A Beginner's Guide To Aero Dancing & AeroWings

Let's go fly a kite, up to the highest height! Let's go fly a kite and send it soaring...Up through the atmosphere, up where the air is clear - oh, let's go fly a kite!

So sang the patriarchal Mr Banks in Walt Disney's 1964 classic horror Mary Poppins. And, oh how we flew our kites and wore the shit out of our pinstripe suits while we did so (I for one can't wait for the upcoming sequel, which reportedly features a dubstep remix). But let's be honest - while kites are fun, they aren't a patch on F-15 Aggressor fighter jets; and happily, the Dreamcast has those in abundance. Yes, the Dreamcast is a console that wasn't left wanting when it came to flight games, both of the simulation and arcade varieties. Indeed, some of the first games I ever played on Sega's final console involved two-winged harbingers of death - namely the Japanese releases of Incoming and Air Force Delta.
Alongside those two, others came: Toy Commander featured some aerial combat missions, while Iron Aces/Imperial No Taka - Fighter of Zero was a pseudo World War II flight sim, complete with a totally fictional theatre loosely based on the events of 1939 - 1945. Later, Propellor Arena promised pure arcade dogfighting thrills before being cancelled - allegedly - due to the horrific events of 9/11, although it's available online if you know where to look. The one series that really grabbed the genre by its horns though, was undoubtedly CRI's Aero Dancing franchise. A series that began primarily as a skill-based jaunt through the clouds as an aerial acrobatics pilot; but which ended with players earning their wings as full blown combat pilots, engaging in aerial dogfights, taking out warships and destroying ground units with well placed missiles and bombs. Quite the turnaround, no?
Join us as we dissect this intriguing and well regarded series of flight sims, and take a look at the dedicated hardware released for the Aero Dancing games; as well as the individual entries in this rich and engaging franchise. Dig our your flight suit, don your helmet and strap in as we get ready to engage in some Aero Dancing at supersonic speeds...

Military Hardware
Like several of the niche genres on the Dreamcast, flight sims received a couple of dedicated peripherals. When it comes to flight sticks for the Dreamcast, there are two main contenders for the discerning gamer who wants to experience the most authentic experience. Neither of them is readily available in the current climate of retro gaming excess (or rather, stupidly inflated prices), but if you can track either of the following down then you're well on your way to becoming a Top Gun.

