There was a time during my childhood – after the period of wanting to be a ninja and before I’d gone on to daydream about being Wimbledon’s youngest champion – when I decided my adult life ought to be spent as a fighter pilot.
My subsequent preparation was flawless, in that it consisted almost entirely of watching Top Gun 16 times in half as many weeks.
That I ended up knowing the script by heart is no surprise, but to this day I can’t explain how I emerged from the experience without once wanting to kiss Val Kilmer.
Playing with the toys
And yet it was love at first sight when Supermono’s MiniSquadron turned up on iPhone (and subsequently Android). The simple 2D arena shooter’s colourful, cartoon-like charm is irresistible, and it’s now landed on Minis delightfully intact, bringing with it a vibrancy and fun visual style too seldom seen on PSP’s competent display.
Thankfully, the proven physics-based game mechanics of the earlier versions have also touched down safely, so that you get to enjoy endless aerial acrobatics (here through smooth pushes of the responsive analogue nub) as you continually fight to outmanoeuvre your opponents in order to blast them out of the sky.
To help you, you’ll occasionally find power-ups – anything from air strikes (particularly useful in taking out pesky ground turrets that turn up in later stages) to a comically oversized laser – but you’ll have to be quick in grabbing them as, unusually, they’re just as available to the enemy pilots.
Those opponents may start their eight-level campaign as little more than satisfying cannon fodder, but they rapidly evolve their combat skills until you’re effectively facing a varied selection of mini Manfred von Richthofens, who doggedly match your graceful loop-de-loops, desperate dives, and frantic directional changes in their rabid desire to hunt you down.
Getting the better of these virtual aces involves some quick thinking and deft flying – brilliantly, real-world air warfare strategies will work – but your success is also heavily dependent on the type of aircraft you select.
Not all 56 models are available from your first sortie (indeed, much of the returning appeal of MiniSquadron is beating the score-based challenges that unlock additional aircraft) but even the limited initial selection showcases the variations in cruise and dive speeds, armour level, turning rate, reload time, and weapon type (typically cannon-, homing missile- or laser-based) you can expect from later models.
And that’s pretty much what you can expect from MiniSquadron. You get three lives (more can be picked up in-game), 12 stages of increasing difficulty per level, an abundant supply of planes to unlock and try out, an even greater number of enemy aircraft to shoot down, and consistent dip-in-dip-out entertainment.
But you also get some turbulence in the way of small niggles. The addition of a Survival mode (no extra life pick-ups) offers precious little play variation, which affects long-term appeal once the draw of the score-based ‘plane unlock’ challenges wears off.
That said, many will no doubt counter arguments that this feels a little light on content next to some of the more substantial Minis releases by simply highlighting MiniSquadron’s rather modest asking price.
Less defensible is the behaviour of the power-ups, which in this version appear sporadically. When they do show up they’re not properly signposted and don’t hang around (unlike the 'extra life' icon, for instance, which is clearly indicated and flies about the play area), meaning their deployment is ultimately more down to luck than strategy.
Take my bug away
Other than that I ought to declare that on my PSPgo the game froze on a number of occasions after finishing a level (most frustratingly, on two occasions after beating the final boss), requiring a restart and loss of progress.
However, Grip Games has since announced that a patch has been submitted to Sony – at the time of writing this has just been approved and is due to be made available “very soon”.
Yet the quibbles can’t mask the quick, sharp fun on offer – certainly, no budding Maverick will ever tire of the great joy in shaking off an enemy from your cartoon aeroplane’s tail, only to turn the tables on them through superior flying skills.
Yes, a little more substance in the form of additional play modes and the odd simple tweak to game design would have been desirable. But, as it stands, whenever you want to take to the skies and gun down some bogies for a handful of action-packed minutes you can count on MiniSquadron to be your wingman.
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