It’s very tough to update old-school arcade games gracefully. Change too much, and people accuse you of ignoring the franchise’s heritage. Change too little, and people will say the series is stuck in a rut. This second situation is unfortunately how we feel about After Burner: Black Falcon, an update to publisher Sega’s beloved arcade flight shooter series After Burner. It’s not as bad a collision with the past as would be, say, taking Mick Jagger shopping for Speedos, but it isn’t exactly plugging your iPod straight into your hybrid-fuel car’s stereo, either.
There are three pilots and some 15 jets in Black Falcon, but they all do more or less the same thing: fly really fast straight ahead, blasting land, sea, and air-based enemies with guided missiles, rockets, and machine gun. Each mission has one big goal – usually shooting down one or more rogue pilots who stole a batch of experimental planes (that’s the storyline) – and a few secondary objectives. These vary from pilot to pilot, but usually involve blowing up a certain number of a specific type of enemy, completing a level within a certain time limit, and so on. These mission-critical targets can be hard to find though, so just plan on blowing anything that moves to pieces.
Trouble is, this isn’t exactly piloting a jet as you know it from other games – this is an on-rails shooter, so it’s more like piloting a jet down an invisible tube. You can’t turn around, and you can forget that Immelman maneuver (you do have an evasive barrel roll, though). Now, granted, this is exactly like the original After Burner, so we can’t gripe too much about that. But what we can gripe about is the fact that the swooshy camera and controls conspire to make it way too hard to see exactly where you’re pointing, and thus far too easy to slam into rocks formations, icy cliffs, and other obstacles.
There’s also a surprising shallowness to the flying and combat. The planes are all remarkably similar - the F-15 Eagle is predictably swift and darting, but why does the A-10 Tank Killer, a huge, heavily-armored, lumbering behemoth of a plane, perform almost identically? That’s like having a racing game in which the semi truck is only slightly slower off the blocks than the import tuner. It can carry more rockets and missiles, true – but these items, as well as your health, are often refilled on the fly by the power-ups you get when you shoot down a group of enemy planes. This odd touch, which reminded us of an old-school 2D shooters such as Gradius proved critical, because it’s nearly impossible to avoid taking damage as you fly through the level. There are legions of anti-aircraft guns, tanks, gunships, and other ground forces that systematically whittle your health away with swiftly-moving shells faster than you can destroy them.
None of these shortcomings can totally overwhelm After Burner: Black Falcon’s fun factor, and we’ll admit we’re suckers for the way you can beef up your planes, or just paint them with decidedly non-military patterns like tiger-stripes or flames. There’s even ad hoc two-player co-op or dogfighting for 2-4 top guns. But its arcade heritage is just a little too strong, so be sure to ask yourself if a game that wowed you a quarter at a time 20 years ago is worth $30-40 today, with only a mild evolution.