Top Gun (NES)

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Review written by Stephen Deck; originally published 07/15/2021 on Teacher by Day, Gamer by Night

Top Gun is a game made infamous by the early Angry Video Game Nerd videos, and I’m not ashamed to say that that’s where I first saw the game back when I was in middle school.  Since then, it always kind of mystified me as this game that was fun to hate but never seemed as bad to me as the internet – myself included – made it out to be.  When I started collecting for NES in earnest in my freshman year of high school, I picked this game up at the flea market down the road out of obligation as much as anything else.  I felt like a game that seemingly universally reviled was one that I had to own.

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Top Gun is a flight combat sim, and despite releasing fairly early in the NES’s lifespan – 1987 – it looks fantastic.  The game is from a cockpit perspective, and while it’s definitely a product of 1980s gaming technology, it’s remarkable when you take the hardware into consideration.  The combat is fast paced, and you’ve really got to be on your toes to shoot down enemies, dodge bullets, and either avoid or destroy incoming missiles all at the same time.  It feels a lot like a first person After Burner to me, and considering that After Burner is one of my favorite Master System games, that’s definitely a good thing.

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That’s the majority of the game, but that’s not what most people tend to criticize.  Most folks seem to recognize the actual dogfighting as an incredibly fun and well-made experience.  What most people criticize – rightfully so – is the landing sequence at the end of each level.  It’s nearly impossible to land the plane without crashing and losing a life until you really get a good feel for it, and that’s where most of the hate comes into play.  The game consists of four levels, and you have three lives.  Even if you play each level perfectly and never get shot down, you’ll still get game over before you finish the last level if you can’t land the plane, and those missiles can be extremely difficult to avoid especially in the last two levels.  Even if you follow all of the on-screen prompts immediately, you’ll crash.  It just takes a ton of trial and error until you really get a feel for it, and that’s something a lot of people don’t have the patience to do.

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Top Gun is honestly a really good game for the most part.  The combat is incredibly fun, but that damn landing sequence ruins the game for a lot of folks.  I definitely don’t think it’s fair to write off the entire game as garbage because of that part, but given that it’s unreasonably obnoxious, it’s a definite pox on an otherwise excellent NES.  Don’t avoid the game just because of it, but definitely go in with the understanding that you’ll want to break your controller when you get to that part.

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