Today I'm taking a break from the usual videogame goals of saving princesses and waging one-man space wars against alien armadas to pursue more worldly ambitions, to enter a world of wealth, power and immaculately-coiffed men in suits shouting things like "I want those reports on my desk yesterday!" and "the Chinese are eating us alive this quarter!" I assume that's how the life of an airline's CEO works, anyway, and I guess I'll find out as I play Koei's 1994 SNES capitalism-em-up Aerobiz Supersonic!
First, a bit of genealogy: Aerobiz Supersonic is a sequel-cum-upgrade to the original Aerobiz, with both games taking the well-known strategy stylings of Koei's historical conquest games like Nobunaga's Ambition and Romance of the Three Kingdoms and applying it to the exercise of making fat stacks of cash by flying planes around. If I'm going to be playing a SNES-based airline simulator I might as well play the best version available, but Aerobiz Supersonic is similar enough to its predecessor that most things I say about the game will apply to the first iteration. The series is know as Air Management in Japan, but I think the overseas name change works well. "Air Management" sounds like the hollow self-aggrandisement of a man who sells desk fans for a living.
The first step on your road to corporate glory is to select one of the four scenarios on offer, covering the second half of the Twentieth Century and on to the distant astro-year 2020, a date which still seems impossibly futuristic to me despite only being six years away. I already know that the game stays grounded in reality and that hyper-advanced jets won't be appearing in the later years of the game, so I'm going to go with scenario one.
I chose London as my home base, not out of any sense of patriotism but because I saw all those dots on the map of Europe and the sound of cash registers rang in my ears as I imagined sending planes to each of them. Hopefully this mercenary ambition will serve me well.
Yes indeed, everything is in order, and VGJunk Airways prepares to enter the marketplace, bedecked in its resplendent green livery chosen to summon mental images of rolling fields, eco-friendliness and lime-flavoured ice pops. You always have three competitors, either computer-controlled or human players, and your goal is to crush them utterly. Or to just do better than them in the marketplace, that works too.
This stern man, who's only a pointed helmet away from looking like a caricature of a German soldier from the First World War, is my second-in-command. He pops up now and then to tell me what to do or, more frequently, to tell me I'm doing something wrong. Before we get into the action proper, my deputy informs me of our victory conditions - to set up a base of operations in each area of the globe, and to be the best airline in four of those regions. He also mentions that losing money for four turns in a row will cause VGJunk Airways to go bankrupt. I had already figured out that "don't go bankrupt" was going to be a victory condition, thanks.
Here we are in the game itself. You might think the first thing to do is to buy some planes, but I actually started with a few, which shows excellent foresight on my part before the game had even begun. There's no wonder I was promoted to CEO. Instead, my first actions were to tell the planes I had to go somewhere. This was the simple matter of clicking the right icon and choosing a destination city, in the case the West German city of Hamburg. That's West Germany the country and not western Germany, because this game starts in 1955 and the Iron Curtain is well and truly draped across Europe, meaning I can't send flights into Soviet territory or buy planes from Soviet manufacturers. I'm glad I didn't pick Moscow as my starting city, they don't have many options for travel and I can't imagine there's much call for tourism in Communist Riga or Kiev.
Because this is a strategy game, there are plenty of numbers to fiddle with in order to wring maximum profitability from your flights. You can choose how many planes will service a route, how many flights those planes will make per week and how much you charge for tickets, all of it presented in a clear, straightforward manner. My vice-chairman, who I have already started thinking of as "Helmut", would surely not have it any other way.
And off it goes, up into the wild blue yonder, the first of many planes in the VGJunk Airways fleet, a neon-green streak of hope across a sky so blue it makes the midday sky over the Greek islands look like Rotherham on a wet Tuesday morning. It's a nice little cutscene, but I'm not sure it was necessary to see it every time I launched a new route. Even sending one of your very own aeroplanes on its maiden flight is something that gets tedious if repeated often enough, but on the flipside it's a short scene and you can only have a maximum of forty routes so that's the most you'll ever see it.
So it begins. Flights are starting to spread across Europe, and London has already become a major travel hub. If you look closely at this map, there are two things that might catch your eye. The first is that some of the cities have numbers next to them and other don't, and the second is the little icon of a man dressed in official VGJunk colours standing next to Rome. The numbers represent how many "slots" you have at each city's airport, and until you have some slots in an airport you can't send any flights in or out of it. Bigger cities have bigger airports with more slots, meaning more plane traffic. So, how do you get slots? By sending one of your four trusty employees to a city to negotiate for slots, which is what's happening in Rome. Unless my representative has sloped off to enjoy the culture and history of the Eternal City and ended up supping too much vino, he or she should be back soon with a certain number of slots, meaning I can set up a route between London and Rome.
Here are my four employees, fresh-faced and eager to please. The women are fresh-faced, at least - the bloke in the top-right looks like one of the Three Musketeers as he slides into middle age and I'm sure the one below him was a darts player in the '70s. I'm impressed with VGJunk Airways' enlightened hiring policies, mind you - I don't think there were many other airlines filling their top-level positions with women during the Fifties.
