Sega Ages G-LOC Air Battle: Wish Fulfilment

Sega’s G-LOC Air Battle is my favourite arcade game of all time — not that I had that many opportunities to play it as a child, sadly.

We don’t really “do” arcades here in the UK anywhere other than the seaside, you see, and thus, growing up in a small village that was a considerable distance from the nearest seaside resort, I only ever got to play a lot of arcade games when we went on holiday. This, naturally, led to me judging a lot of domestic holiday destinations based on what arcade machines were readily accessible.

G-LOC is a game that immediately caught my attention on a family trip to Newquay in Cornwall. I dropped a quid in it for three credits, sat down and prepared for action. And from that moment on, I was in love.

For the unfamiliar, G-LOC (which, if you’re wondering, stands for Loss Of Consciousness through G-Force) was a Sega arcade game originally released in 1990 as a spin-off to the company’s popular After Burner series of air combat arcade titles. You take on the role of a navy fighter pilot flying the Sega Wing Carrier Fighter A8M5 Mk II “Zeek” — which absolutely definitely positively is not an F-14 Tomcat, nosirree — as you take on a series of missions to blow the living shit out of some unnamed enemy forces against a strict time limit.

G-LOC is one of many “Super Scaler” games put out by Sega’s legendary game designer and engineer Yu Suzuki, who, in the ages prior to polygonal visuals becoming widespread, became particularly renowned for his pioneering work in simulating three-dimensional worlds using smoothly scaling and rotating 2D images. (Once polygonal visuals became a thing, he also became renowned for successfully leveraging this new technology for new ways to present classic formulae — but that’s a whole other story.)

G-LOC ran on Sega’s Model Y hardware, which was the penultimate generation of Super Scaler hardware. This means it’s one of Sega’s most technically accomplished sprite-based titles, eclipsed only by the company’s System 32 games such as Rad Mobile and Jurassic Park.

It was also noteworthy for being one of the most ambitious arcade games to feature sit-down, moving cabinets; the version I played in Newquay all those years ago was a “Deluxe” cabinet which pitched and rolled with your in-game actions, but its most sought-after variation was the “R360” cabinet; this was a ball-like pod that you sat inside and had to strap yourself in using rollercoaster-style shoulder restraints because the damn thing would spin around all its axes through a full 360 degrees. Yes, this meant that you could (and would) go upside down, the novelty and thrill of which somewhat took the sting out of the fact you had to pay three quid for two minutes of gameplay.

G-LOC never really had a good computer or console port back when it was current — mostly due to the fact that Sega farmed out most of the home versions to software companies that weren’t quite up to the job of recreating such a spectacular arcade experience on the considerably less powerful home gaming hardware of the time. The version for Sega’s ill-fated 8-bit handheld the Game Gear was quite well-received — but that was essentially a brand new game carrying the G-LOC name rather than an attempt to port the arcade game directly.

The closest we came to a good home version was the Mega CD version of After Burner III, which was actually a conversion of G-LOC’s Japan-only sequel Strike Fighter; the Mega CD’s hardware scaling meant that it could come much closer to what the arcade original offered than any other platform at the time — but it still wasn’t quite there.

30 years later, and here we are with Sega Ages G-LOC Air Battle for Nintendo Switch, which provides not only an arcade-perfect port of the original game, it also features an all-new original mix of stages with a great soundtrack and a variety of excellent customisation options.

Sega Ages G-LOC Air Battle can be played in two ways: a direct recreation of the arcade original, or the new “Ages” mode.

The former offers you three distinct missions: an 8-stage Beginner mission, a 12-stage Medium mission and a 16-stage Expert mission. What’s interesting about these is that they’re actually different from one another in a number of ways: you’ll visit different stages at different times of day and be presented with different challenges to overcome.

Most notably, the handling of your plane is markedly different in each: in Beginner, you’re limited to banking up to 45 degrees at a time; in Medium you can bank up to 90 degrees, allowing for tighter turns; and in Expert you have complete freedom to roll all the way around if you want to. Expert also disables the “auto-centre” facility from the other modes, meaning if you want to return to level flight, you need to do it yourself.

Because G-LOC is only providing the illusion of 3D through the use of sprites and 2D art mapped onto a flat plane, you don’t have a full six degrees of freedom, even in Expert mode. Instead, the handling is somewhat akin to how a “vanishing point” racer handles things: banking to the left or right causes your plane to move laterally to the left or right rather than “turning” in that direction. For those accustomed to true 3D flight simulations, this might take a bit of adjusting to, but before long, it becomes second nature — and it’s only during the occasional “canyon” missions where it’s something you need to worry about too much, anyway.

