Monday, January 7, 2013

NES Replay: After Burner

Developer: Tengen
Publisher: Tengen
Released: 1989
Yes, I Know It Says "Sega" On The Title Screen:
But Tengen handled the port and all the
licensing so stop bothering me

In NES Replay, we go through each NES game from A-Z to see if they're any good. Today: After Burner.

We'll open the year by talking about Tengen.

Atari was the main company in gaming during the early 80's, and the Atari 2600 was the system to beat. With all the success that Atari had, they started to get a little arrogant.

One of their arrogant tactics was called “block booking." Block booking is when you tell a retailer, “You can have X amount of copies of this game everyone wants, but you also have to take X amount of copies of this crappy game that no one wants. Take it or leave it.” It’s a practice so shady that the movie industry was outlawed from doing it, and when the movie industry stops doing something shady, that’s a sign that it’s shady with a capital ‘S.’
Their arrogance culminated with Atari releasing a rushed version of ET, a horrible, horrible game that was made in two weeks and rushed to stores for the 1982 holiday season, then promptly buried in an Arizona landfill. Shortly thereafter, in 1983, the video game industry crashed. It wasn't all Atari's fault, but they were part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

There were a lot of factors that led to the industry crash in 1983. For example, too many video game systems were being manufactured and marketed, which confused the heck out of potential buyers and fragmented the market. However, there were two factors that led to the crash that the right company could have controlled if they had been willing. One, a lot of publishers flooded the market with cheap, crappy games that were popped out quickly just to make a buck. Two, unlicensed games were being made for systems, which meant there was little-to-no quality control.

This is definitely worth a lawsuit, isn't it?
Enter Nintendo. Originally, they tried getting Atari to help them with selling the NES, but Atari balked at working with another company. Nintendo sold the NES themselves and raked in tons of money. Now there was a new king of gaming, and Atari was pushed to the sidelines.

Nintendo succeeded because they noticed the two main things they could control and fixed them with a two-fold strategy. One, each third-party developer could only release five games per year. Two, each real NES cartridge had a lockout chip called the 10NES, which meant that only Nintendo-authorized cartridges could be used in the NES.

Atari had been the king of gaming for years. Nintendo popped up, seemingly out of nowhere, made a better system than Atari, solved the problems Atari had with their video game system, and then restricted Atari to making only five games per year, just like everyone else. Atari applied to Nintendo for special permission to make more than five games per year and were denied, so they were mad at this point.

Bear in mind, every company had to deal with the same issue. If you wanted to sell more games for the NES, there were ways around the restriction. For example, Konami went through the trouble of setting up a shell corporation named Ultra that served as a second publisher and allowed them to get around the five-game limit. Using Ultra, they released games like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Adventures of Bayou Billy.

Atari made moves in that direction as well by setting up their own second company named Tengen, but still couldn't get around the restriction. Instead of continuing to work with Nintendo, though, they tried something different: They decided to crack Nintendo’s 10NES lockout chip and make their own unlicensed games, completely bypassing the lockout system.

You can tell it's different than the first level
because it's slightly pallet-swapped. We're down
the rabbit hole, people.
After several abortive attempts at cracking the encryption, they finally appealed to the US Patent Office under false pretenses and got the lockout chip specifications. Soon, Tengen began producing their own games that didn't look like the typical Nintendo Game Paks but worked on the NES all the same.

Nintendo hit the roof, and thus began a lengthy court battle that ended with Atari conceding defeat, dumping their unsold cartridges and paying Nintendo a hefty fee. Atari put out a few more poorly-received consoles before slumping off into obscurity before their name and logo were picked up off the scrap heap a few years ago by Infogrames. The modern company known as Atari is Atari in name only.

Why go through this lengthy story? Well, because it's important.

There's a sharp dividing line between "console gaming before the NES" and "console gaming after the NES," and that's mostly because of the quality of the games available. During the fragmented pre-NES years, publishers couldn't really focus their efforts on making one really, really good game. They had to instead focus on making smaller, halfway-decent ones if they wanted to hit as many consoles as possible.

The reason that gaming took off after the NES is because the choice was simple: Do you want an NES or a Sega Master System? If you want a Master System, what's wrong with you? Did you hit your head somehow? Are you dying?

That easy choice that gamers had meant that game makers had an easy target to shoot for: Make your game work on the NES and you'll be able to find a buyer. Because the target was easy enough to hit, a lot of publishers were able to make money selling games, in turn leading to more money being funneled into making better games, which sold better and led to better games.

If the courts would have ruled that Atari had every right to break the 10NES chip, the console market as we know it may look more like the PC market: Lots of competing platforms with manufacturers using the same basic specs to create games. Of course, the PC market was a mess for years, which led to it being the home of enthusiasts and die-hards to the exclusion of everyone else. (It's better now.)

So, imagine a world where Nintendo sells the original NES, while Coleco sells their own NES-compatible system with a slightly faster processor. Meanwhile, Atari sells their own system, but it's a bit shoddier, except the controller is different in a way people like. Now Panasonic sells their own NES-compatible system, and it has the nicer controller and faster processor, but it skimps on the RAM.

Sounds like a mess, right? That's what could have happened if Atari would have been able to break the 10NES chip. Thank goodness that it didn't. Because Nintendo was able to keep such tight control of their market, they thrived, the people who made games for the NES like Capcom and Konami thrived, consoles took off again, and everyone was happy.

Everyone except for Atari, of course.

So, let's get to the nitty-gritty: Is Tengen’s After Burner any good? Yeah, it is. It's an air-combat game in faux-3D where you fly a jet and shoot down planes that are coming at you while they try and shoot you down. It's a lot of fun, if a little repetitive. Each level is pretty much "face off against enemy planes, try not to die." One errant enemy missile can kill you, so you have to be very careful. However, the levels are short, so if you die you don’t get sent back very far. It has a really nice arcade feel to it that's still fun to play.

In short, After Burner is an OK game. Too bad the company that made it was so messed up.

Final Rating:

Next Week: Air Fortress

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