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After Burner Review Rewind

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On 10/09/2015 at 12:00 AM by Jamie Alston

Broken wings

Perhaps good only for the truly undiscriminating person that really, really wants to play this game and doesn’t have access to the Genesis sequel.

Life is full of surprises. Good or bad, they come when you least expect it and can potentially change your life forever. Such was the case when Sega released After Burner in the arcade. Coming complete with a hydraulic sit-down cabinet, the game was the first of its kind to successfully take the boredom out of flight simulations. There were no worries about instrument panels, altimeter gauges, or landing sequences. A short while after its arcade debut, the game went on to be ported to a number of home consoles, including the Sega Master System. Sega’s fledgling franchise was such a big hit, that it even saw a release on the NES. Wait…what?! Surpriiiise! That’s probably what Tengen said once their unlicensed version of After Burner hit store shelves for Nintendo’s own console.

There’s no major story. Your F-14 Tomcat jet takes off from the battleship and before you know it, you’re off to save the world, waging war against the forces of evil. You have the same limited range of motion as in the arcade version. You can bank left or right, pitch up or down, and pull off barrel rolls without the worry of flying too high or too low to ground. Not long after the beginning of the first stage, enemy aircraft will come into view and you can get a little practice at shooting with your vulcan cannons as well as attacking with missiles. After defeating the first few waves of enemies, the game advances you the next stage, so on and so forth.


As can be expected, you’re not the only armed jet out there. The big attraction to After Burner has always been dodging enemy fire at breakneck speed while flying through heavily detailed environments. This is chiefly were the home port goes wrong. For starters, the game doesn’t have a very good sense of speed. It’s missing that constant thrill factor necessary to capture the authentic arcade experience. To the game’s credit, you do have the ability to fire up the afterburners (press start) for a momentary burst of speed, but that will usually send you soaring nose-first into an enemy’s missile. And even when flying at a normal pace, out-maneuvering those missiles still tend to be more trouble than it’s worth.

Part of the problem is that the oncoming enemies tend to appear on or near the bright white horizon. This makes it a struggle to see them before they get too close for comfort. The enemies often attack in groups of 3 or more, further complicating matters. If you can’t get rid of at least half of their forces before they all fire a shot, you’re in deep dog doo my friend. My favorites are the formations where two jets will show up in plain sight, but one remains hidden in the horizon. That makes for some of the most frustrating moments in the game.

Doing a barrel roll can either be your best friend or your worst enemy. In most cases, it was the latter for me. Granted, some of this is by design. There’s the whole gimmick of not being able to fully rotate your F-14 by just holding one direction, so you have to simulate doing so by tilting your plane left or right, then quickly tapping the controller in opposite direction. That’s bound to create some unique challenges in the heat of battle which is fairly awesome at times. What isn’t awesome is when I need to do a barrel roll to shake off an encroaching missile, and the technique to do it doesn’t want to cooperate with me. Soon I’m seeing smoke emanate from my plane’s left wing, indicating that I’m about to go careening into the ground below.

Conversely, I went through a similar experience at times when I needed to refrain from doing a barrel roll. When the action gets very heavy with planes swooping in from behind and enemies ahead of your firing missiles, you naturally with find yourself constantly banking left and right.  This pretty much guarantees that you’ll end up rolling your plane at the most inopportune times, leaving you vulnerable to attack until your plane gets into the upright positions again. I really hate helplessly watching a missile sail toward me while I’m stuck in mid-roll.

The impressive scenery in the arcade original is completely missing here. Gone are the detailed trees and shrubbery that decorated the ground. Instead, every area looks as if a massive war already took place and you’re just flying over the aftermath. The only thing that successfully distinguishes one stage from the next is the change in background upon reaching the beginning of a new area and the occasional refueling sequences. I’d periodically glance at the ground and become baffled as to what I was looking at. The first few times I played through what turned out to be the snow environment (stage 5 or 6), I initially thought I was suddenly flying above the clouds. Better yet, the first stage to feature a landscape looks more like you’re flying over a sea of regurgitated spinach. Unfortunately, the backgrounds also tend to be more of an eye strain than anything else thanks to the bright hues of orange and blue and green.

