I was ready to write off After Burner as an overrated Sega arcade game from the 80's. The Master System version was easily the worst game I've played this year. However, I have had After Burner for the 32x for a while now and decided to give the title one last chance.
A little history first. Sega had a line of "Super Scaler" arcade titles in the 1980's that included classics like Hang-On, Space Harrier, OutRun, Thunder Blade, among others. These titles utilized sprite scaling hardware to smoothly scale sprites (making them bigger or smaller) to simulate 3D. Gaming systems of that era (NES and Master System) could not do this type of hardware scaling, nor could later consoles like Genesis or Super Nintendo.
Rutubo Games decided to port After Burner to Sega's new 32x add-on in attempt to finally do the game justice. And my God what a difference this is to the abysmal Sega Master System port.
The first thing you notice when you fire up After Burner are the graphics. While the world was turning towards the third dimension, Rutubo proved how gorgeous the second dimension could be. After Burner is an insanely fast game, and the ground beneath you whizzes by in the blink of an eye. The trees start off as small lumps in the distance, and quickly scale to detailed sprites as they get closer. The enemy air crafts start off as a few pixels in the far distance scale to giant air crafts as smooth as butter, and you can see all of their individual liveries. When your aircraft gets shot down, billows of smoke pour out the back of your F-14 and get smaller as your jet crashes into the Earth below. It looks fantastic.
All of this graphical wizardry happens without a hint of slowdown, and the frame rate stays locked in at 30 frames per second without a sweat. The only downside to the graphics is that when object are really close, they do get a little pixelated.
Each of the 23 levels in After Burner are fairly unique, with it's own color of sky (ranging from blue to orange to black) and unique terrain. The terrain is actually quite good, and you can see rivers and other bodies of water, and even dirt paths on the desert stages. The screen shots don't do After Burner any justice, you need to see the game in motion to appreciate how 3D this game feels.
Moving on, the sound is top notch with good firing sounds and convincing explosions. The sound track also receives a serious upgrade, and is comparable to the the original coin-op version. Each stage gets it's own track, and consists mostly of synthesized rock music that would fit right in with Tony Scott's Top Gun film. The music does a good job of setting the mood for this fast paced game.
Improving further on the Master System version of the game is a continue feature. If you reach level 5, 9, 13, or 19, and run out of lives, you start back at the last "checkpoint" you've reached, rather than the beginning of the game. That means with enough persistence, you will beat this. Additional options have also been added, including 5 difficulty options and the ability to have up to 6 lives per credit. This things go a long way in making After Burner a more accessible game.
All is not flowers and bunnies however, this is still After Burner. With the insane speed and general chaos around you, it can still be hard to tell what is going on. The smooth frame rate and sprite scaling do go a long way through, and it isn't ever close to as frustrating as the Sega Master System version. But there are still times when you will die without really knowing why. Did I get hit from behind? Run into an enemy that should have went down? Or get hit by some missile that was hiding between the million other jets I was chasing?
The controls are more responsive as well, though that could likely be contributed to the superior d-pad on the Genesis controller. The B button fires your Vulcan cannon, and the C button fires your missiles. After locking onto an enemy, you can fire a missile to take them out. The A button is used for barrel rolls. The barrel rolls feel sloppy in this version of the game however, as sometimes I could do them without ever pressing A, and other times pressing A was completely useless.
After Burner for the Sega 32x adds the features that were included with After Burner II in the arcades. Most importantly is the throttle. You have 3 different speeds you can travel at (low, medium and high) which are mapped to the X, Y, and Z button on the 6 button controller. There are a couple levels which having you flying through a canyon with walls on each side. These stages require you to put it in low and carefully navigate the terrain. There are also a few instances where you have a heat seeking missile or jet on your tail, requiring you to kick it into high to out run them. It's a nice touch, and puts the level count at 23.
Sega's 32x add-on finally gives After Burner the home port it deserves and really showcases how much more powerful the 32x is than other hardware of the time. The title does a great job showing off the power of the 32x, and it's a shame the system was discontinued before other Super Scaler games, like Hang-On and OutRun, could get the same treatment.
Overall, After Burner is a solid title. The game play is still flawed, and often times more chaotic than it really needs to be. But the inclusion of a reasonable continue system help mask some of it's downfalls. Graphically, the game is a real treat and needs to be seen to be appreciated. The excellent sound effects and 80's rock round out the package. There aren't a whole lot of good 32x titles, and this one definitely stands out. Recommended.
Graphics 8/10 - Super scaling done right
Sound 8/10 - Excellent fast paced 80's rock
Game play 6/10 - Excellent concept, too chaotic
Overall 7/10 - Style over substance, I love Sega