Gamers who have been with the hobby since the 1980s will no doubt remember the popular arcade game, After Burner. It was a simple, fast-paced shooter that let you pilot an F-14 Tomcat as it destroyed airplane after airplane through 18 stages with unlimited machine gun fire and a healthy supply of homing missiles. The sense of speed was amazing, and the 3-D perspective was only seen in racing games at the time. While these elements made players come back to the game over and over again, what really made the game stand out was the cabinet design, which, if your arcade was lucky enough to have it, let you sit in a partially enclosed cockpit that tilted in the direction of your plane, fulfilling various daydreams about being Maverick from "Top Gun."
While the console ports of the game obviously didn't have the moving arcade cabinet, it still sported the same frantic arcade action, helping it become a big hit and further cementing its position as a classic arcade shooter. In 2006, Sega tried to revive the brand with an arcade release of After Burner Climax, and while it retained everything from the original, including the moving cabinet, the arcade business isn't what it used to be, and few gamers in North America ever experienced the game. While it has taken some time, After Burner Climax is available on XBLA and PSN, giving fans a much easier way to access the title.
The plot is perfect for an arcade game. A terrorist organization has acquired some nuclear weapons and is threatening to detonate them. With an elite squadron of fighter pilots, your job is to get to the heart of the terrorist base within 48 hours and stop them before the weapons are launched.
The gameplay objective remains as simple as the original game: kill or be killed. Waves of airplanes speed toward your craft, either from the front or behind, and your job is to shoot them all down. Generally, they'll attack with the usual weaponry, but sometimes, they'll launch missiles in your direction, and you can avoid them with deft flying maneuvers or barrel rolls. Your offensive capabilities are the same as before. You get a machine gun with unlimited ammunition and a limited cache of missiles that replenishes over time (this renewal wasn't in earlier series entries). New to this game is the climax ability, which slows down time and gives you a bigger aiming reticle so your missiles can lock on to more targets. The climax meter is limited but has a fairly decent charge time, so it can be used multiple times per level if needed.
After Burner Climax is split up into two different modes. Arcade mode is a direct port of the arcade game. There are 18 levels to traverse through, and while the game is mostly linear, there are a few instances when the road forks and you have a choice of which level to go through next. There are also special sub-objectives in some levels, which, upon completion, open up the chance to get better endings and secret levels. The mode features something the actual arcade never did: a rewards system. Performing certain objectives in Arcade mode — dying a certain number of times, initiating a barrel roll, or achieving a combo while in climax mode — unlocks rewards in the EX rewards menu. Once the game is over, you can go to this menu to activate or deactivate modifiers for the arcade mode. Some will afford you more continue credits, while others turn off smoke or initiate automatic machine gun fire without you having to press down the button. The system is separate from the console's Achievements/Trophy system, but it encourages multiple playthroughs and different approaches to the Arcade mode.
The second game mode is Score Attack. The user is given the same levels to play through, with all of the secrets and alternate paths intact. The main difference is that you're given an infinite amount of lives, letting you concentrate on achieving a high score rather than survival. Like Arcade mode, there is a rewards system in place specifically for Score Attack mode, and each award is unlocked once certain criteria are met. Unlike the EX rewards, however, there are no in-game bonuses for acquiring any of the rewards, though Xbox 360 owners get an Avatar item if they get every possible reward in Score Attack mode.
Both game modes amplify the feeling that the game style remains fun to this day. Yes, the concept of simply shooting down planes and not dying is an old one, but there's nothing more thrilling than doing it at breakneck speeds. While more traditional flight sim shooters can feel too technical and slow, After Burner Climax gives you nothing but action to focus on and still fulfils the desire to just fly a plane and blow up stuff. If that's all you're really looking for, this fits the bill nicely.
Notably absent from the game is any sort of multiplayer mode. Fans of other jet combat games, like Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. and Ace Combat 6, will notice that this is a strictly solo affair, with no co-op or adversarial multiplayer modes. While some gamers will cry foul, keep in mind that the original arcade game was never designed to be a multiplayer affair. The game plays at such high speeds that it would be impossible to initiate any sort of dogfighting, and co-op would become more confusing than helpful in this situation.
Another knock that modern gamers may have against the game is that it is short. Using the Score Attack mode as a basis for how quickly a skilled player can finish the game, it is really only 15 minutes long. However, this is taking into account that you have unlimited lives to burn through. In the Arcade mode, you have a set number of lives and continues, and you must earn the ability to gain more continues through multiple playthroughs. The degree of difficulty is rather high, just like a typical arcade machine, so the chances of making it to the end the first time around is very slim. This is one of those instances where the game length is beguiling since you'll be spending hours trying to master the game — long enough to beat it without expending all of your given continue credits.
Arcade flight games don't usually have complicated control schemes, and while After Burner Climax has more buttons than the older entries in the series, it remains accessible for all types of players. The left analog stick handles airplane movement and can be inverted in the options menu for those who want more authentic plane controls. The analog stick also handles barrel rolls via a quick left-to-right or right-to-left motion. The left and right triggers handle braking and acceleration, respectively. The A button fires the machine guns, B shoots missiles, and both the left and right bumpers activate Climax mode. The controls are very responsive, which helps tremendously when flying through some of the mountainous environments, and you don't have to memorize a special combination of buttons to get the most out of your plane. The default control scheme works and gives players very little reason to change to the other pre-sets.
The graphics are very clean. The game's camera is always fixed behind the plane, and while there is no camera to give you a cockpit point of view, the default camera angle is nice enough and more traditional, considering the game's roots. The airplane models look fantastic, as does the ordnance they deploy. The textures are clean, with no hint of blurring involved. The particle effects, such as the explosions, look fantastic, and the smoke from downed planes and missiles looks great, as do the cloud banks that signify the end of each level. The environments are also impressive, and though there are a few textures that appear stretched out and blurry, most of what you will find is clear and has an appropriate amount of next-gen shine to it without looking like plastic.
What impresses the most about the whole package, though, is that it moves so quickly. At a constant 60 frames per second, the game hurtles you forward at breakneck speeds, and no matter how chaotic the situation gets, the game never slows down due to technical issues. There are no load screens once the game begins, either, despite the fact that you travel from deserts to mountain ranges to nighttime cityscapes and volcanic regions in the blink of an eye. The only time you'll notice the bad environment textures is when the game stops due to you plummeting to the ground. This is also the only time you'll notice that enemy planes tend to slow down or travel a bit backward. Other than those gaffes, the graphical package is certainly worth a gander.
The sound is the same kind of stuff you'd expect from any Sega arcade game. The music is energetic rock that is heavy on guitar but somehow doesn't become annoying. There are some redone tracks from the original arcade games thrown in for the fans, and it blends well with the new music. The effects are certainly bombastic, with gunfire and explosions sounding great and the thrust from missile launches coming in clearly. The whoosh of the aircraft as they pass by also doesn't go unnoticed, as it makes great use of the game's Dolby Digital sound. As for the voices, you should expect the same overacting done with just about every Sega arcade game. The delivery is as bad as the lines being delivered, but it's more humorous than groan-inducing.
After Burner Climax sets out to be exactly what people expected it to be — a port of an arcade game — and nothing more. It can be beaten in a short time, but the degree of difficulty, combined with lack of continue credits, makes the game feel like a real challenge, especially when you factor in the alternate endings and bonus missions. It does great on all technical fronts, so no one can say that it is inferior to the arcade version. Fans of the arcade iteration will enjoy this one very much, as will people who don't mind playing a short, but challenging, game.
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