Air Traffic Chaos DS Review

In an attempt to craft the world’s most unsellable game, Sonic Powered Co. have come up with Air Traffic Chaos, a game in which you have to learn to shuffle incoming arrivals into safe holding patterns, give them permission to land and taxi to a gate while simultaneously sending other plans out. You keep going until your shift ends, after which you go home. Essentially, this is entirely what the game is about. You don’t control the planes directly at any stage of the process, and barely communicate with them beyond giving some other lower air traffic controller permission to do it on your behalf.

Yes, I acknowledge that this sounds like the most boring game known to mankind. Couple that with the fact that there are only 5 stages, with three different difficulty levels to run through, and you’d be reasonable in assuming that this Air Traffic Chaos is nothing more than another low-cost, low-quality puzzle title for the DS. Well, to be perfectly honest, you’d be half right.

See, I don’t see Air Traffic Chaos as being a title that required a whole pile of cash to get off the ground. There’s no fancy 3D graphics (OK, it’s on the DS, but still), there’s no expensive license to purchase and there’s certainly not a huge development team to pay. However, low quality it most certainly is not. The game virtually screams the care and devotion that were put into crafting it. The itty-bitty 16-bit era plane sprites and colourful airports are gorgeous and alarmingly cute, the gameplay has been pored over and considered from every possible angle and the difficulty spikes have been balanced to perfection. Air Traffic Chaos was clearly a labour of love, and it tells.

So, what’s the gameplay actually like? Well, at any one time, you can have up to four arrivals and four departures active at any one time. The incoming planes need to be slotted into a holding pattern without crashing into any of the other aircraft waiting to land, the landing planes must be told which runway to use (according to the direction of the wind) and told which gate to taxi to when they reach terra firma. To complicate matters, well, as the dietician said to the proctologist, what goes in must come out. You have to free up the gates for the arrivals to hit up by directing the ground crew to prepare the plane, taxi the departing flights out to the runway (without crashing into anything), get them into the air, without causing any ground or mid-air collisions along the way.

Frankly, it sounds rubbish, and more than a little tedious. Very quickly, though, you realise that the whole operation is more akin to spinning plates than simply barking orders at little pixel planes. This is a game of timing, foresight and perfect planning. On the higher difficulty levels, you have to contend with an amazing amount of balancing to make sure everyone gets up or down safely, with the minimum amount of hassle or dying painfully in a giant aerial fireball. On Expert difficulty, things can get genuinely stressful, as your planes gradually get more and more ticked off waiting for the go-ahead to get where they need. Tellingly, as things get more chaotic, your Stress meter fills up and your score goes down. If that meter hits the top, well, the game doesn’t exactly say it, but I’m thinking alcoholism, heart attack, lonely death. Fortunately, this is a game, and you’ll just hit ‘restart’. And you will. A lot.

And that’s because Air Traffic Chaos is fun. It draws you in and holds you for whatever length of time you’re willing to sit, sweating and swearing, stylus in hand, cursing pilots and ground crews and all passengers for taking so long to board when you have four stressed out, complaining planes circling overhead. To the casual observer, you’re having a terrible time. In your own personal head-space, you’re completely hooked into the imaginary world of Tower control, holding patterns and obsessive windsock monitoring.

The five airports available to play are all drawn supposedly from their real-life set-ups, albeit simplified horrendously to fit within the confines of the game. Each has a varying number of runways, gates and weather conditions. Doing the whole thing in pitch darkness or in snow ramps up the difficulty ten-fold, just as I would imagine it would do in real life. The various radio broadcast channels babble away happily in barely comprehensible call signs and marker points. As I said, it seems boiled down to the basics, but it carries itself with an air of confidence that can’t be faked.

In fact, the DS game that Air Traffic Chaos most reminds me of would have to be Trauma Centre. I can’t think of another game to match it for pulling off being “authentic” in a hugely entertaining fashion, while still maintaining a level of sheer bloody-minded hardness enough to rip the testicles off a bull. From the box art packaging to the crazy anime-inspired characters that rate you at the end of a gruelling shift to the adorable little jumbo jets, the game manages to make the presumably boring, sensible occupation of air traffic controller appear to be absolutely stark raving bonkers. Who could hate a game that pulls that off so majestically?

Air Traffic Chaos is one of those very special games that no-one will appreciate until they’ve played it. I can guarantee you that once it gets a UK release, it will languish on the shelves until dropping forever to the nether regions of eBay, never to surface again. However, if there is one DS game that you at least try out this year, make it this. I can’t think of many puzzle games that pull off so much entertainment with so much adorable style.

And as the guy on the front cover says, “I AM AN AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER!”. And who can argue with that?