Air Traffic Chaos

Our understanding of air-traffic controllers comes mostly from Hollywood caricatures of chain-smoking radar jockeys, so it's hard to say whether Air Traffic Chaos accurately simulates a modern control tower. But accuracy be damned, this game is faithful to the legend. With relentless difficulty and an unforgiving pace, Air Traffic Chaos forces you into the twitchy, overstressed mindset of airplane disaster movies.

The game mechanics are simple: You tap a plane's call sign on the DS touchscreen and choose a command—e.g., "Clear Takeoff"—which plays out on the top screen's airfield view. Along the way, Air Traffic Chaos stokes your rage with annoyances like slothful tow-truck operators and hotshot pilots who don't even bother to look out the window before slamming into the 5:45 from Seattle. A fixed-zoom perspective makes it tough to keep track of land and air simultaneously, but that isn't a major hindrance, as the skies are pretty peaceful. It's the situation on the ground that really makes your onscreen "stress meter" climb, as you shepherd planes through a limited number of gates and taxiways. You aren't managing the air; you're managing the concrete.

The Chaos in the title is a bit of a misnomer. While the action initially seems random, each stage follows a set schedule of arrivals, departures, and weather. The only way to conquer the insanely busy expert levels is to memorize the patterns and puzzle out a precise rhythm of pushbacks and landings that will avert catastrophe. That's a fun challenge, but once you succeed, the replay appeal is almost nil.

Beyond the game: Each level features a real-life airport simplified into cute, crisp SNES-style graphics. All the airports are in Japan, though. Your dreams of manning the radar at O'Hare will have to wait.

Worth playing for: Killjoy aircraft separation rules don't exist in Air Traffic Chaos, so you're free to take a daredevil approach, weaving jetliners on and off the runway within inches of each other.

Frustration sets in when: Restrictions at certain airports, like separate gates for domestic and international flights, aren't adequately explained, leaving you to discover them through trial and error—emphasis on the latter.

Final judgment: A pleasingly tough puzzle game disguised as an airport sim.