A fun idea—a puzzle platform shooter, with robots!—falls short of its potential here thanks to janky programming.
A new publisher makes its debut on Game Boy here: Masaya, also known as NCS. So, not just a publisher—a great publisher whom everyone loves! Masaya, of course, is best known for its brilliant 16-bit shooters, which usually involved giant stompy suits of mech armor. Think Cybernator, Assault Suits Laynos, and… Cho Aniki? Well, close enough. Masaya also published games in lots of other genres as well, including the Langrisser strategy RPG series, but the company is best known and best loved for its mech shooters. And, true to form, that’s precisely what we have here.
Sort of. After Burst sees a company known for its mech-based action games land on Game Boy. So, what do you think we end up with? That’s right: It’s a mech-based action… puzzle game. After Burst fits neatly into the same bucket as games like Cyraid: Kind of action-y, but in a complicated, puzzle-solving way. That can perhaps best be explained by the fact that the developer behind After Burst is actually Dual, a studio we know from the games Boomer’s Adventure in Asmik World and Serpent. Both of those games had a strong puzzle element that ran parallel to aspirations of twitch action—something that manifested most jarringly in the form of the boss fights in Boomer’s Adventure. These components fit together a lot more smoothly in After Burst.
Here, you basically get to enjoy shooting and platforming, beginning on the ground floor. The game does have somewhat more straightforward battles with bosses every 10 stages, but for the most part you’re trying to solve increasingly complex puzzle rooms with the help of a mobile suit. This makes it a fairly original and one-of-a-kind game for Game Boy… though it doesn’t quite live up to its own concept in practice.
That premise: After Burst casts you as a guy (or gal?) in a robot suit. You can jump and shoot. Rather than trying to fly or fight through a series of scrolling levels packed with hazards in order to blow up bad guys and earn points, though, your mission is to destroy a computer core in each room you encounter. Many stages in After Burst consist of a single room, while others scroll a very small distance—never more than a screen or two—in one direction or the other. This makes for a series of quick, self-contained challenges, with each stage rarely affording you more than about a minute and a half to complete them.
There are a few unusual factors to consider as you play After Burst. The most significant of these is your mech’s weapon, which really stands apart from the usual Game Boy fare. Your mech’s main cannon, by default, fires a shell in a weak, lazy arc. It only goes forward a short distance—a couple of tiles—before plopping to the ground. However, you do have a charge function for your gun. Hold down the fire button and a charge meter in the upper left-hand corner will build up. Depending on where in the charge cycle you release the fire button, your shell will travel further. The longer you build up your force, the longer it takes for the projectile’s trajectory to decay. If you charge it up all the way, your bullet will simply fly like you’d expect from a standard shooter—it blasts ahead in a straight line all the way to the edge of the screen. Learning to manage the arc of your projectiles is a big part of the mandatory After Burst experience.
Adding further nuance to the action is your suit’s ability to aim its cannon through multiple angles. You can press the up and down buttons to adjust your weapon through 90 degrees of motion, from straight ahead to straight up, and there are about six angles you can fire at within that range. Combine this range of motion with the arc of your projectiles and suddenly the shooting mechanics become a lot more involved than they appear at first glance. You can, for example, take out an enemy on the other side of a low barrier by aiming upward and giving your attack a small charge boost, destroying a hostile robot without putting your own machine at risk.
That said, it’s not always wise to simply take out the bad guys. A great many of After Burst’s puzzles require you to use rather than abuse your enemies, and destroying the wrong foe can land you in an unwinnable situation. The first couple of stages treat enemies as nothing more than nuisances, but after completing a few levels you begin to encounter more convoluted setups where you have to use enemies as platforms in order to reach higher areas. This does make for a bit of trial and error play, but it’s never too exasperating.
A lot of the complexity also emerges from the dynamic nature of the stages, which is where the Cyraid comparison comes into play. As in that game, you spend a lot of time blowing up platforms and walls in order to advance. Unlike in Cyraid, though, you don’t have free reign over smashing up the environment—instead, you can only destroy specific blocks. This is really where the puzzle element comes into play, because it only takes about five stages for these block-blasting mechanics to become extremely complex.
Because you can only shoot and clear away specific wall blocks, most stages amount to convoluted spatial puzzles. You frequently need to blast blocks in a specific order to be able to take out the stage core, and it’s quite easy to lock yourself out of a win, forcing you to die and start over. A big element adding to the complexity of After Burst’s level design is that shooting away bricks often causes portions of walls to fall—the idea being that certain blocks are in fact load-bearing blocks. Often, you’ll clear away a destructible brick and cause a permanent block to fall and take its place.
Indeed, understanding how stage layouts will shift as you destroy pieces of wall is probably the single most important consideration in playing After Burst. And once you have to start making use of enemy robots in order to complete stages while blasting out destructible blocks in a specific sequence… it gets pretty hard, pretty fast.
The boss encounters come as something of a relief, because they dial back the puzzle mechanics and focus more on the action. Truth be told, though, that also kind of works as a ding against the boss stages, because After Burst could stand to do a lot better on the action front. That’s the big disappointment here, really: For a Masaya-published game about a big shooty robot, you’d expect After Burst to play a lot better. Unfortunately, it’s disappointingly rough on the tech front.
Once you get a few moving objects on-screen, After Burst begins to demonstrate slowdown and choppiness to a degree that you rarely see on Game Boy. Things move in a halting, stuttering fashion. This is not simply the complaint of a fussy tech nerd who demands silky-smooth 60 frames per seconds in all games; the lethargy of After Burst’s action affects its gameplay.
Even beyond the need to compensate for gameplay lag, the precision of After Burst’s controls (or lack thereof) still leaves something to be desired. Your little mech suit doesn’t move pixel-by-pixel but rather “leaps” forward a few pixels at a time. When the action is in full swing, you don’t really notice this. When you’re trying to fine-tune your angle of attack to solve a tricky puzzle, however, the chunky imprecision of After Burst becomes frustratingly obvious and makes its puzzles into chores.
After Burst’s combination slowdown and control lag make for a decidedly less-than-perfect game, and the technical flaws are a real letdown considering how much the game does that’s actually interesting. It’s one of the more inventive shooters on Game Boy, and in a lot of ways it feels like a precursor to more contemporary works like Bangai-O Spirits by Treasure. If you’re looking for a fresh take on the puzzle genre, you could certainly do a lot worse than After Burst.
That said, if you’re hoping for a mind-blowingly intense Masaya shooter on Game Boy, this isn’t it. After Burst is a lot of things, but a worthy chapter of Masaya’s classic shooter legacy isn’t one of them. It’s the sort of game whose core idea deserves to be revisited in the form of a game that can deliver on the great concepts lurking beneath the lousy tech.