Days of Thunder might not have been the most exciting video game license in Paramount’s catalog, but Freeverse ran with the title to make a racing game; now these companies have come together again for the iPhone and iPod touch release of Top Gun ($2), a 3-D flying and shooting title that starts out extremely well but quickly hits turbulence due to a single troubled level design. In the absence of an update, only serious gamers will want to keep playing to see the later, better stages.
To Freeverse’s serious credit, the Top Gun game makes brilliant use of the Kenny Loggins song Danger Zone, which became synonymous with the film and not only appears in the game—by a cover band—but also inspires a truly cool play mechanic in the levels. Your plane flies ever forwards through 10 missions, generally machine gunning and missiling down anything that’s dangerous on land or in sea and air as you approach it. Practically, the machine guns do little good, so you’ll need to lock onto almost all of your enemies and hit a fire button to shoot them down. Unlike the dumb targets found in many flying games, Top Gun’s have the ability to take your plane down with weapons of their own, as the screen is divided into a 3×3 grid of “danger zones” that subject you to the risk of losing life bars. A good pilot keeps shooting and whizzing from one safe zone to the next, moving out of danger zones as they appear; a bad pilot will absorb enough hits to send the plane into a death spiral, forcing an “eject” or a mission failure.
It’s because of this danger zone design that Top Gun manages to be more than just a clone of Sega’s Afterburner and the many less well-known sequels that followed it; between the plane’s beautifully smooth movement, machine guns and lock-on missiles, say nothing of the 1980’s rock soundtrack, the game manages to feel exciting and fun from mission to mission. While the aged Afterburner is still a better game thanks to its more numerous and impressive missile locks, and its eponymous feature—a throttle controller to rocket your craft forwards and backwards—Top Gun looks a lot like Sega’s sequel G-LOC due to its superior artwork. Backgrounds may be repetitive mixes of generic ground terrain, clouds, and water, but they all look quite good due to the game’s fast frame rate, and occasional cool touches such as flights through canyons or over aircraft carriers make the stages close to memorably good visually. The only bad art in the title is in the cut scenes, which use cheesy-looking hand drawn versions of the movie’s Maverick (Tom Cruise) and Iceman (Val Kilmer) characters as flight instructors, along with similarly unimpressive images for you and your wingmen.
While Top Gun starts out as a thrill ride, the third of its 10 stages is pretty close to a show stopper. In an exercise in what can only be described as “not fun,” your F-22 Raptor is besieged by never-ending waves of enemy jets that fill the screen with danger zones, obscuring a collection of fast-moving, ground-based targets that need to be individually destroyed in order for you to progress in the game. Every jet you destroy is quickly replaced by another, and in what can only be assumed to be a glitch in the game, your wing man disappears after promising to handle them for you while you focus on the ground targets. It takes superhuman flying and shooting skills just to nail one of the ground targets while you’re under fire from the jets, and repeated, extended passes over the targets to get them all. After roughly thirty attempts, we were ready to give up, and only persisted out of a sense of obligation to play more before writing this review. Twenty or so attempts later, we beat the level, and discovered that it was an anomaly: later missions were nowhere near as frustrating. This was obviously either bad design or a bug, and many players wouldn’t find it worth the time or the frustration to continue.
Overall, Top Gun is an aesthetically impressive, fast-paced flying and shooting game that will impress some fans of classic arcade titles while disappointing those who can’t get past the brutal third level. Virtually everyone who picks up the title will initially feel like it’s going to be more than worthy of its low $2 asking price, but after 30 attempts on the third stage, players will wonder whether they or Paramount got the better end of the deal. If you’re willing to persist at it, you’ll know that this is a great value for the dollar, but if you’re easily frustrated, pass on Top Gun until the inevitable bug fix that will be needed to let most players progress through the game. It would have rated much higher had this not been an issue.
Company and Price
Company: Paramount Digital Entertainment
Title: Top Gun
Compatible: iPhone/3G, iPod touch/2G