Thursday, April 2, 2009

Space Harrier

SEGA/Dempa/NEC Avenue - 1989 - USA

The immortal, timeless Space Harrier. Space Harrier was 3D video gaming before polygons. It's also possibly the most inspired and ethereal game ever created. It blows my mind that Space Harrier is not cited more often than it is in discussions regarding revolutionary video games.

You are a nameless "Space Harrier," defender of a realm known as Dragonland, part of the aptly-named Fantasy Zone. Equipped with a jetpack and rocket launcher, it is your sole duty to extinguish evil and restore peace to Dragonland. Run, fly and blast your way through 18 of the craziest, most colorful and lush stages you'll ever experience. Space Harrier is an "into the screen" third person affair that has the "camera" following close behind our hero.

Straight away, I'll say I'm shocked Space Harrier isn't ever used as a demo piece for what the core TG-16 hardware was capable of in it's early days, on a mere 4 meg cart. Space Harrier was my first ever game for the system, pack-in aside, and I was mesmerized by the graphics growing up. The game suffers very little in it's conversion from the arcade original, despite having been released early in the system's cycle. The biggest casualty, hands down, is the checkerboard groundcover that is curiously missing. At least they substituted a colorcycling floor that matches up with the current level's theme. Another oft-cited flaw is sprite "shrinkage" the game suffered in the arcade transition. I actually don't mind this so much-- if anything, the shrinking is minimal, and it effectively makes the camera take a "step back" so you can see more of the landscape and enemies on screen. Last and certainly least is the scaling. Seeing as the arcade had dedicated scaling hardware, and the TurboGrafx does not, it's no small wonder the scaling suffers a bit. What's somewhat surprising however, is how good they actually made it, considering it's all done in software. To get the gist of what I'm talking about, play a stage or two of the Genesis port of Space Harrier II and then play a stage or two of Space Harrier on the Turbo.

One of four SEGA SuperScaler games ported to the Turbo (the others being Outrun, Afterburner II, and Power Drift), Harrier is no question far and away the best. There isn't a whole lot to the gameplay; dodge, shoot, repeat. But what Harrier lacks in strategy it makes up for in pure, unadulterated fun. The variety in flora and scenery from stage to stage is unmatched. You'll go from plains to cities to ruins to weird fungal formations and never see the same landscape twice. I'll be damned if Space Harrier doesn't utilize every single color in the Turbo's color palette and then some.

Enemy design is intricate, with some of the coolest dragons, creatures and bosses you'll ever lay eyes on. Here are four of my favorite bosses from the game:

Twice during the game you'll reach a bonus stage where you holster your rocket launcher and ride on one of the few remaining "good" dragons of Dragonland to collect bonus points.

Sound effects are reproduced faithfully, as is the music. Some of the boss tunes are just fantastic, particularly Ida's tune in stage 2 with the stereo effects. The regular in-stage tune is presented in four or five different variants throughout the game and is pleasant enough without really being spectacular either.

It's no secret that Space Harrier is my favorite game of all time. The Turbo port goes down in history as holding the crown as the best home port for many years until the SEGA 32X & Saturn arcade-perfect versions were released in the mid-late 90s. Every Turbo owner who doesn't have a copy of Space Harrier in his or her library is only doing themselves a great disservice.

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