Laser Invasion
by Polly

The NES was no stranger to weird accessories that tried to allow gamers to play their games in new and... ummm... "exciting" (read: unplayable) ways. Everybody already knows about such top-notch user interface devices like the Power Glove, the Power Pad, and that weird ass U-Force motion controller by Broderbund. In the early 90's Konami even got in on trying to innovate a bit with their own wacky-ass piece of hardware, the LaserScope, or the GunSight if you lived in Japan Land. (How many Japan-Landers read this site, you reckon?)

The LaserScope is essentially what amounts to a strange head-mounted light gun with a crosshair covering one eye for aiming, but it also has a few other "it sounds kinda neat on paper" functions. The lesser of the two other features (though I thought was kinda interesting for the time) was that all the game audio ran into the head set when it was in use. It's an interesting shot at player immersion that could have worked really well for the type of games it seems to have been developed for, such as flight sims and other military'ish type games. Had it caught on, players might have seen games where they'd get sampled voice commands in their head set on their next objectives and what have you. The device's main feature, however, was that it was voice activated. Shout damn near anything into the mic (the manual says you have to say "fire" but all video evidence proves otherwise) and a command was sent to fire, much like what would happen if you were using a Zapper and pulled the trigger. The device failed, ultimately due to the entire gimmick that the device was based on not working quite as well as it should, and went on years later to be mocked by many aspiring internet superstars yammering on and on about the same inadequacies, all throwing in their own variations of "shit load of fuck" and probably some dumb "Landing in Top Gun is hard" joke, even though that game is completely unrelated to the hardware.

Laser Invasion is a game that was designed with the LaserScope almost entirely in mind. It even came with a coupon for $10 off the peripheral. Sensing that the device might not catch on quite as well as they'd probably hoped, the game can also be played with a Zapper + controller combination or just lone controller. Unfortunately, I don't own a LaserScope, so I never had the chance to play this game through with one. For my playthrough, I played using both the Zapper and controller combo as well as just a gamepad. I only just acquired a mint copy of this game (game with box and instructions) late last year and it was my first time having ever played it. Since that time, I've given it a couple more playthroughs to try and form a more solid opinion.

When I first read about Laser Invasion prior to buying it, it conjured up horrible, filthy, and awful memories of The Adventures of Bayou Billy. Just like Bayou Billy, Laser Invasion has three gameplay modes that you'll be switching between, and you'll be using the Zapper or controlling a crosshair with the D-Pad for a couple of them. I hated the piss hell out of Bayou Billy growing up (and still fucking do), but since this was a Konami game, I just had to have it.

Before we get into the actual gameplay though, let's get the presentation-type stuff out of the way.

The game looks, well...alright. Not Konami's greatest showing ever, but with resources being divvied up between different styles of gameplay, it's not hard to see why the package is a bit inconsistent at times. For the helicopter-based portions of each mission, enemy fighters and ground-based targets are about on-par with those seen in Top Gun: The Second Mission. More often than not, these targets are on and off the screen so fast, it's hard to see finer details anyway. What does shine in these segments is the terrain and background art, which is far more detailed than anything I remember seeing in any other NES flight sim. The side-scrolling first-person Zapper portions of the game and the Confusion Maze share the same enemy sprites, which are all the same generic gun and knife weilding terrorist folks you've come to expect in these kinds of games. They're decently animated, but nothing to write home about. I know I write home about game graphics all the time. Same for the background art in these areas. In the side-scrolling areas it'll be difficult to distinguish one area from another, and in the Confusion Maze corridors are merely palette swapped with different colors. Nothing ever looks bad in the game, but none of it really stands out, either.

Same with the audio, which is a bit of a surprise considering Konami's various composers' prowess when it came to cranking out high-quality chiptunes. It's all just random generic "action game" themes, with nothing ever really standing out. What is strange is the lack of voice samples here and there. Konami employed them quite frequently in most of their NES titles, and as mentioned earlier, since the game was developed with the LaserScope in mind, they really could have added a bit of zazz here and had some commanding officer barking orders every now and then into the headset for a little bit of immersion. I guess in this case some sound is better than no sound at all. Right, Top Gun?

Alright, now it's time to dissect this tri-horned beast piece-by-piece and see how it all stands up.

Each mission is set up in the same fashion. You'll fly to your intended targets in helicopter mode, land at your target area, then you'll be put into a first-person side-scrolling shooting gallery mode akin to Operation Wolf. Once you've wrapped up things there, you'll enter Confusion Maze mode (Their terminology, not mine) where you'll explore a base in first-person mode to accomplish more objectives and finally escape, which usually leads to more helicopter flight before the mission is finally over.

First, we'll have a look at the helicopter mode, which you'll be spending a majority of the game in. Anyone who's already played Top Gun: The Second Mission will immediately feel at home, because it appears to be running on the same engine and only employs some minor tweaks to give the impression one is flying a helicopter instead of a fighter jet. Enemy flight patterns and attacks seem copy and pasted, with the sole difference being that enemy missiles were adjusted slightly, so that they're a bit easier to shoot down and deal with. Sometimes it looks like even some sprites were directly ripped from that game. And it wouldn't be a Konami flying game without landing! Landing is a fairly easy affair, which has you lining up a landing cursor on a helipad while you adjust your altitude with the A-button. Random wind shifts can affect these landings and it seems sporadic as all shit, but it's nothing you shouldn't be able to deal with.

