There once was a time when the 3D combat flight simulator was the genre of choice for seasoned players; during the 16-bit revolution, home computers like the Amiga and Atari ST played host to the likes of Falcon 3.0, F-15 Strike Eagle and Starglider, all of which used very basic filled polygon visuals to create the sensation of flight. Later, titles like X-Wing, Wing War, Ace (or Air, depending on where in the world you are) Combat, TFX and Strike Commander took the genre to new visual heights, but it's impossible to deny that the basic graphics of the '80s still hold an undeniable charm, even today. It's that nostalgic feeling that Sky Rogue feeds on, but thankfully there's enough gameplay to be found underneath the boxy aircraft to make it worth sticking with.
Sky Rogue hits all the right notes from a control perspective. The default system – "Arcade" – keeps things as basic as possible; pushing left or right on the analogue stick turns your craft without too much effort, making it easier for novices. However, turning this off offers a more authentic interface; pushing left or right now causes your plan to spin in that direction, and you need to combine this with up and down to perform banking turns – just like a real pilot. While the "Arcade" mode is easier to get to grips with, you'll want the full-fat experience if you really want to master the game.
Turns can be linked with decreased throttle (ZL) to perform tighter manoeuvres, while the ZR trigger boosts your speed. 'B' switches targets and 'X' cycles through your four main weapons – you can also hold down this button and select your weapon using the stick. 'Y' fires your selected weapon, and 'A' deploys your secondary armament – this can be a flare to throw off incoming missiles or a rear-mounted weapon, like a machine gun, for dealing with bogies on your tail. You can look around your plane using the right-hand analogue stick, and clicking it down locks your view on your selected target, allowing you to see them at all times. Clicking down the left-hand analogue stick makes your craft perform an evasive dodge roll, which is handy for avoiding incoming missiles. Finally, the 'minus' button allows you to toggle your viewpoint; the in-cockpit view is ideal for purists, but we preferred the default third-person view, as it makes it easier to avoid hitting things when tackling ground-based targets.
In addition to this, the Switch edition comes with "Danger Zone" controls which allow you to use the Joy-Con's motion control capability to simulate the actual cockpit of a fighter plane. The left-hand Joy-Con is held horizontally and serves as throttle, while the right-hand Joy-Con is held vertically, acting like a flight stick. Needless to say, these controls can only be used when playing in TV or tabletop mode, as the Joy-Con obviously have to be detached from the main console. It's a fun little addition which gives the Switch port something unique over the PC version, but as you might expect, it's not as precise as the standard interface and in a tense dogfight, you never feel like you're fully in control. It's a neat party trick ("Look ma, I'm in Top Gun!") but we can't see many people using this system for prolonged periods.
Titles of this type live or die by how enjoyable the core gameplay is, and Sky Rogue nails this perfectly. There are few gameplay experiences quite like the combat flight sim; the deadly game of cat and mouse as you toy with your aerial opponent, twisting and turning to get a solid lock before unleashing a devastating volley of missiles to knock them clean out of the sky – only for the terrifying "beep beep" of your craft's on-board computer to end your euphoria as you realise that while you've been hunting, your opponent's wingman has snuck up behind you and is now peppering your delicate wings with machine-gun fire. Add in some compelling opportunities for risky bombing runs against ground targets and it's easy to see why Sky Rogue becomes so insanely addictive; the sky is your playground.
The term "roguelike" is applied to many different genres these days, and in the case of Sky Rogue, you might assume it's perhaps pushing things a little too far. However, the system works wonderfully within the confines of a combat flight sim; the main campaign mode is set across 12 randomly-generated missions. While the island layout is different each time, you face roughly the same type of enemy across each mission. The opening sorties are quite easy, but by the midway point you're facing multiple skilled enemy fighters, massive aircraft carriers, dreadnought-class flying battleships and much more besides – not to mention the fact that your ground-based targets become surrounded by Surface-to-Air Missile launchers and fiercely accurate Anti-Air gun emplacements.
Landing at one of the friendly ground-based airports allows you to repair any damage incurred at a cost, as does docking with your main carrier before you've completed all of the mission objectives. Each mission has a target (or targets) you need to neutralize to complete it; once you've done this you can return to said carrier and move onto the next mission. However, if you want to give yourself the best chance of survival moving forward then you'll ideally want to take down as many hostile units and buildings as possible before bringing the mission to a close, as the cash and experience points earned are essential when it comes to improving your jet and upgrading your weapons.
Buildings and enemies give you a cash reward when destroyed, and this is used upgrade your growing collection of planes (each with a role, such as air supremacy, bombing or defence), weapons and sub-weapons. Tech points are doled out for taking down other pilots (or drone craft) and these boost your Tech Level. The higher your Tech Level, the more weapons, sub-weapons and planes you unlock. Cash can be spent in-between missions, but your Tech points are only added to your Tech Level when you die.
Death in Sky Rogue is, as the name suggests, permanent. When you get shot down, you lose all of your cash and upgrades, and have to start the 12-mission cycle anew. However, because your Tech Level inevitably grows, the next time you tackle the campaign you have access to more weapons and better planes from the off, thereby improving your chances of success. This neat approach means that the tension is kept high during tough missions, but death isn't totally demoralising; you know that the points earned during your run will boost your Tech Level and potentially give you a much better chance of winning next time around.
In addition to the main campaign – which will take even the most dedicated flight ace quite some time to crack, given how hard the later missions are – there's an "Endless" mode which challenges you to see how long you can last against a series of enemies. Free Flight removes all threats and gives you the opportunity to get to grips with the controls, while the Tutorial mode is selectable at any time so you can learn the basics if you're feeling rusty. There's also a split-screen multiplayer mode which allows you to play the campaign in co-op with a friend; you can even use a single Joy-Con per player, although this obviously means that you lose some elements of the control system, such as the second analogue stick for looking around your craft. You can switch between dividing the display vertically or horizontally, but neither really gives you the ideal view of the action – even so, co-op play does help on some of the game's tougher missions, and is a fun bonus if you're able to find a fellow co-pilot who enjoys this kind of game.
Sky Rogue performs admirably in both TV and handheld modes. There's some minor slowdown in portable mode when a lot of targets are on-screen at once, but it's not a game-breaking issue by any means. We also noticed that sometimes the game would crash when attempting to begin a mission; closing the game and restarting reveals that no progress is actually lost, but it's annoying all the same. We imagine this will be patched almost immediately after launch. Finally, we have to mention the excellent soundtrack, which perfectly accompanies the faux-retro visuals.
While it lacks any storyline and the randomised nature of the missions may strike some as lazy, Sky Rogue has plenty of gameplay where it counts. The dogfighting action is superb, aided by excellent controls, a wide range of weapons and plenty of stuff to unlock. The 12-stage campaign mode will keep you coming back for quite some time – thanks largely to the unique roguelike approach where death means losing everything, but the experience gained means a better chance of success next time around – and the ability to rope in a friend in co-op adds even more longevity. Granted, when you do eventually complete the game there's not a great deal to bring you back, but it will take quite some time and effort to reach that point – and you'll have had such a blast you won't feel short-changed anyway.