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The Mighty Aerobiz

posted by Mel. on 4/03/01

As we scratched on the surface of during our last daytrip into Rankle Hell, the 16-bit revelations of the early nineties were a defining step in the evolution and identity of the video game industry. It could be summed up to straddling a warped torpedo into the black unknown--these games lay fast and fixed firm at the center of our prepubescent worlds, and we had no choice but to follow their jetwash. That translated into every imaginable trend as well: the CD follies of '93, the 64-bit teasings, the action masterpieces and the pre-turnabout TH*Q offerings. The 16-bit bitch was a harsh mistress at times, but we were suckers for a pretty face and glossy splash spread. Where the graphics and sounds couldn't yet carry us, we had imagination to fill in the blanks.

The growing pains of the young new industry were also a time of identity--for us, and for them. A programming label's whole Id could be judged on the strength of a single title. If we shucked up the fifty bucks to buy a bomb, our wrath was mighty. On the sheer strength of the fickle kid dollar, game houses like Capcom and Konami secured a legacy that saw out the decade. When the expectations and judgements were doled with an executioner's hand, a lot started to ride on the monthly release schedule. In its own odd fashion, a little twist of fate that twelve-year-olds could call their own, the cogs and scales of programming politics became heavy. Serious. Just as the developers were defined by their product, so was our geek status solidified by what titles we favored. It wasn't just the same old tired politico of the SNES-Genesis bipartisian bullshit, either: there were geeks, there were -geeks-, and then there was Schwah.

Our attack patterns on the expansive software market were chaotic. We'd go gung-ho over NBA Jam one week, then suddenly be lusty for a seven-hour session of globetrotting in Top Gear II. Our lack of reason was what usually brought us to some of the better disappointments and buried diamonds of the era, but let's face the brass tacks--when you're surfing over some twenty or thirty new titles every month, you've gotta be your freak. And so we were.

Enter KOEI Corporation of Japan. KOEI was definitely a renegade force of the day at the height of the kid-gaming underground. They dealt almost entirely in brain exploders of the simulant sort, a kind of latterday manifestation of the Tyrell Corporation from Blade Runner. KOEI was out to make titles with simple graphics interface and horrible windup box backbeats more human than human, and to their glowing credit, they did succeed. Nobody did it quite like Romance of the Three Kingdoms or Nobunga's Ambition, roleplaying games with their feet firmly jammed down Big Reality's throat. The problems that stemmed from their unique stance on programming philosophy were fairly elementry, though. What KOEI did was too square for the Square addicts, unimaginable for the average controller-humper, and also available widely on a format that was far better suited to its pacing: home computers. What was left was runoff to a faithful few, enough gas in the coffers to convince the company to keep chugging out sims until the advent of the Playstation Era.

For the sake of nostalgia, I'll cut the suspense short. Despite the obvious handicaps of trying to build games based in historical simulation in a bullets and guts market, KOEI was fucking brilliant. Yes, you know how much I hate those two little words in succession and the obvious erudite film-fan fuck ramifications of using it, but sometimes your tongue can't find a better fit. KOEI had balls the size of Ebonite, and practically owned their little corner of the feudal distribution market. They were on a suicide kick, there's no denying that, but never gave anything less than a hundred percent on a particular project... and this was at a time when Home Alone 2 was considered a hot movie license.

People often wonder aloud why Aerobiz still sits proud in my neglected Super Nintendo sock drawer, packed neatly with its original butt sleeve against such defining experiences as Zelda: A Link to the Past and Super Metroid. And there's really no simple way to bone out the story--people inside the loop get it the moment they see that tarnished little black label, and no eternity of explanation will enlighten those who aren't in the know.


Be your own Buddy Ackerman

You see, as I mentioned before, the actual coding architecture of the game was merely the blueprint for the experience. Half the trip, as it were. Link wandering around a screen alone couldn't create an effect in three dimensions unless the player was willing to meet him halfway: marvelling at the cast of shadows in a shady forest, the way mist wrapped around the silent grove, the pouring of rain and pounding of thunder. It was always like that. To the layman, Aerobiz looks like the video game version of Frank Grimes. Crewcut, non-fictional, starched. To me, it was something far different. And still is.

