by Jed Pressgrove
Note: This review is based on an emulation of the 1984 Capcom arcade game at game-oldies.com. The emulation was played using the analog stick of an Xbox 360 controller.
Recent accounts about 1942 have zero insight. Whether dull or facetious, these writings fail to consider the gravity of packaging great spectacle in unimaginative propaganda. Designer Yoshiki Okamoto is a video-game genius for his work in not only 1942 but also Street Fighter II, the rightful benchmark for fighting games. But genius should not be divorced from responsibility. 1942 is a significant entry in a trend of naive history that continues to this day (see 2014’s mediocre Wolfenstein: The New Order and its lazy moral superiority to imaginary Nazis).
In 1942, you control a World War II American fighter plane on a virtual solo mission to destroy every Japanese plane you can. This theme deviates from that of vertical shooters like Space Invaders, Galaga, and Xevious, but it doesn’t deserve exaggerated praise like the following: “1942 sets itself apart with extremely balanced gameplay and a real, historical situation as opposed to the then-cliche space shooter scenario.” This nonsense misses that 1942’s lone-wolf grind is far from “real” and “historical” despite its pandering WWII heroism. (At least Street Fighter II’s ethnic stereotypes speak to the fighting pride of multiple nations.)
Okamoto does place 1942’s masturbatory premise in a technically outstanding frame. As in Xevious, the enemies in 1942 fly in at specific cues, but their flight and fire patterns during these cues can vary from game to game. 1942 also excels at enemy entrances. While enemies fly in from the top and sides of the screen as they did in previous vertical shooters, 1942 sends slow but sizable enemies at the rear of your plane from the bottom of the screen, which explains why your plane can’t fly to the very bottom — a logical reprieve from cheap, instant death. Before you play 1942 enough to memorize its enemy cues, the entrance of large planes introduces a considerable element of surprise and requires you to coolly fly out of the way and develop a new strategy for avoiding fire and taking down enemy craft, all the while dealing with the fact that you can’t fly on most of the top half of the screen. The large planes from the bottom of the screen eventually start shooting bullets at regular intervals, so you have to wait in safe parts of the screen and anticipate these bullets for evasion before flying below the ships to take them out as they deliberately rise to the top of the screen. The smaller, more common enemies in 1942 are comparable to the pests in Galaga that circle you when you don’t destroy them on first sight. When 1942 sends waves of these familiar planes from the top and sides of the screen along with bigger planes from the bottom of the screen, your patience and nerves are tested the most, which also means the potential for kinetic art is at its highest.
Weaved into 1942’s straightforward shooting — there are no enemies on the ground as in Xevious, Dragon Spirit, and TwinBee — is Okamoto’s articulate emphasis on maneuvering. The primary button in 1942 shoots; the second gives you temporary invincibility, sending your plane in a looping pattern. This evasive tactic can only be performed three times for each life (more opportunities can be gained through power-ups), but the beauty is that you can still control where the plane flies during the maneuver, which creates one of the most exciting illusions of flight and handling in vertical shooters. This brilliant stroke from Okamoto demands care, though: you must become aware of how long this evasive tactic lasts, as your plane can drop directly into enemy fire once the maneuver ends, meaning that you can die immediately if you don’t carefully place your reentry to the normal field of play.
This intoxicating design is ultimately a distraction from 1942’s incoherence. The soundtrack trades the alarm of Xevious for a sense of duty. The percussion and whistling in 1942 evoke a soldier rightfully taking orders. This righteous tone raises the question: is the WWII theme only a commercial ploy, or does the lone American hero against the Japanese horde reflect any of Okamoto’s feelings on his country’s part in the war? Considering 1942’s bland history references, it would be foolish to assume how Okamoto feels. At the same time, the game provides no convincing reason as to why it takes place during World War II. That war was not black and white, yet 1942 registers as mindless propaganda where destruction of a past political enemy is exaggerated. At best, the use of history is superfluous, as the game could have worked the same with simple allusions to military technology. For those who want to talk about marketing, let’s do it: 1942 and its ilk offer a knucklehead’s history.