Aero Dancing: Game Console Air Show Training and Performing
Updated: Aug 5, 2021
The elegance of flying a tight formation with multiple aircraft in front of a crowd of thousands is something that takes a long time to learn - even in a simulator. Whether you’re watching the real-world Golden Eagles demonstration team or the DCS World Frecce Tricolori Virtuali, you can’t help but feel inspired to try a little formation flying yourself. It’s hard to find purpose-built games or simulators dedicated to precise aerobatics and formation flying, but years ago, there was a game console series that did just that - even if only for a short time.
In the mid to late 1990s, arcade combat flight simulators were the kings of game console aviation entertainment. This was a time where the Ace Combat series was finding its footing, Air Force Delta premiered, and there were plenty of one-off combat aviation titles across many game consoles. Among them, non-combat or civilian aviation games were few and far between. As a kid in 1999, I was enamored by games with fast jets, big explosions, and just enough story to have it all make sense. Because of this, there was a particular game on the Sega Dreamcast that was unbearably boring for me at the time. It's complexity and lack of combat made me stop playing it the same day I had bought it. But returning to it again many years later made me appreciate what it was trying to achieve. To the point where I genuinely want a modern day equivalent.
Aero Dancing featuring Blue Impulse (March 4, 1999; known as Aero Wings outside of Japan) is a non-combat flight simlite that focused on aerobatics. As with many imported games from Japan in the 1990s, there was an alteration in the export version of the game. What was removed was the highly visible sponsorship by the Blue Impulse aerobatic demonstration team of the Japan Air Self Defense Force. This was a significant selling point for the game in Japan - the team’s name was in the title and everything. The removal of this in the export version certainly didn’t help the game’s overall reception but also didn’t hurt it too badly since the Blue Impulse was less known outside of Japan. You could still access all the same content, aircraft, and liveries, with the Blue Impulse still mentioned in-game prominently.
The aircraft in Aero Dancing handle more realistically than most other game console flight titles at the time. Meaning that the usual full afterburner, throwing the flight stick around like a madman control method is detrimental and will make progressing through this game very difficult. With no weapons available, controls instead focused on functions like air brakes, flap positioning, air show smoke, and landing gear. The HUD is basic but provides all the information necessary for aerobatics. In third-person views, a basic HUD is displayed in the bottom left corner with an aircraft formation control menu that appears in the top-left of the screen to order other members of the flight into five different flight formations and a few other options.
There are a few different game modes, but the highlight of this game is the Blue Impulse Mission mode. Here players are taught players how to properly control their aircraft. Flying at precise bank angles and altitudes for specific amounts of time and performing aerobatic maneuvers. The higher the accuracy of maneuvers, the higher the score the player receives. While in training, the player must watch the pre-flight briefing and perform the assigned maneuvers at the correct speeds while receiving verbal commands from their instructors on exactly when to execute a maneuver. During formation flights, the flight leader will be giving commands for when to break formation, start a maneuver, turn on smoke, what altitudes they are passing, air speed callouts and more.
Eventually, other aircraft are added to the formation, further increasing the complexity of everything learned thus far. With a set of 10 basic flight training missions and a second set of 10 performance training missions, players can go from learning proper takeoff procedures to becoming the flight lead of Blue Impulse formations from 2 to 6 aircraft. I have to stress how serious these training missions are. By the time players reach the performance training missions, they will be performing some serious airshow stunts. Completing all Blue Impulse Missions unlocks Exhibition mode, which lets players perform airshow routines in front of spectators with no serious grading system active.
The computer wingmen can have problems rejoining formations and potentially ram into you by accident, but after thorough training through the previous missions, learning how to fly with them only requires minimal adjustments. Aero Dancing also includes up to 4 player couch co-op formation flying in an unusual screen format. Rather than a four-way split-screen, aircraft flown by the players appear on the same screen, with basic HUDs appearing in the bottom half of the screen. From here, they are to verbally communicate with one another to maintain formation. Flying outside of the area on-screen results in the end of the flight session. Flying like this is just as awkward as it sounds, but kudos to the developers for even attempting this.
Replaying a game like this in 2021 makes me long for a similar airshow focused simulator on modern personal computers or 9th generation game consoles. While there was a pretty good showing of this concept with the US Navy sponsored Blue Angels Aerobatic Flight Simulator, it fell flat in many aspects. Having a full-fledged aerobatic simulator that could be a learning tool for not only newcomers to simulated flight but primarily for those seeking to practice real aerobatics with high-end graphics and performance of modern gaming computers and game consoles could be something really special.
I’m only talking about the first game of the Aero Dancing series, which spanned four games and three bonus discs because the focus on aerobatics only shifted within a year after its release. From the second game onwards, the Aero Dancing series firmly shifted into a military flight simlite series with ever increasing amounts of combat. That’s not to say they were bad. I’d argue that Aero Dancing 4 (Aero Elite Academy) is probably one of the greatest flight simlites on game consoles ever, but the aerobatic performer’s experience that had at least raised eyebrows in the first Aero Dancing game were never refined or revisited.
About the Writer
Aaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza