Airforce Delta Sega Dreamcast Review and Opinion
Airforce Delta, sans the qualifier, known in Europe as Deadly Skies, is the first entry of the greatest flight shooter this side of Ace Combat. I don’t care if you think that’s subjective—your HAWX-riddled brain is wrong. But maybe a little backstory is in order:
Opinion - Backstory
Airforce Delta holds a special place in my heart. When I was growing up, I was always a video game system generation behind. As a result, my first console, which is still displayed proudly on my shrine to the company, was the Sega Genesis Model 2, purchased brand new for $100USD from Sears. Don’t get me wrong, there was an effort to make me reconsider; the clerk really wanted me to think hard about this decision: “Are you sure you don’t want a PlayStation? The Genesis is getting pretty old…” She said. But no, I insisted on the Genesis. A year later, I decided I wanted the next model up, the Sega Saturn—again, the clerk was baffled by my choice. “You know the Saturn might not be around much longer… Are you sure you don’t want a PlayStation or Nintendo 64?” No, I wanted that Saturn. It too sits proudly on my shrine. It was a visit or two to the Sega City mega arcade at the new mall nearby that secured my loyalty: Give me Sega or give me death; the Sony PlayStation must be stopped.
1998: Rumors about a new system being developed by the wobbly company are trickling their way over to the States from the land of the Rising Sun. They’re skipping a generation: 128-bits moving forward, American release in 1999. Time moved fast. I had the new-fangled “Dreamcast” in my hands by Christmas of that year. At the time, there was only a couple of launch titles I was interested in, but I had a friend who had a far wider game palate than me. As a result, while I was obsessing over Sonic Adventure and Power Stone, he had just torn open and was progressing through a flight game called Airforce Delta. I had a glance at it, and I was slowly thinking about how much I liked it. It wasn’t long before I had my own copy. I wasn’t all that good at the game, though. I had trouble making it past the sixth or seventh mission using the default arcade “bank-to-turn-what-you-think-you’re-not-good-enough-for-rolling?” flight scheme that I didn’t even know existed at first. As a result, my friend, who had a knack for just about every game he got his hands on, barreled forward and at some point completed the game and earned most of the aircraft available in the game. At the time, he was also building paper-aircraft models of his own design, and tended to take inspiration from all of these different aircraft models that the game had available. He had shown me a crude one he made with an unusual swept-forward wing configuration that he labeled “S-37”. I, young and naïve, asked what exactly he was thinking with those wings. He showed me his aircraft collection in the game and scrolled the hangar to the far right to land on the S-37 Berkut.
You remember what it felt like to have your first crush?
Mine… might have been a fighter jet.
So yeah… A control option change later to unlock six-degrees of freedom and I powered my way through this game to get that fighter. The game subconsciously built my obsession with fighter maneuverability, and as a result the S-37 was pinned as the pinnacle. Once I got it, there was no other option. Cower, ye Raptor-stans, your new queen has arrived, and she’s a stealthy, sharp, SEAD-ready Russian bitch.
I know far better now: She’s not all that stealthy, she’s not production ready by any means, and she’s built on Flanker DNA, but I accept her and all her flaws that make her a masterpiece. Still my favorite aircraft of all time, the now-christened Su-47 has gotten a little older, but my eyes still ogle at her lines. What I didn’t realize at the time and couldn’t quite process until I advanced my studies in aviation and aircraft design was that the plane in reality and the plane in the game that made me obsessed were actually quite different in design—and that lead into new observations about the OG Airforce Delta that I couldn’t piece together until recently.
Ultimately, the game has a lot more going for it than I ever gave it credit for, and that’s probably why it has its hard-core followers like me. But I would be rightfully hard-pressed to make the crystal present appreciate the foggy past.
Meh… enough with the nostalgic rant; let’s dig in.
Airforce Delta was Konami’s direct answer to the lauded Namco-produced Ace Combat series. At the time of its release Ace Combat 2 was still the regal rooster, with Ace Combat 3 in mid-development. There was a tried-and-true formula that was worth advancing to the next graphical level, and Konami seemed keen on copying it—sometimes rather blatantly. But they didn’t do it as a simple cash grab—there’s heart here with a Konami soul.
The game’s boot up sequence nowadays absolutely betrays its arcade-like roots. Simple sound effects, quick text boxes with save state requests, and production and dev banners flashing ahead of the main screen with the option to load or save imprinted upon a dark city skyline shadowed with an F-22 Raptor. The blue hues betray the dark atmosphere you will see for much of the game. I don’t view this negatively, and it’s clear how quickly this game starts to diverge from its Ace Combat-like roots. The history lesson outlining your mission, flying for the breakaway Republic of Laconia against the strongarm-united Federation of Dzavailar (or Zabayral depending on your take on the limited canon available to you) as a mercenary hired by the resource-rich nation has Balkan-like vibes to it. The music is somber, the map imitating something like a dark projector in a briefing room or an old computer screen. Already you get a bit of a feeling that the game wants you to take it somewhat more seriously than Ace Combat 2. You’re then taken to a far more upbeat in-game cutscene introducing your F-5E-flying second-person-addressed faceless protagonist. This is about as deep as this is going to go—your only interaction with your “commanders” moving forward are voiceless briefing orders with a very light sprinkling of identically voiceless in-mission notifications accentuated with transitory radio squawks.
