Reviews | Lindbergh
After Burner Climax
By Alex Kierkegaard / December 20, 2006
With After Burner Climax Hiroshi Kataoka's career comes full circle. Kataoka, who is now head of Sega's arcade division, says he joined the company just out of college in 1992 because he wanted "to make something as good as After Burner". He was immediately enlisted in Yu Suzuki's team to help in the development of Virtua Racing (1992), and since then all his work has been done in Suzuki's shadow.
That is not an exaggeration. The first big game Kataoka directed was Fighting Vipers (1995), which he was "ordered" by his boss to make in order to capitalize on the new market for 3D fighting games that Virtua Fighter (1993) had opened up, and which no other company had by that point managed to successfully enter. A string of high-profile titles followed, including further installments of Virtua Fighter and both Shenmues, all of them dominated by Suzuki's vision and personality. If Kataoka had anything to bring to the world of videogames other than love for the medium and a capacity for hard work he certainly managed to keep it well-hidden throughout all those years.
This brief recounting of the man's career, and perhaps an understanding of Japanese work culture, should help explain why today, years after Suzuki left AM2 to head up the ill-fated AM Plus, Kataoka is still working within the confines of the (admittedly daunting) shadow of his former boss. The result is that Climax is something of a disappointment. As merely a remake of After Burner (1987) it is as perfect as can be, but I was certainly expecting, and hoping, for much more than a remake.
So just like the first game, Climax is a straightforward on-rails shooter. Your goal is to destroy as many enemies as you can using your guns and missiles, while successfully weaving in and out of a torrent of enemy fire long enough to reach the end of each stage. The controls are exactly the same as before: you use a flight stick with two buttons for firing your weapons, and a throttle for changing speed (After Burner didn't actually use a throttle, nor was it possible to somehow adjust your speed -- this was the main addition of After Burner II). You can still go on a barrel roll by abruptly changing direction, and this move here is as showy, and ultimately as useless, as it was in the previous games.
The controls then remain the same, but the system has been slightly enriched to make it more palatable to contemporary arcade goers, who are expecting more depth in their games nowadays. So though in After Burner the emphasis was squarely on survival, in Climax things are set up so that score matters more (just as it does in modern STGs). You are now supposed to lock on to as many enemies as you can in one pass and then fire off a stream of missiles to destroy them, thus racking up a high combo counter. To this end there is also the game's namesake, the Climax Mode, which temporarily gives you infinite missiles, greatly expands your target reticle, and, most importantly, slows time down to a crawl, making it easier for you to achieve even higher combos. To enter this new mode you push the throttle all the way forward when the Climax Gauge at the bottom of the screen is maxed out; this drains it in exchange for a few seconds of "bullet time", and then it proceeds to slowly fill up again as time goes by.
The other big addition is the interesting but misnamed Team Play Mode, available in game centers which have purchased and linked up two cabinets. I say it's misnamed because the second player is labeled as the "Rival", and because at the end of every stage the highest-scoring player is declared the "Winner". Still, the players do in fact make up some sort of a team, since they can't kill each other and since every enemy one player destroys is one enemy less left to attack the other.
And then there is of course the face lift, which is by far the game's biggest attraction. For great justice I'll simply quote the English section of the official Japanese website, which I happen to fully agree with on this matter:
The classic After Burner (1987) now comes back as After Burner Climax!!, incredible progression with "LINDBERGH", CG board of next generation, that enables the realization of an explosive sense of speed and graphics of photorealistic quality.
There are many other changes to note, all of which are welcome, but none of which makes any appreciable difference to the experience. Instead of the F-14 Tomcat you now have a choice of three fighters (F-14D Super Tomcat, F/A-18E Super Hornet and F-15E Strike Eagle), and four differente paint jobs (Standard, Camouflage, Special Paint and Low Visibility). You also get to choose a BGM at the start à la OutRun (1986), and there are now a few points where the stages branch out (though all the branches quickly lead back to the same path), and different endings depending on how well you scored overall. One more minor change is that you get yet another gauge, the Armor Gauge, which allows your fighter to sustain a few direct missile hits before finally crashing and burning.
All the changes, major and minor, have the exact effect which they were intended to have: they make the game just a bit more involved and rewarding, and encourage repeated play. The selling point of the original, its truly thrilling sense of speed, is perfectly captured, and even amplified because of the "incredible progression with "LINDBERGH", CG board of next generation". However the original's problem is also perfectly captured. Climax remains in essence a "ride", a game which you play now and again for a quick thrill, in-between deeper and more engrossing titles. Because what it boils down to is simply wiggling the stick around quickly enough to avoid incoming missiles, and smoothly (that is to say, avoiding jerky movements), so as not to go in a barrel roll. The barell roll, if you remember from the original, is not only useless (missiles can still hit you as normal), but also decreases your scoring potential since it prevents you for a few seconds from targetting and destroying enemies.
