Genre: Shmup Developer: AM2 Publisher: Sega of America Players: 1 Released: 1994
Welcome to the Fantasy Zone! In 1985, Sega unleashed two arcade games that would lay the foundation for a string of successful single-player titles utilizing the graphics engine, and a similar style of gameplay. The games? Hang-On and Space Harrier. It’s not hard to see their legacy. Games like After Burner, the OutRun series, G-Loc, and Power Drift all display obvious resemblances to these two classics. Space Harrier also appeared on numerous other game consoles and computers during the 8 and 16-bit era. This was one wildly popular game.
In 1994, you wouldn’t expect a game this old to appear on a new Sega console, but good games were hard to come by on the 32X, and I guess Sega thought it was wise to release a couple of established arcade classics on the machine. The decision resulted in the best home translations of After Burner and Space Harrier up until that time.
You are in control of a flying man, armed with a giant cannon that shoots balls of pulse energy. The playfield scrolls forward at a fixed pace, and you are afforded the freedom to move anywhere on the game screen you please, in order to avoid obstacles and fire upon incoming enemies. While the display graphics are in 2D, the game is trying to convey a 3D feel, with enemies and obstacles appearing tiny in the background, and then scrolling forward until they are practically in your face. The 32X is able to handle the scrolling better than any previous versions, and while I think Space Harrier was never ported badly in the past, Sega basically got it perfect on this last effort.
Overall, the graphics in this version are virtually identical to the original arcade game, with big, brightly colored, and fast moving sprites. The enemies you’ll face are not short on variety, nor ammo for that matter. You’ll face wave after wave of different bad guys to blow away, and you’ll have a tough time doing this while you have to avoid all the ground and sky clutter and incoming enemy fire. The Fantasy Zone is filled with a unique selection of enemies and landscapes, and while the ground may seem earth-like with trees, shrubs, giant mushrooms, and Greek columns; the sky is littered with many different and somewhat indescribable spacecraft, along with giant flying stone heads, fire breathing dragons, one-eyed wooly mammoths, and armored mech robots. Every sprite is an inanimate, flat, one-sided image that moves around the screen towards you. Most enemies and objects are a single sprite image like this, but some end-level bosses are dragons that are made up of 10-15 separate pieces that all follow the dragon’s head as it flies about in a wave-like motion. This is truly a world all its own.
Though some enemies can be destroyed with a single shot, most bosses require multiple hits, and some enemies are indestructible and must be avoided entirely. You aren’t the only character with firepower however, and the enemies have three different types of weapons they can use, Energy balls, fireballs, and missiles. The difference between them is not only the graphical sprite, but in the fact that each one has a different speed. Energy balls being the slowest, while missiles are the fastest. Unfortunately for our hero, Harrier, who looks a lot like Aquaman, there are no power-ups available in the game. The single-shot energy cannon is all you get, and this is one major gripe I’ve always had with this game. It would have been nice to have had even just a simple 3-way shot power-up, as the game is very difficult, and doesn’t support a rapid fire feature.
Speaking of which, if you don’t have a controller with a turbo option, you’ll wish you had. The control is fine, as you can maneuver with speed and precision, however, this game requires nonstop firing, and without rapid fire, you’ll quickly tire of incessantly pressing the shot button. I recommend the original Sega Arcade Power Stick to maximize your efforts, as the joystick control and turbo fire will keep your thumbs from falling off. Why Sega didn’t include a rapid fire option in the game itself is inexcusable, especially after all the successful Genesis shmups prior to it that had automatic rapid fire, including ironically, After Burner. Not only do you fire constantly, you must always be moving Harrier around the screen, as the action never lets up with incoming enemies and other numerous objects that you must avoid through 18 levels.
While I’m not a fan of the soundtrack, it is at least identical to the arcade version. It’s just a bit too happy for me, and the enemy sound effects are simply reminiscent of classic early ’80s video games, and quite corny to be honest, when you consider the amount of action this game presents you with. If I had to describe the tunes in modern terms, I’d probably label it as a pop soundtrack, when it should honestly be rock ‘n’ roll. However, it is the Fantasy Zone, and I can understand what Sega was trying to do here.
Memorizing the landscapes, and knowing what enemies are coming up are crucial to being a successful player, because the game scrolls forward particularly fast, and objects like pillars, or indestructible orbs rush into the field of play and pass by you very quickly. I typically lose more lives by running into objects than by enemies, but that’s because I play on easy. When you crank this baby up to hard or hardest mode, the enemies are awarded with the ability to shoot more bullets, and all the projectiles fired are twice as fast. This game is simply insane on the hardest mode, so it is certain to challenge even a real pro. There is a meager save option, as it creates a save point every sixth level, and only while the game is powered up. Everything resets, including save points and high scores when you turn the power off, which I don’t mind since it’s more like the arcade game. Personally, I would have preferred to be able to continue on the level where I died, and only have a limited number of credits available, as that’s more in line with how a coin-op continue feature works.
Space Harrier is a classic game, with a fairly large family tree, and Sega does the game justice on the 32X. However, while playing this game, I just can’t seem to get it out of my head just how unnecessary this version was. As good as this port is, you just don’t release a 10 year-old game on your brand new hardware. The Genesis saw a fine sequel in Space Harrier II, and I feel it was lazy on Sega’s part to bring the original to the 32X. Sega could have easily programmed a Space Harrier III, featuring the same great gameplay as the original, but with improvements like power-ups, a 2-player mode, and enhanced 2d graphics. This is symptomatic of what was wrong at Sega during the mid-90’s. Instead of spending money on getting the good Japanese games translated to the U.S. market, they kept releasing old games, that while good, already had their chance on other, older machines. I can play Space Harrier now and have a great time, just because it doesn’t really matter what machine it’s on anymore, but 10 years ago when the 32X was new, I would have scoffed at this game, as I’m sure most consumers did. This makes it difficult for me to score, as the game itself is a solid 8, but I feel I must subtract a point for originality.