by Travis Brown, June 2006
Since the publication of this review, I have sent my Afterburner into ThrustVector for a firmware update. In the review I mentioned a couple of problems I had with Autofiring. First of all, I had some problems with a consistent rate of fire. The latest version of the Afterburner firmware has had some input optimizations added to it, which cleared up the Autofire problems I was having. Also, I mentioned that the second input for autofiring didn't work at all. This problem has also been fixed in the latest version of the firmware. Kudos to ThrustVector on good product design. This goes to show how beneficial an updateable firmware can be.
I must say, we have come a long way when it comes to keyboard encoders. What used to be an annoying issue of hacking old keyboards, and soldering, has now evolved into a competitive and convenient market for the home consumer. We’ve got lots of choices. The Afterburner, by newcomer ThrustVector Controls, brings loads more to the table. The question is: do we need all these features?
Although I wasn’t able to open up the package myself, (James had the honor) James tells me everything was packaged safely. ThrustVector sent us everything they are currently offering: The Afterburner, (which included the Afterburner board, an LCD screen, LCD connector cable, and USB cable) The Afterburner Expander, and 2 sliders and 2 potentiometers for variable rate auto-fire control. Also included in the package, which I think is often overlooked, was documentation. Normally I am pretty displeased with documentation for products in this hobby, but the Afterburner operations manual set me straight on everything. Very easy to read and very informative, after reading I wasn't left with any questions. I know if you are like me, you will say "puh!" I don't need instructions. Well this product isn't exactly self-explanatory; the afterburner does a lot of non standard stuff like, variable rate auto fire, macros, and a LCD screen, so read up!
All the goodies
The LED screen
The Main board
The Expander board
Pots and sliders
Hooking it all up
Hooking it up was pretty simple.
All right, so I know what you’re saying already. “Why do we need another encoder?” Well, this one will do your basic keyboard encoding, but it does a heck of a lot more. For starters it also reports to the computer 4 HID-compliant joysticks. So it can interpret your arcade button and joystick presses as a keyboard or a USB joystick. This can make setup easier since a lot of emulators will default to a joystick if they sense one is connected.
• 35 screw terminal inputs with no ghosting.
(48 more with Expander. Possible total: 83)
With these next features, I fear I am about to tread into dangerous waters. You see this hobby has a lot of purists out there, no emulation, no conversions, and of course, no cheating! Well, the Afterburner will help you cheat with two different features Macros and Auto-firing. I know some of you out there feel that cheating is abominable and unforgivable, but I guess that’s ultimately up to you. Basically, The Afterburner is the Gameshark of controller encoders. Later, I will cover these both in their own section.
The Afterburner comes with 15 preprogrammed modes, and allows storage of 32 user defined modes (64 more with the Expander. Possible total: 96). I think this is the epitome of the Afterburner attitude. 96 different configurations is clearly overkill, but that’s what the Afterburner is all about: excess. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s cool, and as a nerd I love getting into pissing contests about products. Heck I’m an American. We Americans totally dig Big Gulps, and SUVs, we are an excessive people. Embrace the excess. …Uh, Yeah. Back to the review, the Afterburner also supports 2 “shift modes”, which is basically a way to quickly change your button mappings to access extra keys, and then quickly shift back. In the picture below you can see on the first line the current mode you are in, and on the second line, all 4 Players current auto-fire rate and whether you are in auto-fire mode (designated by a capital ‘R’).
I must admit, I never once said to myself, “Man, if only it were possible to have 8 different auto-fire settings and analog inputs to change my rate of fire on the fly”. I guess I never will either, because the Afterburner does just that. You can adjust your rate of fire by digital means, by using buttons to adjust the rate up or down, or by analog means by using a potentiometer. Each mode stores 8 auto-fire modes, which allows two inputs to auto-fire and a rate control source. One thing I noticed about the autofire is that every 5th or 6th fire, there is sometimes a longer pause than usual. At first I thought this might have something to do with the clock speed of the processor of the afterburner, because some auto-rates were more noticeable than others. I asked the folks at ThrustVector about this, and this really has to do with the scan-rate of USB. His reply set me straight:
“This issue is related to the way many games scan inputs at a rate of 60Hz, while USB is scanned at 100Hz. Occasionally, a shot may be missed due to two USB events occurring in one game scan time, such as the button release and button repress occurring before the game checks for any new changes. The processor for the AfterBurner is idle about 70% of the time, so I doubt that's related.”
Finally, this is the only thing I found that didn’t function at all on the Afterburner, but the second input for auto-fire did not work, regardless of mode, key mapping, or program I was running, I could only get one input (the first one) to auto-fire. I asked the folks at ThrustVector about this and apparently I had an older firmware revision. They assured me this problem has been identified, and is no longer an issue. To fix it, I just need to send it in to be reprogrammed.
I find the concept of Macros kind of funny; it’s like saying “Hey Afterburner, can you play this part of the game for me.” I know, games are all about fun, and turning a complex 10-hit combo on a fighting game with one button press definitely has an appeal. The Afterburner lets you record 8 macros per mode, and each macro contains 8 button presses. You can also chain macros, so you can create a macro with up to 64 actions. You can even change the delay between button presses.
As an aside, one of the factory programmed modes is called “Pacro Cherries”, which is basically a demo of the Macros. Pacro Cherries mode will play a large part of the first level of Pac-man, you know, so you don’t have to. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get this to work, which could be because of a difference in a ROM set, MAME version, my computer, any number of things. I must say it was funny watching Pac-man confused.
To test the Macro function I decided to make the Konami code into a Macro, so whenever I loaded any of these games, with the press of button I could cheat. I am glad I decided to macro this code, because in doing so, I uncovered a little obstacle with the macros. If you create a macro with two consecutive button presses that are the same, there is no "button up" to register two presses. To be specific, the Konami Code is Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A. But the Afterburner sends Up (For twice as long), Down (For twice as long), Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A. You can get around this by not assigning anything in a macro slot, like Up, <Empty>, Up, Down, <Empty>, Down, etc. Other than that the Macros recorded and played back as they should.
Aside from the aforementioned caveats of Macros and Auto-firing, performance of the Afterburner was solid. Everything that it says it does, it does. I experienced no ghosting. Response time of button presses was quick. To test button press timing, I played a couple rounds of my favorite frenzy puzzle game, Magical Drop 3. If you are not familiar with the Magical Drop series, basically, the rule of thumb is, if you aren’t moving, you aren’t playing it correctly. After playing a few rounds, my high scores were within the norm, and I didn’t notice any lag or missed presses whatsoever.
I think the Afterburner is a great product which could do well for a specific market. I think the Afterburner will sell great for younger arcade-heads who are more heavily into games like frenetic Japanese shooters, or crazy combo fighting games, or arcade hobbyists who want a very specific customizable level of control. Unfortunately, nothing is ever black and white. Basically, the Afterburner has a lot of nifty features that I know a lot of people will love, and considering what you get, the price is very fair. But if you are putting together a simple MAME set up for the classics, look elsewhere.