Despite a youthful dalliance as a plane spotter, I've never been a fan of flight sims. Complexity isn't the issue: it's the 3D nature of the experience, which has you moving around freely - or should that be randomly - in six degrees of motion.
This is the reason most of the successful (read: arcady) plane games limit this aspect of the flight experience, either with a simple lock-on aiming system, as used in SGN's F.A.S.T. or, as with Paramount's Top Gun game, squeezing it down to 2.5D.
On the other hand, Mini Squadron demonstrates that reducing the genre right down to a 2D side-scroller doesn't mean you're necessarily dumbing down the action.Stick and rudder
The control themselves are very simple. Your left thumb spins around a virtual scroll wheel (think original iPod) to move the nose of your plane up and down, while your right thumb taps or holds down (depending on weapon) a fire button.
The game automatically tries to keep your plane the right way up. You can fly upside down if you really want, but to keep the controls as simple as possible, generally, up is up.
In a similar way, when you reach the left and right edges of the level, your plane automatically reverses direction, like a swimmer performing a racing turn.
Flying too high
The other big control issue is the way your plane stalls if you fly too high.
Basically, this is a device to limit the size of each level, so as you fly higher, the blue sky turns black and your speed drains away until your plane starts to fall out of the sky, with an alert flashing 'stalling' to let you know what's happening. The only way to recover - as in real life - is to drop the nose of your plane downwards in a dive.
Stalling does take some getting used to, and you will crash occasionally because you fail to recover, but as you become more experienced, you can use it as a tactic to quickly change direction.
What's more significant is the enemy planes also stall. Indeed, one of the smart things about Mini Squadron is that anything you can do, so can the enemies. This means anyone can pick up the star power ups, which float down from above, providing health, speeds up, and special attacks.
Enemy planes can shoot each other too; something that happens often in the latter stages of the game when you can have multiple planes firing off loads of wacky weapons - everything from lasers to missiles to fiery cluster bombs.
Look down, shoot down
In the single-player mode, there are 8 levels with 12 waves of assorted enemies to defeat in each. Basically you fly around blasting everything that's in the air, as well as the odd ground target.
And the fundamental thing about Mini Squadron is just how much fun all this blasting is.
The graphics are sweet, with the 56 types of plane and other made up flying craft all following a super deformed style. Touches such as the planes' contrails, the debris that falls off when you hit a target, the sound effects, and the offbeat classical accompaniment - including Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries and Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker - combine to provide a frantic and satisfying experience.
Hanger full of options
There's enough challenge and replayability - both in terms of unlocking new planes and bettering your high scores - to keep you interested for hours.
You're never frustrated either. The save system means that if you die with lives left, you just restart the level at that point. If you've run out of lives (you get three), you continue from the last checkpoint you completed, which are triggered at waves 3, 6 and 9. At this point, you can change which plane you're using.
Each offers a different set of speed, armour, turning rate, reload time, and weapon options. Unlocking new examples is a great way of keeping you playing because there's loads of variation available.
Added to this, there's a local wi-fi multiplayer mode so you can go head to head with any Mini Squadron-owning chums.
All-in-all then, Mini Squadron provides a great balance of challenge and replayability, and more importantly, is a lot of fun. Even if you're not a plane spotter.
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