In the 2000s, J Allard of Microsoft proposed a summer internship with the express goal of focusing on game design. Three interns for Microsoft, Scott Brodie, Danny Dyer, and Matt Monson, in turn created a game during the summer of 2006. Their effort was a shoot ‘em game named Aegis Wing. Mr. Dyer and Mr. Monson had been members of the Texas Aggie Game Developers, which was a student organization at Texas A&M University established to nurture new talent. The three of them collaboratively did all of the groundwork, though outside sources provided art and audio support.
The team ran into a few difficulties due to having but three months to see this project through and XNA, a freeware toolkit commonly used for Microsoft products such as the Xbox 360, was not yet available at the time. Nonetheless, the three-person team soldiered on, completing their work by the end of the summer – though they had to cut out a few planned features along the way. They handed their work to Carbonated Games, an internal studio of Microsoft Game Studios to be published. The fruits of their labor were then released on the Xbox Live Arcade service as a freeware title in May of 2007. What was this small team able to accomplish in three months?
Analyzing the Experience
In the year 2105, the environment of Earth has been rendered inhospitable. In response, humankind has begun an interstellar journey in search of a new place to call home. By sheer luck, they find the perfect planet to start a new colony, which they name Europa. Unfortunately, things don’t remain peaceful for long. Upon establishing their colony, the humans are attacked by a large military force of aliens. They are the Araxians, and they too are in need of the bountiful resources on Europa. In a last-ditch attempt to win this hopeless war, humans have developed a new, powerful spaceship fashioned after Araxian technology. With the fate of Europa hanging in the balance, a vanguard assaults the alien armada.
In an age of gaming in which 3D had become the standard, Aegis Wing presents players with a classic shoot ‘em up experience. Aegis Wing is highly similar to R-Type and Gradius in how it is presented from a side-scrolling perspective. The control scheme is appropriately easy to figure out. You can steer your ship using the control stick or the directional pad, though the former is generally more effective due to being able to register diagonal inputs more easily. The ship is capable of firing two lasers from its cannon. They can be used by holding down the “A” or “RT” buttons.
It simply wouldn’t be a true shoot ‘em up if the game didn’t give you some kind of alternate weapon system to complement the primary one. The power-up system for Aegis Wing is fairly simple. Upon vanquishing certain enemy ships, a power-up capsule will be released. These can be launched by pressing the “B” or “LT” buttons. You receive four charges of the power-up you obtain, though if you collect an identical box, you can potentially have up to eight uses. There are four available: the Arcus Missile, the Hades Beam, the Gorgon Burst, and the Lambda Shield. The Arcus Missile fires multiple projectiles that home in on nearby enemy ships. The Hades Beam is an especially powerful laser that annihilates anything unfortunate enough to be caught within its path. Throughout the game, you will encounter mines that act as barriers. Normally, they cannot be destroyed, but the Hades Beam cuts right through them. The Gorgon Burst can be likened to an electromagnetic pulse charge in how it affects enemies. Any enemy ship caught in the blast shuts down instantly, and cannot recover. It also causes enemy volleys to disappear, making it useful in a pinch when surrounded by enemies. Finally, the Lambda Shield’s purpose is straightforward. It forms a bubble around the ship that deflects enemy projectiles. One has to be careful using it, however, for it does not protect the ship from collision damage.
Aegis Wing stands out from other shoot ‘em ups in that the ship can take multiple hits before being destroyed. From normal salvos, the ship can take up to four hits before it is destroyed. It can even survive collisions with smaller alien aircraft, but only if it is completely undamaged. It’s important to realize that you can’t take your ship’s ability to withstand multiple shots for granted. It appears that the humans did not invent the Hades Beam themselves, for one type of enemy is capable of using a similar attack. Nothing other than the brief invincibility frames granted to you from the ship respawning after losing a life can withstand this attack. It is forewarned with a sight similar to a sniper rifle, so you would do well to stay away from the ship until it fires the beam.
The thing I like about the power-up system in this game is that it encourages players to think on their feet. The first inclination many players would have upon receiving one of these power-ups is to hold onto it until they really needed it. This is actually a fairly poor strategy for a number of reasons. To begin with, if you obtain a different power-up, it immediately replaces the one you previously had. It doesn’t matter if you had one or eight charges – it’s gone once you make the switch. It’s also important to know that your power-ups are lost upon losing a life. Aegis Wing is a decidedly difficult game, so newcomers might be better off expending their weapons as soon as possible in order to get the most mileage out of them. These are the kinds of decisions you’ll be making throughout the game, and I like how organic the process feels.
Aegis Wing is also notable for having cooperative multiplayer. This aspect has a precedent in shoot ‘em ups such as Life Force, but Aegis Wing goes a little further with the idea than simply having more than one player go through the campaign at the same time. Specifically, ships can combine with each other to increase their firepower. This enhances the four power-ups as well. When melded together, the number of projectiles that stem from the Arcus Missile increases, the Gorgon Burst’s radius becomes larger, and the protection the Lambda Shield offers is enhanced. Particularly notable is that the Hades Beam can blast away an entire half of the screen’s worth of enemies and mines at once when all four players combine ships.
Although its multiplayer component is the game’s main draw, it also ties into what I feel to be its greatest shortcoming. If you ever play this game with friends only to want to try it out alone later, you may be very surprised when portions you had little difficulty completing before suddenly become exceedingly difficult. This is because the game is clearly optimized in a way that assumes there are multiple player characters onscreen at once. To be fair, the standard attack is twice as potent in solo runs as it is when the player has allies, but it doesn’t change that Aegis Wing is significantly less enjoyable alone.
