Review: Airport Mania: First Flight (WiiWare)

First class, or terminal illness?

Air travel is well known for many things: overbooking, lost luggage, expensive food, cramped quarters and, most recently, a choice between having your crotch grabbed or letting airport security take naked pictures of you. It's not really the sort of experience that you'd expect to lend itself to a positive gaming experience, let alone one so adorably irresistible as Airport Mania: First Flight. And yet, it's arguably one of the best games on the entire service.

First Flight is the WiiWare port of 2008's Airport Mania, a PC game that was later released for the iPhone as well, but don't let that scare you! We at Nintendo Life know (probably better than anybody) of the heartache associated with dropping hard-earned Nintendo Points on lazy, poorly optimised ports, but Airport Mania: First Flight is more than just a sturdy port of a good game; it sets the gold standard that all future ports should strive to achieve.

For those who haven't played it before, First Flight is a game of resource management. You will be in charge of routing incoming and outgoing flights at a series of airports, each of which is more complex and busier than the last. At the game's core, you will be responsible for keeping runways clear and making sure the passengers aren't left waiting. This responsibility gradually compounds, until you find yourself juggling repairs, refueling, repainting and even in-flight movies in addition to simple runway management. Every time you master a concept in Airport Mania, the game is prepared to throw you a curveball, keeping the experience fresh and exciting, without ever feeling unfair or overwhelming. The pacing is absolutely perfect.

The adorable little planes appear in the sky one at a time, and you can select them in order to assign to them a runway for landing. From there, you'll have to pick a gate for passenger drop-off and pickup, and then direct them to another runway for takeoff. Easy, right? Well, we might have forgotten to mention that while you are servicing one cute little plane, several others have appeared in the sky as well, circling the airport, waiting to be guided in themselves, and they're gradually getting angrier. How you handle them determines how well you do in that particular stage, and a series of star-ranks and awards offer good incentive to go back and clear stages more efficiently, once you've honed your strategy.

The controls are intuitive and simple. The IR-pointer is both smooth and accurate, the A button does all of the selection/activation work, and B cancels whatever it was that you've told that particular plane to do next. It couldn't be simpler, which means that whenever things become frantic – and they will – you get to rely entirely upon strategy and problem solving, rather than having to wrestle with the controls, trying to remember what you need to press in order to accomplish something.

After each stage you will be given the chance to visit a shop, where you can spend whatever money you've earned thus far (the money in this game working both as currency and as a scoring system) to upgrade the airport, giving you more gates, different styles of planes, more room for layovers and so on, all of which contribute both to making things easier in one way and more complicated in another. Airport Mania: First Flight is a constant battle against the forces of spiralling responsibility, and we'd have it no other way.

Perhaps the nicest thing about this game is just how remarkably deep the experience manages to be, in spite of the decidedly simple approach. The core concepts are so simple that anybody can pick it up and work toward achieving some measure of success, but the addition of bonuses for chaining takeoffs, for matching colours of planes to similarly-coloured gates, for early departures and for giving extra attention to special planes – carrying anything from live organs for transplant to the President of the United States of America – means that the game will be appropriately challenging for every skill level of gamer.

The presentation may not be to everybody's liking, but its cartoonish visuals are both stylish and oddly soothing, which will come in handy when the skies start crowding and all of your runways are occupied. The music is equally lovely and, again, goes a long way toward keeping the proceedings from feeling too stressful.

At this point in the review, we would typically have a paragraph or two describing the game's faults but, in all honesty, we were unable to find any. The game was clearly built for single player action, but the multiplayer component doesn't seem tacked on, feeling like a worthwhile addition (it's essentially the same game, just with up to four cursors on screen directing the traffic). The game always stays one step ahead of you so that the strategy you used on stage three won't work as well on stage four and may not work at all on stage five, which means you'll never have any time to get bored. The moment you master one aspect of the game, there's another one just waiting to be introduced. And with eight groups of levels, each group containing anything up to 15 levels, there's enough here to keep you busy for a very long time.

Conclusion

Airport Mania: First Flight is absolutely everything a WiiWare game should be: easy to pick up, deceptively deep and urgently addictive. The presentation is adorable and the challenge ramps up at the perfect rate, leaving you neither impatient nor overwhelmed. For 500 Points it's an absolute steal, and you'd be foolish to let it pass you by.

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