The darts player is the one lucky enough to get a trip to Rome, where he will spend nine months negotiating for slots. Nine months sounds like a lot of time, but each turn in the game covers three months so it's really only three turns.
I love the graphics on these city overview screens: small but nicely detailed, with a major landmark from the city displayed if it has one. Rome has the Colosseum, Sydney has the Opera House and New York has two cabbies angrily calling each other palookas. Not really, it's the Statue of Liberty.
Information about the highlighted city abounds, and once again it's all easy enough to interpret. A higher population means more potential passengers, a better tourist rating will draw more passengers to that particular city, that kind of thing. The "Rltns" icon in the top right is for Relations, and two countries with bad relations will spend long negotiating on things than two countries that are bosom buddies. The Italians are not especially friendly with the British, which is why it took nine months to get approval to use their airport. I did wonder why the Italians were pricklier than the other European nations, but then I remembered that World War II was a thing, and a thing that hadn't been over long in 1955.
Europe was teeming with VGJunk flights, so I set my sights further afield, across the oceans to the other global regions. There are seven in total: Europe, North and South America, South-East Asia, Oceania, Africa and the Middle East, so I sent delegates to New York and Tokyo with an eye to gaining a foothold in those regions.
However, I made what you might call a business miscalculation, or a cock-up if you're feeling less generous. It turns out that New York and Tokyo are really far away, and because I'm working with the limited aeronautical technology of the time there aren't any planes available that can travel those distances without crashing into some ocean or other. That would be bad for business, so bad that Helmut would not even entertain my idea of strapping several smaller planes together with adhesive tape in order to make the journey, and so I had to wait for newer, more advanced planes to come onto the market as time passed.
My doomed foray into the intercontinental market was frustrating because it was a waste of time more than anything else. Only having four members of staff limits you to performing four actions each turn, and because your employees might be away for several turns at a time it's vital that you use them wisely. It make me wonder how they got to New York and Tokyo in the first place. No wonder it took nine months, they had to get there on a steamship.
I should have known, or at least checked the stats of my planes, but this misstep has revealed my tragic flaw. I am bloody awful at strategy games. I'm just no good at strategy, a pretty vital skill to have for successful strategy game playing. I miss the obvious, like that time I forgot to feed my horse until the RSPCA took it away. I get impatient and overstretch myself. I'm not a good long-term thinker. My games of Transport Tycoon always end in poorly-maintained trains getting lost on poorly-designed rail networks. I completed Civilization II once by getting into space first, but all my other attempts were doomed to failure thanks to my inability to resist sending spies into every city I can. My efforts in Sim City resemble beautiful downtown Sarajevo, circa 1994. What I'm getting is that you probably won't be seeing the victorious ending sequence of this game. Not while I'm in charge.
Undeterred, I pressed on into Africa by sending some planes to Cairo. Intercontinental routes are the real meat from which your fleet can extract the most value, with longer routes generally meaning more profits. Long-distance flights are also vital to expanding your empire, because once you're serving a region you can open a hub in that part of the world, allowing you to send flights out from that hub as well as working towards the win condition of having a hub in every corner of the globe.
Well, that worked out nicely. The Pyramids are the in thing with the sightseeing set at the moment and VGJunk Airways is the only airline currently serving North Africa, so it's either use one of my planes or take a month-long train journey like some kind of peasant. I didn't even raise my ticket prices to capitalise on this sudden tourist boom, although I'll leave you to decide whether that was down to my strong belief that the self-improving power of travel should be available to all people, or because I forgot.
As you can see, the world of Aerobiz Supersonic doesn't exist in an unchanging vacuum, and part of the game's challenge is dealing with the global events that occur as you play. Some of them are seemingly random, like extreme weather that can close an airport for a turn or the whims of the tourist trade, whilst others are set in stone and based in reality. The 1956 Olympics were indeed held in Melbourne, so if you know who hosted which Olympics in what years you can start laying planes on to that destination when the time is right. I was sorely disappointed that the World Cup was not included as an event, because by 1958 I had plenty of planes flying to Sweden, but who knows, maybe Stockholm will become the hip new place to take your summer holidays.
There are plenty of wars, too. This one was especially unfortunate as it started on the same turn that I was about to start setting up routes out of Beijing with an eye to reaching Australia, but the ongoing Civil War meant I couldn't do anything in China. As I'm more worried about my company's profits and our competitors' gains in the region than the bloody horror of war, I'd say my transition from decent human being to CEO is complete.
Some of these world events are less believable than others. I've dedicated my whole career to making distant, fascinating locales accessible to the common man, and the common man decides they want to visit Manchester, of all places? That doesn't seem very likely. It's the Sixties, so I could understand swinging, groovy London, but not Manchester. The image depicting tourism shows some of the world's most famous landmarks - the Sphinx, Niagra Falls - but Manchester doesn't have any of those. It has rain, mostly.
