Developer: Backbone Entertainment
Release Date: Summer 2008
Capcom has a reputation for happily giving their classic titles modern facelifts and plenty of re-releases. Just about any new title that's an extension of a current Capcom franchise stands a good chance of being mistaken for a remake. This is definitely the case with 1942: Joint Strike, which, as of this writing, is considered a remake of the original 1942. Upon playing the game, it becomes obvious that this is not the case. The title is a completely original modern top-down shooting game that feels more like Capcom's 19XX: The War Against Destiny arcade title than the classic that was famously ported to the NES.
While not a "bullet hell" shooter by any stretch of the imagination, Joint Strike's screens rapidly fill with shots and enemies, and difficulty ramps up very quickly as you proceed through its five levels. That said, Joint Strike is a game that seems to have been created to cater to a wide range of skill levels, particularly shooter novices, in mind. The game can be played on difficulty levels ranging from one to four stars, and even a lousy player should be able to stumble through the first few levels on one-star difficulty. Four-star difficulty is strictly for pros who 1CC the likes of Ikaruga. For the most part, Achievements aren't tied to any particular difficulty level, so a shmup novice can go to 1942: Joint Strike and find an environment conducive to building skills and sharpening reflexes without getting stomped on too hard or feeling unrewarded.
Players can opt to tackle the game with one of three different planes: the Lightning (based on the real-life Lockheed P-38), the Mosquito (based on the real-life de Havilland Mosquito) or the Shinden (based on the real-life Kyushu J7W1). Each of the planes has slightly different ratings in the areas of Bomb strength, Health, Power and Speed, and there's a noticeable difference in handling when you move from one to the other. The Lightning has no real strengths or weaknesses, the Mosquito has lots of Health and Power but low Speed and Bomb ratings, and the agile Shinden is essentially the opposite of the Mosquito.
In addition to the Bombs, which do what you'd expect, each plane can use a "Strike" technique that fills up as players destroy enemies. In single-player mode, this is just a salvo of homing missiles that zero in on a nasty enemy or one of a boss's joints. In two-player co-op mode, this ability becomes a Joint Strike that has one of three effects a player selects at the beginning of a match. Players could opt for powered-up shots that would fly from one plane to the other, obliterating all enemies in between, a "lightning chain" effect that would do damage to anything the chain passed through, and a wide-radius explosion centered between the two planes. All three abilities have their uses, although most players are probably going to end up picking a favorite and using it religiously. Each player in a match can pick a separate Joint Strike effect, and a certain amount of talking back and forth in online co-op games is essential to make sure you use the right player's Joint Strike at the right time.
Power-ups operate along roughly the same principles as the Joint Strikes. There are three types of bullet power-ups, each of which can be powered up to a second level of effectiveness or charged by holding down and releasing the fire button. The power-ups are the Laser, a long vertical projectile that obliterates whatever crosses its path and powers up to a devastating double laser; the Missile, which fans first three and then five projectiles out in a wide cone; and the Vulcan, which first widens the plane's spray of fire and then makes it fan out along a narrow cone. There are also temporary power-ups available that let a plane do amazingly high damage over a brief period of time, with options including a spread gun and a single grenade-like projectile. When a power-up appears on-screen, it floats around in a pattern that feels random, cycling through the available power-ups every few seconds. Getting your second-level power-up can be frustrating, as being even a second too slow can end with you trading your power-up for one that you may not have wanted.
Gameplay sprawls across five levels, each with a distinct theme and boss waiting at the end. The usual progression pits players against a giant carrier plane called Bodan, followed by an "Escape" level that involves fleeing from a pursuing boss for so long without getting killed. Then players can face a giant tank named Dagmor, a massive sub named Poseidon, a deadly retread named Dagmor Sigma, and then finally Bodan Epsilon, the massive plane boss who chases you down during the "Escape" level. The only one of the bosses who's in any way disappointing or not fun to fight is Dagmor Sigma, who is far too much like the basic and rather easy Dagmor boss. Individual levels tend to be a bit tougher than bosses, especially once you make it to the fourth level. While making your way to the boss, players have the chance to shoot down waves of varying airplanes, helicopters, larger minibosses, stationary turrets, tanks and much more. Successive kills grant a higher point multiplier for each, and points dictate when you receive precious 1-ups.
While the gameplay in 1942: Joint Strike was purely 2-D in classic, vertical shmup style, the graphics are all rendered 3-D. This isn't an especially novel or innovative approach to the genre, but usually employed in service of more outlandish aesthetics than 1942's exaggerated take on World War II. It's also, frankly, not usually accomplished with even half of the skill Backbone Entertainment has managed in Joint Strike. Not only is each individual enemy that appears on-screen an object rendered in high-definition 3-D, but dozens of such enemies all can move around the screen at once, with no signs of slowdown.
Backgrounds were also fully 3-D, although this required a certain amount of getting used to. Moving across mountains and canyons could create a sense of vertigo the first few times in play, and it might take a few sessions to develop the ability to tell apart rendered enemies from rendered backgrounds due to the sheer detail invested in both. The game's overall look is engaging enough that this kind of repetition doesn't feel like a burden. Moving from broad blue oceans to the grittier city locales felt seamless, and everything was realistic while also unnaturally beautiful. There was the occasional moment of pop-up or frame skip, but that seemed more the result of the build being early and unoptimized. Some other features, like voice chat, weren't working yet, and getting online matches to work was far trickier than would be permitted in any game released into the wild in Xbox Live.
What is probably going to be the biggest overall enticement for some fans to play 1942 is the music, which offers up one of the best dogfighting soundtracks you'll find this side of the Ace Combat series. The orchestrated score is original, sweeping, and does an absolutely fantastic job of conveying the narrative of each battle (such as it is). Flights over the ocean in the first level feel soaring and liberating, while later stages and boss battles have more riveting and tense music. The songs are composed by Norihiko Hibino, whose martial style is likely familiar to fans of Zone of the Enders and Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3. Much of the appeal of a shooter is tied intimately to the quality of its music, both in terms of being stirring and easy on the ears. Joint Strike succeeds wildly on both points.
As it stands now, 1942: Joint Strike is far better than a remake of the original 1942 could ever really hope to be. It's a beautiful, original shooter that emphasizes co-op in an interesting way, and without having quite so much of the daunting difficulty that sometimes drives away potential players from the genre. Veterans may find its five levels a little bland and thin, but if you haven't played a shooter for years because they all got too weird and too hard, then you're probably going to enjoy Joint Strike a lot. It's a fantastic game when played in co-op mode even without voice chat and other optimizations, so here's to hoping that Capcom gets all of that working smoothly before release. When you get down to it, 1942: Joint Strike is the rare "remake" that is actually an entirely new game that offers players an experience not quite duplicated by current Xbox Live Arcade titles.
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