The Mad Catz Panther
A third party stick from recently bankrupt peripheral manufacturer Mad Catz, the Panther is a highly sought after flight stick style controller for the Dreamcast. It isn't exclusively compatible with flight sims and several non-flight games list it as a compatible controller in the manual (Dragon Riders: Chronicles of Pern is one such game; a game that despite its name features exactly zero flying - either dragon-based or otherwise), and I have it on good authority that the thing is pretty tasty when coupled with first person shooters like Quake III: Arena. The most intriguing thing about the Panther is undoubtedly the sparkly blue track ball, and while I have never personally used a Panther several people have told me that it works a charm - and especially so in flight games. Here are a couple of lovely images of the Panther, supplied by DCJY Facebook group member William M. Nash:
The ASCII Mission Stick
The second option when it comes to waggling a joystick comes in the decidedly unorthodox form of the ASCII Mission Stick. If that brand sounds familiar, its because ASCII also manufactured the legendary ASCII Pad FT, a Dreamcast-specific joypad modeled after the Sega Saturn controller which eschewed the analogue stick and shoulder triggers in favour of a more natural and ergonomic fighter-friendly form factor. The ASCII Pad FT is a pretty rare item these days and - much like the Mission Stick - was only released in Japan. However, this is about planes and stuff, not Terry Bogarde so let's get back on track.
From a physical standpoint, the Mission Stick looks pretty weird. There's a big, oddly shaped joystick thing on the right, while on the left theres a little hump buttressed by a couple of strategically placed L and R buttons. In the centre you'll find a D-pad and the usual face buttons from the standard controller layout. Finishing off the controls, in the top left of the base there are a number of turbo and auto switches, but the chances are these'll never see use. The Mission Stick essentially takes the controls from the standard controller and maps them verbatim, albeit in a mirrored fashion: the 'stick' is the analogue nubbin while the L and R are the triggers. Notably, there is no analogue in the new L and R buttons, and the stick itself features an almost Arcade Stick type mechanism as opposed to the more rotary ball and socket found in the standard controller. This makes the stick a little stiff and restrained in its range of movement initially, but once you get into the cockpit it actually helps that it isn't completely free moving.
In terms of build quality, this is pretty flawless - the base is weighty and the buttons are all very snug in their fittings. At the front, you'll also find the standard hole for a VMU along with a pretty lengthy cable. The interesting thing about the Mission Stick (y'know, apart from everything else about its existence) is that it was manufactured exclusively with the Aero Dancing games in mind. The box features several mentions of CRI's series and is detailed in the manuals of the Japanese releases of the series. As previously mentioned, the Mission Stick wasn't released outside of Japan and it's curious that Ascii and CRI thought that the Aero Dancing series would be popular enough to warrant its own bespoke peripheral. I'd love to know the official sales figures for the device, and also the reasoning behind not releasing the thing in the United States at the very least. Are console flight sims that big of a deal in Japan? In truth, it is not too dissimilar to the whole Twin Stick fiasco where the peripheral was only released to the Japanese market, even though the supported software was released worldwide.
Overall, the Mission Stick is an odd-looking but excellently built controller. Whether it adds anything to the experience of any of the games it is intended for (it's also compatible with most other Dreamcast games, incidentally) probably comes down to individual taste; but below you'll find a short video demonstrating the controller in action, along with relevant footage from some of the Aero Dancing / AeroWings titles:


The Games
The one thing to bear in mind before we take one step closer to the runway (apologies - I'll stop with the piss-poor references to aviation now), is that none of the Aero Dancing games are anything approaching what PC gamers may refer to as 'flight simulators.' They are, for want of a better term, 'flight sim lite.' Simulators on the PC such as Microsoft Flight Simulator, Flight Unlimited or X-Plane are at the extreme opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to realistic controls and all the other stuff you would associate with true simulators. Impenetrable walls of dials and buttons simply do not feature in any of CRI's games, and while I'm not for one second knocking more realistic flight simulators, I for one am totally fine with that.

Even so, Aero Dancing is about as close to a proper simulator as its possible to get without the fun factor being completely removed from the equation. Stuff like angles of approach, flight vectors, engine stalls, red and black outs, G forces and the like are employed if you want to go to those extremes, but the more in-depth aspects of a true simulator are missing. And for a console series, that's totally understandable. I do recall rumours that a true simulator was coming to the Dreamcast back in the day (one of the Microsoft titles if memory serves), but that obviously never materialised...which is a shame, especially when you consider the hardware specifications and the various keyboard and joystick combinations on offer for the Dreamcast.
It's also worth noting that the Aero Dancing series actually differs depending on the territory. In the west, only two games were released under the rebranded AeroWings moniker. Probably because us stupid westerners would probably think a game called Aero Dancing involved doing a waltz through the clouds or something. AeroWings and its sequel AeroWings 2: Air Strike (contrary to the Wikipedia entry on the series, there is no such game as AeroWings 2: Strike Force) are pretty much identical in terms of gameplay to their Japanese counterparts. What we didn't get outside of Japan are the extra bonus content discs or the third game in the series, Aero Dancing i.
All of the games in the franchise were developed by Japanese studio CRI and were published around the world by now defunct Crave Entertainment. You can read our fairly in-depth feature on CRI and parent company CSK here, but what's interesting is how many other iconic Sega games this company is responsible for. Buggy Heat and Surf Rocket Racers probably won't excite you too much; but this developer also created the Sega Saturn port of arcade favourite Virtual On, as well as After Burner III for the Sega CD/Mega CD.

