In the same genre as Atari’s vastly underrated arcade game Gravitar and the popular home game Thrust which was a C64 game inspired by the arcade game and ported to practically every 8bit platform ; including an excellent latter-day homebrew Atari 2600 version. Solar Jet Man takes the genre to its ultimate limits, taking the punishing physics and adding vast levels, hordes of collectables, power-ups and many different enemies to the mix – but the unsympathetic effects of gravity is still one of the player’s greatest enemies.
The aim of the game is to collect 12 parts of a battle ship that are hidden in 12 different planetary underground cave complexes with which you construct the Golden Warpship to do battle with a final boss.
This game was developed with Rare by Zippo games, who later became Zed Two, developers of Wetrix (a great puzzler for the N64 later ported to the Dreamcast and PS2). Solar Jetman was a great hit in the UK (there were 2 Jetman games on the ZX Spectrum before this) but apparently didn’t do well in the US.
This game has a great stylised look, and features super smooth 8-way scrolling – Nintendo themselves went to school on Rare’s scrolling routines. It is in this game that Rare’s technical wizardry is in full view – a pity that they can’t seem to marry it with a game as good as this these days….
Anyhow , despite the game’s simple black backgrounds and the same-ishness of the look of the levels (the same texture with palette swaps is used to draw the underground tunnels you must navigate), the game looks great. This is because a fair amount of effort has been spent on making the game objects look good. There are lots of varied and quite exotic looking enemies and your ship looks pretty good too – rotating quite nicely with a fake pre-rendered look. Nothing is overly detailed but the graphics are very well designed and make the most of the NES colour palette and resolution.
The game engine is powerful enough to deal with some huge levels and can throw a fair number of objects around on the screen. This isn’t a particularly busy game – but there are occasions when there is a burst of activity with your ship towing a swinging cargo while attempting to fend off a pack of shooting enemies, and the NES doesn’t trip up once.
This game sounds weird – it has an amazing , unforgettable “sound track” made up of what only can be described as ambient sounds that work to a rhythm! Very odd – but some of these “tracks” are in my head now as I type this – evidence of a job well done. Spot effects are serviceable – with good thrusting, shooting and explosions that don’t surprise but, again, do the job well.
Like many games I choose to review, this game does not rely on sights and sounds to entertain – it is the deep game experience that is its greatest strength.
You travel from planet to planet in your mothership searching for ship parts. On landing the mothership (done automatically for you) you enter the pod (shown as an amusing sequence which can be skipped but is watched quite a bit because it is a bit surreal looking) and are launched from the mothership to hunt for fuel for the mothership’s next journey and then for the ship part.
Gravity is in full effect and is uncompromising apart from in one instance when reality is suspended for the purposes of gameplay (more later). Each planet has different gravity levels (one has negative gravity) and you will require booster upgrades early on to be able to handle the massive effects of the more dense planets. Some levels even feature miniature gravity wells (push and pull) which have a great effect on your ship – though mercifully these can be destroyed with your firepower.
There are loads of firing powerups too – homing missiles, time bombs, splinter shots etc. which all have different effects on the many different varied enemies which come in all shapes sizes and levels of durability. This lends a bit of strategy to the game, though many of these power-ups are in effect toys as you should be able to progress without most of them – still they make progress easier and more entertaining.
Some enemies leave behind little treasure chests which count toward your total amount of money – and some containers reward you with lots of money if towed back to the mothership. (These can contain bizarre stuff such as “alien artifacts”, Easter Island heads and British red telephone boxes!). You have an opportunity to purchase powerups every second level.
Towing containers back to the mothership is, along with exploration, the main gameplay element. Your ship automatically engages a tractor beam when close to an object and you tow it back to the mothership. On the larger levels there are wormholes (some are invisible) that act as shortcuts (later on, you can power up your ship to tow wormholes as well!).
Your ship is quickly bestowed with shields in this game and you will need them – activating them protects you from enemy fire and reduces the damage from collisions with the cavern walls. The problem is, when you activate the shield, the tractor beam is disabled. It is at this point that the object you were towing thankfully stays in mid-air – it is this concession to “reality” that I mentioned earlier – but it doesn’t jolt. (Indeed, many containers are suspended in mid air when you first find them anyhow).
Shields are pretty important – your ship has an energy meter which reduces with cavern wall collisions but if your ship is hit just once by enemy fire it disintegrates. Once this happens your pilot ejects from the ship and can fly about in his spacesuit fitted with a booster pack (he is very manoeuvrable and has a gun too – though its not too strong, and your pilot is pretty vulnerable!). At this point, you must get back to the mother ship to get another pod – fail to do this and you lose a life (you new life then begins at the place you met your demise). At this point, your knowledge of the position of wormholes becomes very important.
As said before the levels quickly become quite large and you can power up with a level mapping device – the basic one showing the cavern layout, more advanced ones showing container positions and invisible worm hole (remember, not all are visible!) positions too.
Once you have returned enough fuel to the mothership, you may enter a special wormhole which warps you off to a normally inaccessible part of the level in which the ship part sits. This is a tricky part of the game – this cavern has two different worm holes – a regular one through which your ship can pass and a smaller one which you must manoeuvre the ship part container through. This can be very hard as they are usually placed so that you must swing the container into it – quite often they are placed beneath an underhang under which your ship can’t fit. (You can power your ship up to fit through these smaller worm holes if you get enough money). This might sound a bit contrived but it works well and results in some strategic movement of wormholes once you have the ability to tow them around.
This is a tough game – the later levels get very tricky but it is rewarding, and you can collect crystals for extra lives. There are some wormholes that warp you ahead to later levels, but most put you into what is called a “cyberzone” – a small level with ten crystals you must collect against a very tight time limit ( I have NEVER collected all 10!). You also enter a cyberzone after collecting each ship part.
Control is slick , and it needs to be. You rotate your ship with the left and right on the D-pad, thust with one button and fire with the other. The SELECT button is used too – hold this down while thrusting to activate the boosters – hold it down when firing to use the more powerful weapons. Up and down on the Dpad operates the shields,and finally, press START and SELECT to view the map. This scheme sounds fiddly but worked well on the original NES controller.
Progress was saved on the NES original via passwords.
This is the pinnacle of the “thrust-em-up” genre. I would love to see an update of this and because of the difficulty inherent in this type of game, it can’t be universally recommended – but, if you like Thrust, you will love this. Pure gold.
A retro gamer and occassional writer..