When After Burner first hit the arcades in 1987, it was clear even to non-gamers that this thing was going to be a hit. It was fast, high action and pseudo 3D - very much the recipe for success at the time.
Time marches on, however, and it's now 18 years since the release of After Burner III, the last fully-fledged After Burner game. 3D is commonplace and action junkies have loads of outlets to satiate their attention deficit disorder. Is After Burner still relevant?
Before we an answer that, let's take a look at how it all works.
The core elements of the game have changed little, with players tasked with taking on seemingly insurmountable odds in their mighty jet fighter. Fortunately the supply of weapons is near bottomless and even crashing your plane doesn't end your fight for justice. At least, presumably there's a fight for justice - there are hints of a story but no real narrative so you'll need to fill in the blanks there yourself. Suffice to say there are lots of bad guys and plenty of things to shoot at them.
This time around, the venerable F14 you normally take into battle has had an upgrade to it's latest real-world incarnation and it has also been joined for the first time by the F15 and FA 18. Ultimately there's no real difference between the planes apart from how they look, so if you have a favorite, you might as well fly that one. You can even choose between multiple paintjobs, should you so desire.
Levels are laid out in a semi-linear fashion, with branches available at key points to vary your journey to the finish - much like in House of the Dead. It doesn't make too much difference which way you go but the scenery varies quite a bit and it's nice to have some options available in this regard.
The game itself plays almost exactly the way it's predecessors did, with the player thrust along a path which they can steer around to a certain extent, but the overall direction they're travelling is pre-determined. This level of maneuverability allows you to avoid incoming fire as well as target enemy aircraft, which is done by moving your onscreen cursor over any enemy you seek to destroy.
You have two weapons at your disposal, the machine gun and the missile. The machine gun is mostly useless, as your near unlimited supply of missiles (combined with it's simple targeting system) makes it the weapon of choice for most situations. Sometimes you'll need to use the machine gun and it doesn't hurt to hold your finger on the trigger, so you might as well; you'll net a few extra kills out of it anyway.
New to the series is the Climax gauge - kill things to fill it then press the button to slow everything down at a key moment, giving you a glorious ability to target massive numbers of foes or dodge a seemingly unsurvivable hail of missiles. It's a cool addition and a good fit for the core gameplay.
The levels start off simply enough, and the only thing you need to worry about are your enemies. However, soon enough, the environment itself becomes a deathly hazard. Valleys close in and the land becomes dotted with anti-aircraft batteries. Without ruining some of the fun locations late in the game, let's just say that if you've seen Return of the Jedi, you'll have some idea of what to expect.
Visually it's a blast, with detailed environments whizzing past the screen at both 60 frames per second and 2000 miles an hour. Anti-aliasing would be nice but nothing stays still long enough for you to notice how jaggie it is. The sound largely backs up the visual package, with a high-energy soundtrack (or the original tune from After Burner II) thumping along to the chatter of your co-pilots and the ever-present clatter of exploding aircraft.
After Burner's high-energy action, combined with next generation visuals and arcade pricing combines for a stellar package. This is pure arcade gaming, with no loading times and no wasted time getting to know two-dimensional characters. If you're at all interested in this style of game, snap it up without heistiation.