Originally published at Kombo.com, this look back at Aero the Acro-Bat is now presented here at Press The Buttons with additional material cut from the original version.
It seems as if every console generation produces a single break-out character that other developers and publishers chase with me-too clones. The Nintendo Entertainment System years produced one of gaming's biggest stars — Super Mario himself — that led to a glut of friendly, happy mascot-based action platformers. Sega's take on the format for the Sega Genesis, Sonic the Hedgehog, added radical attitude traits to the formula, and suddenly every publisher had to have a mascot cartoon character with attitude. The 16-bit years gave us plenty of forgotten and also-ran characters in that style such as Bubsy the Bobcat, Awesome Possum, and Rocky Rodent, but the one character who stood out from the pack — and, strangely enough, one character who was never intended to run with that pack in the first place — was Sunsoft's Aero the Acro-Bat. Aero's journey brought him some success across multiple platforms and eventual re-releases with sequels and spin-off adventures. When stacked against the competition chasing Sonic's speedy shoes, Aero managed to creatively succeed in an otherwise overcrowded marketplace.
Who’s Waiting In The Wings To Astound You?
Released in 1993 for the Super NES and Sega Genesis as developed by Iguana Entertainment, Aero the Acro-Bat followed the adventures of the titular acrobatic bat as he fought evil industrialist & ex-clown Edgar Ektor and worked to reclaim control over his circus home. Aero used his unique set of moves (particularly a diagonal drill attack) to knock enemies off of the screen while collecting snacks worth points and throwing star weapons used as sharp ammunition. What made Aero’s gameplay stand out from imitators involved the missions he must complete on the way to each stage’s exit. Some levels required him to collect keys to open doors, while others involved jumping through a requisite number of golden hoops, hopping on certain collapsing platforms, or rescuing Aero’s counterpart, Ariel the Acro-Bat. Levels were filled with interesting gimmicks such as springboards, cannons, rollercoasters, and other ways to propel Aero into the air. He also contended with Ektor’s sidekick, Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel, who functioned as Aero’s Knuckles the Echidna to his Sonic the Hedgehog and showed up as a boss at the end of key levels. Ektor himself did not appear until the end of the game, and after a thrilling chase through the clown's museum both he and Zero were knocked off the top of a massive tower along with their battle vehicle. Sharp-eyed players may have noticed Zero escape, while the subsequent THUNK sound implied that the former clown fell to his death.
“The original concepts were based a little bit off the Namco game Mappy in that Aero would use springboards and trampolines to bounce higher into the air and then maneuver from there,” says Aero’s creator, David Siller, who spoke with me for this article. “Aero was never intended to be similar to Sonic and was always quite different, in fact. Aero was really the first game to introduce many new elements of play that were not commonplace at that time. Things such as “Missions” to perform and specific “Tasks” to accomplish before leaving the stage were among them. Most all other games at that time only asked players to get to the EXIT to complete the stage of play.” In fact, the original design document for Aero outlines a large collection of circus stunts such as tumbles and rolls that Aero could perform as well as in-level missions such as hopping over quicksand and landing in a lion’s mouth that did not make it to the final version of the game. In fact, the final version of the game uses the circus stunts more as means to an end than as actual goals unto themselves.
Indeed, while the game is a 2D platformer at heart, it managed to break from conventions every few levels and throw something new at the player. While the Circus levels are straightforward platformer fare, the Amusement Park included a rollercoaster level in which Aero is strapped into a car and must jump or duck at key moments in order to vault across gaps in the track and avoid deadly spikes. One level featured the rotor, a rapidly horizontally moving ride that required the player to dodge obstacles vertically with the Up and Down buttons on the control pad. In the Outside levels, Aero faced spike-lined waterslides and bungee-jumping challenges. The Museum levels added secret passages to the mix, and a special bonus stage seems directly inspired by the parachute challenges of Nintendo’s Pilotwings.
