Our tour through the Master System has seen several of Sega’s “Super Scaler” arcade hits get less-than-successful ports on the system, such as Space Harrier, Enduro Racer and Out Run, and now we have their next attempt. This time it’s their flight combat hit After Burner, which was clearly inspired by the blockbuster movie Top Gun. Many gamers may have fond memories of the game’s smooth psuedo-3D graphics (with some wicked explosions), pumping rock soundtrack, and even the deluxe sit-down arcade cabinet which tilted and pivoted along with the action. Sega tried to put out a home console port, even making it the first of their four-mega cartridges. Those that seen how the Space Harrier port turned out are probably shaking their heads at this effort, which fares just about the same way.
As you might imagine this cart casts you as a navy jet pilot on a mission to retrieve some stolen plans from some enemy force. The plans are being held in two locations so you need to fly your F-14 Thundercat into enemy territory to retrieve both parts and that of course means blasting the enemy air force through 18 stages. The game begins with you taking off from your aircraft carrier and each level has you gunning down the hostile aircraft that flies your way. Your plane can roll, climb and dive to avoid enemy firepower, though it’s movement is limited since you’re stuck on rails. The jet is also armed with a Vulcan 70mm machine gun with unlimited firepower and air-to-air guided missiles, as well as a little radar in the corner of the screen to alert you to incoming planes. After you shoot down enough planes, you advance to the next stage which gives you more shooting pleasure. Occasionally fuel carriers come along and you can connect with them, but you don’t get any more fuel or missiles since both are unlimited, this is strictly for bonus points. Every sixth stage will also have a boss encounter with the flying fortress which you must shoot down before you can capture each of the two plans and before you can return to the carrier to complete the mission.
The home version of After Burner certainly tries its hardest to mimic the original but even with the extra cart memory you can see more than a few concessions were made trying to get this game on the Master System, starting with the visuals. The graphics aren’t as ugly as Space Harrier’s jumbled mess and the planes all sport some okay details but the choppy framerate makes it difficult to know what’s really going on, especially when you’re trying to dodge incoming missiles and can’t tell where they really are. The backgrounds are also plain while the landscapes are pretty barren, with the changing color schemes for each level being the only real difference among them. The sounds don’t fare much better as the music is pretty lame, certainly a far cry from the pumping tunes of the original, and the sound effects are also bleh. For those that remember the voice samples from the arcade, the only voice clip that made it over from the coin-op is a scratchy sound bite that says “Get Ready!” when you begin the game.
Of course the gameplay is what really takes the most hits during the translation. The controls are workable but feel sluggish and you often execute barrel rolls when you don’t want to, especially in the heat of battle. Also the arcade game had a throttle to control your speed, enabling you to catch up to jet or avoid missiles, but that was left on the cutting board due to the limited gamepad options. The biggest issue with After Burner (and the arcade version has this as well) is the game gets pretty repetitive in a short time since it’s the same mindless shooting action level after level. At least the coin-op had all the bells and whistles to keep the player engaged, here the gameplay just comes off as slightly boring with only the brief refueling scenes and boss encounters to break up the monotony. The missing throttle controls and the unlimited missiles (which render your guns just about useless) also take away from what little strategy there was in the original game.
So After Burner isn’t a completely terrible effort but it just doesn’t capture the excitement of the arcade version. That’s mainly Sega’s fault from trying to port the game to a console that just couldn’t handle it, so just like Space Harrier, you’re better off with the more faithful ports on the 32X and the Saturn. Even if you ignore the comparisons to the original, the repetitive gameplay and flat graphics still renders it a mediocre shooter which won’t keep you interested for too long. Sega probably should have taken the Enduro Racer route and refashioned the game into something more console-friendly, but anyway you slice it this 8-bit port doesn’t quite take off.