There are a total of six Aero Dancing titles on the Dreamcast (with only the first two full games being released outside of Japan), and these are:
  • Aero Dancing featuring Blue Impulse (AeroWings)
  • Aero Dancing: Torodoki Taichou no Himitsu
  • Aero Dancing F (AeroWings 2: Air Strike)
  • Aero Dancing F: Todoroki Tsubasa no Hatsu Hikou
  • Aero Dancing i
  • Aero Dancing i: Jikai Saku Made Matemasen
Even though the majority of them are Japanese exclusives, they are full of English text so there's not much of an accessibility issue with any of the games. Anyway, now we've established some ground rules (sorry), let's get on with the show...
Aero Dancing/AeroWings
Released: 1999 Developer: CRI Publisher: CRI/Crave Region: NTSC-J/NTSC-U/PAL

This is where is all started. Aero Dancing was an early release in Japan and also here in the UK, and really showed off what the Dreamcast hardware could do in terms of visuals. I vividly recall seeing the first grainy screenshots in print magazines; and was somewhat surprised when the first reviews started to filter through with average scores. The general consensus was that it looked good, but was a bit dull to play. What many were (quite rightly) expecting to be a full on combat simulator actually turned out to be a game where you attempt to break in to the Japanese equivalent of the Royal Air Force's Red Arrows display team - Blue Impulse. The first time I played this game was when it launched in PAL territories as the rebranded AeroWings, and it was a rental from Blockbuster. I was really eager to see first hand how good games could look on the new Dreamcast sat under the TV, and AeroWings didn't disappoint on that front. However, the 17 year old me wasn't overly impressed with the explosion-less gameplay.
There are plenty of missions, lots of planes and a wide range of environments to soar over, but I distinctly remember being a bit underwhelmed by the experience. Doing loops and trying to stay in formation with the other pilots in the squadron was mildly entertaining, but having already experienced Air Force Delta on a friend's NTSC-J console, the lack of combat left me cold. Of course, the teenage me was an idiot and returning to AeroWings (and Aero Dancing) as an adult revealed a game that is far more intriguing and - get this - relaxing than I ever gave it credit for back in 1999. While it's true that there are no bombs or guns and the environments that looked so impressive back then now seem a bit flat and featureless (and almost remind me of Shockwave Assault, oddly); playing through the main training missions and successfully pulling off those impressive pirouettes leaves a distinct feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment.
While the PAL and NTSC-U versions do mention the Blue Impulse, the NTSC-J relies on the association with Japan's premier acrobatic display squadron to essentially sell the game (the subtitle 'featuring Blue Impulse' is totally removed from the western releases). It could have made sense to rebrand the game to something like AeroWings featuring the Red Arrows/Blue Angels for the PAL/ NTSC-U releases, but I'm guessing the amount of work required to change the in-game menus, paint jobs and even plane types would have represented an effort without much financial payoff. That, and the fact that pretty much every European country has its own aerobatics display squadron...so favouritism. One thing is clear though - AeroWings garnered nowhere near the level of success in the west that it did in Japan. That said, it obviously sold just enough to warrant the sequel being released; but the special bonus content discs are a different matter entirely...
Aero Dancing: Torodoki Taichou no Himitsu
Released: 2000 Developer: CRI Publisher: CRI Region: NTSC-J

