Airwolf — 4Q2020 issue

Let this low-flying mess stay grounded

As a child of the 1980s, there was one major require­ment I had to know: the major prime time action shows and what nights and net­works that they came on. Two of those shows were Knight Rider on Fri­days on NBC and Air­wolf on Sat­ur­days on CBS. These two shows were so pop­u­lar that Acclaim Enter­tain­ment was able to get license rights from Uni­ver­sal Tele­vi­sion to develop video games for both shows. In a pre­vi­ous issue of GI, we reviewed Knight Rider for the NES in the Tor­ture of the Quar­ter sec­tion. Could Air­wolf break this curse of pop­u­lar shows turned into hor­ri­ble games? It was time to find out.

Air­wolf fol­lows the plot based on the TV show in that you take the role of Stringfel­low “String” Hawke, who is given a mis­sion by the CIA to res­cue pris­on­ers of war from unknown ter­ror­ist groups using the top-secret heli­copter known as Air­wolf. As String con­ducts the mis­sion, he finds out that one of the pris­on­ers being held is his long-lost brother who was declared miss­ing in action dur­ing the Viet­nam War. This gives him added incen­tive to carry out his given mission.

Airwolf’s game­play is a sim­u­lated first-person view that was applied to the Knight Rider game. You have the view of Air­wolf that is clear enough to see your ene­mies and to attack enemy strong­holds such as air­craft tow­ers, pris­oner camps and repair depots. How­ever, this is the game’s Achilles’ heel. Con­trol is not flex­i­ble when you need it to be dur­ing dog­fights with enemy air­craft. You’re required to shoot first or destroy air­craft tow­ers if you don’t fire your lim­ited mis­siles with pre­cise tim­ing. The inflex­i­bil­ity rears again when you land at a pris­oner camp land­ing gen­tly and still die.

The graph­ics were OK, but they were akin to flight sim­u­la­tor games that were highly pop­u­lar dur­ing the ’80s. To give Air­wolf a frac­tion of a chance for a good review, I found the debrief­ing scene excel­lent, giv­ing me the appro­pri­ate data of destroyed ene­mies, res­cued pris­on­ers and inter­cepted missiles.

Sadly, I was ENRAGED that Acclaim could be this sloppy with a fran­chise such as Air­wolf. Don’t get me wrong, Acclaim did go on to make bet­ter video games based on pop­u­lar fran­chises, but like Knight Rider, Air­wolf failed to show me any redeem­ing rea­son for replay.

Air­wolf — like Knight Rider — are games that are rec­om­mended only for the diehard fans of the ’80s that want to relive the action-packed nights of their child­hood. While I loved both shows, unfor­tu­nately their action-packed for­mula that pro­duced major rat­ings for TV did not trans­late well into video game for­mat. Acclaim did learn well from these mis­takes, but they gave the first Mas­ter­Class les­son in video gam­ing of being care­ful with pop­u­lar fran­chises. If you want my advice, skip both games and play them on read­ily avail­able emu­la­tors; you’ll save time and hard-earned money.

Fun Facts

  • Air­wolf was cre­ated by Don­ald P. Belis­ario, who was known for pop culture-worthy shows such as Quan­tum Leap, Mag­num, P.I., JAG and NCIS, which is still air­ing on CBS.
  • The actual Air­wolf was based on a Bell 222 heli­copter designed for cor­po­rate travel, emer­gency med­ical trans­port and util­ity trans­port. A full replica of Air­wolf was on dis­play at a Ten­nessee avi­a­tion museum but has since been sold to a pri­vate col­lec­tor in Bel Aire, Calif.
  • There were numer­ous ver­sions of Air­wolf made for var­i­ous home sys­tems, but a side scrolling arcade ver­sion was devel­oped by Japan­ese devel­oper Kyugo in 1987. Acclaim released the NES ver­sion a year later, after the show went off the air four years earlier.