Genre: Run-‘N-Gun Developer: Gau Ent. Publisher: Sega Enterprises Players: 1 Released: 1993
Commercially neglected amongst the pile of rotten FMV ‘games’ Sega was promoting and the booming Genesis scene in 1993 lay an obscure mech shooter by Gau Entertainment (R.I.P.), Ranger-X. Despite being one of the most well designed games ever to grace the Genesis, Sega of America had its heart set on ushering in the digital revolution with its year-old wonder console, the Sega CD. Typical of the decisions SoA was making at the time, Ranger-X was ignored by the marketing brains in favor of such classics as Sewer Shark and Ground Zero Texas and was tragically overlooked by the majority of the gaming public. What makes this unsung hero so great?
The premise is simple enough; you’re plopped into a huge mech and destroy everything in your path. Stage progression is standard fare for the day, in that you make your way to the end of each level to face a giant boss, defeat it, and repeat. There is no deep background story nor any real dialogue, and this is one of the game’s few downfalls. Anime cinemas depicting a twisting plot or character portraits engaged in storyline progression would’ve given the player more attachment to the adventure. As it stands, you are simply “a mysterious lone warrior who has risen from the ashes to return peace and justice to a failed society“, as quoted from the back of the game box. Fair enough.
However, Ranger-X doesn’t pretend to be anything but a straightforward hardcore shooter, with bits of mild platforming mixed in. The greatness of this game lies in the wealth of play mechanics and wonderful level design in which to utilize them. Not to mention the superb control.
Default button configuration for your mech is as follows; A shoots left, B is for your special weapon, C shoots right. Pressing left or right on the D pad will make your mech walk in either direction but will not change the direction you face. A strange setup, no doubt, but one that allows you to shoot right while moving left. Ranger-X, as your mech is called, also comes equipped with limited hovering capabilities. This supplants any need for a jump button and is utilized simply by pushing up on the D pad. Continually tapping up will make you hover, but your air time is limited by a meter. Once this meter is depleted you fall to the ground and must wait a second or two for it to replenish. Successful navigation of the levels will demand a certain mastery of your hovering abilities, and this is no easy task. Despite being a 7-8 year-old, 16-bit game, it employs a very primitive and effective physics model that really conveys a feeling of weight to your mech. In other words, don’t expect your boosters to change your direction of movement instantly.
Back to the control scheme. If my memory serves me correctly, Ranger-X was the first game to fully utilize (and pretty much require) Sega’s wonderful six-button controller, which added X-Y-Z buttons on top of the standard A-B-C. The additional buttons control the oddly named EX-UP, a “wheel-based land rover” for lack of any better description. The X button moves EX-UP left, Y changes the special weapon (more on that in a bit), and Z moves EX-UP right. This cool sidekick has a separate life bar and is controlled independently from your mech, and you can use it plow forward into enemies, stunning then momentarily while you weave through the air blasting anything that stands in your way. Ranger-X can also stand on top of EX-UP for fast transportation, but the real use is when you press down and the two combine. The standard unlimited shot is intensified in this mode as well as providing auto-aim on nearby airborne enemies. While combined, you can choose which special weapon you would like to use. A flame thrower, napalm bomb, and laser are available, among others, but use them wisely, as they are limited in use (unlike your standard shot). If you choose not to control EX-UP, it will automatically follow you from behind.
Providing Ranger-X and EX-UP with several modes of destruction opens up a wealth of variety in game play and level design. The first level is a very straightforward and simple left-to-right affair, while the second stage ramps up the difficulty a bit with an underground cavern. The challenge increases at a perfect pace, and each level seems to present a different play mechanic to focus in on. Fortunately, enemies do not respawn, nor is there any cheap off-the-screen death. The gameplay is simply golden.
Complimenting the outstanding play are some of the best looking visuals ever to grace a Genesis. Of special note is the wide array of colors used in each scene. I recall an unsubstantiated rumor that Gau was able to exceed the limited Genesis color palette of 64 colors onscreen, and I find it hard not to believe. While it’s not SNES quality, it’s far superior to most offerings on the Genny. Beyond that, the amount of parallax in the backgrounds is still impressive today, and the pseudo-3D line scrolls were mind-blowing in 1993. One of the later stages is set upon a background that is entirely made of line scrolls and the effect is staggering. End of stage bosses are huge half-screen encounters against highly unique and devastating creatures, some organic, most mechanical. You’ll also be treated to nicely-animated sprites, big explosions, and barely a hint of slowdown. Alien Solider is perhaps the only Genesis (Mega Drive actually, it never saw domestic release) title with superior visuals.
The music is generally very good. While there are a few uninspired tracks, much of the soundtrack does an excellent job of reproducing a futuristic ‘mech’ theme. The Genesis’ sound chip may be very limited in overall sound quality, but the composition and unique samples more than make up for the hardware deficiency. Check out track 08 in the options. One of my favorites. Sound effects are well implemented and contribute to the entire theme very nicely.
As with most great games, the adventure is over far too soon. Not that this is a short game, but it’s not extraordinarily long either. Considering the amount of play mechanics and excellent audio/visual presentation packed into a little Genesis cart, it’s hard to fault the developers in this area. A “heavy” difficulty option is provided for those who may demand more replay, and it’s nails tough.
The lack of promotion this game received is nothing short of a total scam. With the exception of Die Hard Game Fan, Ranger-X was either not reviewed at all by the prozines, or universally panned for its complex controls. Looking back at E.G.M.’s review I have to wonder if they were using the standard 3 button controller. Consequently, nobody bought it, and it was sent to bargain bins shortly after release. No sequel was ever produced, and Gau Entertainment is dead to my knowledge. The unlimited possibilities contained in the unique design of Ranger-X and EX-UP may never be fully realized. Ranger-X is a truly innovative and solid action title, one that still provides hours of quality gaming after all these years. No respectable Genesis action fan should be without a copy of this game on their shelf.
SCORE: 9 out of 10