Game Title: Solar Jetman: Hunt For The Golden Warpship
Platform(s): Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Commodore 64, Spectrum
Made By: Rare
Original U.S. Release: April 1990

What's Noteworthy?
o The game revolves around space exploration in a tiny pod-shaped spaceship. The gameplay is a lot like the old arcade hit Gravitar, but with more goals than just a shoot-em-up.
o The control is unique, but quite good. You spin the spaceship clockwise and/or counterclockwise, and use the thruster to accelerate. You have no brake, so you have to rotate your ship to point in the opposite direction and fire the thruster to slow down.
o The goal is to scavenge twelve planets looking for parts for the "Golden Warpship," a legendary spaceship of sorts. Mostly, you haul items around on planets, returning them to your own mothership while firing at baddies. It's actually quite compelling.
o This game is huge for a NES title, with twelve ever-larger worlds to explore. Your own homemade maps are essential.

Solar Jetman is a pseudo-sequel to the 1983 Spectrum game Lunar Jetman, but isn't related very much at all to its predecessor, so we won't discuss it here. The game revolves around a large-chinned astronaut, who is traveling through a solar system looking for the parts of a legendary spaceship called ... (drumroll, please) ... The Golden Warpship.

This solar system is composed of twelve planets, each of which contain a part of the Golden Warpship. Each planet also contains a ton of additional pieces of space junk lying around, which you need to harvest to earn money. Yes, in the grand old Nintendo tradition, a good chunk of this game is spent at the shops, selling items you've found from defeating bad guys and using this coinage to improve yourself and your spacecraft.

So, what's interesting about this game? A great deal, actually, and that's what makes this one of the "undiscovered gems" of the old Nintendo Entertainment System. First of all, the maps for each of the planets are HUGE. There is really no game to compare to them on the Nintendo in terms of raw size of the maps. It is very easy to get lost, which definitely adds to this game; one would expect this when exploring a large piece of unknown territory. Making maps is essential.

Another interesting aspect of the game is the ship itself, which is described in more detail below. Your ship is a tiny pod equipped with only a pea shooter of a gun, a little thruster, and no brakes. To make matters more interesting, each map has gravity. Even more interesting, each map has a different level of gravity; some maps have much more downward force than others. Thus, some nifty cornering and manuevering tricks that work in some gravities do not work well in others.

The graphics and sound are also quite good for an NES title. Adding these elements together make for an interesting gaming experience, even today.

The Controls / Playing the Game
As mentioned above, your ship is a tiny pod equipped with only a pea shooter of a gun, a little thruster, and no brakes. One button controls the thrust, and the other fires your gun.

What gets interesting is this; your control pad merely rotates your ship either counterclockwise or clockwise, depending on the direction you push. In order to move your ship, you point your ship in the direction you want to travel and fire the thruster. In order to break, you point your ship in the opposite direction that you are traveling in and fire the thruster. To curve, fire the thruster, then turn while firing. And so on. This mechanism adds a great deal of technique to the control of your little ship.

The goal is to basically 'shoot everything that moves' while traveling about looking for what amounts to junk laying on the surface of the planets. Move close to a piece of junk, and a tether line will attach to the item. This will increase the weight of your ship, so you have to adjust your flying technique greatly. When you get back to your mothership, the item is dropped automatically into the ship and its value is added to your cash total. You can use this cash to purchase ship improvements, such as a stronger thruster. You can also find items laying around on the planet surface that you can use to upgrade. Attacking you are various alien life forms, who mostly just blindly attack you; responding to attacks is another crucial gameplay element in that you can either shoot back or beat a hasty retreat.

Your basic pod is rather fragile. It can only receive a small bit of damage, and when it reaches that cap, the pod disintegrates, leaving you floating about in your spacesuit. When in this state, you are very fragile, and your goal is to return to the mothership as soon as possible; if you make it back, you get another pod. You only have three lives, so you should try to be careful with your ship and especially with your lil' Jetman.

If you've not already guessed, you advance to the next stage whenever you collect a piece of the Golden Warpship.

What's Good?
The best element of this game is the sheer uniqueness and creativity of the gameplay. I've not played a game much like it, before or since. It has a unique but easy-to-learn control mechanic that allows for a lot of skill and technique. It provides huge worlds to explore, big enough that you are almost forced into mapping (the best technique here is to play with a friend; when one of you is playing, the other draws maps). The graphics and sound are both strong as well for an NES game. The game also has a strong sense of humor throughout, with many jokes provided in the planets themselves (especially when you carefully study the planet maps...).

What's Bad?
There isn't a battery backup in the cartridge, which would have been very useful. Instead, it relies on a password scheme for game storage, much like Metroid. The game is also insanely difficult in many places, especially the later planets, where the gravity is intense and there are a lot of alien critters running about trying to attack you. The inventive control mechanism often makes for very challenging dogfights.

Acquiring the Game
The game is moderate in difficulty to acquire, as are most of the lesser-known NES games that are not ultra-rare. It is far from a common cartridge, but with some searching on eBay, it can easily be found for $10 or so. You should also try your local Funcoland or other used game store.

Memories Are Made of This...
Ah, the memories. I picked up this game after a very complimentary (but then again, aren't they all?) Nintendo Power review of the title sometime in mid-1990, and for a few months, it became a near-obsession for me.

I remember fondly playing this game all night several nights, with school the next morning, trying to navigate through the planets. I drew insanely extensive maps of each of the planet surfaces, with every item and bad guy marked with a symbolic system of my own invention.

But even more memorable were several long summer nights with friends of mine. My memory tells me that that summer had many rainy nights; I remember sitting up in my room at three in the morning, with a storm raging outside, playing Solar Jetman, or making maps while someone else was playing.

I went home recently and was looking around through some of my old stuff that could still be found in my parents' house, and I stumbled across a map that several friends and I had made of the insanely difficult eleventh planet in Solar Jetman. The map was of several sheets of graph paper taped together, with tons of cryptic shapes and markings in various handwriting and drawing styles.

I brought the map back with me. It sits here right now on my desk, reminding me of those long-gone days of the quest for the Golden Warpship.

If You Liked Solar Jetman...
.. there are several classic games with similar themes that you might want to try.
Blaster Master (besides the Thunderdome reference, is an interesting exploration alien shoot-em-up game with a lot of twists to it.
Faxanadu is an overlooked NES classic with more of a fantasy theme, but it has a good sense of humor and some engaging action.

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