It has been a long while since the huge After Burner cabinet was the pride of every arcade and pier up and down the country. The intimidating machine consisted of a cockpit that rotated and lunged, moving players in relation to the game and causing a frenzy of excitement at the time. Since then there have been a handful of muted sequels and re-releases through retro compilations, mobile phones, and the like, but Black Falcon is the true premier of a wholly original After Burner game on a home system.
Now that Sega's vintage series has leapt from an intimidating mechanical cabinet onto a sleek handheld, is there a way that the game can be of any merit without the gyroscopic cockpit that proved so popular in 1987? Thankfully, though the latest After Burner falls short of outstanding, the answer is yes.
It is certainly fair to say that Black Falcon is the OutRun of flying games, and that only has something to do with the fact both titles are stalwarts of Sega's back catalogue. From the golden era soundtrack through to the carefree visuals, every element of the PSP's latest aerial combat title serves to remind you just what made Outrun so great.
After Burner is as cheerful in tone and presentation as it is ferocious and punishing in gameplay. Eschewing realism for a light-hearted sense of fun that certainly defined Sega's Ferrari racer, there is an unavoidably old-school flavour to Black Falcon, which may taste a little past its sell-by date, but it makes a refreshing change to more contemporary releases.
'... the emphasis in After Burner is not on complexity and simulation, but on speed and accessibility.'
Just like its gravity bound cousin, the emphasis in After Burner is not on complexity and simulation, but on speed and accessibility. Rather than concerning you with the intricate aeronautical stunts and overcrowded HUD normally associated with flight simulators, Black Falcon instead ushers you around what is essentially a raceway in the clouds. Though there is no concern for starting grids and finishing positions, the winding tunnel of airspace that you are restricted to is certainly comparable to the open roads of Sega's greatest driving game.
With no option to escape the predetermined routes presented, you must destroy enemies and complete objectives in exchange for cash rewards that can be spent on new planes, weaponry upgrades, and rather silly skins for your fighter jets.
Beyond basic steering that makes the most of Sony's twitchy analogue nub, you are only given access to a ferocious boost, an incredibly responsive air break and a simple barrel roll that functions as your sole evasive manoeuvre. Your weapon set consists of a simple combination of air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles, as well as a basic cannon to fall back on when your payload dwindles.
The process of locking-on to enemies is not dissimilar to Rez, requiring you to sweep the crosshair over a number of enemies, before unleashing your heat seeking cargo. Destroying a complete formation of rival planes releases a bonus in a typically cheery and equally unrealistic manner to Outrun, replenishing health and ammunition or slowing down time.
The comparisons with shmups do not stop at chaining opponents and collecting bonuses either, as Black Falcon is a close relation of the twitch game. Demanding every last ounce of your concentration, the combination of dodging enemy fire, weaving through the protruding landscape and accurately targeting the planes and vehicles that litter the screen will often test even the most experienced gamers.
Some respite from the chaos comes in the form of the runways and carrier ships that function as stepping-stones that link the various stages of each level. Passing over one triggers an automatic landing, restocking your plane's onboard arsenal and giving you a break from the dizzying pace of the game.
The air brake allows less competent players to pick their way through the more punishing sections of later levels by reducing the momentum of your plane to a snail's pace. Sometimes, though, you find yourself resorting to the brake with such regularity that you begin to feel perhaps the game should have just been set at a slightly slower velocity. The turbo function is of course ludicrously quick and, though occasionally useful for zipping through the rare empty areas, is mainly used to storm through the most trying combinations of foes when you have already completed the objectives needed and just want to dash to the finish line.
The game is not without fault however, with the main problem being the repetitive nature of most of the missions. It was a curse that blighted the original, that was easy to ignore when you were sat inside the rumbling arcade machine grinning from ear to ear, but on the PSP you quickly start to crave some variation and depth that sadly never arrives.
The difficulty level is set fairly high too and, though that is forgivable, there are a few problems with the flexibility of the planes on offer and their impact on the game. In most cases the only aircraft you'd really want to consider using for each level is the one the game recommends, as taking to the sky with any of the other available jets usually results in failure.
Beyond making the whole concept of choosing an aeroplane before clambering into the cockpit a touch redundant, the fact that there is usually only one worthwhile choice for each mission means that if you do waste your hard earned cash on the wrong plane, you are either faced with a mammoth difficulty spike to overcome, or painfully returning to a save point before your last shopping spree at the aircraft showroom.
Despite this, the latest After Burner is a great little game brimming with instant playability. Tidy controls and some classic retro styling, along with a great soundtrack straight from the chips of a Mega Drive assure this is everything a Sega classic should be. Black Falcon may not enjoy the hysteria the original release courted, but is still a brilliant title for a system crying out for nuggets of accessible gaming suited to portable play.