And that's basically it. The stages all look gorgeous of course, but they do not provide nearly enough variety to make you want to keep playing to see what comes next. What changes is the color of the sky and the color and shape of the ground, and little else. I mean what difference does it make whether I am flying over a blue ocean, rolling hills, or fire-spewing volcanoes, if there's no way for me to interact with (i.e. crash on) the landscape? Only a couple of stages have you negotiating canyons and firing at ground targets (in addition to airborne ones), and sure enough those are the most fun stages, and only a single stage makes you fly inside an underground base, and that is the coolest one. Why they didn't add more of that kind of thing is a mystery. I mean the hardware is obviously powerful enough to render whole cities and allow you to fly between skyscrapers, under suspension bridges, etc. Why stuff like that wasn't done is beyond me.
But oh yes, Kataoka was careful not to make any significant changes to his ex-boss's masterpiece. He wanted to capture perfectly the feel of Suzuki's two-decade-old game, and this he did to a fault.
There is though one extra dimension to enjoying this game -- and I do really enjoy it whenever I sit down to play it -- and that is provided by the cabinet designs. Though both the dedicated House of the Dead 4 cab that Sega launched the Lindbergh with, and the standard cabs used with Power Smash 3 and Virtua Fighter 5, are of excellent quality, the company's engineers have managed to outdo themselves yet again with After Burner Climax. Operators have a choice between three different configurations: the Standard model, which is stationary, the Commander model, which provides side to side motion, and the Climax model, which adds up and down motion as well as a much larger widescreen LCD monitor (the cheaper models have 29" 31kHz CRTs). Now all my comments are based on the Commander model because it's the only one I've managed to find in Tokyo so far (I am still looking for the other two, and when I find them I'll be sure to update this review with my impressions). So basically it's this huge, sleek, beautifully-engineered cockpit, with shiny bolts and blue faux-leather seats and sturdy seat belts, as well as the best flight stick/throttle combo to ever grace an arcade machine, and a nice sound system (though unfortunately the volume is not player-adjustable, as in some recent Namco racers). So what the Commander cabinet adds to the game is the smooth side to side motion which involves you more in the action, and which makes the whole experience much more physical and immediate. In fact my interest in the stationary Standard cabinet is purely academic -- I wouldn't spend much time on it even if the game was set on freeplay, and I have absolutely no interest in a port, where I'd have to forget about the physical aspect, and most likely have to make do with a controller instead of a flight stick.
However, even as regards the cabinet designs I am still a little disappointed. Though no true After Burner sequels were ever made (II, as I already mentioned, was almost exactly the same game with an added throttle, and III was a Mega CD port of the 1991 arcade Strike Fighter), Sega still made several games that were obviously its successors. The first one of those, G-LOC: Air Battle (1990), eventually received a revision called R360: G-LOC, which came in a strap-in cabinet that spun you around 360 degrees according to the action. Now if Sega could engineer such a thing sixteen years ago, for a game such as G-LOC, which wasn't all that great, you'd think they'd do something similar for Climax, which is easily the best effort among all their similar titles... Or perhaps we can expect "R360: After Burner Climax" in a couple of years? I somehow doubt that.
There are those who see some sort of connection between OutRun 2 (2003) and this new After Burner. On seeing the first images of the game emerge late last year, Gary Cutlack of UK Resistance ecstatically called it "OutRun in the sky", and back then I was inclined to agree. But after actually playing the game I can say with certainty that there is no connection between the two, beyond the fact that both are gorgeous remakes of Sega classics. Because the lasting appeal of the joyride that is OutRun 2 is certainly not replicated here, nor was there any such intention on the part of the developers. In Climax there is little joy to be found in simply flying around -- take away the enemies and all there's left is an empty sky above you, and colorful surfaces zooming past beneath you. The risk involved in being allowed to crash your fighter on the ground; flying bombing missions and zigzagging between skyscrapers and through canyons -- being able to do things of this nature would have been equivalent to the endlessly enjoyable drifting of OutRun 2, but my guess is that these ideas never even entered Kataoka's mind. So what was true before remains true still: if OutRun is about the joy in driving, After Burner is about the joy in shooting -- not flying.
After Burner Climax is still a title that no fan of the arcade experience should pass up on the opportunity to play, should the opportunity present itself. But, like the original, it lacks the universal appeal of an OutRun, or the depth necessary to make it more than a quick diversion (it's telling that, though I spent several thousand yen on it, I never felt like playing more than a couple of games in a single session). Improving your score and kill ratio can be fun for a while, but progressing through the game is not as enjoyable as in the more diverse on-rails shooters, such as Rez (2001) and the Panzer Dragoon titles (consider that Climax doesn't even have any bosses to break up the monotony of the endless popcorn enemies). In the end, Kataoka did manage to make something as good as After Burner. Too bad he didn't make anything better.