It seems that Chase H.Q. was not enough to satisfy my craving for Taito's brand of arcade sprite-scaling action, probably because it was good fun but quite short, so I've dipped back into their back catalogue for another coin-op adventure - the 1990 aerodeslizador-em-up Aqua Jack!
An aqua jack is like a lumberjack, but they cut through plumbing instead of trees. Or it's a device used to raise your boat so you can change its tyres. Or it's neither of those things, and is merely a nonsense phrase that Taito thought would make for a good videogame title. I trust your intelligence enough to let you decide which of those is true. The logo is making me want a delicious, refreshing can of Sprite lemon-and-lime flavoured soft drink. Hey, between this and the article about that Game Gear game they sponsored, I think the Coca-Cola Company could stand to throw me a few free samples.
The intro begins, and Aqua Jack and his female partner Aqua Jill are lying in verdant meadow, watching an aeroplane drift lazily overhead. Credit to Taito, you don't often get arcade action games that start with the heroes relaxing by a lake, possibly telling each other whimsical stories about where that plane is headed.
Ah. There goes the picnic, then. Aqua Jack and Aqua Jill are soldiers - I think, they might just be big fans of sleeveless fatigues - and as such they cannot let this attack on their homeland stand. Burning with righteous anger, they speed to the scene in their high-performance machine. No, not a jet fighter. Not a helicopter, either, nor a tank, jeep, APC or any other armoured land vehicle. They've got something unique, something the enemy can have no defence against. They have...
...a hovercraft. That's why they were hanging around near that lake, I mistook them for soldiers but they're actually ferry operators on their lunch break.
There was bound to be a hovercraft game somewhere amongst the vast library of arcade titles that use sprite-scaling technology. Cars, helicopters, fighter planes, motorcycle and kids who cling tightly to a flying gun as it speeds through a series of alien landscapes have all taken a starring role, so it was only a matter of time before someone got round to bolting a ruddy great cannon onto a hovercraft and calling it a shoot-em-up, which is exactly what is happening in Aqua Jack.
You can get a good idea of how Aqua Jack plays just by looking at the above screenshot, I reckon. You move both the crosshair and the hovercraft at the same time, avoiding obstacles and incoming fire as you float through the sunset swamp while also trying to shoot the various enemies with your massive bullets. Those white-and-yellow ovals are the projectiles that I'm firing, and their ridiculous proportions elicit two observations. One is that they're bigger than the gun they came out of, so maybe this hovercraft is equipped with more advanced technology that I first thought if they can bend the rules of physical space like that. Secondly, they block your view of an awful lot of the screen, which is not helping with the whole "not dying" aspect of the gameplay.
Okay, this one wasn't the bullets' fault, I was too busy concentrating on those helicopters to notice that I'd sailed into a minefield. Is "sailed" the right word for controlling a hovercraft does? "Piloted," possibly. "Drove" if you're on land.
The next time I came to a mine, I tried to jump over it, because there's a jump button in Aqua Jack. It didn't work, and my second explosive death made me think that maybe Aqua Jack has too many bloody controls. Not only do you have to steer, shoot and jump, but you also have a limited supply of screen-clearing special weapons (I've got to set up a macro to type that phrase for me) and, oddly for a hovercraft, a nitro-boost that's very reminiscent of the one in Chase H.Q. That's not surprising, given that the games run on the same arcade board, but four buttons feels a tad over-generous for a game that's really very simple. Jumping could have easily been removed at absolutely no detriment to the gameplay, and all the turbo boost does is encourage you to forget about shooting the bad guys and just drive / sail / hover towards the goal as quickly as possible. A faster overall game speed and no nitro would have been a compromise that served the game better, if you ask me. Yes, I know you didn't ask me.
Before long I reached the boss, where I witnessed the majestic sight of a heavily-pregnant plane giving birth to a litter of hovercraft, dropping them into the swamp that will be their home for the first few years of their life until they develop the wings and fuselage of adulthood.
