In-Flight Gaming with Virgin America

This article was originally published for the now-defunct Site of the Gaming Dead, a video game blog, on July 8, 2010. I have done my best to recreate the original article here, complete with images (when possible).

There’s something bizarrely comforting about knowing that, even while you’re in a pressurized metal tube some 39,000 feet above the ground, you can distract yourself by blowing hellspawn to bits, rearranging words into clever anagrams, or get old school with a knock-off of a classic space-matter blasting game. Of what do I speak? Virgin America’s RED, an “interactive experience” that includes television, movies, music, and games, of course!

RED’s actually been around for several months now, and if you’ve flown Virgin America lately, you’ll have noticed the seat-back tilting screens and the remotes that double as a controller, a bit like a Wiimote. The remotes are tethered to the left armrest, which means when you’re using them as a controller, you’ve got an awkward thick cord between your fingers, making it a bit difficult to take advantage of the D-Pad and the left bumper button. But they’ve got a full QWERTY keyboard alongside your typical A B X Y control buttons, as well as Start, Select, and a special “SMBL” button for pausing games. This means if you’re prone to bashing monsters in-flight like I am, you might want to IDKFA your way through the wastes of DOOM or stimulate your brain with a bit of anagram-mania.

All games are free, but aside from DOOM, none of the titles rang a bell for familiarity. DOOM is included with a host of other games of all genres, such as Anagramarama, Tower Toppler, Gem Drop X, Primate Plunge, Rocks’n’Diamonds, Circus Linux!, XMahjongg, Do’SSiZo’La, Vectoroids, Penguin Command, and Mad Bomber.

Because DOOM, Anagramarama, and XMahjongg are self-explanatory, I’ll skip those and give you an idea of what the other games are like: Tower Toppler is a vertical scroller that has you jumping over, kicking, and running from enemies that are trying to stop you, a fearless little green guy, from  blowing up a series of towers. These towers are poisoning your planet’s water supply, so it’s imperative that you blow them to smithereens. You get from bottom to top via ledges, and from tower to tower via submarines. For some bizarre reason, when you get to the high score screen, it says “NEBULOUS!” Is that the old school version of “Magnificent!” or something? Or is that actually another title of the game?

Gem Drop X is something like the cheap man’s answer to Bejeweled and Bubble Bobble (which you might know as Bust-a-Move), where the goal is to match up gems before they come down and squash you. You shoot the gems up, while the existing gems slowly inch their way down to you.

Primate Plunge puts you in the furry feet of poor Monkey, who, for some reason, has to make his way through treacherous jungles, canyons, volcanoes, and even a rainy industrial city. Monkey drops from the sky and has to make his way down without getting killed, presumably, but you can get power-ups in the form of parachutes and even jet-packs to help with that. Like Tower Toppler, it’s a vertical platformer, but instead of going down-to-up, this one goes up-to-down. It’s probably not a good idea for people who get motion sickness, because even on a luxurious plane playing games while ensconced in your leather seat, this game can make you sick pretty quick.

Rocks’n’Diamonds is what’s called a “Sokoban-type” game, which is Japanese for “warehouse keeper.” These are the kinds of games where you can push one block at a time in an effort to clear a path from your starting point to the exit. You do this in RnD by moving boulders, collecting diamonds, and not getting locked in by monsters, who may lock you in place, preventing movement, or who may just decide to kill you because, well, they’re monsters. The airline’s RED system bragged that RnD included “level sets from classic Sokoban, Boulder Dash, Emerald Mine, and Supaplex,” so if those game titles ring a bell, this game ought to excite you.

 

Circus Linux! (complete with exclamation mark) openly admits that it’s a clone of the Atari 2600 (remember those!?) game Circus Atari, which features a moving teeter-totter that shoots clowns into the air with the express purpose of popping balloons at the top of the screen. The clowns then fall again, so you have to get them to land on the teeter-totter so you can send them up flying once more.

The next game is one that I can’t pronounce the title of, but it’s called Do’SSiZo’La, and I’m not sure if it’s meant to be a foreign language word or some kind of weird portmanteau smashing-together of English words. In any case, it’s a board game that you can play with other players (you can challenge other passengers on the plane, or even someone sitting in your row), or you can play against the RED system AI. Your goal is to move around the field to adjacent blocks and then destroy an existing field square. You need to cut off your opponent by preventing them from moving but do so without blocking yourself in the process. Whoever can’t move loses.

Vectoroids really needs no explanation; it’s an Asteroids clone. You shoot space-matter into little chunks without getting blasted by it yourself. Simple enough, right?

Like some of the other games, Penguin Command is also a clone, and it doesn’t take a non-flying bird with diabolical plans to take over the world to guess which game (hint: the title also ends in “Command,” and involves shooting long, often nuclear bullets at other countries. Also, John Connor lost at this game during Terminator 2: Judgment Day). Supposedly this game has “better graphics and music,” so if you’re feeling nostalgic, don your webbed feet and waddle your way through some WMDs and save your own city from certain destruction.

Last but certainly not least is the aptly-named Mad Bomber. Prior to the advent of television dramas like Flashpoint, people were apparently capable of stopping psychopathic bombers with little more than a bucket. That’s your job here: catch falling bombs before they hit the ground in your trusty extinguishing buckets. Oh, and don’t get blown up in the process. Always a good goal.

Overall the selection is fun, but only those who don’t need a refresher course in The Ultimate History of Video Games will really get a kick out of the selection. Setting aside the fact that these games are either clones, open-source, or old enough to be out of license, passengers might also be turned off by the clunky feel of the remote controller and its retractable cord, which makes for some difficult maneuvering in most games. Even someone with smaller hands like myself had a hard time gripping the controller horizontally and using both the D-Pad and the control buttons, let alone the bumpers or the keyboard with its M&M Mini-sized keys. For kids with smaller fingers who might need the entertainment, parents might not consider the selection appropriate at all, since it pretty much involves killing, monsters, and blowing up stuff, with the exceptions of XMahjongg, Gem Drop X, Circus Linux!, and Anagramarama. Not that there’s anything wrong with all that, but a four-year-old might be a bit traumatized by an Imp trying to shoot fire into their face, wouldn’t you say?

The RED entertainment system is available on all Virgin America flights across the country; if you’ve used it for games or have something else to say about this unique form of in-flight entertainment, drop me a comment!

Indigo Ink is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for me to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. This article includes an affiliate link for a book related to the article’s subject matter and was included in the original published article.