Things are looking up in the Middle East, though. Plenty of air traffic, lots of profit. I'm sure this region will remain politically stable for the foreseeable future, so no worries here.
There is something very satisfying about your progress in Aerobiz Supersonic, seeing the webs of your network gradually covering the planet, your tendrils reaching from Lima to London to Lagos. Because its turn based and not based around physically murdering your opponents, the whole affair ends up being quite relaxing - I may have joked about the soulless, grasping ambition of the corporate world, but Aerobiz Supersonic never really has that feeling, with your tenure of CEO being played as a jolly adventure undertaken by staff who are more friends than wage-slaves. It's all quite charming in its primary-coloured simplicity, the jazzy soundtrack washing over you as you connect city to city. You can listen to the soundtrack here. I'm quite fond of the South East Asia theme, possibly the most stereotypically "Asian" videogame track I've ever heard outside a Ganbare Goemon game.
Not everything in Aerobiz is directly about aeroplanes: there are a few other things you can do to ensure future profitability. For example, here I'm buying a museum in Athens to increase its appeal as a tourist destination. Lord knows there's nothing else worth going to see in the very cradle of civilization and democracy. I thought about buying the pleasure boat, but part of me finds owning a museum very romantic and pleasure boats are liable to sink.
I've also just noticed that Athens has a population of over seven million people. That's more than London, more than New York and about as many as Beijing. Why are there so many people in Athens? More importantly, how can I convince them to take a trip on one of my planes?
Propaganda! Advertising, I mean. Once you own some businesses, be they museums, pleasure boats or a museum on a boat, you can spend some cash to promote them and fuel people's desire for travel. I could be doing better on the financial front, so I'm going to take the tight-fisted approach and hope that this "very slim" chance for success is more like 20% than 1%.
Boom, consider yourself promoted, Europe! I promoted the hell out of you, all on a budget so meagre it wouldn't even cover the drinks bill at the next VGJunk Airways board meeting.
At first, I thought that picture was of a woman laying on a sun lounger on the beach, watching herself on the beach on television. A closer inspection reveals that's clearly a poster, with the secondary observation that I'm an idiot. Still, I'm disappointed by the missed potential of the Lynchian set-up provided by my first description. It could have been like Twin Peaks, only with more sand and a greater emphasis on negotiating with airports for the right to use their terminals.
It might look like things are going well for VGJunk Airways, but overzealous expansion, some unfortunately-timed global catastrophes and my relentless purchasing of every museum that crosses my path means we're in bad shape. My competitors are clawing their way to the number one slot in each region, even South America, where I had foolishly thought myself unassailable.
This kind of thing doesn't help either. I don't know if crashed planes are purely down to bad luck, but I purposefully increase the maintenance budget several times to prevent this very thing from happening. Can you over-maintain an aircraft? Maybe my ground crews polished the floor of the cockpit so vigorously that the captain slipped and knocked himself unconscious.
Then came the end. One of my rivals had managed to hold the number one slot in four different regions for long enough to be crowned the winner, which is apparently how business works now. Never mind that I was number two in every region and was still making a decent profit, in this game you're either the best in the business or you're stripping the copper wire from your office as the repo men cart your desk away.
The main reason for my failure what that I didn't spend enough time fiddling with the minutiae of each individual flight. I should have been laying on extra flights when routes were full, replacing planes with more efficient versions, that sort of thing - but the biggest single factor was that my competitors were undercutting my ticket prices by 20-40%. Even I must concede they probably shouldn't have been flying VGJunk Airways in that case.
Here's what happens when you win, taken from a video of someone who knows what they're doing playing the game. I'm almost glad I didn't win now. This sea of happy, smiling faces would have made me feel guilty about trying to get them all sacked so I could afford more museums.
Despite it not being my usual cup of tea, I'm going to say that Aerobiz Supersonic is a very good game as far as SNES strategy titles go. It's relaxing, it's very well put together and it strikes a perfect sweet spot of complexity - not so simple that it's boring, but not bogged down in the endless statistics and tedious micromanagement that could have made playing it on the SNES a chore. Support for the SNES mouse would have been a very welcome addition, but as it stands it's easy enough to control with a pad.
There was also a Megadrive / Genesis version released, as pictured above. It's good, but the SNES version is the superior option as the Megadrive edition has slightly weaker graphics and the lack of buttons on the controller makes navigating the menus more laborious - this is particularly noticeable when moving between regions, which can be done using L and R on a SNES controller.
You might learn a thing or two from playing it, too, especially a bit of history and some geography. There's even a hidden minigame where you have to match flags to their countries, a little extra that I was far, far better at than the main game. I'm more suited for a future in vexillology rather than the cut-and-thrust world of international capitalism, it seems.
Definitely a game with playing, then, and one that think I'll be going back to soon - a rare occurrence for any game I've written about, and especially one that I'm so obviously terrible at, but Aerobiz Supersonic provides such an oddly relaxing, pleasingly crafted experience that I'm looking forward to getting back into the aero biz. Oh shit, that's where the name comes from!