I learned of this game’s existence through an indie importer’s catalogue (remember those?) that had been mailed to me (remember that?) and the potential sale hinged entirely on me being prepared to part with a whopping £50 after seeing
｜BLUE WING BLITZ ｜SQUARESOFT｜
printed within a soulless monochrome Excel table.
Luckily for them I was always interested in finding new games for my recently-acquired SwanCrystal so I phoned up to ask about a few games I’d seen in there and, bank card clutched in hand, hopefully place an overpriced order. The disinterested voice on the other end of the line told me it was “Some shooting game, probably”, which didn’t exactly instil me with any confidence so I went with the safer bet and ordered Guilty Gear Petit 2 instead (do make sure you play that one ASAP if you’ve ever enjoyed any of the Neo Geo Pocket fighters, it’s great). I later learned that the Magical Import Voice was completely wrong about the game, but even then I never did quite get around to buying Blue Wing Blitz…
For those of you who, like me, have spent the past seventeen years mildly curious about what the heck that WonderSwan game with the planes on the front that’s not a shmup is…
It’s an SRPG!
But isn’t that a pretty fiddly genre for on-the-go gaming, especially for a game released back in 2001 and on a small screen that wasn’t even guaranteed to be in colour?
Normally I’d say “yes” but thankfully for us this vaguely cutesy-steampunkish slice of tactical airborne combat is acutely aware of the portable format it’s been created for and anchors the entire experience in the concept of being as streamlined and readily accessible as possible.
This quickly becomes apparent when you’re thrust into the opening training missions and notice that the typical Move/Attack/Item, etc menus are almost entirely absent, and what is there is largely sorted out with a single button press over a highlighted icon. This includes mid-battle saving (always welcome), which gently asks at the beginning of every turn if you’d like to make a save. Pressing start just once instantly creates a permanent “Continue” slot save entirely separate from your main between-mission “Load” save (so there’s no worrying about saving yourself into an impossible corner) and then you’re left to carry on with the game.
The story has been structured along the same minimalist lines, existing mostly to give some context to the wide variety of encounters more than anything else. This does mean that you’re not going to come out of this with a favourite character or fondly recalling a memorable scene, but on the other hand you will never be forced to skip a conversation for fear of the WonderSwan’s battery giving out on you mid-way through a rousing speech or because your lunch break’s almost over and you just need five seconds, please to save the game.
In keeping with this “Maybe people want to play an SRPG but 2001 handhelds aren’t really built for long sit-down sessions” design philosophy all battles have limits placed on their length and generally have to be cleared within 20-40 turns. This gives you enough time to think tactically and get the job done properly, but is still a sharp enough warning to encourage proactive play. Think of the ten minute time limit in classic Sonic the Hedgehog; you know you’re never really going to run out of time, but it’s still just enough pressure to nudge you into action.
A quick glance at one of the game’s battlefields in the screenshots above reveal what looks like an endless vista of little squares to tediously micro-manage your mothership and accompanying fighters through, but once you start playing you’ll be relieved to find it’s actually much more straightforward than that. Each set of four squares makes up a single node, and each node has room for two ally planes, two enemy planes, one land or sea unit in the middle (one ally/enemy at a time, not both together), and whatever special properties the buildings on that node may possess (so expect to get shot at by enemy anti-air cannons if you’re dogfighting overhead, for example). Only your team’s planes are under your control – all other friendly units are always left to the AI. This can occasionally lead to some frustrating blunders but they usually play their supporting role as intended, or if they have a specific target then they will head towards wherever they need to go. I can’t say I’ve never lost a mission due to my last little truck driving directly under the path of an enemy bomber, but thanks to having the option to save every single turn (as well as restart from the very beginning of the mission if it’s gone really bad), I’ve never lost any significant amount of time because of it. I’d also say that whatever I did lose in those instances was more than made up for by the speed (and relief) of not having to shunt around a bunch of additional tanks, or trucks, or ships, every turn on top of everything else.