I wouldn't worry too much about the hovercraft, they don't do much besides get in the way and you can move a surprisingly large distance to the left and right. Just concentrate on shooting the plane - which I'm pretty sure is supposed to be the plane from the intro - and the fight will be over in about twenty seconds.
Alright then, revenge is ours. The bomber has been neutralized, neutralized into a million tiny pieces, so this crisis is over and Aqua Jack and Aqua Jill can go back to lounging around on the waterfront.
They're just going to stop off to give this guy a hug real quick, then it's right back to the lakeside.
I think stage two is set in The Netherlands. It's got something of a Dutch feel to it, don't you think? Amsterdam is about fifty percent canal, so let's just say that's where I'm heading. These are rather nice canals, too - it doesn't look much in still screenshots but Aqua Jack's water effects are very good, to the point where I suspect the effort of creating them diverted a lot of time and energy that would have otherwise been spent coming up with interesting enemy patterns or power-ups.
Still, it shows off the versatility of the hovercraft as an amphibious assault vehicle. As long as there's a nice, gentle slope out of the water and my rubber air skirt doesn't get popped, this incredibly vague terrorist organisation don't stand a chance! Okay, okay, so maybe I'm being too harsh on the humble hovercraft. It's perfectly acceptable as videogame vehicle go - I know I had a lot of ramping my hovercraft into unsuspecting coastal villages when I was playing Just Cause 2 - but I don't think anyone would argue that a flying motorcycle or something wouldn't have been much cooler and made just as much sense.
For a boss, stage two offers up a tank on a bridge. I'd like to tell you how this boss works, what its attack patterns are, who its favourite member of N*SYNC is, anything really, but it blew up after even less hits than the first boss and so never got to show its stuff. The battle was over so quickly that I didn't even realise it was a boss fight until my hovercraft hovered away without me, so that should be some indication of just how pointless this encounter was.
Before moving on, our heroes take the time to threaten Fidel Castro. I like the way he's pointing them to their next destination, which is down the river. What a spot of luck, with us being in a hovercraft and all.
More greenery, more helicopters and more hovercrafts (evil subdivision) in stage three. With the similarities in setting and the complete non-entity that was the previous boss, it's baffling that stage two and three weren't just combined into one level.
As there's precious little else to discuss in stage three, I'll use this opportunity to mention that your gun has something of a lock-on feature - get your crosshair near enough to a bad guy and it'll "click" onto them until you move the joystick well away from them. It works well, and the extra help with the aiming is definitely appreciated, especially in later stages when shooting enemies takes a back-seat to the increasingly frantic dodging of naval mines and hastily-erected mid-river walls.
Well, the boss is definitely more of a challenge. That is a lot of missiles. Not pictured - my hovercraft exploding roughly 0.03 seconds after this screenshot was taken. Yes, I tried jumping over the missiles and no, it didn't work. I've got infinite continues, that's something of a balm to my bitterness.
Meanwhile, in a never-previously-mentioned part of the game, a bald man in a conference room surveys the carnage that Aqua Jack and Aqua Jill have wrought on a television set that's impressively large by the standards of the early nineties. I assume this is the head villain, then? He's wearing a suit and sitting in a swivel chair, just waiting for a James Bond type to enter the room so he can spin around an produce a pithy one-liner, so he has to be the villain.
Stage four is set on a river, but don't worry, there are some rocks nearby so that ought to keep interest levels high. There are a couple of other things that caught my eye: one is that helicopter, because it reminds me of the main bad guy's helicopter from the cartoon M.A.S.K., which has led me to a shocking discovery. Thinking of M.A.S.K. meant I had to listen to the theme song, only to learn that the lyrics are "always riding hot on Venom's trail" and not "always ri-i-ding on Venom's trail" with a weird vocal hiccup on the word "riding", as I had thought from the first time I saw the show as a kid up until twenty minutes before I started writing this article. Well, that's my M.A.S.K. story, I hope you enjoyed it. Maybe one day I'll tell you my other M.A.S.K. story, about how I found some M.A.S.K. toys in an abandoned steel mill as a kid. Actually, that's pretty much the whole story.
