Sometimes it takes a newcomer to shake out the doldrums. It seems like everybody these days is obsessed with getting a realtime strategy game to market they used to be obsessed with getting a 3D shooter out, but the release of Doom and Quake changed all that. Along comes the Skunkworks, newcomers to the Amiga games market, to try to shake things up with Wingnuts, an action flight sim with tongue planted so firmly in cheek it's causing lacerations.
Wings, take flight
Wingnuts puts you in the cockpit of one of six whacky flying machines, from a UFO to a bizarre rocketship to a flying car. Behind the controls, you can take on the persona of six different pilots, each a cartoon stereotype. The plot, as it were, is that Wingnuts is the most popular contact sport in the galaxy and you're in a small arena on a small planet dedicated to the thing. When you strap in to the contraption of your choice, you face off against five other pilots, up to three of which can be human (if serial linking two Amigas together - otherwise you can play against one other person)
Once you've made your pick you're taken away to the arena, where each player gets a half-screen view from just behind the pilot, which means you see the cockpit and pilot as well as out the window. There are a wide variety of weapons to choose; guns, rockets, missiles, 'laser' weapons, and defences.
Crash and Burn
Wingnuts looks like a great game up until you actually get to the flying around and fighting part. The 3D flight engine isn't very detailed even when set to 'very high' detail mode, but this is no big deal as it makes the game well suited even for slower machines, and given the game's dogfight nature they weren't going for professional flight sim realism. But so many corners were cut that the game is nearly impossible to play.
For starters, there is no artificial horizon or altimeter, and gauging distance from the ground is nearly impossible unless you switch to the external view, which involves a keypress and is hardly convenient. The lack of a horizon means that you are not only never quite sure how high you are off the ground but whether or not you're continuing to climb. You do have a radar, but I am all but convinced that it bears no actual resemblance to the action around you. The manual does a very poor job of explaining it and hours of flight time got me no nearer to understanding its mechanics, or how to locate an enemy. By 'locate' I mean get one in my sights - you can tell they're there because they shoot at you constantly, but I'm damned if I know where they are.
I tried to look past these glaring flaws and get on with playing the game. Getting a missile lock on an enemy contraption is not impossible, but is extremely difficult. On the other hand, the bad guys seem to be able to get locks on you whenever they feel like it, and you wind up depleting your store of missile decoys very early in a match. Managing speed is easy enough to manage with the keyboard, but using the function keys to cycle through weaponry fast enough gets very harrowing. Support for CD32 joypads, or even two joystick buttons, would have been extremely welcome.
If combat gets to be too much for you, you can seek haven on the landing strip and get repairs. Sounds great, doesn't it? Except that there's no actual way to tell where the landing strip is at any given time - there's no map! You can enable an autopilot mode to land you, and this may or may not take you to the landing strip. Sometimes it just sets you down on the ground.
The manual mentions that the average lifespan for novice Wingnuts is 42 seconds. This is funny, until you realize that it's absolutely true. The enemy buzzes around you and mercilessly pummels you time and time again. It's not really possible to play in a true 'novice' mode where your pilot is an ace - you can build up the mediocre starting stats of the 6 pilots but that doesn't do you much good if you can't win a single dogfight.
I found the most effective combat strategy was to buy the 'Blunderbuss', a machine gun you can fire from the ground, land and then just shoot away at guys from there. Unfortunately, I also found that I couldn't get back from the Blunderbuss sight to my cockpit. It's things like this that give Wingnuts that "not playtested by those who weren't intimately involved in development" feeling.
The Shame of it
The real shame is that I wanted to like Wingnuts. There's a lot to like. The manual, while produced on a very bare budget, is whimsically funny without being annoying. The pilots hold up little signs, get ill, and panic and are quite charming in their way while the carnage mounts around them. And if Wingnuts got a few weeks of external playtesting and a retool by the programmer, it could be a very fun game. It's just not playable as it stands.
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