Complimenting Aero's colorful world, a fantastic soundtrack adds extra excitement to the experience. Heavy on circus-themed instruments such as organs and accordions (synth versions, of course; this was 1993), Aero's journey is set to music with such songs as the thrilling circus theme that also serves as the title screen tune. While Aero has no one definitive theme song associated with him (most all the great characters of the era had their own riff of five notes or so), as the first song heard after turning on the game, the main title theme has become unofficially linked with the character nonetheless.
Aero the Acro-Bat was re-released for the Game Boy Advance in 2002 courtesy of Metro 3D (renamed Acrobat Kid for its Japanese release). The handheld version featured new artwork in the form of a comic book style introduction that outlined Ektor’s motives & backstory and added a battery-backed save ability as well as increased opportunities to enter the bonus stage. The original Super NES version of the game was added to the Wii’s Virtual Console in August 2010. At a cost of a mere 800 Nintendo Points, it's highly recommended.
Ektor’s Plan B
Aero returned to the Super NES and Sega Genesis in 1994 for Aero the Acro-Bat 2. Picking up right where the ending of the previous game left off, it turned out that it was Ektor’s battle machine that crashed into the ground, while the clown himself was rescued at the last moment by Zero. Meanwhile, Aero wandered back into the museum tower where he discovered one of Ektor’s traps: a mysterious floating door that whisked him away to a variety of traditionally styled platforming levels. This time around, Aero worked his way through the various environments presented by the door and tracked Ektor’s next move. What did the development team at Iguana want to improve upon from the first game? “Better balance of difficulty due to having three more months of development time than the first one had. We wanted to ensure that we could draw in more players to an enjoyable experience and keep them to the end. Of course we also wanted to improve the visual presentation, and that we did accomplish!” offers Siller. One notable improvement seen right at the start: the addition of a password system.
Much of the mission structure from the first Aero title was tossed for the sequel, meaning that Aero must merely reach the exit of the each level instead of collecting keys or jumping through hoops along the way. The waterslides and rotors are gone. Moreover, the character’s visual style changed to become much more animated and seemingly elastic. Says Siller, “That change went along with the evolution of the game and that particular theme as presented. Of course all developers want to constantly improve their IP and we were no different while working together in cooperation. We continuously strived for more ‘Disney-like’ animations since Aero was a cartoon character inspired by the Mouse in the first place.” Even the places that Aero visited on his tour through the floating doors are more traditional in scope for 2D platformers of the age. The circus and amusement parks were behind us, as Aero traveled through a Medieval castle filled with bells (named, fittingly, Bell Castle), an auto-scrolling snowboarding level reminiscent of the previous game’s rollercoaster portion (the Boardin Zone), a Soviet-inspired citadel (Fort Redstar), a mad scientist’s laboratory controlled by a new villain known as Dr. Dis and his evil Aero clone (Dr. Dis Industries), a realm built of large musical instruments that includes playable keyboards on the ground in what feels like a shout out to the film Big (the Disco Zone), a decrepit dungeon where Aero’s fellow circus performers are being held captive (Performer’s Dungeon), and, finally, Ektor’s “Plan B” for conquering the circus: a deadly train loaded with explosives and an intimidating skull motif (Ektor’s Engine). A new love interest, Batasha, helped drive the plot, and the end of the game saw Aero destroy Ektor’s Engine and rescue the imprisoned circus performers, seemingly bringing the acrobat’s story to an end. For his flying squirrel nemesis, however, the adventure was just beginning.
Musically, Aero's soundtrack changed to emphasize more general 16-bit tones of the time with three-part arrangements and steady percussive beats. Bell Castle's theme reflects a more easy-going atmosphere, the Boardin' Zone turns up the tempo, the Disco Zone is packed with heavy use of synth and backbeats, while Fort Redstar mixes stereotypical Russian tones with more general, moderate melodies. Consider this selection from Fort Redstar's third act, for example.