The main menu gives a mission progression outline. This game is purely linear unlike its later installments. I’ve mentioned before that this should not be viewed as negative—just different. It works just fine for this game, outlining your mission objectives and strategic progression. Once you complete a mission, you can roll back to a previous mission and play through it without consequence—unless you crash your plane of course, then you got to buy that back. But I again digress—selecting a mission takes you to a simple briefing. Here both your mission objectives and the strategic outline of the war is presented very straightforwardly with no input by you wanted or requested. Complete the objective as designed and return to base, mercenary. You’re then dumped onto the flight line with a flashing order to scramble. Again, the music takes more of an upbeat tone here, contrasting heavily with the darker-theme of the briefing. But it cuts off as you select your F-5E Tiger II. The canopy drops and the plane taxies off screen to a quick load and thrusts you into the action.
If you’ve selected the “expert” control scheme, you may immediately notice a couple of things that are welcome in some circles, but also rip points away from this game, and with my bias exhausted for now, I think it’s fair to judge the game on these merits. Aircraft handling could probably be best worded as “deliberate”. Recoil is non-existent, but these planes are heavy. It’s an interesting comparison to Ace Combat 04—where people have lobbied the same observation. Snap turns, particularly in low to mid-tier aircraft are difficult if not near-impossible, and you have to really rely on your skills as a true interceptor rather than a dogfighter. I could see this already put people off, since the high-tier planes do go a long way in making the game more enjoyable, but you got to earn that through some of the game’s weaker mission types. Additionally, the Dreamcast’s controller does the game a disservice here: Without secondary trigger buttons, you are limited to acceleration and deceleration using the X and Y face buttons, meaning that quick reflexes or edge tapping is in order to continue your speed manipulation while also actuating guns or missiles. This takes a long time to get used to, and your early-aircraft missile count again does you a disservice here. Interestingly, the trigger buttons function well as acceleration and deceleration in the novice control mode, which can actually give an advantage to that mode even for advanced players in some scenarios. Remember how I mentioned how Airforce Delta built my obsession with fighter maneuverability? This is why. When you start with a struggling fighter like the F-5E, and end with something so much snappier and responsive like the afore mentioned S-37, the mobility delta (if you’ll pardon the quite amusing pun) subconsciously forces you to treat that statistic with more reverence than others.
But if you handle the fighter and build your tolerance, there are rewards to be had as you embrace the game. The visuals might seem dated today, but it can’t be emphasized enough the enormous leap that the Dreamcast provided in graphical fidelity from the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 before it. The Dreamcast was admittedly the weakest of the sixth-generation of video game consoles, but thanks to its prioritization of its arcade-like roots handled by its NAOMI-derived control board, it made a minor sacrifice in raw polygon count to achieve a solid frame rate, with minimal stuttering except in arbitrary scenarios, which you’ll appreciate to keep your mind on the mission. The fighter models are instantly identifiable, comparing them to Ace Combat 2 or the contemporary Ace Combat 3 after it, and you’ll appreciate the detail put into them. Control surfaces are all moving and afterburner effects burn hot. You are given only two view modes: HUD and third-person, but the rendering either way is solid. There’s no camera-swivel available here due to the lack of a secondary analog stick. Something that might be apparent that has yet to be duplicated on even recent flight shooters, however, is the rendering of full-scale models for enemy aircraft. Get close enough and you’ll actually see the enemy’s rudders actuate and its ailerons deflect. This is something that I can’t seem to let go of—I can’t tell if it’s programmer laziness or production brilliance. It actually assists in immersion for me because it presents a consistent graphical tone, despite how rare it would be to actually view it. I’ve mentioned in my previous Airforce Delta Storm review that I believe it to be a root cause of the low-density of aircraft presented in missions compared to games like Ace Combat, though I can’t prove it. I also find myself torn on the general color palette of the missions presented. To be fair, the missions presented offer a wide range of terrains and biomes, and the colors are well utilized. There’s also the need to hammer home the serious atmosphere that I’ve brought up before, but there is that subtle overlay of “real is brown” that plagued all games going into this generation and it is present here. Draw-distance is also limited, and the fog apparent, though interestingly absent if you decide to emulate this title. You’ll actually find yourself missing it if you do so since the pop-in of assets is rather jarring at times.