Oh right, the other thing. That would be these walls that pop up out of the water. They're very effective hovercraft countermeasures, and from here on they'll be appearing with a frequency that sadly strays just to the wrong side of annoying. I'm not even sure you can shoot them out of the way - if you can, they absorb a lot of punishment before falling, certainly more than I ever managed to dish out. That probably has something to do with my refusal to stop pressing the speed-boost button, mind you.
Another boss tank on another bridge. Aqua Jack is not going to win any awards for the variety of its enemy design. There'll be none for the balance of its difficult level, either, with this boss being far easier than the previous missile barrage despite the stage itself much more challenging and about twice as long.
Man, Fidel just cannot catch a break, can he?
It might not be any more interesting in gameplay terms, but stage five does at least have a nice atmosphere, the gloomy swamp lit by the occasional flash of lightning. That's why the clouds are glowing orange, there hasn't been a cock-up with the colour palettes.
Now that I've reached the fifth stage, I'm only just over halfway through the game, and that's one of Aqua Jack's more glaring flaws. There's just too much of it, which seems like a ridiculous thing to say about a game you can finish in less time than it takes to watch an episode of The Simpsons and then write an angry tweet about how bad it's gotten, but the experience is starting to feel like it's been stretched very thinly and there are still another three levels to go, and they don't offer much in the way of exciting new moments.
The boss, for example, is a couple of helicopters. These helicopters are red, which at least means they go faster. They explode pretty quick, too. Makes sense to me, attack choppers are no match for a hovercraft.
The Aqua Jack crew grab a bit of down time between stages. They're looking as bored as I am. I say that, but I'm not sure how Aqua Jill is looking because I don't think the game has ever shown her face at this point. Are we leading up to a big reveal? Is she going to turn around during the end credits only to reveal she's a cyborg or Brian Blessed or that there's a yawning portal to a dread dimension filled only with primitive terror where her face should be? I hope so, that'd liven things up.
We're back to this, are we? Cool, I was missing the lush green fields and shallow rivers of wherever the hell we are. That's a lot of radio towers you've got there, Unnamed Evil Organisation. Are you putting out a pirate radio station to fill the time between hovercraft attacks?
"And Then I Drove Into A Wall" could be the goddamn subtitle of this game, especially in these later stages where the difficulty curve has tied itself in such knots that it now adheres to non-Euclidean geometry. They're a pain in the arse, but they're not completely laughable, unlike these things.
I'm no maritime engineer, but this seems like a really bad design for a watercraft. For starters, there might just about be enough room in that cockpit for a person, but not any controls or instruments. Then there's the concept of standing a couple of soldiers on this laughable metal raft in the first place. Oh, they're protected by sandbags, are they? My hovercraft's cannon can destroy a tank so quickly I've barely got time to notice it was there in the first place, I don't think a couple of sacks filled with sand are going to do much to stop me. The actual rafts themselves are dangerous, but that's because they fill the whole river and I kept crashing into them - a result that could have been accomplished just as effectively by an unmanned barge. Those two soldiers died for nothing, they didn't need to be riding on that thing. They could have been firing at me from the bank to distract me long enough for me to crash into the raft but no, there's got to be two men on board at all times. Maybe it's a Health and Safety thing.
When needlessly sacrificing combat troops aboard the SS Death Raft doesn't work, the bad guys respond by send two aeroplanes in to the general region of my hovercraft, where we half-heartedly plinked away at each other until the planes got bored and exploded. Onward to stage seven, then.
I hope for his sake that Super Mario doesn't pop out of any of those pipe.
