It’s not “Tora! Tora! Tora!” but it’ll do.
Explosions! Planes! Wire frames, oh my!
GENRE: Arcade shooter
RELEASE DATE: 12/12/87 – (JP), 03/88 – (US, EU)
Anybody who went to the arcade as a kid in the late 80s/early 90s remembers the After Burner cabinet. Compared to more traditional stand-up cabinets, After Burner was a sit-down cabinet that fully embraced your puny body within its massive confines. The game would often be placed in a corner of the arcade, not because it was unpopular, but because the cabinet took up so much damn space. Because of the cabinet’s placement, as a child, I viewed After Burner as the massive guardian of the arcade. Until somebody approached that was bold enough to challenge it (usually teenagers), it stood watch over the lesser stand-up cabinets, inspiring both reverence and fear in machine and man alike.
Look how huge the cabinet is compared to John Connor and the ‘Salute Your Shorts’ guy! Huge! (Thanks to eldergeek.com for this awesome screenshot.)
If you dared to enter the cabinet’s chamber and insert some quarters, you were met with an immersive experience unlike any other of the time. You controlled an F-14 Tomcat look-alike with the cabinet’s flight stick and shot down other jets. Standard arcade shooter stuff, but it wasn’t After Burner‘s gameplay that reeled you in. It was the movement of the cabinet in time with the jet’s movement. As you controlled the jet with the flight stick, the cabinet would move in tandem with your maneuvering. The seat rotated horizontally, while the cockpit would rotate vertically. The combined movements meant you were in for one helluva of a ride, even if you couldn’t discern much of what was happening on-screen.
Where’s Peppy when you need him?
The fun-factor for After Burner lay in the game’s all-encompassing cabinet. Take that away, and you have a hyperactive, spasmodic shooter that doesn’t so much entertain as it does nauseate. Indeed, your ability to play and enjoy the Master System port will be relative to your ability to withstand the jet’s consistently jerky movements.
As in the arcade, you control the so-called Tomcat through eighteen levels of destruction. While you control the plane’s movements with the D-pad, the game automatically moves the plane forward on a linear path, so you never have to worry if you’re moving in the right direction. Any other jets that come at you are your sworn enemies. Shoot them down with your unlimited machine gun rounds or your limited missile supply. Some jets just fly towards you, while others will shoot homing missiles at you. The homing missiles can be destroyed by shooting at them, but you can’t lock onto them, unlike the jets. Once the game decides you’ve shot down enough jets and avoided enough missiles, it moves you on to the next level and the cycle of explosions begins anew.
Your jet leaves a trail of fire as it explodes. Pretty boss.
The Master System does an admirable job of recreating the arcade’s gameplay, which unfortunately includes the game’s faults. One can get used to the barrel rolls and the janky movements if you have a strong stomach, but it can be difficult to discern how far the missiles and the jets truly are from your jet. This forces you to make constant evasive maneuvers. Even when you think you’ve narrowly dodged the projectiles, you’ll often get hit and crash for no explainable reason. The further you get into the game, the more jets and missiles come at you, the more crashes happen, the more you’ll curse After Burner‘s existence.
Take this! And that! And some of these!
Like Space Harrier, After Burner is a game that was made for the arcade experience. It’s not a bad game, but it’s a limited game brought down by its flaws. The flaws seemed less noticeable in the arcade, because you were too busy enjoying the experience of being throttled. After Burner is as much a ride as it is an arcade game – but this is also its downfall. Since the Master System is incapable of transforming into a human-engulfing stationary roller coaster, “Game over? Who cares, I want to go again!” isn’t something one utters while playing at home.