As you progress you’ll be presented with what I feel is a unique and engaging soundtrack. Once again using the present as a filter you can easily identify the required utilization of synthetics and compression that was needed to keep this game under the GD-ROM’s space limitations, but the soundtrack still earns my praise. Military Supply Base in particular stands out. It punches out of the gate with a synth-ed note and builds up in anticipation, and you can’t help but perform a descending aileron roll flat to the deck to match the progression and level out of the melody as you pop trucks using your all-purpose short-range missiles, descending on the factory buildings. Each mission tries to use the music to invoke an atmosphere, from the dark, sneaky like tones of the night-time Escort, to the use of what appears to be a short burst of a train horn for the destruction of a rail hub in Nuclear Transport Blockade. The music can be broken up easily into simple but effective chords and it actually works in its favor. Build ups and fade outs are executed well, though strangely are present for every mission—the music does not actually repeat. Makes for good listening from the Dreamcast’s media player, though. I’ve never been able to determine if my appreciation for the soundtrack is from listening repetition from my many playthroughs or from a real hook, however. Though as I listen through for the nth time, I’m leaning more and more to the latter. It might not hold high the symphonious complexity of its rivals, but it holds its own to give the game a unique character. One day I’d love to hear how this music sounds fully uncompressed. I think there’s a missed opportunity here for talented remixers to give at least a college-try on these songs. I’d love to listen to new interpretations outside of those made for the game’s subsequent installments.
The musical judgement call of simplicity does however carry over to mission design. Simple skirmish: that sums up the pinnacle of design you will encounter for the most part. Whether it’s the staple “intercept the incoming bombers” of the first mission to running through the AA-protected gorge or escort the slow plane out of the combat zone, there is little variety to experience here. To some this might be all that’s needed. Ace Combat 04 ran with this formula successfully and built a solid game around it, but lacking that game’s far more engaging storytelling, Airforce Delta feels like a disconnected group of 20 mission types that you can try your hand at buffet-style rather than a solid progressive campaign. As a kid, I enjoyed this. I’m not sure how well it would hold up in the modern day, but it’s easy to craft your own mission stories based around action types when you have this sort of looseness. Hey, a blank piece of paper can be either an open canvas of imagination or a slather of ennui—you make the call. But I’m admittedly leaning strongly on the side of optimism here. You can find positive points—Satellite Intercept is a short but high-energy, high-stakes romp, and unless I’m mistaken, because I can’t find anywhere else where this has been done (and I invite correction on this), Ace Combat 5 came back around to copy its design for its final sortie. The final mission pits you against a single fighter, and it’s easy to get yourself stuck in cinematic-like rate fights with the antagonist if you don’t make the right move off the bat. But it’s hard to comment further; some designs seem to contradict some of the mission briefings, somehow using low-speed ICBM-like missiles descending upon a skyscraper as a way to interpret the narration that enemy agents are running a false-flag operation to sabotage peace talks (another mission execution that I think Ace Combat 5 copied for White Bird Part I, all the way down to the presence of B-2’s on the fringe, but lacking the unintentionally hilarious suicide mission Airforce Delta’s stealth bombers result in.)
If you do decide to fly the missions in story-progression, you are painted a very high-level picture of a bleak but no-nonsense back-from-the-brink defensive war that quickly turns sour for the aggressor with your skills. Each mission is piecemeal to the war at hand; the wording of the missions even seems to intentionally leave you out of strategic decisions. When I really buckled down into this storyline, I was given the feeling of expendability all the way to the end. I’m the best at this job, but I’m also replaceable and in it for the money, and the tone carries that. There’s little personal affect, and when there is there’s a little confusion introduced as a result. The war between the two nations is reasonably well outlined in the introduction, but even now I’m a little confused as to the relationship of myself to the Delta Corps as a whole and the pilots I’m fighting. It gives me the impression that Delta Corps was split on this fight, and you and your small band (which only appears in the ending cutscene) decided to fight for the weaker but more wealthy Laconian side. The vagueness is sort of intriguing I suppose, and some of it is what built my interest in the game as I grew older, but thinking too hard on it results in minor frustration. The silent briefings and lack of engagement is what sets this apart from Ace Combat 2 the most—Ace Combat 2 almost seems intentionally tongue-in-cheek in presentation at times, accentuating that Top Gun vibe that fueled the series early success, whereas Airforce Delta tries--maybe too hard and in a very Konami way--to make silly premises serious. Artificial nuclear-armed islands, enormous bombers, and bored-out mountain bases can only be taken in stride so much before logic breaks down. But I appreciate the effort here, and it matches the industry-wide adaptation of taking many of these waning arcade game mechanics and tropes and giving them a more serious, cinematic tone, paving the way for the stronger story-driven plotlines we enjoy today. I’m not sure the game could entertain younger audiences today with what they, and we, are spoiled with, and in fact its mediocre success might even imply such a reaction back during its release, but the nostalgia filter is thick for my judgement.