You see, Aerobiz was not only a simulation based on worldwide corporate domination through fierce network plotting and ruthless control of critical routes and markets.

No.

Aerobiz was also a four-player game.

See? You either understand in a reflexive blink, or you don't. As important as gameplay mechanics, colors and processor speed were to the zealots of the various gaming tribes, our one common thread was the universal pleasure of beating the living hell out of our best friends in the most sadistic pixellated manner as possible. Red shells, bombs with a blast radius that could clear the ends of the screen, the Perfect-Plex.. these were the crucial tools of youth. And while a simple two-player show of force was satisfactory, the sheer joy of destroying three of your comrades was nerd nirvana. It also set up a safe zone of giving a kid more than one target to brutalize--as anyone knew, one too many Sonic Booms to the chin and you'd be jeopardizing a perfectly good playpal. Discretion and honor, and all that jazz.


TWISM

But Aerobiz definitely was an experience built with a quartet in mind, and the lure of the opportunity within that discreet grey cartridge blew my half-pint mind. After all, any fuckwit with the latest EGM and an afternoon to practice could bisect his buds with Kung Lao's hat... but to crush your companions under the foot of your corporate empire?

That was something all unto itself.

KOEI, much like the onus of choosing a game company to bear the banner for, was serious. Real serious. You knew this wasn't just a game when you fired up the Super Nintendo only to be affronted by five minutes of copyright information for the licenses they'd packed into the context. Aerobiz was no different, going so far as to pay cash for the rights to every single airplane manufacturer in the modern hemispheres. If that wasn't endearing for those of us with underdog psychosis, then I'll be damned if I know what is--here you had EA sports, cashing millions for real NFL team names, and on the flipside of the card, KOEI coughing up coin for restrictions that half the people who bought the game didn't know were real. Hell, they could have named the planes "Hokeypolk 241" and "Bigwing 6-9000", and made three other games with the green they would have saved. But they didn't. KOEI, like any underappreciated genius, took a shot to the base of their skull for the sake of their craft.

The game itself could be summed up as SimCity with outbound flights. Players were given the role of CEO, and handed the reigns of one of four spankin'-new airlines, with the option as to what city they'd like to lay roots in. The object of the game, as per description in the manual, was to garnish a certain profit share over the course of a decade, or link the entire world with an aggressive campaign of networked air routes. As one quickly found out when competing with friends, you could also just put the other guys out of business--unlike simpleton games based on humiliation like Madden and Mortal Kombat, Aerobiz gave you the option of accumulating stock shares. Hodge pissing you off with his insistence at staking out a route in your turf? Hose the bastard down by becoming a primary stockholder in his company. Once you edge near that 51% mark, you'll find that 'respect' takes on a whole new definition.

The actual gameplay was also given an insidious psychological slant by the guys who'd put it together. Aside from the potential stockholding debacles, the ability to manipulate ticket prices against your foes in the industry sharktank and the opportunities to set up hotels and branch offices in the other guys' hometown, Aerobiz also ran off of a streaming controller fork. What that translates into in non-fanfuck terms is that the entire apparatus of a player's turn was hardwired into the other three controllers. If you found someone's course of action to be particularly abraisive to your company ideology, you could just quickly exit the screen and end their turn. After years of being reduced to slapping the controller out of the other guys' hand, this bold new technology was a godsend. And considering we masked the in-game gurgle of muzak with a constant loop of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre's 'Natural Born Killaz' as a sort of a horrible sociology experiment, it made rampant acts of blatant aggression that much easier to perpetrate.


It's definitely greek to us

Aerobiz was a great game, and still is. Its simple interface, graphics and sound have figuratively petrified it within the sands of video game time, enabling even modern players to snatch a milkbone SNES controller and get to world dominatin'. The game, and its sequel, Aerobiz Supersonic, run cheap at Funcoland and its replay retail spawn, topping off at about ten to twelve bucks. The latter title is like the original game on steroids, offering players more options (Which is JUST what we were clamboring for.. selecting which kind of shoes you want your CEO to sport in the board office makes it that much more real) and two more scenarios for which era they'd like to conquer. Anyone with a vibe towards the fading days of 16-bit glory should definitely give it a try.. on the precipice of yet another technological enoch, it's a very grounding experience.

-m.
mel@whatever-dude.com

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