Who knew WWII in the Pacific was so much like Xevious?
Lots and lots of action, albeit mostly of the mindless, frantic, button-mashing sort that we've all come to expect from the shoot’em-up genre. The NES port runs pretty smoothly, without much in the way of flicker or slowdown. The color palette is limited, but you will fly over some nice green island landscapes (was 1940s Midway known for its championship golf courses?) in addition to long stretches of the deep blue Pacific Ocean.
The WWII-historical theme is a nice deviation from the bazillion other shoot’em-ups set in outer space and/or a sci-fi universe (Galaga, Xevious, etc.).
For starters, the soundtrack for this game is an absolute abomination. Sound effects are practically nonexistent, even though a historical, war-themed game like 1942 cries out for a barrage of big, juicy explosion noises. As for the incessant beeps that seem to substitute for a musical theme, well…consider them a slap in the face. Imagine a symphony orchestra of telegraphs, playing musical compositions consisting entirely of morse code. Silence would have been preferable to this.
As for the actual gameplay, it is somewhat enjoyable—but only in short spurts, and as long as you don't really think about it too much. The WWII-fighter theme is a double-edged sword; it's inherently appealing and sets 1942 apart from the rest of the shooter crowd, but it also forces the designers to make a jarringly unrealistic game. There are just too many enemy planes thrown at you here—and they are dumber than rocks, to boot! It can also be very difficult to see the little green planes, since they have a way of blending into those grassy land backgrounds. Yet another example of poor design masquerading as “challenge.”
Eventually you’ll die because you can’t sustain interest in what’s happening onscreen. There is no variety in the missions you're conducting here. It's pretty much always a matter of taking off from your aircraft carrier (on autopilot, controlled by the CPU, of course) and then shooting down as many dumb enemies as possible.
Powerups are underwhelming, and your “special ability” to do a backwards roll is worse than worthless, since you invariably end up in just as bad a position as where you started. There are only a handful of different enemy types, and they repeat the same flight patterns over and over and over. Oh, and Capcom even included that arcade staple, the "boss" enemy. Never mind that it’s wildly inappropriate in this context. The huge end-of-level bomber that shoots clusters of bombs at you—from its rear!—is more hilarious than intimidating.
I’ll give Capcom this much credit: at least the sequel, 1943, was much better. Curious retrogamers should also check out Broderbund’s old PC classic, Wings of Fury, to see this concept done right.
The Bottom Line
Sometimes mislabeled as a “classic,” 1942 is mildly entertaining for brief periods of time, but nothing more. If you're completely sold on shoot’em-ups, you might like 1942. If the genre hasn't appealed to you yet, 1942 is not the game that will change your mind.