Those who follow Hamster’s Arcade Archives releases on the Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 will know that the developer pretty clearly appreciates the shoot-em-up genre. Sure, it’s partly a result of the age of the games Hamster tends to work with, but there are around one hundred shooters in the full Arcade Archives line-up so far. Only a fraction of them are NEOGEO games, however, so we probably shouldn’t expect to see most of those games show up on iOS. We’re limited to the NEOGEO line-up, and we’re rapidly approaching the very bottom of that barrel. We’ve reached the Ghost Pilots ($3.99) line, people.
Ghost Pilots arrived on the NEOGEO within the system’s first year, when SNK was still trying to find its footing with the hardware. Inspiration would arrive soon after its January 1991 launch. Street Fighter II hit in February 1991 with all the force of a raging bull, kicking off a fighting game phenomenon that the NEOGEO was able to benefit greatly from. In those early days, one of SNK’s secret weapons was a talent that had been lured away from one of its major competitors. Takashi Nishiyama is a man who shouldn’t need an introduction, but let’s go ahead and give him one.
Nishiyama is, perhaps, one of the more important figures in arcade gaming history. He got his start at Irem, and was responsible for two of its biggest early hits: Moon Patrol and Kung-Fu Master. He then made the jump to Capcom, where he was involved with games like Section Z, Trojan, Legendary Wings, and Street Fighter. Yes, the first one. Sure, it wasn’t a patch on its sequel, but we wouldn’t have that game without the original laying the groundwork. He was approached by SNK after he took his leave from Capcom, and started on two projects for the new NEOGEO system. Each would represent one of his genre specialties from his previous works, and one of the two would prove to be a critical, influential, iconic game for SNK. The other was Ghost Pilots.
Ghost Pilots is a vertically scrolling shoot-em-up for one or two players, though unless you have a couple of external controllers, you’re likely to be flying solo on this mission. The setting is World War II, and you’re up against a huge chunk of the Nazi forces. Your weapon of choice? A bafflingly sluggish seaplane, decked out with a standard machine gun and a limited number of one of a few different bomb types. The gun can be upgraded by picking up power-ups, and you can pick up extra bombs along the way. Basically, this is an attempt at doing a Toaplan-style shooter in a setting similar to that of Capcom’s 19XX series. With Nishiyama’s experience and the power of the NEOGEO, this should have been a slam dunk.
Well, even the best miss a shot now and then. Ghost Pilots is extremely dull. It’s sluggish. The power-ups are so vanilla they feel like they came from an early 1980s shooter. There aren’t enough enemy types to properly mix things up, and it only takes a couple of stages before you’re likely to tire of various colors of airplanes swooping in at you. The graphics are fine but hardly impressive for the era, with only the bosses really showing anything interesting from a design standpoint. After the first stage you get to pick between two routes, which is perhaps the one interesting thing Ghost Pilots does. Neither one is terribly exciting, unfortunately. It feels like a game that came a half decade too late.
We’ve got the usual extras from Hamster, doing their able best to give the game a raison d’etre. The Caravan and Score Attack modes are about as much fun as you can hope to have with this game, and trying to hustle your way up the leaderboards gives the game a shot in the arm it sorely needs. You have access to a bunch of options for the game itself, and if you have an external controller you can use it to play in lieu of the completely serviceable touch controls. As mentioned before, the game has support for simultaneous two-player action, but you’ll need an extra external controller for your second player. As usual, no online multiplayer support.
Despite the extra modes and high-quality presentation by Hamster, I have a lot of trouble recommending Ghost Pilots with any vigor at all. Sure, it plays fine. You can pass a few minutes with it if you need to. There’s certainly a decent bit of content here for a shooter of its era. But it just isn’t very enjoyable. Your plane is too slow and your firepower too plain, making the core gameplay feel dull. It’s all very repetitive thanks to the limited assortment of enemies and unimaginative stage designs, too. Is it worth a few bucks? I mean… maybe? It’s not trash or anything. But you can certainly find more enjoyable shooters for the same price, so I wouldn’t bother with this one unless you’re absolutely starving for a game of this sort.