In each mission, you’re given a target number of enemies to shoot down and challenged to fulfil this quota before your time limit expires. Succeed and you’ll gain a time bonus: a flat 15 seconds simply for finishing the stage, plus up to an additional 15 seconds depending on how many missiles you have left at the conclusion of the level.

Enemies can be shot down using either your Vulcan cannon, which has unlimited ammunition, or with your homing missiles. Missiles have to be locked on by positioning an enemy inside your plane’s head-up display, then waiting for your aiming sight to overlap the enemy targeting indicator. When attacking ground targets, you get to fire off “Dragon Fry” (sic) missiles that split into multiple warheads and can thus hit many targets simultaneously; during air combat, however, you need a solid lock on each enemy before you shoot your load.

The time limit isn’t the only hazard; enemies can shoot back, and do so with increasing frequency the further into the game you go. The most dangerous situation occurs when the game shows off its most impressive graphical trick: the camera “zooms out” of the cockpit and switches to an After Burner-style third-person view, indicating that an enemy is right on your tail and attempting to get a missile lock. In this case, you need to shake them off with some fancy flying — usually a roll, accomplished by flicking the stick from one side to the other rapidly, or simply hammering the stick in one direction as hard as you can in Expert mode!

Your plane can take a few hits before exploding, and getting shot down doesn’t mean the end of your game; it does, however, mean wasting a few critical seconds, and that can very much make the difference between success and failure when time is already tight. Success in G-LOC’s three missions is dependent on learning each stage’s enemy patterns along with getting a feel for how to handle your plane correctly; while it’s tempting to fling it around the sky with gay abandon, the sensitive analogue controls tend to prove more rewarding to those with a somewhat more delicate touch.

Ages mode mostly offers more of the same: specifically, it provides you with a new set of 16 stages to challenge, based around the Beginner handling but offering a level of difficulty akin to somewhere around the Medium-Expert missions in the arcade original. There are a couple of important differences to the core mechanics, too: you have a larger stock of missiles — meaning a larger potential time bonus at the end of each stage if you’re suitably frugal — and the lock-on system works considerably faster, allowing you to quickly target a whole formation of enemies, fire off your missiles and leave them to do their thing while you pursue your next victims.

Sega Ages G-LOC Air Battle offers a number of customisation options, too. You can adjust the difficulty level, set the arcade version to play the Japanese or International version of the game and limit the number of times you’re allowed to continue — ideal for those trying to hone their skills and attain a one-credit clear or a new best time.

Probably most exciting for those who remember the arcade original, though, is the ability to activate a simulation of the tilting, pitching “Deluxe” arcade cabinet that I used to pump pound coins into during our family’s Cornish holidays back in the early ’90s.

It’s not the first time Sega and M2 have provided such a feature in one of their Sega Ages releases; the excellent Nintendo 3DS version of OutRun had a feature where the game screen would “tilt” according to how you were steering, for example. But G-LOC’s implementation is probably the most convincing, immersive and effective attempt to pull this off, especially on the big screen. It features a loving recreation of the sit-down arcade cabinet itself — complete with flashing lights, buttons and decals — and complements the experience with optional sound effects of the cabinet’s hydraulics whining, the game’s controls being manipulated, and the surrounding ambience of a busy arcade.

It’s clear that M2 observed how the original arcade machine really worked, too, because it features many of its more subtle movements as well as the obvious tilting as your in-game plane rolls and pitches — things like the fact that the cabinet “sinks” into position as your mission starts and you prepare to take off, providing the illusion of being thrown back in your seat by a speedy carrier launch. It really is remarkable how much of a sense of motion, dynamism and immersion this feature provides — though it’s also worth noting for those prone to motion sickness that it is completely optional, and the game looks absolutely lovely blown up to full-height 4:3.

Sega Ages G-LOC Air Battle is an exemplary arcade conversion, and a game I’ve been waiting to play at home in a not-shit incarnation for thirty years; truly a childhood wish finally fulfilled. M2 and Sega have done this oft-forgotten classic from Sega’s early ’90s line-up absolutely proud… and you’re going to have a tough time dragging me away from it!

More about G-LOC: Air Battle

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