Area 88

Here’s a blast from the past: anyone remember the old game UN Squadron? It was a side-scrolling shooter on the SNES in the style of Gradius and R-Type, but had real planes instead of fancy spaceships, and you blew up tanks and other recognisable instead of bizarre alien biological weapon things. It also featured an interesting system where the more enemies you destroyed, the more money you earned, and the more you could upgrade your plane, or buy new ones. Simply put, it was one of the best shmups for the system at the time, and is still very playable today.It wasn’t until relatively recently that I learned that this game was based on an old manga from the 70’s called Area 88, and there existed an OVA adaptation of it. Given Japan’s love for machines flying around and blowing each other up, there’s a surprising lack of titles that feature standard jet fighters over giant robots (in fact, I can think of two off the top of my head – one of them is a harem comedy with virtually no combat, and the other’s pretentious sci-fi eye-candy).

The plot in a nutshell: Shin Kazuma is a promising young pilot for Yamato Airlines, tricked into joining the Aslan Foreign Legion, and is forced to fight in a brutal civil war thousands of miles from home. The only way he can return is either by surviving three years of service, or by earning $1.5 million and buying his freedom by shooting down enemy planes. The one thing keeping him going is the thought of returning to his love Ryoko, back in Tokyo. But with the life expectancy of a mercenary pilot less than a month, he’s going to have an incredibly tough time staying alive.

The man responsible for Shin’s predicament is one Satoru Kanzaki, and he’s one of the best antagonists I’ve seen in a good long time. Rather than being a typical generically evil villain who always flies into battle personally, Kanzaki is a devious antagonist that will do anything to get what he wants, scheming and manipulating behind the scenes. Not long after he’s dispatched of Shin, and he’s manoeuvred himself to the upper echelons of Yamato Airlines and is poised to not only take over the company, but also marry the chairman’s daughter (who just happens to be Ryoko), while at the same time, is manipulating the stock market with one of Yamato’s competitors. You can’t help but loathe and despise him, and that’s great – I haven’t enjoyed disliking someone this much in ages.

Where Area 88 excels is in its drama, and the interaction between characters. The men on the base are a diverse and colourful bunch, and all share a certain mutual camaraderie, each with their own reasons to be there but none really willing to discuss their past – and besides, what’s the point in making friends if they may not survive the next mission? Only Mickey, a jaded veteran of Vietnam, opens up to Shin, warning of the dangers of becoming too used to life in conflict and being unable to readjust to civilian life. You can’t help but feel for the guys stuck out there, trapped in a life of constant danger and uncertainty, by a contract many never wanted to sign.

Aviation buffs will be in seventh heaven here, as there are dozens of planes from the early era of supersonic flight featured, ranging from F-4 Phantoms and A-10 Thunderbolts to the more obscure BAC Lightnings and F-100 Super Sabres. The attention to detail on each is impressive, and the combat has a raw, brutal feel to it, owing to the era – while pilots today can take down targets from many miles away with a single missile, these old fighters don’t have that luxury.

For an OVA that’s now more than twenty years old, the animation is still remarkable, with stunning dogfights and aerial choreography, which still rivals similar, more recent offerings. On the other hand, time hasn’t been as kind to the character designs, and they are now looking decidedly dated. There’re also some sexist undertones with regard to Ryoko, the main female character; while this may have been perfectly acceptable in the notoriously traditionalistic 80’s Japan to objectify women, it’s decidedly outdated now. It doesn’t ruin the features (and somehow helps solidify its authenticity), but it’s noticeable.

In Summary

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting much from this. A paper-thin plot with some two-dimensional characters flying planes around, with a few nice explosions and action sequences here and there was the most I was hoping for, but Area 88 really surprised me with its depth and character development. If you can stomach the old-school visual stylings, I’d recommend the two features in this package to anyone in search of a slice of solid drama. Well worth an import.

8 / 10