Neo Geo. It goes without saying that scrolling shooters were very popular at arcades, with very deep roots in the history of the medium as a whole. It’s arguable that the genre traces back all the way past Space Invaders and into Spacewar in 1962, even if these older titles lacked “scrolling”. SNK themselves had several shooters released pre-1991, like Ozma Wars (SNK’s first game ever), Vanguard I & II, and Alpha Mission. Suffice to say; by the time Ghost Pilots was out, shooters were a well-worn genre, both within SNK’s catalog, and the industry in general. So it’ll take a lot for any shooter released to stand out from the competition.
Ghost Pilots doesn’t stand out from the crowd. It’s a shooter in the same vein as Capcom’s 19XX series (or 194X series. It’s debatable). You pilot realistic-looking propeller sea planes, flying in a nondescript country, fighting against planes, tanks, ships, and other military combat vehicles, so nothing wacky like the Bydo or Aliens or magically flying people.
At the start of the game, you can choose one of the 3 “stage” to play, though really they’re more like a string of stages. And only two of the 3 are unlocked at the start. You also choose one of 3 bomb types. And again, the 3rd bomb type is inaccessible at times. And also changes based on whether you’re going into an air-to-air combat stage or an air-to-ground stage.
Bomb#1 on the left is a standard a big bomb. Bomb#2 in the middle is a smaller bomb you can sort of push around post-explosion. It has some interesting uses. But with Bomb#3 on the right, if it’s a ground stage, it becomes a big napalm bomb that pretty much works like bomb#1. If it’s an aerial combat stage, bomb#3 becomes, well, not a bomb at all, at least not one that your plane drops. Rather, pressing the bomb button will call up 2 friendly planes to drop bombs near you. It has a huge area of affect, bigger than all the other bomb types, but it takes a while to activate. This can be a problem since, like many other shooters, bombs can suck up enemy bullets. And having a slow-activating bomb is less useful as a defensive measure.
But really, I shouldn’t have been so detailed in describing the minutia of Ghost Pilot’s mechanics. The problem with the game is that it’s just unremarkably run-of-the-mill. Standard looking levels, standard powerups, enemy patterns, backgrounds. It’s nothing special (but I do like the ridiculously large planes & tanks you fight as bosses). Sure, most of the Neo Geo releases by then can be considered derivative too. But they were always supported by great art direction & soundtrack (like Magician Lord) or a unique take on the genre (like Puzzled/Joy Joy Kids), or a weird, unconventional story (like Cyber-Lip). Ghost Pilots has none of these. It doesn’t even have Michael Beard doing the voice acting, or any voice acting.
It’s also just not that fun to play. I’m no shmup-expert, but Ghost Pilots feels like SNK dropped a plane from an older shmup into a more intense, modern one (well modern by 1991 standard). The plane feels big, with a big hitbox that is almost as big as the sprite itself. And the guns have a pretty low rate of fire. You can, however, boost your shot power by collecting powerups that make you shoot more and more bullets. And you do become very powerful when fully powered up. But it’s still a very plain type of powerup. And it’s a very plain experience throughout the rest of the game, with not many highlights or lowlights. At least I do like how stage progression in the game is almost continuous. At the end of each stage, the plane lands at a different “rest stop”. And then you continue on from that rest stop at the start of the next stage. It’s a neat touch. But there’re not a lot of those in Ghost Pilots.
Overall, Ghost Pilots could have been an average but interesting game. But it’s just plain average.