One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about the two Capcom Arcade Stadium collections that are available on modern platforms is that not only do they bring attention to some of Capcom’s more obscure fare, they also remind us that the company’s most well-known work — like today’s topic 1943: The Battle of Midway — is often worth revisiting, even if you think you know what it’s all about.
I must confess that despite having enormous respect for Capcom’s output over the years, I had long dismissed the company’s 194X series as being a bit dull. That’s the thing about genre-defining games: everyone has heard of them, everyone is familiar with them, and however good they might be, eventually you just get tired of them. It’s why however amazing Super Mario Bros. 3 is, I have zero desire to ever play it ever again — or to watch another YouTube video about it.
I’d got like that with Capcom’s 1942, one of the real pioneers of the vertically scrolling shoot ’em up genre. And, furthermore, I’d made the mistake of assuming that the rest of the 194X series was along very similar lines. Turns out that I’d been missing out on some great shoot ’em ups — and that 1942 itself is still a thoroughly good time also, but more on that another day.
I want to focus on 1943: The Battle of Midway today, because that’s the game you get for free with the first Capcom Arcade Stadium, and as such it’s a game that anyone can enjoy without having to pay anything right now. It is also, consequently, a game with quite a lot weighing on its shoulders, because many players will likely use it as the main means of judging whether or not the rest of the collection is worth paying for. I mean, I can tell you it is until I’m blue in the face — but ultimately you’re still going to make your own mind up in the end, right?
Anyway, 1943: The Battle of Midway, or just 1943 hereafter for the sake of my sanity. This game originally came out in 1987, three years after its famous predecessor. It runs on the same hardware that powers Capcom’s famous run-and-gun shooter Commando, and is the work of one Yoshiki Okamoto, a prolific game designer whose work you have almost certainly come into contact with at some point over the years.
Okamoto’s first projects were Time Pilot and Gyruss for Konami; he subsequently joined Capcom, where he brought us a variety of excellent games including 1942 and 1943, SonSon, Side Arms, Gun.Smoke, Final Fight and Street Fighter II. He later worked on the original Resident Evil and, after leaving Capcom to form his own development company, created the game that would become Red Dead Revolver, the predecessor to Red Dead Redemption, along with the two Genji games (of “giant enemy crab” fame) and Folklore.
1943 is a solid example of Okamoto’s work in his relatively early career: straightforward but slick and uncomplicated action that is accessible to newcomers while also offering a stiff challenge to veterans over the long term. 1943 doesn’t radically reinvent anything about the shoot ’em up that wasn’t already present in 1942, but it does polish it to a fine sheen (notably by including some excellent music rather than the incredibly annoying whistling from 1942) and help to solidify a lot of things that would become genre conventions — as well as experimenting with a few ideas a little different from the norm.
Interestingly, despite being developed in Japan, the 194X series unfolds from the perspective of the American air force fighting against the Japanese in the Second World War — specifically, as the title suggests, the Battle of Midway. The reason for this is that Capcom specifically wanted the games in the series to have a worldwide appeal — and they quite reasonably surmised that players would want to be on the “winning” side of a real-life conflict, even when depicted fantastically as in an arcade game.
As such, in 1943, you take control of a Lockheed P-38 Lightning plane, a particularly distinctive-looking aircraft that immediately gives 1943 a clear sense of visual identity. The game starts with you being able to rapidly fire twin shots dead ahead — immediately satisfying, and quite a contrast to some other shoot ’em ups from the period, which tended to start you with real “pea-shooter” weapons — and by blasting formations of red enemies, you can collect power-ups, which include alternative ways to fire.
In all, there are six different weapons you can use in 1943: the standard machine gun; a shotgun whose bullets fire incredibly quickly and can cancel enemy shots, but which has a short range; a three-way machine gun; an auto-fire machine gun which shoots more rapidly; a shell, which is very powerful but requires pinpoint accuracy; and a piercing laser that occasionally appears as a “secret” weapon.
One of the most interesting things about 1943 is how it eschews the shoot ’em up conventions of one-hit deaths and lives, instead providing the player with only a single life and a tank full of energy. Energy declines slowly as you play — as if the aircraft is using it as fuel — but also depletes when taking damage or colliding directly with another aircraft, with the latter having a particularly devastating effect.
Energy can be replenished by collecting one of several different power-up items; some of these drop from the aforementioned formations of red aircraft and alternate between the “POW” energy restoration icons and weapon upgrades when shot; some simply show up when destroying predefined red aircraft groups in specific stages. Energy is also restored to a significant degree when a stage is successfully completed, with the maximum capacity of the energy tank gradually increasing slightly as you progress through the game.
Besides allowing you to take damage, energy can also be expended on bomb-style special attacks. Which one you unleash depends on the context in which you press the button for it, but they include an anti-air lightning attack, a scroll-pausing tsunami attack that damages air and sea targets alike, and a cyclone that destroys all enemy fire.
Like in 1942, you can also perform a loop-the-loop (or “roll” as the game incorrectly refers to it) which allows you a moment’s invincibility as your plane swoops “above” the main playfield for a moment. This does not consume energy, but instead you only have a limited number of these that can be performed per stage.
Stages in 1943 are typically split into two main components: an approach to the target, and the target itself. The approach unfolds as a high-altitude aerial battle (with some nice parallax scrolling providing a good sensation of height) where you fight against small, fast-moving popcorn enemies and more powerful foes.
Notably, the latter type of enemy aircraft have a tendency to dip in and out of the background — similar to how you can “loop” — and thus can only be shot when they’re at the same “altitude” as you. As such, the game has an interesting rhythm where you sometimes need to decide if the popcorn foes might be a higher priority than a more powerful enemy that keeps hiding in the clouds.
Once you clear the first half of a stage, the second half begins — and there are two different possible types. 11 out of the game’s 16 stages feature an air-to-sea assault where you need to destroy as much as possible of a series of three ships before an unseen timer expires; the remaining five see you either taking on a swarm of small bombers or one large heavy bomber.
Assuming you’re successful in the end-level encounter, you’ll be given a rating as to your total destruction, and then some significant bonuses that will likely form the bulk of veteran players’ high scores. If your destruction level wasn’t high enough, meanwhile, you’ll be sent back around to do the second half of the stage again.
1943 is simple to play and, to be honest, gets a little repetitive if you play it for too long, especially if you’re credit-feeding. There didn’t really need to be 16 stages in total, because a lot of them feel very similar to one another — though the sheer length of the game does at least make a one-credit clear quite a significant achievement.
One gets the impression that 1943 wasn’t really intended to be played as a game that you “finish”, though; it’s much more enjoyable if you play it as a score attack game, and indeed the ranked Score Challenge mode in Capcom Arcade Stadium allows you to do just that. As you start from the beginning each time and attempt to best your last score, you’ll likely start to spot the patterns in the enemy formations and ways that you can improve your play — and your scores will naturally rise as a result.
1943 is a good choice for the free game in Capcom Arcade Stadium. It’s a nice example of Capcom doing what Capcom does well: a game that is easy to get up and running with, but which is hard to master. There are better games in Capcom Arcade Stadium as a whole — hell, there are better games just in the 194X series — but, well, they’re not going to give away the cream of the crop for free, now, are they?
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