Each release of Aero Dancing was followed by a special bonus disc full of extra content to supplement the parent game. In the case of the original Aero Dancing, this disc was subtitled Torodoki Taichou no Himitsu and was filled with new missions, a few new areas to fly over/in and movies made up of replays from Aero Dancing's best pilots' aerial displays of skill. For me, the stand out aspect of Aero Dancing: Torodoki Taichou no Himitsu is definitely the 'My Room' level, which lets you fly a miniature plane around a giant house, Toy Commander style. The house is full of nice little details, including a Dreamcast console connected to the TV and a display case full of multiple copies of Aero Dancing F. These bonus discs were released at a budget price to Japanese gamers and dropped plenty of hints about the upcoming game in the series - for example, the 'My Room' level has posters on the walls and there's a magazine on a table advertising Aero Dancing F.
Both of the other Aero Dancing games (F and i) received similar treatment, with Aero Dancing F: Todoroki Tsubasa no Hatsu Hikou (2000) and Aero Dancing i: Jikai Saku Made Matemasen (2001) being released to supplement their respective games with new missions, planes and environments. These bonus discs aren't really full games, they are similar to what you'd expect today with DLC and use the same engine and assets, but give players some nice bonus items that can - as far as I can tell - also be loaded onto a VMU and transferred into the previous game.
Aero Dancing F / AeroWings 2: Air Strike
Released: 2000 Developer: CRI Publisher: CRI/Crave Region: NTSC-J/NTSC-U/PAL

Aero Dancing F took the series in a slightly different direction than the preceding game. While there is still a slight emphasis on acrobatics and the like, this sequel welcomes a new gameplay style - aerial dogfighting. Some might say that the original game should have featured weapons and combat too, but by only introducing it to Aero Dancing F it really did give fans of the original a reason to investigate further. It's not just the addition of missiles and machine guns that sets Aero Dancing F apart from the first game either. The graphics are markedly better, and the whole front end has been given a brilliant, modern-looking overhaul. One thing I did note when playing the NTSC-J and PAL variants of Aero Dancing F (as mentioned multiple times, the PAL and NTSC-U version is called AeroWings 2: Air Strike), is that the main menus offer some interesting options that are absent from the western release. As you can see from the screens, the Japanese release shows that a system link battle is possible (Cable play), and the other options differ slightly - there is no Hangar option in the PAL version, for example. Obviously, the system link cable was never released in PAL territories so keeping the option in a PAL game would be pointless, but I wonder if the option has simply been removed and the functionality is still there? Answers on a postcard, kids.
PAL AeroWings 2 - no 'Cable play' option 
NTSC-J Aero Dancing F - with 'Cable play' option
Once you do start to play, the games are virtually identical regardless of which territory they're from. As stated earlier, Aero Dancing F improves on the visuals with a much better draw distance for environmental features like buildings and bridges in the more urban environments. The range of stages is extended too, both in terms of size and terrain. The stages themselves are still pretty sterile and disappointingly don't feature any cool little things to find like Pilotwings 64 did...but I guess that's par for the course with this being more of a serious sim.
The planes all have their own distinct maneuverability characteristics, weapon load outs and limitations and while the controls are quite intuitive (and there's an extensive training mode), if you're not overly au fait with flight games it can be a little daunting initially. You do have a lot of control over the aircraft, and real-world limitations of powered flight do play a part - stalls and blackouts and the effects of G forces are all implemented to a certain extent. The combat itself also errs on the side of realism, so invariably you'll find yourself scanning the horizon for your target, only to spot them and then have them whiz by in a flash. It's more a case of patience and taking your time to get into a favourable position in order to launch missiles, rather than just flying at your target with guns blazing like in After Burner. The combat is only air-to-air too, so don't expect to be blowing up ground units. No, if that's your bag you need the third game in the series...
Aero Dancing i
Released: 2001 Developer: CRI Publisher: CRI Region: NTSC-J

