Classic ports always fare better when handled by a team that approaches the source game's legacy with the utmost respect, and without a hint of hyperbole 3D After Burner II is a truly exceptional retread. Developer M2 has worked wonders with this re-release of Sega's 1987 arcade cabinet, presenting a faithful port that captures the white-knuckle turbulence and twitch manoeuvrability that made the original release such a blast.
Weaving a heavily-armed F-14D Tomcat jet fighter through wave after wave of unrelenting gunfire, kamikaze planes and heat-seeking missiles is a genuine thrill, and the format – weirdly – feels comparable to modern-day endless runners, thanks to the ceaseless gauntlet unfolding before your straining eyes.
It isn't actually endless, of course, as there are 21 different checkpoint stages to battle your way through, but the aim is to make it as far as possible before your continues run out; there is an addictiveness here to get a little further each time – this is also true of Yu Suzuki's classic OutRun. The progression template is simple yet clever, but if you can't be arsed starting over from stage one after losing all your credits, you can just hop right back in to any stage from the title screen.
The key to surviving each stage is to split your attention between peppering enemy craft with your auto-fire chaingun, while gliding your cross-hairs over targets to engage a missile lock. In a great turn of risk-reward play, each missile released by your jet produces thick plumes of smoke that obscure your vision – so while you are unleashing heavy ordnance, you leave yourself blind to incoming enemy fire. That's quite ingenious.
Using missiles sparingly is certainly advised, particularly in the later stages when your attackers start chasing you from behind. The 3D depth of field truly sings during these pursuit encounters, but your attention needs to be firm if you are to give them the slip and avoid their machine guns while concentrating on enemies attacking from the horizon.
As an act of mercy, the game enables players to pull off a barrel roll by thrusting to the side and then switching direction. You'll need to master this to avoid incoming heat-seekers bearing down on your tail, and navigating through sheer walls of enemy missiles. The 360-degree spin effect is simply glorious on the 3DS screen, and simply adds to the thrill of each stage.
There are also bonus rounds that see you wiping out enemy radar towers, while skirting through perilous desert canyons where one wrong move sees your craft erupting into a fireball. These levels are used sparingly, but they are a welcome change of pace from the army of jets blocking your path. Mid-round cut-scenes blend seamlessly into the gameplay to break the pace further, and show your jet refuelling in mid-flight or landing on air strips while miniature crews restock your missiles.
All of this – the fluid, engaging gameplay, the lavish sprite work and attention to detail – makes for one hell of a nostalgia trip. That said, younger gamers with no knowledge of the series would also do well to invest a few quid into After Burner II, given its parallels with modern endless runners. The desire to get further without continuing is strong with this one, so expect to put a lot of time in.
M2's port dedication doesn't stop there, because a special mode unlocks after you finish the main mission. This blends elements of Sega's 2006 arcade game After Burner: Climax – namely, the ability to fill a Burst gauge by downing enemies and then using it to slow time momentarily. It adds a new layer of depth to the original game, and because the mode has no continue option you need to use the slow-mo wisely to rack up big points and earn extra lives.
There's also a sound test in the options menu with special '+' versions of the original score, a replay option to show off your best runs and plenty of HUD and control tweaks. That the initial release has been expanded in such a manner further underlines M2's respect for Sega's classic, and in the end you have a port that shows how retro games should be treated on second pass.
We simply can't recommend 3D After Burner II enough. It's a game designed to be played in short bursts and to that end it lacks narrative and mechanical depth, but its core strengths shine bright. With a kickass soundtrack, Sega's wonderful 'blue sky' aesthetic and a superb modern mode, this is an essential purchase for retro enthusiasts and endless runner fans alike.