SNK may be famous for its fighting games, but in 1991 the Japanese firm decided that it wanted a piece of the 'shmup' pie that Capcom had been munching all to itself thanks its superb 194X series of WW2-themed shooters. Using a 4:3 ratio and replacing the more classic WW2 propeller planes with generic seaplanes, Ghost Pilots certainly aimed to soar, but in the end did it just crash and burn?
The story is thus; it looks like the Axis forces are up to their usual no-good deeds, and somehow the Allies' best counter-plan is to send two lonely freelance ace pilots - Tom Phillips and Charlie Stingley - in their mighty seaplanes to fight against the combined might of the Axis ground and aerial forces. If you think that's cliché, wait until we tell you the game is played with just two fire buttons, with the first used for the regular machine gun while the second unleashes a screen-clearing smart bomb. Ah yes, familiar skies indeed.
The game is the perfect showcase for the AES / MVS hardware. The detailed graphics and sheer number of rotating sprites-on-screen - with no noticeable slowdown - truly made our Sega, Nintendo and NEC home consoles feel vastly outdated in comparison. The sound is no slouch either; the upbeat music is the only melodic distraction from the punchy, bass-heavy explosions that constantly accompany the action. Played at high volume, this game will not make you popular with your neighbours.
Shoot down a formation of red enemy planes and you get a weapon upgrade power-up or an extra bomb, both vital when you come with the huge, screen-filling end of level bosses. Some variety is offered when you reach the end of the second part of the first level, with a choice of attacking either the enemy ground units or the enemy air force, which means you can’t see everything the game as to offer in a single sitting. But will you have the endurance to want to do it?
Shmups are tricky beasts to balance. One small mistake and you might end up with a dud; a lovely-looking shooter that somehow falls apart on implementation. So while we are sure SNK was having a blast when designing this game, there is simply too much going on to efficiently manage, even with two players. You will die. A lot. And, you'll often die in some truly unfair ways, because even if the scrolling does shift left and right to expand the playing field, there's just too much being thrown at you to keep up - a fact which betrays the true coin-munching nature of this title.
Gameplay aside, the port is as solid as ever; you can count on HAMSTER’s emulation wrapper to customise the experience to your own liking and even compete on worldwide leader boards thanks to the recurring inclusion of the Caravan mode.
Ghost Pilots is a classic case of SNK saying “Look, we can do it too!” in Capcom's general direction, but believing that in every shooter more enemies means a better game was a mistake. It truly is a fantastic hardware showcase of what the AES could do, but from the player's perspective it quickly becomes an infuriating exercise of unfair deaths followed by inserting fresh credits until you manage to make your way to the end - at least now we don’t have to put in real quarters to continue. Ghost Pilots is recommended only to the die-hard digital Neo Geo collector who has exhausted all other shmup avenues already available on the Switch. More sensible players should look at Video System and Psikyo’s better offerings instead.