Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces - A Fun Prop-Fighter Nintendo Game Powered by Ace Combat

Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces 31 photos
Photo: Project Aces
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More realistic arcade-adjacent dogfight simulators like War Thunder do better justice to piston-engine fighter planes than the Ace Combat series. Piston fighters were only introduced to the game exclusively in Ace Combat Infinity for the Playstation 4. Even then, their introduction was only in limited numbers.
But the reason why Project Aces even considered adding piston fighters is that Ace Combat games had nothing to do with War Thunder at all. Instead, that's all thanks to the sole representative of project Aces on a Nintendo home console. This is the story of The Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces. The alternate history dogfighting arcade game with the beating heart of Ace Combat.

Typically, this is where we'd dive into a long dissertation about why this particular game is a certified, uncut diamond developed by Project Aces in the period immediately following Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation's 2007 release. In truth, The Sky Crawler series has a set of lore and an extended universe all its own.

Released for the Nintendo Wii in Japan in October 2008, the game is a direct prequel to the anime adaptation of Hiroshi Mori's The Sky Crawlers series of novels. The game would take a further two calendar years to be dubbed into English and released across North America, Europe, and Australia between January and March of 2010. The game was released with help from Xseed Games.

A publishing group mainly comprised of former Square Enix USA employees. But the limited number of people who did eventually play western ports of the game found gameplay reminiscent of the best of Ace Combat mixed with an art style that's nothing short of stunning. Dare we say, it's downright beautiful. Even on the Wii's inferior ATI Hollywood-series graphics chip, reportedly based largely on overclocked Gamecube hardware.

Sky Crawlers\: Innocent Aces
Photo: Project Aces
But Ray Tracing be darned, Skycrawlers, as we'll refer to it from now on, makes the best of the Wii's potato-grade graphics. It uses an anime art style that gives the Wii's GPU a break from rendering super-realistic game assets to make the most out of limited "horsepower" under the Wii's hood.

The game is set in an alternate history beset by military-driven instability threatening this fictional reality's respective nation-states. Project Aces was no stranger to world-building. Most Ace Combat games are set in a similar alternate reality called the Strangereal universe. In the same vein as Strangereal, the player takes control of a rookie pilot only known as Lynx.

Be it with the Wii's iconic nunchucks, a Nintendo Classic controller, or even a classic Gamecube controller. The player takes to the sky piston-engined fighter planes as a member of the contract-for-hire private fighter squad, the Sky Crawlers.

In a world ostensibly in a state of relative peace, giant mega corporations fund the Sky Crawlers as the player advances through a series of 18 missions. All end with level-boss fights against the best adversary pilots the Sky Crawlers universe has at its disposal.

Sky Crawlers\: Innocent Aces
Photo: Project Aces
It's here that we stop beating around the bush and explain what, at least to us, is the primary reason you should give this nearly 15-year-old Wii game a chance if you ever get the chance. All the frankly gorgeous-looking prop planes everybody gets to fly. The Sky Crawlers game's aircraft took the best features of iconic classic prop planes from real life and melded them into unique, beautiful, and bespoke airplanes.

Design cues from Japanese, American, German, and British warbird designs from the late World War II era. Take the Suiga, for example. A quad-machine-gun-sporting carrier-fighter with distinct gull-style wings derived from the American Vaught F-4U Corsair with a front end distinctly like a German Focke-Wulf Focke-Wulf Fw 190.

There's the Skyly D, a fighter with influences from British warbirds like the Martin-Baker MB5 and the Supermarine Seafire. Sporting a piston engine with exhaust turbines that give temporary speed boosts is similar to the British Napier Nomad engine, which also integrated a gas turbine system into a piston engine in real life.

Perhaps the strangest-looking airplane in the game is Senryu SS. We can only hope the SS stands for Super Sport. The plane sports a rear-mounted engine driving an enormous five-bladed propeller. The cockpit and front fascia are derived from a blend of the German Heinkel He-111 and Junkers Ju-388 twin-engine bombers.

Sky Crawlers\: Innocent Aces
Photo: Project Aces
With a twin-boom tail like a Lockheed P-38 lightning, it's a delightfully bizarre design. It's just one of a few aircraft in the game with such a configuration. This brings us to the Fission, a twin-engine fighter arranged in a push-me, pull-you configuration like the German Dornier Do-335 Pfeil, the fastest super-prop of World War II.

In our opinion, every other plane in the Sky Crawlers game is put to shame by the Itsuha. Another rear-engined pusher plane derived inspiration from experimental Second World War pushers like the Curtiss-Wright XP-55 Ascender and the Kyushu J7W Shinden. So to speak, as a treat for the eyeballs of all vintage piston-warbirds up to World War II, Sky Crawlers gives us several heaping portions. Far too many for one sitting, that's for sure.

All the marvelous airframes to fly and fight against are complimented by arcade-like controls that aren't that different in feel from Ace Combat. Key tropes like green target boxes for foes and blue for allies flanked by a more-classic feeling minimap and flight gauge display make for something that feels right at home for Ace Combat Players.

AI allies that add varying levels of assistance depending on the selected difficulty add another layer of selection and dynamic gameplay that's quite admirable for 2008. But with a gun-targeting system more reminiscent of something like War Thunder's mouse-aim system, there are so many delightful aspects of Sky Crawlers that are nothing short of chicken soup for the soul. Especially for fans of War Thunder back when its claim to fame was the most fun game to fly World War II-era warbirds in the world.

Sky Crawlers\: Innocent Aces
Photo: Project Aces
Nintendo Power awarded Sky Crawlers a rating of seven out of ten, while IGN gave a rating of 8.0. Indicating that while non-warplane-simulator-playing clientele may not fall in love with the game, it satisfied the itch for av-geeks in a way no other game ever made does in quite the same way.

Sadly, Sky Crawler's modest popularity with journalists didn't translate into a sequel game. Even so, Sky Crawlers left a lasting mark on the Ace Combat Franchise, extending to even the most recent seventh entry. With Sky Crawler's admittedly simplistic but no-less interesting cloud cover game dynamic ultimately became a trademark feature for Skies Unknown. A game tactic still used by multiplayer team deathmatch combatants to this day.

If there were ever a candidate for Project Aces to comprehensively remaster besides AC4: Shattered Skies, we think Sky Crawlers: The Innocent Aces should absolutely be near the top of that list. Envisioning such a colorful, dynamic, and fast-paced flight combat game of this caliber rendered with Nvidia Ray Tracing in stunningly crisp 4K sounds like our idea of heaven.

All in all, we think we have a game on our hands that should be in the collection of all our readers lucky enough to still own a working Wii. You owe it to yourself if you're into the genre.

Sky Crawlers\: Innocent Aces
Photo: Project Aces
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