Another problem is your own F-14 jet. Not only could it stand to be a little bigger but also its grey color sometimes blends in with the bright backgrounds. This, in turn, only compounds the problems I mentioned earlier with not being able to spot the enemy well before he’s in your face. Too many of the wrong elements combine to make an already lackluster port even less appealing for the player expecting a halfway decent visual representation of the arcade game.

The music is really the only aspect of the game that doesn’t completely ruin the experience for me. Most of the tracks are fairly faithful to the original, albeit slightly sedated. My favorite tune is still the theme for the first stage. It always reminds me of the Top Gun movie. You have your basic beeps and blips from your radar whenever an enemy is headed your way or you have a missile on your six. Other than, it’s just your standard fair of explosions and gunfire. Nothing you haven’t heard before on the NES hardware.

After Burner is a game I adored when it was in the arcade, and I still love it now. I really wanted to like the NES version, because I like the novelty of playing a Sega game on the NES-- something that, for Nintendo, was sacrilegious to say the least. But there’s too much wrong in the execution of gameplay and visual presentation. If the barrel roll didn’t make or break your success in the game, then I probably wouldn’t mind as much that the inconsistent controls hamper the maneuverability of your jet. The ugly bland visuals only add to the frustration.

Trying to get a lock on those pea-sized enemies on the horizon can be fairly difficult especially for newcomers. Perhaps worst of all is the lack of continues. With 18 stages to play through and only 3 lives for the entire mission, a few continues would have been a decent persuasion to finish the game, considering all the issues bogging it down. If you don’t already have this game, you aren’t missing anything spectacular. This is one home port the NES could have done without.

Review Policy

In our reviews, we'll try not to bore you with minutiae of a game. Instead, we'll outline what makes the game good or bad, and focus on telling you whether or not it is worth your time as opposed to what button makes you jump.

We use a five-star rating system with intervals of .5. Below is an outline of what each score generally means:

All games that receive this score are standout games in their genre. All players should seek a way to play this game. While the score doesn't equate to perfection, it's the best any game could conceivably do.

These are above-average games that most players should consider purchasing. Nearly everyone will enjoy the game and given the proper audience, some may even love these games.

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Games that are awarded two stars are below average titles. Good ideas may be present, but execution is poor and many issues hinder the experience.

Though functional, a game that receives this score has major issues. There are little to no redeeming qualities and should be avoided by nearly all players.

A game that gets this score is fundamentally broken and should be avoided by everyone.

Side By Side - Tengen, the rebel game developer

For those of you not aware, Tengen (a defunct subdivision of Atari) never had a good relationship with Nintendo. They didn’t like their strict limits on third-party game development; in turn, Nintendo didn’t cozy up to Tengen’s proposal for a less restrictive development license. After releasing only 3 officially licensed games (R.B.I. Baseball, Gauntlet, and Pac-Man) in 1988, Tengen went rogue a year later and started dishing out games that Nintendo never approved of. Of all the unlicensed games that Tengen produced on the NES, the Sega arcade titles were by far the ultimate way of giving Nintendo the finger. If you believed in hell, it officially froze over. Unfortunately, so did the gameplay elements that made After Burner so great in the first place.



Cary Woodham

10/09/2015 at 07:45 AM

Namco was involved with Tengen, too.  That's why R.B.I. Baseball is actually the first of Namco's Family Stadium games.

I never played the console versions of After Burner, and I didn't play it in the arcade either.  It was one of the first arcade machines I ever saw that moved you around as you played, but because of that, most places charged you three or more quarters to play it, and that was unheard of back then.  I decided to save my quarters for games I could play a long time with at the arcade instead.

If you want to play a GOOD arcade flight sim for the NES, try Stealth ATF.  At least I remember it being pretty good anyway. I guess I should try and play it again to see if it still holds up.

Jamie Alston Staff Writer

10/09/2015 at 09:19 AM

Yeah, I think it's interesting that Namco is the real develper behind R.B.I Baseball as we knew it in the states.  I don't remember if I played After Burner in teh arcade myself, but I remember my dad playing it.  I think he was pretty good at it if memory serves correctly.

Stealth ATF, huh?  I've always been weary of early flight simulation games, but I'll have to give a try.  I remember having the option to get that game one day when I was in Funcoland with my mom.  But I remember turning it down in favor some other game I can't recall at the moment.

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