After Burner [Sega Master System] – Review

After Burner - Sega Master System - Box Art

My recent playthrough of After Burner on the Sega 32X was at times frustrating, but ultimately satisfying enough to soldier through and beat it. Intending to record let’s plays for my heretofore untouched Sega Master System, I thought what better game to start with than its port of Sega’s arcade classic! Having spent about an hour with it across a few sessions I realize now there may have been better alternatives. Unlike the Sega 32X version which was fast-paced and responsive, this port was riddled with choppy performance that ultimately created unintended challenge, stripping most of the fun that could’ve been had.

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Playing this version enlightened me as to how similar After Burner and its sequel are (despite the name, the Sega 32X version is truly a port of After Burner II). This isn’t surprising now that I’m aware they debuted the same year in arcades: 1987. As far as I can tell, After Burner II was essentially an upgrade, featuring a few more varying stages, different enemies, and the ability to use the game’s namesake. Considering I’d just completed that game, this playthrough was a bit anachronistic, more so bearing in mind the lessened potential of the Master System, compared to the Sega 32X.

Playing out across eighteen stages, I piloted an F-14 Thunder Cat attempting to survive waves of enemy jets. The most dangerous ones attacked head-on and launched missiles at me. If I acted quickly enough, I could shoot them down, both the jets and their missiles. When they did get their missiles off, they’d lock onto me but if I maneuvered just right, I could shake them loose. Occasionally, enemy jets also flew out from behind me, but these never presented a threat, rather, cannon fodder. In summation, survival relied upon quick actions, which this version couldn’t accommodate.

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My biggest gripe with this version was its sluggish frame rate. In general, the game featured a subpar frame rate, which when paired with the barren graphics, gave off the vibe of a flipbook animation. This resulted in a couple of gameplay negatives. Firstly, my inputs seemed to have a delayed response on-screen, realistically lessening the amount of time I had to deal with enemies. Secondly, it made controlling the F-14 cumbersome. My range was already restricted to what I’d previously experienced but now whenever I moved or dealt with a lot of action on-screen, I encountered slowdown and a loss of gradation in my maneuverability. These factors made it hard to reliably lock onto enemies and blast them with my missiles, let alone dodge theirs.

With these hindrances limiting my progress, I resorted to cheesing my way through as much of the game as possible. The easiest but least tenable way was to position the F-14 in the bottom leftmost quadrant of its range. When done correctly, it couldn’t be hit by enemy missiles for the first twelve or so stages. If I even tried to take out enemies, I’d put that method of survival at risk so it didn’t yield a high score or fun experience, but it did get me through 2/3 of the game. My alternative was to fly around haphazardly and launch missiles as fast as possible, and as I learned last time, that’s random and a recipe for failure. It did get me through the hectic recurring boss stages though.

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In the brief time I spent with this version of After Burner, I never found a great way to get through it. Skillfully taking out enemies and avoiding their missiles required a quick trigger finger and responsive piloting, both difficult to manage with the game’s poor frame rate. Meanwhile, alternative methods of succeeding erased the challenge and most fun from the game. Compared to the Sega 32X version of After Burner II, my sole reference for the series, this port is many rungs down the quality ladder. Not the best introduction to the Sega Master System.

I’d be remiss to include the playlist for me let’s play of After Burner for the Sega Master System.

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