A Quick Look At Propeller Arena

Alongside Half-Life, Propeller Arena is perhaps the most infamous of the Dreamcast's cancelled titles. Although both games were eventually leaked online and are freely available to download and play, the fact that these two titles never saw official releases is a bitter pill to swallow for many Dreamcast fans. And this is simply because they were both pretty much finished when they were slung into the bin with all the grace of a soiled wad of toilet paper being unceremoniously dropped into the gaping, pungent maw of a porcelain throne.
Propeller Arena has once again entered the spotlight though, as yet another Dreamcast-related online petition has surfaced - this time calling for Sega to resurrect AM2's aerial shooter and give it the opportunity it arguably deserved. At the time of writing, said petition has a paltry 37 signatures and I really do doubt that the creator of the project appreciates the Herculean effort it would take to get a game such as Propeller Arena updated for modern systems and contemporary online infrastructure. As nice an idea as it is, I think we should just appreciate what we do have - a game that was almost finished, was subsequently leaked...and turned out to be one of the greatest games the Dreamcast never officially got.

The Propeller Arena story is well known amongst the Dreamcast community so I won't dwell on it too much - this is really a look at how the game plays more than anything. However, for those who aren't familiar, the abridged version is that Sega was deep into the porting of Propeller Arena from the arcade to the home, and then the tragic events of September 11th 2001 happened. Because Propeller Arena featured planes throughout; and tall buildings in one of the stages (aptly titled Tower City), it was deemed that to release it at such a sensitive time would be rather distasteful, and so the game was shelved. Unfortunately, due to the subsequent demise of the Dreamcast, the temporary shelving became a permanent one and the rest is history. On this subject, I seem to recall that the first Spiderman movie also featured scenes of a similar nature and was delayed so that any Twin Towers references could be removed...however I'm not sure if I made that up, so addled is my brain from intervening years of Pot Noodle, Findus crispy pancake and Carlsberg/Old Speckled Hen abuse.
So, what of the actual game then? Well, the first thing to take into account here is that Propeller Arena is/was primarily intended to be an online multiplayer battle game in which the players would choose a pilot from a roster of eight and then take to a rather small area of open sky and attempt to shoot each other down, Red Baron style. Obviously, due to the events of the paragraph above, Propeller Arena was never officially played online by anyone but I believe there may be projects in the works to make the original vision a reality. What we have here in the present day though, is not a Titanfall-style useless waste of space. Oh no, Propeller Arena shipped (or not, as the case may be) with a fully formed array of single player modes and Crazy Taxi-style missions that are every bit as engaging as (I'd imagine) the online battle would have been.
So, starting the game on a Dreamcast that hasn't heard a dial tone for the best part of two decades, what can you expect? Well...quite a lot, actually. First off, the aforementioned home extras comprise a training mode which is made up of three different sub sections - stunt, challenge and agility. Each is further divided into various challenges such as performing stunts before the timer runs out, flying through rings and shooting certain targets with your machine guns. These modes are probably the best port of call for those who have either never played the arcade game or aren't aufait with plane-based combat games or flight sims, as they tutor you in how to control the aircraft and give you a sense of the physics in play.