Also not helping matters is that the level design is fairly boring. The backdrop changes frequently, but these are mere aesthetical transitions. Every level is defined solely by the enemies and obstacles you face. It’s not as though the environment is incorporated into the level design in any meaningful way as was the case in Gradius or R-Type. This makes every single stage a matter of defeating or avoiding enemies until you reach the end. This is another aspect that is less noticeable as you’re playing with friends, but in solo sessions, it’s impossible to ignore.
This isn’t to say that making a shoot ‘em up with a minimalistic level design is impossible. In the years leading up to 2007, a new style of shoot ‘em ups was gaining popularity in Japan. This subgenre’s name spelled out to players exactly what they were in for in the event they had the audacity to place a coin in the arcade cabinet: bullet hell (“danmaku” or “bullet curtain” in Japanese). Although some of these games involved navigating your character through intricate set pieces, the primary obstacles came in the form of enemies themselves. Chiefly, they would fire bullets in mesmerizingly sweeping patterns that would often encompass the entire screen. Whereas pioneering shoot ‘em ups would require a methodical approach that tested one’s memory, these titles demanded excellent, precise reflexes from their players.
The ultimate problem with Aegis Wing from a design standpoint is that it doesn’t fully commit to what it wants to do. It would appear that the game subconsciously takes cues from the bullet hell scene when it comes to enemy placement, but never goes all in. Enemy attack patterns are fairly rudimentary and can be dodged by moving to a side of the screen in which they are the least concentrated. In a majority of these encounters, there will be a completely safe spot to hide from the volleys – this includes boss fights. The bullet patterns and enemy waves you face playing this game require a degree of memorization in response, yet the bland stage design makes the task fairly difficult.
I also feel that the power-ups aren’t especially well-balanced. The Arcus Missile and the Hades Beam are, objectively speaking, the best power-ups in the game due always being useful. Whether you’re attempting any form of quick crowd control or facing bosses, these two weapons will get the job done. In fact, once you get them, it’s easy to run the risk of depleting them within seconds. The other two power-ups, the Gorgon Burst and the Lambda Shield, don’t have the same versatility. The Lambda Shield can make short work of a boss if it’s firing standard bullets at you, but it’s useless when it comes to defending your ship against any other attack. Meanwhile, the Gorgon Burst fails by virtue of not being as good at defending your ship as the Lambda Shield and providing an offensive value the dedicated power-ups easily outclass. There’s not much purpose to disabling enemy ships when you can quickly and permanently remove the problem by firing at them normally. Indeed, because disabled enemy ships can still damage you upon colliding with them, you may still have to use your standard shots to get rid of them. Naturally, bosses have the obligatory immunity to being disabled – not unlike how the instant death spell fails to work on their JRPG counterparts. This means if you receive the Gorgon Burst during boss fights, you effectively got robbed.
Finally, I feel it’s worth noting that Aegis Wing has a horrendous difficulty curve. The first three stages in can be completed in a matter of minutes. The two stages that follow are slightly more difficult, but not to the point where they meaningfully raise the stakes. When you reach the sixth and final stage, however, any semblance of balance is thrown out the window. If you spend longer than an hour playing through this game, I guarantee a majority your time will be dedicated to clearing the sixth stage. It’s long, difficult, and has two bosses whereas previous stages only had one at most.
There’s nothing untoward about giving players an especially difficult final stage, but this game doesn’t provide a natural progression. If the stages leading up to it were just as involved, it wouldn’t have felt out of place. As it stands, it felt as though the developers placed all of the game’s difficulty in the last few minutes. This leads to an incredible amount of frustration in the likely scenario that you will reach the final boss with barely any lives remaining only to fall to attack patterns you haven’t yet memorized. There is a degree of mercy in that you start a stage with a total of five lives regardless of how many you had going into it and you have infinite continues. Nonetheless, you will burn through your extra chances quickly for want of an opportunity to obtain more. If you lose a life before the first boss, you’re better off restarting from the beginning.
Drawing a Conclusion
I will say that for all of the problems I have with it, Aegis Wing is quite a remarkable achievement. This is a game that was made in three months by a three-person team of interns. You would be hard-pressed to find a veteran, however skilled they may be, capable of turning in a functional game in such a short amount of time. That Aegis Wing merely suffers from a lack of polish and isn’t a broken mess of coding on par with the infamous Atari 2600 adaptation of E.T the Extra-Terrestrial is a minor miracle. I would also go as far as saying there are AAA products that turned out significantly worse despite having a larger budget and a greater amount of time allotted to them.
Although it is impressive when you look at it from a certain angle, there is no getting around that Aegis Wing is a fairly bland product. As a shoot ‘em up, there isn’t anything this game provides that wasn’t done better by its predecessors and it lacks the innovation of contemporary bullet hell titles. Ultimately, if you’re interested in this game, my advice is to approach it as you would The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures. Although the requirements to set up the game aren’t nearly as demanding, you will only realistically get anything meaningful out of Aegis Wing by playing it with friends. Even fans of shoot ‘em ups should probably look elsewhere for a quality solo experience, though its freeware status ensures it’s not a large investment for the curious. All in all, despite being fairly basic in every way, Aegis Wing was an admirable effort from a group of interns who showed a lot of promise right out of the gate.
Final Score: 3/10