In 1987, Brøderbund released Wings of Fury, a thinking-man’s scrolling shmup that borrowed Defender’s free-roaming gameplay but was otherwise an original concept. Thirty-one years later, can Infinite State’s Rogue Aces be the dream sequel you never knew you needed? Throttle up and lets find out.
The game immediately drops you onto the tutorial training missions, where you are instructed by your extremely British Captain on everything you need to know. Throttle is set with the right analogue stick: up and down will increase or decrease the level and your engine will do the best to match it. The left stick will control you airplane's flight path. It took some time to stop ourselves pushing up to go down and vice-versa, and not before we'd experienced a few hilarious crashes. We stopped flying like idiots by imagining our left analogue stick as a clockface and our plane flying towards whatever ‘hour’ we set the pointer to. ‘L’ or ‘LZ’ pushes the fuel into the engine to achieve ‘war speed’, giving you a slight boost at cost of accelerated fuel consumption.
The trickiest bit of flying is (ironically) landing safely back to the ground. It's certainly doable in the peaceful skies of the training mission, but once you get a few enemy planes harassing your six, it becomes much trickier to find the zen-like state and nerves of steel to throttle down, line up your place, hit the carrier deck and stop on the spot. Coincidently, this was also the hardest bit of Wings of Fury, with many frustrating ‘Game Over’ screens popping up after a botched landing. However, in Rogue Aces, Infinite State has elegantly taken care of this issue; by pressing the ‘B’ button your mighty metal flying steed will simply auto-land safely on your carrier (or enemy landing strip) at a cost of a point penalty. It's a small but excellent game design decision.
That’s the flying bit sorted, onwards to shooting. ‘R’ or ‘R1’ will fire up your trusty machine guns, which are blessed with infinite bullets. These are weak but are the perfect harassing tool when facing enemy infantry and lightly-armoured vehicles. They're also your main offensive weapon in aerial combat, with a handful of well-placed shoots turning formidable foes into falling debris. The rest of your arsenal is made up of limited unguided rockets and free-falling bombs ('X' and ‘Y’ button respectively). Enemy structures and heavily-armoured ground units (like tanks) and air units (like bombers and airships) are easier to take out using this explosive ordinance. You can choose to line up your plane perfectly and deploy in precision strafing runs like a true ace, or just suicide dive and drop everything at once, turning whatever was your target into a glorious display of chained explosions.
Both are sound strategies with different risks, but they will always end up with your plane in need of a quick pit stop back at the carrier to get some more 'boom'. Enemy airfields are very valuable targets - once you demolish every structure and defiantly land your plane on them, allied bombers will fly overhead and drop friendly paratroopers that will take over the strip. This is not only an excellent way to refuel, repair and rearm; it effectively extents the range your plane can operate.
You will spend the most of your air time in the game’s normal campaign mode. The ‘Rogue’ bit in the title actually refers to the procedural-generated islands and missions you will face every time you start a new game. The odds are vastly against you; one single pilot and three planes on your carrier versus thousands of enemy units. The campaign is won by successfully completing 100 randomly-generated missions. These can be as straightforward as taking out a set number of enemy planes, commit war crimes by shooting down paratroopers before they reach the ground or blow up a certain number of tanks. More complex missions will have you single-handedly sinking enemy battleships and other such seemingly impossible tasks.
Airplanes don’t take kindly to taking enemy fire. Sadly, damage from engaging enemy planes and ground fire will be a constant reality. Pushing left on the digital D-Pad will toggle the damage report, with percentages displayed across key components. If you get too much damage to your engine, you will no longer be able to use war speed. Such handicaps will severely limit your capacity to properly control your war machine, so you will often need to land back at your carrier or captured airfield for repairs. With just three planes to conquer 100 missions you might feel this is an impossible task, even if levelling up your pilot allows you to start missions with extra upgrades. However, this is where Rogue Aces drops one last ace from its already rather sleek sleeve.
While it is also done automatically when your plane explodes, double-tapping ‘A’ will allow you to eject your pilot out of the cockpit in any situation. In campaign mode your pilot is mysteriously blessed with infinite grenades that you can throw in any direction and make sure you leave a bitter last message to your enemies. Considering the limited amount of explosive ammo your plane can carry, this represents a somehow unorthodox but effective strategy to clear out a massive enemy entrenchment. Just do make sure you press ‘A’ again after ejecting to deploy your parachute.
Raining down grenades is fun, but it's not the best way to make the most of your ejection seat. Line up roughly with an enemy plane cockpit, eject towards their direction and boom: instant enemy plane hijack in mid-air! Just make sure of a couple of things things before you commit to such a crazy stunt. First, don’t try to hijack an enemy plane that is in worse shape than your own, and secondly, try not to miss the target. If you do, not only will you have ditched your precious plane but you will also look a bit daft as you slowly fall to earth, surrounded by enemy pilots making depreciative comments towards your person. It’s always a gamble but an essential one; not only is it the best way to repair / refuel / rearm your plane on the spot, it's the only way to extend your limited air force fleet from three to a theoretically infinite number of planes.
The graphics are lovely, with nicely detailed and animated 2D sprites roaming across the land. There is a pleasing, Advance Wars-style feel across all of the military vehicles in the game, with airplanes, ground units and naval units all seamlessly integrated as part of the same world. There's a continuous day-night cycle which allows for some absolutely gorgeous palette swaps and even some incredible Donkey Kong Country Returns-style silhouettes when the sun is just in the right spot behind your plane. It's almost a shame that you only get a few seconds to appreciate this small but lovely detail, since that is all the time you are given before being harassed by enemies. Since your plane is the main ‘character’ it showcases fantastic frame-by-frame animations of all possible flight angles with your aerial foes. Music is dynamic, so in the brief moments of peace you will hear little more than the satisfying sound of your engine revving to your command. But, as soon as action picks up, so too does the soundtrack, blasting hard rock by Kevin ‘Kevvy Metal’ Black. Explosions are satisfying and since they can be chained by proximity, you often end up with an hilarious aural cacophony that is more than a match for the ongoing pyrotechnics displayed by the visuals.
If you do manage to clear the normal campaign you unlock the ultimate challenge, the ‘Veteran Campaign’ with no aids whatsoever, as well as the time-attack variant ‘Frontline Campaign’. Infinite State has also shoe-horned in a bonus Arcade Mode with a few secret variants to unlock, such as 'Survival' where you only get one plane, unlimited fuel and endless supply of enemy fighters to deal with, or the surprising ‘Bomber Defence’ mode that we stumbled on by accident while browsing the game's credits.
As for the game’s less accomplished aspects, it's a real shame that there's no Goose to your Maverick; Rogue Aces is a single player only affair and we can’t help but imagine how fascinating the chaos caused by another human player on the field would be. Something to consider in the eventual skies of a Rogue Aces update or sequel, we guess.
Rogue Aces is a stellar, fresh experience - even more so if you never played spiritual forerunner Wings of Fury - that has landed on the Switch eShop seemingly out of nowhere. It not only delivers an audio-visual treat but also an overwhelmingly entertaining stimulation of the senses thanks to the frenetic aerial ballets you will take part in. Easy to pickup but devilishly hard to walk away from, Rogue Aces demands just the right amount of arcade shmup skills and strategic planing with the odd lucky break when something just works out. All of this is complimented by some excellent humour in the form of audio quips from your Captain, the enemy Baron aces and the one-liners from ally pilots. Kick the tires and light the fires, fellow Switch pilots; this war won’t be winning itself with you sitting pretty on that carrier deck.