No matter how good you get at Luftrausers, no matter how attuned you become to its rhythms, you’ll never truly become an aerial ace. By virtue of little more than a simple control scheme and some cartoonish, consistent, wonderfully tuned physics, it casts you not as a skilled pilot, but as a layman finding themselves thrust into the cockpit of a plane, not quite knowing how to fly it, but being instructed to with a single word: “Raus!”
Climbing from a seaborne carrier, you’ll quickly find yourself assaulted by a barrage of projectiles. Tiny planes launch themselves towards you at kamikaze speed, while battleships pump round after round of missiles skyward; cruisers do likewise, albeit to less devastating effect. Larger aircraft mercilessly target you, unleashing volleys that will kill you in seconds unless you break away from their arcing flight paths. Your task is simple: survive, on two wings and a prayer.
An average Luftrausers run – if, indeed, there is such a thing – can be capricious, and occasionally frustrating, but its glorious unpredictability is part of what makes it so irresistible. At times you’ll weave effortlessly through a barrage of projectiles from a battleship; at others you’ll pinwheel gracelessly through the hail, but each skin-of-your-teeth escape offers a similar sensation of relief and release regardless of how you got there. At times it’s like playing a bullet-hell shooter with a broken joystick: you might blunder through airborne traffic more by luck than by design, but it’s a breathless thrill each time.
It’s surprisingly tactical, too. You’re more manoeuvrable when you stop shooting, while any damage you’ve taken slowly recovers. However, any temporary ceasefires will not only reset your score multiplier, but see enemies will attack you with renewed vigour. The greatest rewards, then, come to those who risk all. Vlambeer evidently subscribes to the maxim that it’s better to burn out than fade away.
Elsewhere, completing side objectives unlocks new parts with which to customise your craft, from homing missiles to a chassis capable of withstanding melee damage but weak to projectiles. Each modification gives your craft a new name, and with it, a new personality. A heavy plane propelled by bullets is known as The Slug; equip the same body with a laser weapon and an engine that protects you from water damage, and you’ve got a Humpback. You can turn yourself into a glass cannon or a tank and the handling will subtly differ each time, with some builds more likely to deliver slapstick comedy than death-defying stunts. With unlockable visual filters and an even harder difficulty setting, it’s got the variety to keep you coming back after the initial buzz has worn off.
Yet Luftrausers always seems capable of recapturing the heady frisson of those early runs. For all the times you’re sunk by a series of unerringly accurate shots, there’s a moment or two of heartstopping magic: a deliberate stall that carries you away from danger in the nick of time, a headlong plunge towards a battleship that sees you somehow deliver a deadly payload unscathed, or the shuddering explosion that accompanies a nuke-assisted suicide mission on a screen-filling blimp. And each and every time, it starts with single, symbolic input. Touch the topmost arrow key, or push your thumb against the base of the analogue stick. Either way, you’re going up, up, and away.