In the late ‘80s, Nintendo may have dominated living rooms the world over, but no one could do arcade games like SEGA. In those early days of the 16-bit revolution, SEGA’s games always seemed like they were years ahead of everyone else. Sure, there were other games that had sprite-scaling, and colorful graphics, but nothing could match that sense of motion you got from playing Space Harrier, Outrun, or After Burner. Yu Suzuki founded the early part of his career on a combination of fluid movement and face-melting speed that no one could match.
When gaming moved to 3D, it seemed like much of that sense of speed had been lost. SEGA themselves attempted some semi-official sequels like Strike Fighter and Sky Target, but never managed to recapture the dizzying barrel-rolls and breakneck pace that made After Burner the ultimate Top Gun fantasy. In 2006, following their success with the similarly back-to-roots Outrun 2, Sega finally got it right with After Burner Climax, the true sequel the original always deserved, but never got. It’s short, sweet, and arcade to the bone, without any concessions to the slower, more complex gameplay of today.
Like the original, this is a simple third-person rail shooter that puts you behind the F-14 Tomcat made famous in Top Gun (as well as two new planes, not found in the original). You’ll careen through stages, each maybe a minute long, blasting away, while dodging oncoming missiles. It’s a formula that has been done plenty of times before and since, but it’s the wild, loose camera and crazy speed that make the tried-and-true formula work better here than it has elsewhere.
Although Climax stands out most for the ways it successfully imitates the original, it’s more than just a simple remake. Like Sky Target, it adds some branching paths that allow you to choose which stage to progress to. Stages feel more varied, as well, with more genuinely unique enemy patterns. The classic “canyon” stages return, forcing players to maneuver through valleys, but these stages have been made more complicated by the inclusion of more enemies and hazards. There are also “special orders” to take down certain key targets, which in turn unlock secret stages and (superficially) alternate endings. Alas, these special orders seem to be a sticking point with the mobile port, and one in particular seems to be nearly impossible in a way it was not in the arcade and console versions, although it’s not clear to me if this is due to a bug, the limitations of the controls, or my own failings as a player.
The arcade version ran on the then-cutting-edge Lindbergh hardware, and looked at home when it was ported to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, so it’s impressive that developer Fishing Cactus has managed to capture the look and feel as well as they have. While the visuals are certainly not arcade perfect, it’s close enough to pass when the scenery is rocketing by at Mach 2. Water reflects the sun, and clouds feel like they have volume. Most importantly, the frame-rate is able to keep up with the dizzying action.
In a twitch action game, control is a very sensitive issue, and while After Burner Climax’s controls are good, they are flawed. There are a few different control options that allow you to control various aspects of the game with the touchscreen, accelerometer or some combination of the two. While the tilt controls are intuitive, the latency is really too high for them to be a viable means of steering your plane, meaning you’re left with touch controls for movement. This works very well in the wide-open stages, but the sensitivity feels too twitchy to handle the “canyon” stages on all but the slowest speeds. Sadly, there is no gamepad support, either, making these concessions unavoidable.
Like Fruit Ninja or Doodle Jump, this is a game meant to be played for a few minutes at a time. Start to finish, it clocks in around ten minutes long, and while there are some multiple paths and secret stages, you’ll see the whole game before very long. Similar to the console release, there are tons of achievements to unlock, many of which open up new options. Some of these options, in turn, make the game easier, which helps to unlock more difficult achievements, lending some sense of RPG-like progress to the game. Eventually, though, you’ll likely want to set these back to the default, and just tackle your high scores.
Ultimately, it’s that drive that will determine how much you get out of Climax. When you get down to it, there really isn’t a lot here. Although Climax is a bit beefed up compared to the 1987 original, it’s decidedly similar in scope and depth. It isn’t a game you play to get to the end, it’s a game you play because it’s really fun to send a fighter plane corkscrewing through the sky to ‘80s-tinged guitar rock. If that’s not your bag, well… there’s always Angry Birds.