It’s fair to say that flying freely through the air doesn’t immediately conjure up much need for, well, any thought at all during this initial movement phase but thanks to a combination of board game-like limitations (you cannot exceed the maximum allowed units per node, you can only move into a node if an appropriate space is free, you can move no more than one node per turn) and the “movement cancel” rule that forces an aircraft to stay in place if a member of the opposite force moves into their node before the unit in question moves out, there’s a lot that can go right or wrong depending on how carefully you plan your attack. It does take a while to get to grips with this unusual way of getting around but once you’ve got the hang of it you’ll be preventing enormous motherships from decimating an entire town or keeping devastating bombers from reaching their marks with nothing more than a knackered fighter with just a bit of ammo left in its emergencies-only 8mm peashooter. Of course when the enemy does the same to you and you end up with several units backed up in occupied nodes it’s frustrating to see a turn go to waste, but there are ways to plan around these hiccups and equipping certain items beforehand can help give you an edge.
Regardless of who stops who it’s always going to end up with a dogfight, and these encounters give you four turns each to do as much damage as possible before the game moves on to the next tussle. These battles are frequently a mix of air and land/sea targets, the flavour text calling out genuine dogfighting manoeuvres and high-speed climbs and rolls going a surprisingly long way to selling the otherwise static action. Your offensive options include using one of up to three available weapons per turn (these can be switched between at will without penalty) and range of height/speed positioning choices that effective both the power and accuracy of a move. What’s especially interesting is how these interact with the moves you’ve previously performed (a half loop is going to leave you higher in the air than where you started) against your target’s current position (being high in the air isn’t going to help you accurately bomb a static building) and their unknown chosen next move. Ammo and fuel are both in limited supply and certain aerial acrobatics will use more or less than another, meaning the most powerful attack isn’t always the best tactical choice. Any of your planes that were either shot down or crashed due to a lack of fuel return to the battlefield fully refreshed a few turns later at your mothership’s current node which helps keep everything flowing nicely even if you’ve made an error (or suffered an unlucky setback) and encourages a more aggressive style of play.
There are no levels, shops, or classes in Blue Wing Blitz; meaning that unless you deliberately use your hanger time to kit your planes out with cannons on a crucial bombing run you will always have everything you need to win at your fingertips, with the game even going so far as to not let you leave for battle without any mission-critical items . The closest the game gets to a typical RPG enhancement system is when it automatically offers you certain upgrades or replacement aircraft at set points in the game, or when you receive a post-battle notification that a pilot’s skill in a particular area has increased – an improvement that is either so mild or so perfectly tuned to the game’s difficulty curve that you will struggle to notice anything has changed at all.
At the time of writing I’m well over halfway through the game and so far every single mission has introduced an exciting new element to mix things up and give me something new to consider. There are times I’ve had to lie in wait to set off tank-disabling traps, or clear a river of enemy ships so ground troops can build a bridge to cross, or have been sent out to retrieve recon pods. Of course there have also been times when I’ve had to do nothing more than blow up everything in sight too, but even then there’ll be an extra-dangerous ace pilot in a new aircraft to deal with, or an airbase that I should consider taking out to prevent enemy planes from refuelling. As it stands I genuinely don’t know what will be asked of me next and even if the game does go on to merely recycle every scenario type I’ve seen this far the chances of the next win condition being either “Kill everything” or “Kill the big special thing” would be very slim just due to the sheer number of alternatives that have already cropped up.
Like its portable stablemate Wild Card, Blue Wing Blitz can’t stand up to traditional console genre heavyweights but that is in part because it serves a entirely different purpose, ably scratching a strategy itch when you may not necessarily have the time or inclination for the real thing. It’s fair to say that with the much-loved Final Fantasy Tactics now available in its best form on mobile phones (I will never get used to that) and sleep functions becoming a standard handheld feature almost fifteen years ago the impact of this game’s player/format-led design has been significantly diminished, but what remains is a unique high-quality title that never demands too much or too little of anyone curious enough to try it.
As far as I’m aware no fan translations for this game, but a FAQ is available on GameFAQs. It has some errors here and there, but you’re not going to find anything better in English (to be fair, I couldn’t find anything in Japanese) and it should be enough to see you through.