Carrier Air Wing was a sequel to Capcom's earlier scrolling shooter Area 88, a.k.a. U.N. Squadron, a more familiar name for most gamers thanks to an excellent port to Nintendo's 16-bit SNES console. This very similar second game has remained fairly obscure -- even Capcom's Playstation 2 classics collections have ignored it, and the only reason I have a copy is because Hanaho Games published a Capcom collection for PCs back in 1999. That package was supposed to include U.N. Squadron (the logo is still on the CD cover) but actually shipped with Carrier Air Wing, most likely due to lingering license issues with the original Japanese Area 88 manga -- the US release was renamed, but the licensed character designs were not reworked.
This infringement-free continuation gives us three new pilot heroes flying similar aircraft to those in the original game -- they have little in the way of personality, and only one unambiguous surname amongst them:
Carrier Air Wing isn't so much a sequel as more of the same, which may be why it never got a home release -- the SNES could certainly have handled the action,which ran on the same Capcom CPS-1 hardware as its predecessor, although (as with U.N. Squadron) the two-player mode would likely have been sacrificed. But it's still fun, and fairly challenging if you can resist the urge to insert virtual coins, enabling anyone (like yours truly) to finish the game with a 500,000 point completion bonus, if nothing else.
Most levels feature simple but attractive background scenery -- the primary focus is on the incoming aircraft and ground forces, with some extended boss battles. And the background music is generic, hard-driving action music, though it's a nice change from the moody atmospherics of modern, more cinematic games. Something about jaunty, looping tunes still fits these kinds of games well, and I often lament the loss of this type of scoring in the more cinematic modern era.
What stands out most about this series two decades on is its relatively realistic approach, once you get past the overwrought storyline about a fictional war-mongering nation called Rabu which tries to conquer the world, starting by taking over the world-renowned manufacturing facilities of Japan. The weaponry and bosses aren't exactly authentic military-issue hardware, and nothing in the real world maneuvers like these planes can, but the story stays grounded -- we don't discover an alien intelligence or fight any giant monsters, at least; all we're trying to do is take out Rabu's impressive array of hardware by going in with our nimble little planes (and infinite lives if we can stomach the token budget.)
Generally, we fly from left to right, with some larger multi-target bosses requiring passes back and forth until everything is destroyed. Here are some random screenshots from several of the game's ten levels -- the common enemies don't change up much, and the boss battles tend to require similar tactics, so most of the visual variety comes from the backgrounds:
And when the battles are over, it seems we've run out of fuel in our zeal to save the world, so Mike/Roy/Ford/James/Mark/probably-not-Olson has to eject from his expensive fighter before it explodes, parachuting into the ocean to await rescue by what we presume are friendly helicopters:
Like most quarter-sucking arcade games of its time, Carrier Air Wing doesn't take long to finish, though one could certainly do it with more finesse and fewer inserted coins than I managed in a quick playthrough. It's not a lesser game than U.N. Squadron, but it's not noticeably better either, and it ends up feeling like a poor substitute for the original from a nostalgia perspective -- in fact, I found myself missing the goofy licensing tie-ins like pilot portraits, even though none of that really affected the gameplay. But it's certainly got the level of quality befitting its Capcom heritage, and it plays well enough to be worth a go.