Review: 1943 for the NES

When I was a kid, there was a Comic book store in my home town that would feature a different arcade cabinet every six months or so. I distinctly remember it having Rygar, Time Soldiers, Ikari Warriors, and 1943. I would buy a comic for 75 cents, and then play a game with the change. I played 1943 a lot, and became pretty decent at it.
picture from the International Arcade Museum

Later, 1943 was released for the NES. I didn't purchase it right away; new game purchases were rare  in my household. I think I got it from Funcoland as part of a trade-in deal. As crappy as I felt about trade-in values back then, I still continued to trade in games as that was the only way to a kid could get enough money to acquire games. I mainly bought used games, as they were more affordable.
Naturally, 8-bit color spaces dictate that the carrier is orange.

We all knew that home console games weren't as pretty, or didn't sound as good as arcade games. Especially considering the NES could only have 24 colors onscreen at one time, there was bound to be some imaginative use of pinks and purples. Given that the game takes place entirely over water, the backdrop is lots and lots of ocean. There are little flecks of color here and there, and lots of clouds of different shapes, but overall the visual variety was doomed from the start. In true shoot'em up nature, there has to be lots of enemies on screen at the same time, so that means small enemy sprites, which are hard to make detailed due to their diminutive dimensions.

Once you reach the end of the stage, your plane will dive closer to the surface and do battle with the boss, which is usually some battleship, carrier, or giant bomber. The bosses are the largest sprites, which I'll bet are the background graphics, as the the background graphics change right before.
Increasing attributes makes this game standout among its 8-bit peers.

Even though the game took an expected hit in the graphics department, it was even more fun than the arcade. I remember the soreness in my thumbs after I played it for hours on end. I think the reason it was addicting was the RPG elements that it incorporated into its gameplay. Your plane could could "level up" any one of its five attributes if you found a secret icon (rose or dragonfly). The attributes you could improve were: offensive power, defensive power, energy limit, special weapon variety, and special weapon timer. It is so satisfying to see the longterm effects of progress, and helps to balance the increasing difficulty of the later levels.

Your P-38 plane is equipped with a double machine gun. If you hold the fire button, you charge a powerful laser blast, but charging takes two seconds, which in a fast paced game is a lifetime. I don't find it worth the risk to not fire, so I seldom use it. Your plane also has an escape loop the loop manuever, like in 1942, except this is accompanied with a lightning strike or tsunami, depending on your proximity to the surface. This will wipe out small enemies on screen, but it will also cause damage to you as well, which is a questionable programming decision. If your life meter runs to zero, you can use these attacks without loss of life, since you don't have anything to loose, that's really the only time I would use them.
Three-way is a decent all-around weapon choice

Being an early NES title, there was no rapid fire feature, so using a turbo controller is a must. A couple of the weapons have automatic fire, but since all special weapons are timed, you can't count on these for long, so you have to keep an eye on the weapon timer. When it gets low, you need to shoot the next power up icon that you see until it becomes the desired weapon. Which special weapons are available is determined by how many points you have used to upgrade the special weapon attribute. For every attribute point, a new weapon is made available. Each special weapon pick up has its benefits and draw backs.

  • Shotgun - fires a short range spread, which is not very powerful but it does destroy enemy bullets. It can be leveled up to include a forward shot in addition to the wide shot.
  • Three way - fires in three forward-facing directions; is a basic versatile weapon good for beginners, as it covers a wide range of the screen, destroying popcorn enemies before they get too many shots off.
  • Vulcan - a rapid fire machine gun, with slightly larger bullets. You don't need rapid fire for this, just hold the fire button down.
  • Missiles - these are powerful and fire in rapid succession, but it fires in a narrow stream. 
  • Laser - super powerful twin laser, the strongest weapon in the game (same as the charge shot, without the charging).
The laser makes short work of most enemies, but it is a serious investment in attribute points to acquire it

I mainly use the shotgun, powered up twice, as it allows me to not worry about direct enemy fire. In the later stages, there is so much going on that it is easy to get hit as fire comes from all directions. Also, this allows me to build up my other attributes like offensive and defensive power, energy and weapon timer limits. Thirdly, the fewer weapons you have unlocked, the easier it is to shoot the power icon to get the desired power up, since there are fewer weapons to cycle through.
Bosses fill the screen

You have only one life, and your energy limit determines the number of hits you can take before you explode. However, the timer counts down, and you will continuously need to replenish energy by collecting energy tanks, or power icons. The basic appearance of a standard shoot'em up has become eschewed by the resource management and leveling up tactics, making this a remarkably deeper than it appears. It also has difficulty in spades; you'll have to work to get far in this game. Fortunately there are unlimited continues, and even a password system, which is unheard of for a shoot'em up.

You recoup some energy after defeating a boss

Overall, 1943 on the NES deserves more credit than its given. Even though it may appear monotonous in nature, its got enough tweaks and challenge to keep you coming back for more. The password system and unlimited continues gives you a fair shot at success, and being able to pick up where you left off was a novel idea for its time. I highly recommend this game for any fan of shoot'em ups, just make sure you use a controller equipped with turbo.

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