The final Aero Dancing game to be released for the Dreamcast (with the exception of the bonus disc Aero Dancing i: Jikai Saku Made Matemasen), Aero Dancing i took everything from the previous entries in the series and raised the bar even higher. Graphics are by far the best in the series, and there is a noticeable improvement in the plane detail and after burner effects. The curious 'i' in the title stands for 'internet,' and this is because Aero Dancing i allowed - for the first time - aerial multi-player battles over the internet. This isn't the only new feature though, as Aero Dancing i also introduces air-to-ground combat too, building on the diversity of weapon types and gameplay styles featured in Aero Dancing F and its bonus disc.
Aero Dancing i has a distinctly unique feel to its presentation, with a decidedly militaristic aesthetic employed. Gone are the bright blue clouds and garish colour schemes of the previous Aero Dancing titles, and in their place are moody hues of red and brown. There's a definite tonal shift with Aero Dancing i, and again while you can do some aerial acrobatics if you so desire the emphasis here is most definitely more on all out combat. While the air-to-air missions seen in Aero Dancing F make a return here, the new air-to-ground missions throw in a few new gameplay features, with pilots now having the ability to drop bombs on tanks and anti-air emplacements. This is a lot more difficult than it sounds and it takes a high degree of skill to time the release of payloads - probably not as much skill as it takes to do it in real like, but you get the idea.
I did get a little bit excited when I saw fully modelled cargo/transport planes represented in the intro movie, but as far as I can tell they aren't actually playable in the game proper; but as a sequel Aero Dancing i does just about everything right. It has the best visuals, the widest range of aircraft and mission types and is the most satisfying to play...when missions go well. Which invariably they don't (if you're me), simply because the difficulty level is so high. That shouldn't put you off though - Aero Dancing i is by far the best game in the series and that it didn't receive a PAL or NTSC-U release (probably as AeroWings 3) is a crying shame. This is obviously down to the late release date and the decline of the Dreamcast in 2001, but a western release would have been great. While the Aero Dancing series ended on the Dreamcast with Aero Dancing i, it still produced a fourth and final game on the PlayStation 2...
Aero Dancing 4: New Generation (PlayStation 2)
Released: 2002 Developer: AM2 Publisher: Sega Region: NTSC-J/NTSC-U

Also known as Aero Elite: Combat Academy, Aero Dancing 4 was released on the PlayStation 2 exclusively in NTSC regions (also known as Japan and the US). I haven't played it personally so I can't comment on the quality of the game, but by all accounts it is an impressive addition to the series and features vastly improved graphics to the original trilogy. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Aero Dancing 4 is that it was actually developed by AM2 and published by Sega, due to the fact that CRI had been absorbed by Sega by that point. Again, I can't really draw from my own experiences with the game as I haven't played it (or even seen it in real life), but from what I can tell Aero Dancing 4 continues the series in a similar fashion but with extra visual flair. Not that the original games could ever be considered lacking in the graphics department, of course.
An Expert's Opinion
In researching for this article, I have been drawn on numerous occasions to the fantastic Shin Force site, where main proprietor Shinobi has reviews all of the games in the Aero Dancing series. From these reviews, I have ascertained that he is an Aero Dancing purist. For this reason, I reached out and asked Shinobi to write a short piece for inclusion in this feature, explaining why he holds the series so dear. Shinobi obliged, and below you'll find his thoughts on Aero Dancing:
I've been enjoying flight/simulation games since the release of Flight Simulator 1.0 on IBM compatible PCs in 1982. Once home consoles became prevalent, I yearned for flight-sim realism in a market full of action, platform and shooter games. There were a couple decent flight-sim games on Sega Genesis, including F22 Interceptor, LHX Attack Chopper, and F-15 Strike Eagle II. The closest thing to real flying you could get on Sega Saturn is Thunderstrike 2 and Wing Arms. Unfortunately, the genre was largely ignored on consoles until Sega Dreamcast hit the market in 1999.

Aero Dancing featuring Blue Impulse on Dreamcast hit Japan in March of 1999, and became a North American launch title on 9/9/99. No, this wasn't just a half-hearted attempt to release filler on a new console. Aero Dancing was the first full-fledged flight simulation on consoles to include formation flying, highly realistic physics, and a complete free flight mode. The Japanese Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) flies the Kawasaki T-4, which is the aircraft one uses to master Blue Impulse's various show maneuvers. Of course real formation flying is supremely difficult to master, so the developer, CRI, has to be commended for balancing realism with user patience. Aero Dancing was a dream come true for flight fans!

