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Burning Rangers

Genre: Action Developer: Sonic Team Publisher: Sega Ent. Players: 1 Released: 1998

The final months of the Saturn’s life were bittersweet for me. The downside was that the console was on its way out, discontinued by Sega in favor of another hardware reboot. I understood this, as it was apparent that the Saturn wasn’t succeeding in the U.S., and Sega simply didn’t have the resources to continue supporting it. The upside was that the final batch of game Sega released were some of the console’s best, and among them was a great Sonic Team title called Burning Rangers.

It’s funny, because when one saw the name on the release list at Electronics Boutique or in magazines, there was absolutely no context behind it. What the hell was a burning ranger? Did we have to save park officials from forest fires? There was little to go on in those pre-Internet days for most people, so one simply had to wait until magazines began to show screen shots to get an idea of what to expect.

I can honestly say that knowing Sonic Team was behind it was enough for me. The people behind Sonic The Hedgehog and NiGHTS could do no wrong at the time, and I was confident that their last Saturn title would be a great one. They didn’t disappoint me, and while Burning Rangers has some technical issues, the actual game itself is a blast (no pun intended).

Players take on the role of one of two futuristic firefighters, Shou or Tillis, who travel to different locations to save civilians from disasters. Both characters were drawn to their profession by tragedy, and they’re eager to please the team navigator Chris Bartn. After a short tutorial session, Chris sends players on their first mission at a power plant. One expects to simply put out fires, but there are many other aspects to the rescue dynamic that are involved. Extinguishing fires yields crystals that are needed to evacuate civilians via teleportation. Evacuation is the main goal of the game, so it’s necessary to navigate each massive complex to find all those still trapped. Locations range from undersea complexes to space stations, and they each stretch various floors and tons of rooms. The levels become increasingly engulfed in flames, so players must rely on Chris’s navigation to find switches, civilians, and other important things.

Burning Rangers uses a voice navigation system, and it works quite well. Chris is constantly chattering about where to go or what needs to be done next, and it truly gives the impression that someone is indeed monitoring the players’ progress. Chris instructs players on how to open a blocked door, remove debris, or find a clear route to a room, and she can be prompted by pressing the X or Z buttons. Along the way, Shou and Tillis use their pulse and laser blasts to put out fires and destroy enemies, such as crazed robots. The rangers are protected by energy shields that help fend off the ever-rising flames. Only five crystals are needed to transport someone, but transporting them with ten crystals gives up one energy shield. Burning Rangers’ shield system is reminiscent to the rings in Sonic The Hedgehog. Getting hit scatters collected crystals everywhere, and players have a few seconds to collect as many as possible before they disappear. Red crystals are worth one energy unit, and the green ones are worth five.

The game can be played with the stock Saturn pad or with the 3D controller. The gameplay takes a bit getting used to when played today, mostly because one has to navigate a 3D environment with a single pad or stick. It takes a while to become accustomed to turning the camera using the shoulder buttons, but most players will adjust well before the first stage is over. Learning the control scheme is vital, since each level as “danger limit,” which is kind of like a timer. Each time the limit increases 20%, a series of explosions goes off, increasing the amount of fires available and raising the temperature. Like NiGHTS, players are evaluated based on performance in rescuing people, putting out fires, and defeating bosses. There are only four levels, which are quite large, and it’s fun to go back and try to get an S rank on each one. The locations of survivors and switches are randomized with each play, and this helps to extend the enjoyment. The original maps can be played using a password that’s provided when each stage is completed. All five stages are varied and challenging, but the controller does tend to get in the way sometimes. Burning Rangers is a game that’s screaming for a remaster with dual-analog stick control. Sonic Team obviously anticipated these problems, which is likely why it chose to include the voice navigation system. Other touches were added, such as a whistling sound when a new fire is about to erupt and the characters automatically jumping backwards when one appears in front of them.

Sonic Team took everything it learned while making NiGHTS and Sonic Jam’s 3D hub and shot for the brass – or rather, the gold –  ring here. Burning Rangers’ engine looks like it’s going to make the Saturn explode. Seriously, few games on the machine seem to push it this hard. Something is always happening – explosions, raging fires, huge robots – there are few moments of peace. Along with the fully 3D levels, there are some great light sourcing effects. In some areas, the power will go out, and players will only be able to navigate using their character’s flashlight. The character models are also well-detailed and don’t look quite as blocky as in other games. The boss battles are equally impressive. There are some clipping and tearing issues, but nothing game-breaking. Honestly, the game still impresses me to this day. I can only imagine what an updated version would look like in HD.

There’s also plenty of the Sonic Team charm throughout the game. From the opening anime cut scene to that incredible vocalized soundtrack, players will know who made this game just by looking at it. I dare anyone to listen to the end theme “I Just Smile” and not fall in love. Naka and his group injected a whole lot of love into their sendoff title, and that love permeates from Burning Rangers’ every pore. For instance, when each level is completed, the survivors send the team members an email thanking them for their rescue. There are several pages for these messages, giving players a clear idea of how many people they’ve yet to find. But in typical Sonic Team fashion, they’ve had some fun with it, and the team members are among the survivors that can be rescued! They’ll send an email afterward, and it’s kind of cool to have a message from Yuji Naka thanking me for saving his life. Any time, Yuji!

Anyone with a Saturn should give Burning Rangers a chance. It’s original, stylish, and loads of fun to play. Control and camera issues aside, it serves as an excellent swan sang for one of Sega’s greatest in-house development teams. The price has gone up, but it should still be within range of most collectors, at least for the moment. Sonic Team left the Saturn on a high note, and hopefully we’ll get a chance to revisit Chris, Shou, Lance, and the other rangers someday. I would love another opportunity to live a split second and have goddess on my wings!

Score: 8 out of 10

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