I used to tease my little sister about the way she played Donkey Kong on our Atari 2600. As she piloted Mario (or “Jumpman,” as he’s called in that game) up the ramps and ladders towards the gorilla, my sister would invariably lift her butt off the floor and raise the joystick into the air whenever she needed to hop over one of Kong’s barrels, as though actually moving could help her win a videogame.
Since the advent of the Wii, however, I’ve realized she was on to something. It’s only natural to move around when getting into a game — the very idea of getting “into” it involves inhabiting the game’s virtual space. As players, we organically process both a video display and real-world actions, linking them together the same way that our hands and eyes are coordinated in everyday activities. The Wii ó in theory ó makes this link explicit by transposing a player’s physical actions into the virtual space of the game.
In the case of The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces, this takes the form of using the Wii Remote and Nunchuk like a fighter plane’s throttle and rudder. Pulling back on the Remote speeds the plane up, and tilting the egg-shaped Nunchuk makes the plane bank and turn, dive and climb. While not exactly like a plane’s controls, the image was clear: If I had only made a “brrrrrrrr” sound with my lips, I could have pretended the Nunchuk was a toy plane.
The designers of the game are ardent in putting the free-form control scheme to work. Enemies and allies twist, whirl, double back, loop upwards and spiral sideways, turning the dogfights into sky-spanning acrobatics exhibitions. It’s much zippier than the usual linear joustingin-space that passes for aerial combat in most videogames.
But to make this silly-straw flying work, they’ve also had to resort to “maneuver” controls that are button-pushes that automatically put me behind my target or swerve me out of the way of my opponent’s bullets. As a result, most of the intense fighting is conducted by getting close to an enemy, then waiting for the proper moment to push the maneuver button. While this keeps the game’s stylized fighting manageable, it also prevents the innovative control scheme from ever really taking off.
THE GOOD: I’m not a big fan of narratives in videogames, but I was impressed by the unobtrusive way Innocent Aces developed its storyline and characters. The main plot is presented in a few, well-spaced anime interludes, while the characters (mostly young pilots) develop their relationships and reveal their identities during their radio chatter before, during and after the game’s fights.
THE BAD: It’s tough to make skies and distant landscapes look interesting with pixels, and Innocent Aces is further hampered by the Wii’s low-fi graphics. The clusters of smoke and flame for the most part look OK, as does the distant ground. But mountains and hills pop up from the horizon like pimples, and the detailed planes that populate the sky whiz by far too quickly for their graphics to register.
THE BOTTOM LINE: A freewheeling aerial combat game that, despite its motion-sensitive innovations, remains rooted in the standards of the past.