From the outset of each mission and take-off from any allied base, you'll have to select from a load-out of three different types of missiles, all with varying targeting ranges, firepower, and quantities,just like Top Gun. An added feature though, is that you can also outfit your helicopter with an extra auxiliary feature such as supplemental fuel tanks, bombs that will obliterate all ground-based targets, and chaff that will jam enemy radar for a while and get the heat off of you. The addition of these extra features adds a bit of strategy to fighting in the skies, which is certainly welcome given how vanilla Konami's previous flight sim-type games have been.

Once you take off, you'll be presented with two radars on your UI. The most obvious is your standard radar detailing any immediate threats around you and is typical of all flight sim radars. The second is a wide area radar which serves as a map of the area displaying all of the bases that house your objectives and an allied base you can return to in order to refuel and restock your missile supply. Helicopter portions of every mission are essentially your bridge to the other areas of the game. You fly to each base, fight off whatever targets are coming for you, and will more often than not, fight a boss during or at the end of a mission.

Unfortunately, while Konami spiced things up a bit, the helicopter portions still end up falling a bit flat. One reason is that combat really isn't all that fun. The enemy variety just isn't there, and once you've learned how to shoot down missiles, there's hardly any challenge to it. No, I'm afraid the challenge comes from all the wrong places.

The first offender is trying to land at allied and enemy heliports. No, not the actual landing sequence, but trying to actually initiate it. When you approach a heliport, an on-screen indicator will kindly point it out. You then have to drop your speed to 0 while bringing down your altitude to successfully land. The problem is that the game is very finnicky about where you need to stop and attempt to sit the bird down. I've had instances where I'd hover over the same base for a minute or more and the landing mini-game never started, yet the base was right there. It took two or three fly-bys on a lot of heliports to actually get the landing sequence to go, which meant tons of wasted fuel, and many deaths from being out of fuel.

Oh yeah, fuel! That's another bit of a problem. Your helicopter can only seem to hold about one gallon of it before you're splashing down into the ocean or laying hot steel wreckage all across the desert floor. You do have the option of carrying a full reserve tank, but sometimes it's not the best idea for certain missions. Sometimes it seems like there's just no right way to ration your fuel to handle certain parts of certain missions. The lengthy escape sequence followed by a boss fight at the end of the second mission immediately springs to mind. It feels like sometimes you just have to lose a life in order to have enough fuel to pull off the remainder of a mission.

The last major pissing point for the helicopter sequences is some of the same nonsense that appeared in Top Gun: The Second Mission: Flying through random obstacles. Basically all the same obstacles from that game are back. The trees, the lightning, and some "reskinned" trees called air mines. All are instant-kill upon contact, and as with Top Gun it's pretty damn hard to judge their distance. The NES just wasn't great at this kind of scaling/hit detection and the later points of this game hammer that home. The last mission becomes almost excruciatingly frustrating and really almost made me call it quits my first time through the game.

Now, once you've landed your bird, you hop out on foot to mow some motherfuckers down with the zapper or gamepad. These sections are the simplest, but in no way does that mean they're easy. You have to fire at doods as they run onto the screen or pop out from behind various structures in the background to shoot or throw hand grenades at you. This portion of the game is almost 100% nicked from Bayou Billy. The enemy patterns are tough but fair, and power-ups to replenish your health and bullets are frequent enough to keep the action from ever feeling unfair when you're supremely outnumbered and really hurting.

These sections of the game aren't bad, but playing them with a gamepad is just asking to get wiped out in record time. You do have a better rate of fire with a controller, but moving the crosshair around the screen takes time, and enemies weren't balanced to accomodate for a much slower aim. Other than that, aside from pointing at the screen or moving a crosshair around the screen to aim, there's not a whole hell of a lot else to these stages. No special guns, no reloading to keep track of, and there are only about three types of enemy you ever have to deal with . Just survive until the screen scrolls all the way to the right. Had this portion of the game been zazzed up a little more, I think it'd have probably made a decent stand-alone game. I always liked me some lightgun shooters anyway.

The final portion of each mission layout is the "Confusion Maze," which is a first-person dungeon crawl through well...a maze! I suspect this portion of the game was nicked from The Goonies II's first-person segments. In these segments of the game, you have to navigate your way through a base's many corridors, find special items necessary to complete them, and on a few occasions, escape once a time bomb has been set. During these portions of the game, while traversing various corridors, you'll run into pre-set points where you encounter groups of enemies and must dispatch them in order to continue. Combat is handled exactly as it was in the areas preceding it. Point and fire until enemies stop coming.

There's not much wrong with these portions of the game other than the oddball control scheme. Given how I usually play, holding a gamepad in one hand to move and having to press A to open doors, while having a Zapper ready in the other hand just feels plain awkward. Other than that, the Confusion Maze segments like to mess around with you a bit by making you find a gas mask to traverse certain areas or completely stripping you of your equipment and making you hunt it all down again. At least there's a little variety, but this part, too, falls a bit flat due to the somewhat boring nature of the combat. You only have to deal with keeping your eyes on half the screen now and I honestly can't remember dying once or twice during these segments.

I really wanted to like Laser Invasion way more than I did, but its shortcomings did damn near everything they could to keep me from it. I found myself constantly bouncing back and forth between thinking "Oh, this is actually pretty fun" and "Oh, fuck you Laser Invasion" so much that deciding on a final score was kinda tough. The kick in the pants is that had all three parts of the game had been left in the oven just a little longer, this really could have been a great game. Rescue: The Embassy Mission is one example of the kinda game this one wanted to be, where all the gameplay elements come together to form cohesive missions. Even though all of Laser Invasion's various game styles are related by militaristic theme, they never really feel like they're one package, and worst of all that Konami quality just isn't there for most of it. It was a good try, but not quite good enough.

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