Sega may not be as large and prolific as they were during their hardware-making days, but they still develop and publish some of the most fun and creative games on modern systems. Here I (attempt to) give these games the credit they deserve.
Remember the scene in Shenmue II when you enter the room with an After Burner sit-down arcade machine and there is a heavenly light beaming down on it and Ryo is in such awe that he could barely form a sentence? Well, that was pretty much what it was like for me when I saw my first After Burner Climax cabinet in a Japanese arcade a few years back. I played the game and was in love immediately. It looked and sounded great and despite the rotating “cockpit” being a bit of a gimmick that you feel goofy spinning around in (especially if you’re a white dude in his late-20s in Japan), it played great as well. During my stay in Japan, I pumped quite a few 100 yen coins into the game. And then I returned to America, where arcades are yeah, well.
There was a time when I assumed it would be a quite a while before I had another chance to play the game again, so I watched for an announcement of a home console version, so at the very least I could import a copy, but that announcement never came. What did come was even better. In March of 2010, four years after its arcade release, Sega announced the game would be coming to PSN and XBLA that April. And the best part? It would be arcade perfect with a few extras. And the uh, best-er part? It would only cost $10. A something-thousand dollar arcade game for ten bucks makes Climax on the digital services a great deal. But what makes it a great game?
Basically, After Burner Climax embodies everything great about arcade gaming, whether playing it in an arcade or not. The AM2-developed game runs on Sega’s Lindbergh arcade board (same as Virtua Fighter 5 and many others). The Lindbergh was based on PC hardware and is one of the most solid pieces of gaming hardware this generation. Every game I’ve played that uses it runs smoothly with no screen tearing, slowdown, clipping, excessive jaggies or any of the other nasty visual flaws many recent games suffer from. After Burner Climax is no exception to this, and is, despite running on hardware half a decade old, one of the best looking games on PSN and XBLA thanks to this arcade-perfect (to my eye) port.
Part of the reason Climax still looks so great is the art direction. Essentially, this is a game about flying a jet and shooting down other jets and stuff, so it could have easily had a drab, dull, and gray military backdrop. Instead, keeping with series (and Sega arcade) tradition, After Burner Climax is a bright, colorful, and all-around visually appealing game. The excellent visuals are complimented by a very fitting soundtrack filled with the sort of butt rock you’d expect (and want!) from a game like this. (You can listen to some of the tunes on Sega’s page for the arcade game, so if you want to get pumped, click here). There are remixed versions of classic themes, and an option to play the game with the original After Burner II soundtrack, a nice treat for series fans.
Underneath the top rate presentation, there is a very solid arcade game. Honestly, Climax is not a huge evolutionary step above even the first game in the series, but it doesn’t need to be. Traveling through short and distinct stages with branching paths (ala Outrun) in a jet, dodging missiles and shooting down enemy planes will be fun for as long as video games are. This goes to show how much series creator Yu Suzuki got right when he designed the original game in 1987. The “Climax” part of the title refers to the new Climax Gauge, which, with the press of a button, slows the game down to make targeting enemies easier for a limited period of time. The meter takes time to charge, so it cannot simply be used over and over. This addition is certainly welcome, but not really a series-changing innovation.
The home version of After Burner Climax keeps with Sega’s (post-Master System) tradition of generally fantastic arcade ports. There is a brief Training mode, which allows players to retry and practice any stage they have played in Arcade mode. Also included is the Score Attack mode, where players can play the game at a default setting and compete with their friends (and the world) for high scores via online leaderboards. The real focus of the game however is the brilliant Arcade mode, which manages to accommodate players of any skill level.
When players first start Arcade mode, they are playing the game in the default arcade settings. Most first time players will not progress past the first few stages with these settings. But as the player attempts and fails the stages, what the game calls “Ex Options” become available. These Ex Options make the game easier, giving the player everything from more lives to a larger lock-on targeting reticle to more powerful guns and more. Some Ex Options are unlocked inevitably though play, while others are only achieved by meeting certain specific criteria. Unlocking all of these options give the game even more replay value beyond the the Score Attack mode and for arcade purists, they can all be turned off.
After Burner Climax is an exceptional modern Sega title. The home port provides plenty of great, pick-up-and-play arcade-style action for players of all ability levels at a great price. But most importantly, Climax not only does the legendary After Burner name justice, but captures the spirit of the original title as well, making it another timeless classic in the series.
(Developed by Sega AM-2, Published by Sega. Released in North America April 21, 2010. Versions played: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3)