On the face of it Propeller Arena may just look like a standard arcade game, but there is serious consideration for real-world restrictions to flight such as engine stalls and negative G-forces. It's nowhere near as draconian as something like Aero Wings, but external forces do work against you and you'll quickly find that you can't perform impossible moves at the flick of a stick. That said, the planes are all able to perform stunts that can become useful when you enter the actual combat arena and these are activated using combinations that wouldn't be out of place in a Capcom fighting game. Loops, U-turns, speed boosts et al are all activated using commands you last used while playing Capcom vs SNK, so if you're particularly good at fighters - Dreamcast-based or otherwise - the chances are you'll have an upper hand in Propeller Arena.
The main gameplay modes here are the 'instant action' quick battle and the full on championship, both of which introduce the full gamut of playable characters and arenas in which you do aerial battle. Both play pretty much identically, but the quick battle allows you to choose any one of the (fairly annoying, yet endearingly odd) characters and a stage and then just duke it out in a single round against the clock and each other. At the end of the round, whoever has shot down the most enemies wins; and the same can be said of the championship mode. The only real difference is that the championship requires you to finish in the top three to progress to the next stage...which is a bit strange. Strange, because all of the other contenders seem to go through and accrue points regardless of where they place...but you have to finish on the podium in order to progress. It kind of makes the whole league null and void.
However, let us not dwell on minor idiotic development choices. Instead, let's focus on the awesome...and there is lots of it here. First: the soundtrack. Wow. It fits the game down to the ground (heh!) and features a whole host of licensed music from bands like Consumed and Rise Against. Perhaps Propeller Arena is simply following in the footprints of Crazy Taxi, but my word it adds a lot to the experience. Every track just seems perfectly weighted to the action as planes buzz past and explosions ripple across the sun-drenched sky. The truth is though, as amazingly suitable the soundtrack is, the gameplay and visuals take front and centre here.
As I mentioned earlier, the controls of the aircraft are pretty much as you'd expect and while real-world physics do come into play (you can't fly straight up or you'll stall; and if you fly too fast you can't roll or adjust your angle of flight as quickly as if you were flying at a reasonable speed), it all just feels so damn intuitive. Pull back on the stick and you tip your nose towards the sun; push forward and you'll be looking at the nearest iceberg/building/mountain. Left and right and you can barrel and pirouette with grace and ease. The stunt moves allow you to quickly keep an enemy in your sights and gratuitous use of the fire button will keep your machine guns ablaze as you seek that next point-awarding hit.

Auto aim is fairly forgiving but not game-breaking, and if you tail an enemy for long enough you can initiate a really cool-looking focus pull where you lock on and get to pepper the enemy with lead. Explosions are spectacular, lens flares are blinding, and everything just looks solid. The stages are all quite unique and feature a plethora of environments from cityscapes and arctic wastes, to deserts and castles...and while these environments are all quite limited in scale, they all look believable and have their own foibles. The city stage allows for some really tight dogfights between the buildings, while the castle stage sees you blasting under arches and around parapets like Biggles. Further still, the desert stage will see you battling in tight ravines like Will Smith in Independence Day and the openness of the sky stage will see you relying solely on the manoeuvres you've mastered as there is literally nowhere to hide.
Against the AI, Propellor Arena offers a pretty stiff challenge and the game's difficulty does ramp up the further you get into the championship. Easy victories quickly become hard fought scrapes into third place just to progress; and your reliance on the extra weaponry (bombs, mines, missiles etc) and health packs that can be equipped via the floating boxes dotted about the stages quickly become par for the course. It really is a stunningly addictive, balanced and enjoyable game in every sense...and this ultimately leads to the realisation that with full online play Propeller Arena could have been one of the greatest multiplayer games on the Dreamcast.
In a nutshell, even in this unreleased state (the two versions I have appear to be pretty much complete but I'm not 100% sure) Propeller Arena is one of the Dreamcast's finest moments. The graphics are outstanding, controls impeccable, the presentation is flawless and the musical score is inspired. This is the Power Stone of the skies, the Crazy Taxi of flight games, the Outtrigger with wings that never really got the chance to emerge from its chrysalis and become the butterfly it should have been. Even up against Half-Life, Propeller Arena is without doubt the greatest game the Dreamcast never got.

Maybe that petition is worth looking at after all. Maybe.


DCGX said...

You are correct about Spider-Man. They took the Twin Towers out of promotional material, and I think the final scene on the movie where Spidey is webslinging before briefly sticking to a radio tower as the camera sweeps around him.

Propeller Arena is fantastic, and can be hard at times. I haven't played it in a few years, but before it went back one my shelf I think I unlocked everything but the final character/plane.

Tom Charnock said...

Thanks for confirming I'm not going mad! Yeah, it's a great game - thanks for reading :)

Unknown said...

RIP 9/11/01 ={ BUT I read Propeller Arena's online functionality might be working =}

Unknown said...

Only hope this has of ever being released is if Sega copy Nintendo, release a Mini Dreamcast and include this as a bonus (like StarFox 2 on the Mini SNES). Will never happen sadly, but we can hope.

Ace said...

Anyone have a link to a zipped Tosec GDI file for this?