In a two year span, Sega/CRI would create five more Dreamcast games in this'Elite Series':

  • Aero Dancing: Torodoki Taichou no Himitsu Disc (SD)
  • Aero Dancing F
  • Aero Dancing F: Todoroki Tsubasa no Hatsu Hikou (FSD)
  • Aero Dancing i
  • Aero Dancing i: Jikai Sakuma de Machite Masen (iSD)

Each game in the series contains a plethora of aircraft to fly and unlock. One of the biggest complaints among gamers was the lack of missiles and bombs in the initial game. CRI fixed that with the third release, Aero Dancing F, which featured air-to-air combat training. Throughout the series of six Dreamcast games, CRI continually improved the flight models and physics. Aero Dancing i brought 4-player internet battles, link vs. cable compatibility, and the AV-8B Harrier to the table. To master the Harrier's vertical take-off and landing capability is quite an achievement. 

Air-to-air and air-to-ground missions are well represented in both Aero Dancing i games. I've played the point-to-point vs. mode a few times, and it ranks high among other flight-sims. The series continued on PlayStation 2 with Aerodancing 4 in 2002, followed by Aero Elite in 2003. In closing, Sega/CRI created the most complete variety of aricraft, locales, modes and realism in the Aero Dancing flight-sim series. If you fancy yourself as a pilot, you should definitely try at least one of the games in this 'Elite Series.'
- Shinobi, Shin Force

Huge thanks go to Shinobi for this extra opinion on the Aero Dancing games. If you get the chance, it is well worth your while to check out Shin Force and all of his reviews there.

The Final Shakedown
Naturally, there are plenty of other games on the Dreamcast that allow you to soar through the clouds and see the world from a totally different perspective. The previously mentioned Air Force Delta, Iron Aces, Incoming et al all offer the chance to head skyward. However, none of these do it with the same panache and reliance on realism that Aero Dancing does. From the serene acrobatics of the original game, to the air-to-air and air-to-ground combat of the sequels, Aero Dancing encompasses a wide array of flying techniques and styles that is hard to find in other console-based flight sims.
With just enough arcade flavouring and just enough of a nod toward simulation territory, Aero Dancing is a perfect marriage of the two styles. How far you want to lean in either direction is totally your choice. It's true that both styles are probably done better in other franchises (look at Ace Combat, After Burner Climax or Hawx for arcade thrills; and the aforementioned Microsoft Flight Simulator, Flight Unlimited or X Plane for sim experiences), but for me no other console franchise marries the two so well and so comprehensively.
Special thanks in the creation of this article go to William M. Nash for the photos of the Mad Catz Panther; and also to Shinobi of Shin Force who clearly has a lot of love for this franchise. I would definitely recommend checking out his reviews here. I managed to track down copies of most of the games in the Aero Dancing franchise by using Genki Games and Allan's Japanese Retro Games. The ASCII Mission Stick came from VideogameImports.com.

6 comments:

Gubbins1 said...

Another great article Tom, although for some reason I find myself drawn to the Ascii stick, I think it looks brilliant 🙄👍

Tom Charnock said...

Thanks Gubbins! Yes the Mission Stick is a cool peripheral, it definitely adds to the overall experience once you get to grips with how it works.

Dean Taylor said...

Is the 3rd game playable to non jpn reading players?

Tom Charnock said...

Dean - Aero Dancing i is totally playable for non-Japanese gamers. Some of the mission briefings are in Japanese but it's fairly easy to tell what you're meant to do.

hoogafanter said...

I got myself a mission stick a couple months ago but still haven't used it yet... I'm pretty pumped to try it out when I get to the games that support it...

Tom Charnock said...

Great purchase hoogafanter - it really is worth the investment with the Aero Dancing / AeroWings games. That said, there are tonnes of others it can be used with.