It’s surprising but as early as the mid-80s I was aware of console exclusives. I owned a NES but somehow knew that Sega didn’t make games for Nintendo and vice versa. This indisputable fact made the presence of the unlicensed Tengen games that much more intriguing. Unfortunately they were almost all terrible. The one game in the bunch that should have turned out the worst is actually a good conversion. After Burner is one of the better flight simulators for the NES and a damn good arcade port all things considered.
After Burner was a technical marvel at release in 1987. It made use of Sega’s super scaler technology to enable smooth scrolling effects at a fast framerate. Aside from its graphics what made it so popular was its speed and mechanics. Unlike the stuffy flight sims of the day it was very much a shooter and replicated the wild flight battles of Top Gun better than its own terrible licensed games.
Stuffing the game within the NES’s limitations was no small task but somehow Tengen did it. All of the levels are present and the scrolling is pretty smooth for the system. Obviously the background detail had to be reduced but Tengen did an admirable job mimicking the game’s look. When the action becomes too hectic there is some heavy sprite flickering. This is most prevalent toward the end of the game and unfortunately makes the game a lot more difficult. It’s far from ideal but is still playable.
Mechanically the game is very modest. You have a machine gun with infinite ammo and a finite number of missiles. Missiles can only be used when you have target locked an enemy, up to a maximum of five at once. Your ship is centered in the middle of the screen and you only have a limited amount of room to move. Mostly just up and down and banking a little to the left and right to dodge incoming missiles. In a pinch you can perform a barrel roll although doing it consistently is tough. Its effectiveness at dodging incoming fire is also questionable.
And that is more or less it. At its core this is a very simple game and this port even more so. For the most part you’ll spend your time shooting down ships that come from behind and auto targeting distant enemies. Because of the system’s limits you will rarely see more than four enemies and the waves are more spread apart. This doesn’t have the speed of the arcade game so it can be very boring at times, especially as the levels become longer. While it can be intense the biggest criticism of the game is that it lacks variety. Aside from the changing landscape every level is near identical. And because this version’s pacing is screwed you notice it more. You can lobby the same complaint at the arcade game but at least it was quick and very intense at all times.
Above all else After Burner is brutally difficult. The arcade game was no slouch but the NES version takes it to another level. You only have a few levels to get the hang of the game’s mechanics (such as they are) before the game goes nuts. Enemy jets come in groups of four or five frequently by stage 5 as well as missiles from behind. By that point if you aren’t target locking them immediately chances are you will die. It also doesn’t help that you have such limited range of motion to dodge missiles. I’m not exaggerating when I say it is entirely possible that you get a game over by stage 2. And there are 22 levels!
22 stages isn’t entirely accurate. A number of these are simply refueling areas where you are given a large stock of missiles. These generally come every three levels and to be completely honest I don’t know why these are considered stages. There are a few stages that see you barreling down a canyon dodging pillars and enemy fire from ground troops. These are very fast but also come across as bonus stages even though you can die. Despite that this is still lengthy by genre standards.
I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting much from this version of After Burner and came away pleasantly surprised. Forget the terrible ports of Fantasy Zone and Shinobi, Tengen did a great job here. It’s flawed but overall a solid game and what Top Gun should have been. It should be noted that Sunsoft cleaned up the graphics and released a better version of the game in Japan under the name After Burner II. If you must have it go for that version.