There’s no doubt that more often than not I’m looking forward to the AAA release titles like Gears of War 2 or Resistance, but I think what truly gets me excited about video games these days is finding that diamond in the rough, the little indie or niche title that no one is talking about but is fantastic nonetheless. I think it’s similar to my love for movies, sure I think 300 was fantastic, but give me a off-the-wall or foreign film any day of the week.

That’s brings us to Air Traffic Chaos for the DS from Majesco. In it you play air traffic controller who’s job it is to juggle all the incoming and outgoing flights. Quirky? Yes. But just cause it’s quirky doesn’t mean it’s worth your time necessarily. So does this game fly high, or is it left stranded on the tarmac?

While it’s an uber-stressful job in real life, I was curious how they’d make a game about it interesting. See the whole reason the job is stressful is because you have planes filled with people at your command, but in game world there’s no consequence to be paid for screwing up (besides losing that is). Well the game isn’t stressful but it does do a good job keeping you engaged. Take away the air traffic top-coat and what you have here is a puzzle game, not unlike Tetris. Different pieces need to slide around each other and click into place. One huge difference is that here it all plays out much slower and more deliberate. You radio your instructions into to the plane, then watch them carry it out. There’s no last second changes to avoid collision, you need to anticipate what’s going to happen.

This is perhaps the most interesting and fun aspect of the game. You’re forced to assess the situation as it stands, but also look forward enough to see the next few steps ahead (or what feels like 100 steps ahead in expert mode). It’s at this point I should probably explain how the game plays out.

I’ll explain the gameplay below but here’s a video to help out

The entire game is based around you radioing instructions into planes, which they carry out to the letter (even if it means crashing). So it’s really all on you to make sure this all goes smoothly. So let’s explain incoming first. When a new plane enters airspace, you’ll see it fly in and take up space in a holding patter above the airport, circling. From there you can issues some different commands such a speeding up and slowing down (to juggle numerous planes in the holding pattern), hold and determine runway. When ready you’ll choose which runway you want them to land on, and they’ll begin their descent. You’ll have a chance to tell them to abort the landing if the runway isn’t clear but otherwise they’re coming in hot. Once they land you’ll tell them which terminal to go to and when it’s clear to taxi. Once you give the command there’s no stopping them so be careful of ground collisions. Once they dock you get points and you wait for the plan to be set up for outbound. Outbound pretty much works in the opposite direction, Planes board, you choose runways, when they taxi and when they take off.

Each of the 5 airports has 3 difficulty levels, and I gotta say expert is damn hard. There’s zero room for error and when you have 4 planes in the sky, no open terminals and 2 planes waiting for takeoff it tends to get a little hectic. Think of it as a game of Tetris 2 lines from the top, just a crazy situation where coolness under pressure and being able to organize quickly is the only way to survive.

I think that’s where this game excels for me, the feeling of accomplishment when planes go in and out smoothly, barely missing each other. It become a cool ballet of ten different things happening together and you’re the conductor. It’s a good feeling. My only real complaint was how every once in a while the something collides and you lose the game and it was totally out of your control. The one that happened to me a few times was a plane entering the airspace landing right on top of a plane I had in the holding pattern. The plane flew in and I wasn’t able to issue any commands and just had to watch it happen. That stunk cause I wasn’t given the chance to do it right, and on expert when you’re just about to beat the level it’s extremely frustrating. But it happened infrequently enough to not ruin the experience.

I’d definitely recommend picking the game up if you’re a puzzle fan. It may look like some sort of weird plane sim, but it’s really an involved nuanced puzzle game. I love when I get to play a game that isn’t something I’ve played before. Each game I play makes that less and less likely so it’s a real joy when it happens.