A gold-standard, however, lies in the aircraft selection. I’m not being hyperbolic with that statement—there may only be 31 aircraft, but they’re a wonderful spread that I would love to see replicated again. Ace Combat can boast higher aircraft counts at times, but it still falls back on family variants rather than base-designs. Here we get a wide range that hearkens back to the unique selection of Ace Combat 2. Whether its old favorites like the F-4 or MiG-21 or then-cutting edge 5th-generation powerhouses like the YF-23 or MiG-1.44 MFI, there’s something here that will imprint on a kid’s memory as their favorite. The game even allows for limited VTOL, with two representatives from the Harrier-series of fighters available for purchase at high prices after successful completion of the campaign and a new-game-plus restart. Though you will frustratingly lose your credit count if you roll over to new game plus and save on the first mission. You can get a little preview of this coveted mechanic by earning--through a successful gun-kill--the X-32, which though not completely “VTOL”, still has a far lower stall speed akin to the afore-mentioned jumpjets—just missing the floaty controls that accompanies the latter to aid in slow-speed controllability. And it is in the X-32 that the aircraft selection starts looking… different. Whether it was a lack of data or an attempt at the development team to come up with a “finalized” design from the many prototypes that the game features, a fair few aircraft are granted artistic interpretations that I simply adore. Far back I mentioned the S-37—it’s prominently featured on the game’s cover and as the title screen aircraft after a successful completion of the campaign, and it’s got lines. Its sleeker, sharper, and meaner than the real design, and its deep-red wing-mounted Kh-31’s help to emphasize that swept-forward aesthetic. The X-32, far be it for me to say, actually looks good. It’s smaller air intake and longer fuselage are what I suspect Boeing engineers see when they look at their only-a-mother can love face of the real plane. And the MiG-1.44 almost completely departs from its namesake… or so I had thought. It turns out that it’s design is a mashup between the finalized design represented by the MiG-1.42, and a rare concept drawing featured in the magazine Flight International in the early 1990’s of what the MiG was expected to look like. Uncovering this gave me a brand new appreciation for the designs—they weren’t just reinterpreted because of limited data or artistic merit—deeper research was involved than I could have ever expected, and discoveries like this only make me want to give me confirmation bias to gush over the game more than I usually do.
I find myself torn and challenged to recommend this game to a modern player beyond its historical curiosity. I have a deep obsession with this series. Whether it stems from my stubborn and ultimately-defeated anti-Sony/pro-Sega bias fostered in the 90’s or from the obsession with a specific aircraft that takes more credit than it ever should have been allowed in shaping my future interests in aviation, I reflect upon the game’s flaws more vividly now. It has problems, but it also carries lessons. Emulation, despite the minor graphical setbacks mentioned previously go a long way in helping the native-crippled control scheme. But nearly 25 years later, it’s hard to get as engrossed in this game as a young mind might have been able to with the anti-aliasing assistance of a 28-inch CRT television. But I can’t help but remember and continue to enjoy it with a fondness. I still power it up for a quick playthrough at least once a year, and I walk away with satisfaction. I always pause to wonder if I’d put this game in my top ten, but It just never quite makes the mark for one reason or another—one more flaw that I just noticed or one more aged pixel just out of place.
But that’s the thing… I’ve moved onto better. But despite the flaws in the rearview mirror, we all fondly remember that first crush—it transcends ranking. It forms the base of the better expectations you look for later. The S-37 is a flawed machine, but it’s a lynchpin of my obsession with aircraft. Airforce Delta is a mediocre derivative, but it’s the keystone of my continued interest in flight shooters. It deserves remembrance.
Airforce Delta Wiki Shoutout
I want to give a shoutout to the guys over at Airforce Delta Wikia. I used to think that I was one of the biggest fans of this series and would regularly put references into it with a lot of online projects and games that I was a part of. Turns out I’m small fry. The repository on AFD Wikia put my knowledge of the series to such a shame that I had to refer to it a number of times to write the articles for this series, and I’ll likely refer to it again going into the future. Their website demonstrates that my understanding of everything from story to gameplay of each installment of Airforce Delta just scratches the surface. Give them a browse when you get a chance if you want to immerse yourself more in this series and get a better understanding of gameplay elements. Check out the comments for some of the articles too! They’ll showcase some interesting finds, like a specific button combination to remove the interlacing effect experienced when playing Airforce Delta Storm on the Xbox 360 in replay segments. Keep up the good work, guys!
About the Author
T.J. "Millie" Archer
T.J. "Millie" Archer is Life-long realist and aviation enthusiast. Once the co-founding Administrator of the Electrosphere.info English Ace Combat Database. In the present day he is freelance, roving the internet in search of the latest aviation news and entertainment.