Few would have failed to be impressed by Sega’s veritable arcade After Burner when it first graced arcades in the eighties. Appearing at the height of the 20 cent piece arcade machines, After Burner could truly be considered ahead of it’s time. Incredibly, for 1987, some versions of the game included a strap-in cockpit that rotated around the player to provide an even more intense experience.
Taking its cue from the classic Space Harrier, the original After Burner gave gamers a change from the standard top-down shooter and presented the action from behind the jet itself. After a brief 2006 cameo in the Japanese arcades with After Burner Climax, Sega celebrates the 20th anniversary of the original by bringing the gameplay, the on-rails feel and the graphics into the 21st century and onto Sony’s PSP.
The story, which seems sketched with the lightest of pencils, tells of an evil terrorist organisation, the Black Falcon of the title, stealing 13 super jets and threatening the world. You chose one of three ace American air force pilots and use all your skills to bring the rogue pilots to justice - just as long as that justice involves missiles and machine guns.
Initially players will have access to the most basic of fighter jets and the simplest of missions. The depth of the title is immediately apparent as more than a dozen planes and numerous upgrades await you on the aircraft carrier tarmac. With the game being officially licensed by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, the fighter planes are all faithfully recreated and represented; featuring such fighting machines as the F-14 Tomcat and the ludicrous F/A-18E Super Hornet.
As players battle their way through the 24 missions they will earn money for accomplishing the various mission objectives, this money they can then use to pimp their flights with anything from more powerful weapons to cheetah paintjobs. Some of the objectives are mandatory to progress through to the next mission, while others are secretive and very difficult to accomplish on your first fly-through.
The gameplay is a very good mimic for the feel of the old After Burner. Despite being on-rails the action is frenetic and nonstop, enemy planes attack from almost every angle, missiles and bullets hurtle past at breakneck pace, and the boss fights present impossibly maneuverable foes. All these elements combine to make the later levels of the game very difficult, even at the easiest level.
The controls are intuitive and suitable. Two missile buttons can be used to aim at air-to-air or air-to-ground targets, while the X button fires off stream after stream of bullets. The shoulder buttons are used as air brakes and the eponymous After Burners of the title. The After Burner is especially crucial to break the time limits and secure some of the more difficult objectives.
As the action comes thick and fast, mastering the three weapon buttons is crucial to building combos and winning bonus cash or ammo. Luckily After Burner: Black Falcon provides a reasonable easy missile aiming system which allows players to ghost over the enemy targets for a lock-on and then allow the missile to do the work for them. In fact some may find the aiming system a little too easy at times and become rudely surprised when the game ramps up the difficulty and ramps down the accuracy of the lock-on.
The graphics are very polished for Sony’s littlest console; the planes are given extra special attention and are truly blessed by the official license. Although they may not handle like their real-life counterparts, any real plane doing multiple barrel rolls through a canyon might struggle, they shine with all the awesome power of their carbon-fiber equals; even tiny vapor trails can be found drifting from the tips of the wings. The comic book inspired, tongue-in-cheek cut scenes also add rather than subtract to the overall package.
It’s a shame that the multiplayer aspect doesn’t add too much to the game itself. A standard Co-op mode replays all of the levels you’ve already played and the simple “mad cow” competitive mode is amusing the first time you play it and annoying every time after that. Yet it is the allure of the single-player mode that will keep gamers involved, it’s a blast to kill ten minutes on the bus or train and has some of the best loading times on the PSP yet.
After Burner: Black Falcon is one of the finest arcade shooters yet to appear on the PSP and is a faithful and reverent nod of the head to one of the arcade world’s greatest productions. Although it can be a little repetitive at times, it still stands head and shoulders above the rest of the genre and provides a great example of why nobody does arcade gaming like Sega.