While a Game Boy Advance version of the game was canceled prior to the targeted 2003 release date, today players can experience Aero's second adventure on the Wii's Virtual Console for 800 Nintendo Points following its September 2010 addition to the service. It is also recommended.
Guard Your Nuts! Zero’s Coming!
After enjoying success among the Aero fanbase, Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel was spun-off into his own self-titled adventure for the Super NES and Sega Genesis in late 1994. While this may seem a lot like a copycat response move to Sega’s Knuckles the Echidna shifting from antagonist to protagonist, Siller assures that is not the case. “Zero became very popular with the customer base and we received many letters asking for him to have his own specific adventure game, so we complied! Zero was probably the first ‘anti-hero’ character to get his own game and it was quite a great effort spear-headed by Justin, my talented oldest son, who continues as an artist and game designer today. It was just a natural extension of how popular these characters became after the first game was released. We let the customers determine that future product by their own demand. I am very proud of what we were able to accomplish building all of these World of Aero games.”
Zero’s solo adventure began when he received a telegram from his homeland informing him that the evil lumberjack Jacques Le Sheets was chopping down the forest to feed his paper mill’s production of counterfeit money. The anti-hero could not stand for that, of course, and despite advice from Ektor urging him not to go, Zero defiantly left the clown behind to attend to more urgent matters. Despite the similar lineage, Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel is not the third Aero the Acro-Bat title. The squirrel played much differently than the bat in ways that call upon his apparent ninja heritage. His weapons of choice included throwing stars (literal metal ones, not the bright glowing actual stars from the Aero titles) and close-range nunchucks. His trademark move called upon his flying squirrel skills in which he executed a gliding swoop maneuver that could either carry him great distances or slam vertically into foes. As in Aero’s adventures, Zero’s platforming often mixed with challenges involving vehicles such as jet skis, speedboats, and jetpacks. Moreover, Zero’s overall tone was much more violent than that of Aero . Not to say that Zero was the “dark and gritty” game of the three, but the game was rated MA-13 to Aero’s GA on Sega’s pre-ESRB rating scale. After tracking Le Sheets across beaches, forests, toxic whirlpools, and a dank factory, Zero finally caught up with the lumberjack and unmasked him during a three-part battle royale. As it turned out, Le Sheets was actually Ektor in disguise, and in the end, Zero was forced to take down his former master.
From a musical perspective, Zero's soundtrack veers into darker, more intense territory while still stylistically matching the music from Aero's second adventure. Increased use of electric synth guitars and drums seem to be Zero's trademark. As a sample, have a listen to the theme from the second act of the Cliffs world.
Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel has not been ported to another system or re-released on a downloadable gaming service as of this writing, sadly. While the leaning curve is steeper here than in the two Aero titles due to Zero's unique glide controls, it is also recommended if you can track down a copy.
Bat To The Future
What lies ahead for Aero the Acro-Bat? David Siller has plans beyond re-releases on the Virtual Console if there’s enough interest. In fact, Siller himself owns the rights to Aero and Zero after purchasing them from Sunsoft some years ago. “I have constantly been working on sequels as well as other themed extensions of this franchise like puzzle versions, pinball mini-games and classic shooters all in the World of Amusement entertainment. Maybe if there were some demand from the gamers and Virtual Console customers, Sunsoft would commission me to make newer versions of the on-going saga!” There’s a lot of potential for Aero, and the time has long since come for him to break free of his perceived status as yet another Sonic the Hedgehog duplicate. In fact, of all of the things Siller wants fans to know about Aero, it’s that “Aero was NOT based on Sonic or any other attitude-based character and the coincidence of his coming out just happen to coincide with the natural market dynamics of the time.” Fans of the forgotten franchise can only hope to see an actual Aero the Acro-Bat 3 or modernized remake of the original series for a current console or handheld in the years ahead.
UP NEXT: A rare look into Aero's origin as David Siller shares the original rough concept design document for Aero the Acro-Bat.