Propeller Arena is known to many Sega fans as "the one that got away." Nearly completed by Sega AM2 for a Fall 2001 Dreamcast release, it was cancelled at the last moment in the wake of the September 11th tragedy. If the Dreamcast had been a thriving console, Propeller Arena might just have been postponed by a few months. But Sega's embattled final system was already on its way out at the time, and the game ended up being shelved for good. It's truly a shame, because the aerial dogfighter would have made for a spectacular online experience in the vein of Dreamcast hits such as Phantasy Star Online or Alien Front Online. Furthermore, it was one of the most graphically impressive action titles on the DC.
Initially Sega's pulling the plug on Propeller Arena might have seemed a bit of an overreaction to the events of 9/11. After all, what did a fantastical WWII-style arcade game have in common with modern day events? The action is more along the lines of Snoopy's Red Baron dogfights than anything grounded in reality. There was speculation from fans that it was just a convenient way for Sega to avoid releasing a title that stood a dubious chance of being profitable so late in the Dreamcast's run, a game that would also further prolong the dismantling of the DC's online gaming network. The PS2 had been out nearly a year, and interest in Sega's final console had waned considerably since they'd announced in early 2001 that they were abandoning the hardware market to go software-only. To many, Sega's motives might have seemed suspiciously like a tax write-off under the guise of public sensitivity.
We recently had a chance to go hands-on with a final beta copy of Propeller Arena, and once one actually plays the game Sega's decision seems much more understandable. One level is called "Airport," while another, "Tower City," is apparently patterned after Manhattan, the anchoring feature of the stage's city skyline being huge replicas of the World Trade Center's Twin Towers. Sega's fears that some players might re-inact the 9/11 tragedy online by deliberately crashing their planes into those buildings or staging hi-jackings at the airport may have had some merit. Don't forget that the game was to feature online voice-chat as well, and you can see nightmare scenarios unfolding in Sega executives' heads that would make a public relations rep cringe.
Sega's worst public relations nightmare: A player's plane heading for the replicas of the Twin Towers in Propeller Arena's "Tower City" stage.
The game's stages include: Airport, Red Valley, Tower City, Sky High, Ice World, Volcano, Old Castle, and Phantom Island. Propeller Arena featured an initial roster of eight selectable planes with colorful names like: Eagle Sam (default plane), Shameless Cats, Muscle Bros., Pizza Fat, Pengo Jets, 8-Bit Beat, Hex Candy, and Golden Knife. Planes differed widely in terms of size and handling, and each one had a different stock machine-gun with varying degrees of firepower and shot type.
The stages in the game are diverse and feature some of the most beautiful graphics seen on the Dreamcast; along with Shenmue II (another game that never made it home for American Dreamcast owners), it's evidence that AM2 was learning how to code for the machine more effectively in the twilight of its generation. The aforementioned Tower City level features perhaps the best example of polygon geometry ever seen on the console; the amount of skyscrapers onscreen and detail invested in the cityscape is impressive for a five-year old console. "Old Castle" is another beauty, fighter planes soaring over rolling green hills and the immense ruins of an ancient fortress, while the Volcano stage adds a twist--the terrain fights back! Every so often a smoldering peak at the center of the red mountain range will erupt and spew forth a column of lava, devestating any plane caught in its path. The texture work on all stages is also right up there with the best the Dreamcast has to offer.
Propeller Arena on display at the Lost Levels booth during the Classic Game Expo. Watch out for the Old Castle!
Gameplay could be best described as "Alien Front Online in the air," though AFO was team oriented. By contrast, Propeller Arena's main mode seemed to be going for an "every man for himself" approach, a free for all online dogfight. In this regard it resembled an early version of Microsoft's excellent Crimson Skies for Xbox, but we have no way of knowing exactly what the online mode of the Propeller Arena would have been like. The closest we could get with the beta copy we played was splitscreen combat, which was frantic and fun indeed.
Propeller Arena is a very pick-up-and-play friendly game. When you target a plane in your crosshairs and successfully shoot it, "Hit!" pops up in big letters, so you immediately know you're doing damage. Likewise, you know when you're taking fire as well. Danger warnings show up and visible damage will be inflicted on your craft. Take too many hits and "Shot down" appears--your plane explodes and you parachute out to fight another day (in about five seconds when your plane respawns). And though the action gets pretty intense and the control is appropriately loose, your plane will rebel if you handle it too roughly. Ignore the "Pull Down" message when you turn too wildly or change altitude dramatically and you may stall out. The "Stalled" dialogue box stays on the screen for about ten seconds and you can only glide until the engine kicks back in. During that window you're particularly vulnerable as steering ability and speed is dramatically reduced.
Ignore the "PULL DOWN" warning and your plane will stall out.
There are several kinds of powerups floating in the sky that will give you a leg up on the opposition. The ultimate is a huge "nuke" type bomb that creates a mushroom cloud explosion in the sky. Anyone that flies into it or is directly hit would take great damage, usually resulting in certain death. Heat-seeking missiles make hitting your target much easier, and do far greater damage than regular machine gun fire. The stealth powerup enables you to go invisible for about 30 seconds. Enemies can't target you and you can sneak right up behind them sight unseen.
Controls are easy to learn, and planes steer flight-stick style, with an inverted-pitch scheme mapped to the DC pad's analog stick. The steering felt a bit sluggish, but appropriate for the vintage prop planes represented. No barrel rolls or loop-de-loops seemed possible, but it may depend upon which plane you use. Like many AM2 games, there is a delightfully cheesy glam rock soundtrack playing throughout the proceedings. Think Top Gun, but even cornier. Stage battles last a set amount of time in minutes, and when the time's up the winner is the player or cpu plane with the most kills.
It's really too bad that Propeller Arena never saw the light of day on the Dreamcast; it was one of the most graphically pleasing ganes for the console and the fun factor of the online mode would have been through the roof. There's perhaps a slim chance that Sega might repackage the game as part of a future compilation disc of classic games, but the online mode that was the heart of the game will never be seen in action. The sky really did turn out to be the limit for this lost Dreamcast gem.
· · · Teddman