Between the fancy sit-down cabinet and the blisteringly quick sprite scaling, there was little doubt After Burner II would be anything other than huge hit when it launched in arcades back in 1987, even though the differences between this “sequel” and the already popular original are quite small.
The game was so successful the numerous home ports of the ’80s and ’90s consistently sold well regardless of the dubious quality of more than a few of them, the game’s legendary status ensuring After Burner II—any version of After Burner II—was for a time an essential purchase for just about everyone. To not play this was the gaming equivalent of not watching Star Wars: it was almost inconceivable.
Remaking a game with that much history behind it is an unenviable task. No matter how many new features are added or how accurate the end result may be (or otherwise), the one thing a project like this actually needs to recreate is a collective memory with only hazy links to the original’s programming and pixels. It has to be “right” in intangible ways that nobody can quite agree on, to act the way a game made people feel when they were younger.
Which is no easy task for a PlayStation 2 game released as part of a resolutely cost-conscious series. There’s no big arcade cabinet for anyone to cocoon themselves in, no moulded flightstick to grasp, and the people most likely to consider buying at it are also going to be those whose fond memories of the way things were burn brightest.
This game is in many ways the Sega Ages 2500 Series’ worst nightmare.
And yet against all odds, Volume 10 does capture the essence of Yu Suzuki and co.’s sky-high classic. Start the game up and within seconds you’re darting around all over the place at supersonic speeds as other planes zoom by, the horizon refusing to stay level for a single moment as excellent arrangements of classic After Burner tunes blast into your ears. Those lengthy crash sequences designed to make it very clear to all and sundry you just tried to catch an incoming missile with your nose cone are also present and correct, the plane skidding so far across the deliberately repetitive landscape I’ve cleared more than a few stages as nothing more than a plume of smoke. This new 3D terrain does look the part even if the colour scheme is somewhat muted in places, presumably for “realism’s” sake. Sometimes the 2500 series reimaginings have been wildly off the mark (and sometimes they’ve been spectacularly on the mark too), but this simply looks like After Burner II has been recreated using polygons. It’s not an especially exciting interpretation, but to seriously complain about it would feel forced.
If you feel like trying something very slightly different there’s an Arrange mode to tackle (and unlike the previous Sega Ages 2500 release this is unlocked from the start—an irritating inconsistency I hope the series addresses sooner rather than later). This allows you to choose one of four aircraft: the standard F-14 Tomcat, the AV8B Harrier II, the A-10A Thunderbolt II, and the F-117 Nighthawk. Each has been given their own unique strength—all rounder, mobility, vulcan cannon, and missiles respectively—although in all honesty you’re still going end up doing the same things in the same ways, partly because there’s not that much difference between them when you’re playing, and partly because there’s really not much else anyone can do in After Burner II other than fly around really fast and shoot everything else in the sky. In the end this mode feels like something of a missed opportunity—even something as mild as Arrange Mode altering the time of day the stages work their way through would’ve made it feel a little more substantial—although I think it’s fair to say there was never going to be an extra mode that offered meaningful changes while still keeping the original’s admittedly simplistic arcade delights intact.
At least a lot of care and attention has been paid to these new aircraft, the game even going so far as to animate their flaps as you bank and roll (not that you really have the time to notice such a small detail). They’re also officially licensed names and likenesses rather than legally distinct facsimiles, an additional hurdle that surely would have been cheaper and easier to just not bother with; to use a generic grey pointy plane as the main craft and then not even create the others at all. The fact that the team made the effort anyway speaks volumes. Yes, Sega Ages 2500 is inconsistent and scrappy and really not the prestigious comeback fans were hoping for, but even so the nigh-invisible people working away on the other side really must have been trying to do as much as they could with what they were given.
Other minor and similarly easily discarded details have also happily remained intact. Make sure you look out for the Hang-On bike as well as Out Run‘s famous car during the airstrip refuelling/resupply sequences, and if you feel up to it try to uncover mysterious “storyline” told through disjointed snippets of text hidden away behind secret button combinations (I haven’t been able to test them all, but at least the inputs and text for the first one match the commands used in the arcade game). It won’t make much sense, but I’m sure it’ll raise a smile.
This isn’t the most exciting remake After Burner II could have had—it’s just not polished or visually striking enough to match the ’80s arcade hit’s dazzling sights and sounds—and apart from the competent, albeit washed out, 3D makeover there’s nothing of any significance in here you haven’t seen or done before in any of the more accessible versions of the game (do make sure you grab M2’s excellent 3DS port before the eShop closes for good). There is really no good reason to buy this particular release, especially considering the eye watering prices it now fetches online.
Having said that, I can’t really claim this game doesn’t fulfil the Sega Ages 2500 series’ brief either. This is After Burner II in 3D, on PlayStation 2. That was the bar set for it, that’s the bar it clears, and if you do decide to play it yourself, that’s what you’ll get.