Arguably the hottest arcade game of the year, Sega's After Burner has finally arrived on home computer format courtesy of Activision.
The unenviable task of converting this monster machine was given to Keith Berkhill, whose previous masterpieces include Ghosts 'N Goblins, Space Harrier and Commando. Has he been able to work magic and reproduce After Burner on the Spectrum? Well, the answer is a resounding yes - believe it or not.
For the arcade virgins among us, After Burner is an aerial combat game in which the player flies an F-14 against an entire enemy airforce. The action is viewed in 3D from behind the plane, rather like a traditional race game. Formations of enemy craft fly over the horizon and attack before peeling away. Sometimes planes emerge from the sides of the screen, swooping across the F-14's flightpath, and attack from behind, requiring some nifty manoeuvring to shake off the pursuer.
The solo mission of death and destruction starts on an aircraft carrier. The F-14 takes off automatically and heads for the sky, and from then on you're on your own.
The plane is armed with an unlimited supply of bullets, which fire constantly throughout the mission, and a limited amount of air-to-air missiles. When an enemy plane comes into firing range, a box appears around it and a missile can be launched by pressing the fire button to send it haring across the sky to home in on the target. Bullets are a good means of bringing down planes that fly in front of the F-14, but otherwise they're pretty useless in combat.
The first few formations of planes are merely cannon fodder, but the jets that follow launch missiles at the F-14; one hit is fatal and the plane plunges to the ground and ploughs a great furrow as it comes to a standstill. As the player progresses the missiles become faster, more numerous and very accurate, and swift reflexes and good hand-to-eye co-ordination is needed to fly the plane safely through the seemingly unceasing assault.
Occasionally a plane or homing missile approaches from behind with the sole intent of destroying the plane. This frantic situation prompts only one course of action; a spin. This particular manoeuvre is tricky to master, but essential if the player is to complete the mission. A short tug of the joystick in one direction, followed by a quick switch sends the plane - and the horizon - into a complete rotation, shaking off the aggressor in the process.
At regular intervals a big tanker plane flies in and the F-14 automatically docks in mid-air for refuelling and rearming.
There are 23 levels in all - like the arcade game - the majority of which involve aerial combat. There are two canyon runs, where the plane is guided down the middle of a steep-sided valley to straffe ground targets that litter the plain. The sides of the canyon have to be avoided, so it's useful to slow the plane down as much as possible - that way there's more time to pick the juiciest targets and notch up as many points as possible.
There are also two friendly airfields to land on, where the plane is quickly serviced before resuming combat; it provides a very welcome breather from the frenetic action. The programmer has included the little Hang-On bike and Out-Run car which follow the plane up the runway as it takes off - it's good to see that sort of attention to detail.
The original arcade game had lavish and very fast graphics. Unfortunately the colour is lost on the Spectrum - the playing screen is always a combination of two colours to avoid attribute problems - but the speed has been retained, and the game is as fast as its coin-op big brother.
The main sprite is clearly drawn and the 3D update on the enemy planes is smooth. There are few ground features, the majority of them seem to be bushes, but you tend not to notice when you're flying - there are far more important things happening on-screen to spend time gawping at that scenery. The canyon section is well executed, and again the update is convincing.
More importantly, the game is extremely playable. The plane handles beautifully, and targetting and firing missiles is easy. My one single gripe is that it's sometimes difficult to see incoming missiles due to the colour restrictions - but it doesn't ruin the game. Play is exciting, and the frenetic action keeps you on your toes constantly - the only time you can ever afford to relax is when the plane is on the runway!
The difficulty level is set quite high, and even though the game is started with a generous number of lives, it doesn't take long to blow up all the planes. Nevertheless, this small fact didn't stop me playing it incessantly!
After Burner is an excellent conversion, and while Keith Berkhill goes for a stroll on water, Spectrum owners at least can revel in one of the fastest and most impressive arcade games to appear in the six-year history of the machine!
And now that Activision has proved the seemingly impossible, the ball is now in US Gold's court. Will Thunderblade shoot down After Burner? Or will After Burner leave Thunderblade in its jet wash? One thing's for sure: Thunderblade will have to be exceptional to beat this.