After Burner Climax
In a time when simulation is everything, flight combat games in the vein of After Burner Climax are hard to come by, not least because this one in particular seems to take its main inspiration from, of all things, an arcade racer. ‘OutRun with fighter jets.’ There really is no better description for After Burner Climax. Just as fast and frantic as it is pretty, the game seems to exist in SEGA’s distinctive world of fun above logic. From the vibrant, colourful visual style to the multiple branching paths, After Burner Climax is typical of SEGA’s ability to provide an experience that harbours its own individuality yet somehow also adheres to a clear template.
After Burner is a series that has always dispensed with any kind of fussy realism in favour of a pure arcade shooting experience, while also featuring a cheesy aesthetic possibly inspired by the 1986 film Top Gun (that is, in all but the film’s curious abundance of male shower scenes). As a direct conversion of the 2006 arcade release of the same name, After Burner Climax follows this tradition closely. Its format is very straightforward; one of three available fighter jets is selected and you are thrust into a scripted, almost on-rails high speed race through each of the game’s areas. Combat is typical of the After Burner series, and indeed any SEGA shooter, as you make your aircraft zip around the screen, waving your crosshair over enemies and firing off missiles to build up your combo score multiplier. But Climax does hide a few novel changes behind its faithful After Burner appearance.
“.. After Burner Climax seems to represent SEGA’s output at its best.”The first of these comes in the form of the titular ‘Climax’ feature. This ability charges as you play and when activated slows down time, drastically increases the size of your crosshair and grants unlimited missiles. Enemies can then be ‘painted’ in multitudes and dispatched with a barrage of missiles. Bullet time style effects are all too common in games today, but the sheer mechanical simplicity and visual flair associated with this one make it both attractive and unobtrusive; it is never essential to use it, yet it can help out in the trickiest situations.
Just like OutRun, After Burner Climax features a series of branching paths that can be selected between designated areas. While the credits can generally be seen within ten minutes of the title screen, it is from these multiple routes that much of the game’s playability comes from. Route choices range from a glittering nighttime cityscape to a glacier canyon with tense indoor flying sections reminiscent of Star Fox on the SNES. Some areas also contain ‘Emergency Orders’ – special area-specific objectives – which result in further branching paths with secret areas and multiple endings.
It’s a great system that works just as well for After Burner as it did for OutRun. Yet that doesn’t stop the gameplay from feeling like it lacks scope at times. Whereas OutRun Online Arcade rewarded you with the promise of refining your driving skills and shaving seconds off of your time, After Burner Climax feels a little more cynical. It’s an arcade game that loves nothing more than to eat your credits, a fact it doesn’t hide very well. Enemy missiles can sometimes appear to pop out of nowhere, and with a barrel roll that tends to activate at the most inconvenient times, you can feel a little crippled when approaching the last few areas of the game. In the arcades this challenge feels more excusable; the hydraulic cabinet that the game boasts is exciting enough for you to forget about the its incessant thirst for money.
But in making its transition to consoles After Burner Climax loses that hydraulic cabinet and subsequently a small chunk of its novelty-based appeal and incentive to play. Part of this is combated by an excellent Score Attack mode featuring unlimited lives, as well as a large selection of ‘Ex Options.’ These modifiers range from the ability to give yourself unlimited lives and missiles to permanently turning on the ‘Climax Mode’ crosshair. However, the relative ease with which these modifiers are made available tends to make the temptation to use them a little too strong, particularly on the harder difficulties. Yet they are nonetheless a welcome addition, and combined with online leaderboards, as well as the ability to use either the Climax or After Burner II soundtrack, they make the game feel like a very comprehensive package.
After Burner Climax is as good as arcade conversions come. The sense of speed and spectacle is worth the asking price alone, while the game’s wealth of additional options make it last long beyond its initial ten minute stint. But perhaps most importantly After Burner Climax seems to represent SEGA’s output at its best. By placing an emphasis on fun above all else the sheer delightful absurdity of the game hints that, while SEGA may not be the force it once was, there’s life in the old dog yet.