Ah yes, these pipes. They span the waterways and move towards each other as you approach, eventually blocking your path and causing you to crash. Except when they don't, because sometimes your hovercraft passes through them as though they weren't even there, while on other occasions you're gently buffeted around them with no ill effects. A lot of the game suffers from this feeling of fuzziness, with ill-defined collision detection and the lingering feeling that everything has been thrown together at random. When compared to Chase H.Q., which was a very enjoyable and well-made game, Aqua Jack feels rushed and unloved. The various elements are mostly okay in isolation - shooting's fine, steering's okay - but like a jigsaw puzzle of Piers Morgan's face, when it's all put together it's not very pleasant. The mysterious behaviour of the pipes just happened to be the thing that solidified my opinion on Aqua Jack.
Oh, and the pipes don't scale very well, either. It looks like Aqua Jill has managed to clear them, at least. She'll have to swim ahead and get help.
The boss is something sort of interesting: it's a train on a bridge instead of the usual tank, and each time you blow up the thing that's shooting at you the train rolls forwards, pulling the next carriage into your line of fire. Hang on, that's not very interesting at all.
Whoever is recruiting soldiers for this army definitely has a type.
Here's the final stage. It's grey. I don't have much else to add beyond that. Those mountains look nice, I guess? I was hoping for some new enemies, but the closest I got was a few different bits of background scenery. New lampposts and buildings that look like faintly futuristic multi-story car parks, mostly.
One aspect of Aqua Jack that I can thankfully give my full approval is the soundtrack, a rumbling set of tracks with a classic "arcade" feel. You can usually count on Taito's famous Zuntata sound team to supply something worth listening to and that's the case here, especially the track above which plays during this final stage and did a pretty good job of getting me pumped up for the climactic boss fight. I'm ready, man! This is bound to be good, they've been saving the best for last and you're about to witness a true battle for the ages.
Your final opponent is a wall. Not even an interesting wall like "the Berlin" or "the Wailing", just a wall that shoots a few energy bolts at the player, like boring version of the first boss from Contra. They say that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but I think walls have to be the lowest form of final boss so please don't judge me too harshly for saying yeah, I'm really glad I crashed into all those walls and pipes, fighting this wall made all that struggle worthwhile.
"Oh man, the river goes right into the enemy base! See, I told you it wasn't stupid to bring the hovercraft, you owe me ten bucks."
With this dramatic door-kicking-down scene, we finally get to see what Aqua Jill looks like and she's disappointingly ordinary. No facial tentacles or nothing. She kicked the hell out of the door, though.
It took me a moment to figure out what was going on in this scene, but it eventually dawned on me that the evil leader has pulled the classic "Dr.-Wily-is-actually-a-robot-double" trick using an elaborate mechanical decoy. This means that Aqua Jill burst into the room and gunned the villain down without so much as blinking. That kind of bloodlust is a common complaint amongst hovercraft pilots.
Not only does the game end with the bad guy getting away, but he even has the audacity to pop up on a video screen just to taunt our heroes.
Hey, I recognise that guy! That's Banglar, the evil mastermind behind Taito's own Ninja Warriors games. Finally, something interesting about Aqua Jack, and now I want to play Ninja Warriors Again, erm, again. This must be a prequel to The Ninja Warriors, then, because Banglar doesn't survive that one. He is also incredibly smug-looking, so presumably he doesn't own any mirrors. It'd be hard to maintain that level of self-satisfiedness if he did.
I play a lot of these sprite-scaling arcade games here at VGJunk, because I almost always like them, but there was bound to come I time when I played one that just didn't do it for me. Aqua Jack has the familiar super-sized, over-the-top arcade feel to it, but it'd struggle to hold your attention over four stages, never mind eight, and it's not a patch on Chase H.Q. or A.B. Cop. Apparently having two initials in your game's name is the key to success. Taito should have called it A.Q. Jack, and probably ditched all the pipes and pop-up walls. I couldn't have hurt.