Stunt Pilot, from talented developer Rock Solid Arcade, is a challenging, high-quality game of precision acrobatics. It transcends the familiar trope of flying through rings with a sophisticated scoring system and singular control. The result is a simple but engaging test of skill that would fit comfortably in any 80s video arcade, although it would probably be the prettiest game there.
Your goal is to fly a colorful prop plane through a series of rings, which will appear in increasingly more difficult layouts as you advance levels. You can tackle the rings in any order, and take as long as you like about it, but finishing a level quickly will award you a substantial score bonus.
Controlling the plane is deceptively simple — just press [up] or [down] to raise or lower your nose. But two things will keep you from breezing through the rings without care. The first is that your plane has momentum. It feels almost as though you are sliding on ice at first, and you'll have to deal with a lot of over-corrections before you get the hang of it.
The other is that your plane never turns around. When you're flying to the left, the plane is upside down, and the up key will actually drop your vehicle towards the ground. You have to correct for this by performing a little mental stunt yourself and remembering that your controls are always relative to your current trajectory. The real challenge is learning to handle the plane properly, not the rings, and your transition from awkward tree-bait to elegant master of the skies will be your greatest reward.
If that's not enough for you and you'd prefer to rack up some points, then you'll need to use the boost, which is controlled by the [space] bar. Pressing boost will make your plane faster and even harder to wrangle, but the score for the next ring you conquer will double. If you hold down boost through multiple rings, your score multiplier will increase for each one, and you'll get a bonus at the end of the level, based on your longest combo. Even if you don't use the boost, your points for clearing rings will gradually increase so long as you don't crash, but the only way to reach a high score is to get a little bit reckless.
Analysis: Stunt Pilot is a class act through and through, with gorgeous, nearly photo-realistic rendered graphics and enthusiastic background music. Rock Solid Arcade earns their name by providing rock solid controls and collision detection, although both have the potential to make you pull your hair out at first. You see, the edges of the rings, which are apparently made out of anti-gravity titanium, crash your plane on contact. If you can't pull off a clean run through a chain of rings, you're probably toast, and that means your basic score multiplier goes back down to zero.
But as with any difficult but reliable game, the emotional reward is greater when you succeed. You'll feel like an ace whenever you speed through a level with a perfect combo, purple smoke trailing proudly behind you. Even the prop plane seems be having a good time, what with its endearing spontaneous barrel rolls, and if you ever start getting frustrated, it's fun to just do a few figure-eights in an unoccupied part of the open sky.
The incentive program is a little lacking, with naked points and personal satisfaction your only rewards. It would be nice to get a shiny medal after a perfect level. And there doesn't seem to be a high score table at all, so if you thrive on competition, you'll have to compare scores manually. I also would have liked a little more interactivity when the plane crashes into things — rings falling to the ground, punctured hot air balloons, that sort of thing.
But Rock Solid Arcade has already addressed most of my criticisms with their next two releases. The rings can't kill you in the toned-down Stunt Pilot Trainer, and Dogfight: the Great War applies the same control scheme to a series of WWI combat missions, complete with a giant zeppelin boss. Both are worth your time, if you dig this style of gameplay.