Unbeknownst to most US gamers, Solar Jetman was actually a sequel to Jetpac and Lunar Jetman, popular on the UK scene via the Sinclair Spectrum computer (and a few other platforms) but relatively unknown here until Rare's 2007 XBLA update, Jetpac Refuelled, which provided my own introduction to this classic 1980s series.
As a result, Solar Jetman is an unusual NES game -- it has the slower, more deliberate pacing of an 8-bit home computer title, sprites are small but smoothly animated, and the action depends heavily on simulated physics. The player pilots a probe ship exploring a series of alien planets, seeking out fuel, upgrade parts, and parts of the fabled Golden Warpship, with tongue-in-cheek names:
There are bonus power crystals to pick up as well, and a variety of roaming enemies and fixed gun emplacements to take out with the probe's front-mounted guns. Once we've collected all the key items on a planet, we're off to the next one. But this is easier said than done; if the probe takes too much damage, it blows up. Still, our Jetpac-wearing pilot ejects and has a chance to survive if we can make it back to our landing ship in one piece -- with the added bonus that human lives are the limit, not probes, so if we succeed we can continue with a new probe and no major setbacks. Fortunately, any enemy turrets we have destroyed stay that way -- wandering aliens will regenerate, but we can actually clean out the caverns before we tackle the tough stuff.
Solar Jetman's challenge lies in the navigation and collecting mechanic -- our probe is subject to gravity and physics, so we must use a tiny thruster rocket and frequent attitude adjustments to get where we're trying to go. It's like playing the classic Lunar Lander game without the fuel limits, but with a bunch of enemies and landscapes making life difficult. And once we pick up an item with the probe's tow cable, the additional weight and inertia make the going even trickier -- reaching any kind of vertical speed with a wildly swaying, heavy item attached is a true challenge.
Of course, the struggle is usually worth it -- returning the piece shown above to our mothership during the first level produces a very valuable upgrade:
The shields are very handy, but not as handy as they first appear -- we can't use the tow cable while the shields are up, so while it's easier to find our cargo with shields on, it's just as hard to make off with it. Returning these FUEL icons to our landing ship makes the Jetpac lineage clear (my probe ship is within/behind the landing ship in this screenshot):
The rules change up a bit when we enter special chambers where gravity is not an issue, but we must master a new challenge, as the piece of the Golden Warpship we've discovered tends to float around wildly, attracted to the entry portal as well as the exit portal, forcing us to battle against conflicting vectors to deliver it to its destination.
Discovering a piece of the Warpship takes us into a brief challenge round, where we must try to collect crystals before time runs out. I imagine this next screen's reference made absolutely no sense to American gamers -- see, the original Jetpac and Lunar Jetman inspired to a comic strip in the Spectrum-oriented gaming magazine Crash, drawn by John Richardson and called Jetman. Even though it was officially sponsored by Rare, the strip was a freewheeling parody, with Richardson applying Wally Wood/Harvey Kurtzman-esque art to the adventures of "The Looney" (Looney Jetman, get it?) Thus, our bonus round efforts are rewarded with this head-scratching reference to the Federation of Space Loonies:
On my first round I only just made it to the second planet, of a reported thirteen, and I didn't have much virtual cash to spend when the opportunity to purchase additional upgrades presented itself before we proceeded to the next location. A substantial portion of cartridge memory must have been devoted to these between-level landing displays:
The going gets more difficult here on Mexomorf, and it wasn't long before I was facing the inevitable: