In 1985, master designer Yu Suzuki unveiled a game that was more than just unique; it was revolutionary. Combining the fluid, tilting motion of a deluxe cabinet with frantic gameplay and a booming stereo soundtrack, Space Harrier was one game that definitely stood out in arcades, and its blockbuster status cemented Sega’s reputation as the company to beat in the coin-op business. The latest in a series of arcade games designed to offer a full-blown experience as opposed to just an entertaining few minutes, it enveloped the player in an explosion of sight and sound that is still as intense today as it was over twenty years ago.
Yu Suzuki is a bona fide legend in the gaming industry. For over twenty years, he has been the brain behind many of the titles that made the Sega brand a household name. Whether its his string of classics from the ’80s which included OutRun and Afterburner, or his newest set of hits, like the Virtua Fighter series or Shenmue, his production has been second to none. In fact, he’s been so consistent that many place him on the same pedestal as Nintendo’s resident genius, Shigeru Miyamoto. Fine company to be in, no doubt, and a status that few developers can ever hope to achieve. Along with is group AM2, Suzuki’s name attached to a game instantly gave it a level of recognition it might not ordinarily have.
The very first Space Harrier exploded into arcades in 1985 and simply took them by storm. Nothing like it had ever been seen, and it’s originality was only matched by its polish. Using Sega’s powerful dual MC68000 board (hardware that would remain in use until 1992’s deluxe Super Hang-On), its dual stereo speakers and 32,000 colors pulled gamers into the Land of Dragons and never let go. Three different cabs were manufactured: the standard upright, a sit-down, and the awesome rolling type. This last version was the best way to experience Space Harrier, as it “rolled” in any direction the flight stick was moved offering a pretty convincing simulation of flight. Picture if you will, sitting in this machine for the first time, inserting your quarter (yes, there was a time when arcade games only cost ¢.25.). You hit start, and hear Harrier cry GET READY blaring in the two speakers right behind your head. You begin playing, only to have the entire machine move with you! This wasn’t common practice back in 1985, and sense of awe inspired by the colorful display of the game’s eighteen beautiful stages moving at breakneck speed was infinitely augmented by this huge step in technology.
Its analog stick was a great feature, as it controlled speed and tilt of the cab’s rotation. See, this was another little feature of which most console gamers at the time weren’t aware. Who really knew the difference between analog and digital control in 1985? This was one of several aspects of the hardware of the time that allowed games like Space Harrier to appear as technological marvels, despite the limitations of the environments they sought to create. The age of sprite-based 3D games was nearing an end, and Sega was going to ride off into the sunset on the backs of Space Harrier and Afterburner. No one at the time knew just how much polygons would shake things up for the coin-op industry, but home consoles would keep the pseudo 3D alive and viable for a few more years. Of course, Sega’s Super Scaling Technology was still amazing to look at and smooth as butter compared to anything else out there. Gamers everywhere flocked to arcades to burn their hard-earned allowances, and the game’s popularity soared.
Space Harrier benefited from this, and as it was a massive hit at the 1985 Amusement Machine Show in Japan, and Sega released it on a myriad of platforms, despite the limitations of home systems at the time. Among the recipients was its own Master System. Despite the loss of the incredible environment and a hit to the visuals, most of the ports were faithful adaptations. The Master System version, along with a few others, had a few features not found in the original, such as a final boss, perhaps as a sort of compensation by Sega. Though there was no analog control and the Master System pad was an extremely poor substitute, Segaphiles were eager to have such a great game on their software-starved system. Sega AM R&D #4 handled the port, which is most likely the reason it was decent at all.
Sega wasn’t done with releasing 8-bit versions of Space Harrier, and in 1988 they debuted Space Harrier 3D, which required the sorely underused Sega 3D Glasses. It boasted all-new stages and challenges, and the added bonus of true 3D once again leapt over the dimension barrier that sprite-based games continually bounced up against. You could play it in the standard 2D mode using a code after you beat it once, but that sort of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it? I’m sure the first thought to come to mind regarding this game is that those fancy, headache-inducing 3D glasses are pretty hard to come by in this day and age. All hope may not be lost my friends, as several sources suggest that the old fashioned red & blue specs will work. This has not been confirmed, and chances are you’ll have to find yourself a pair of those liquid crystal migraines.
With the appearance of the Genesis on the gaming scene in 1989, Harrier & co. came back with a sequel and were featured as one of the launch titles. Space Harrier II, along with Super Thunderblade, were meant to mark the new console’s superior ability to deliver the arcade experience. It’s interesting to note that Sega used an original sequel to promote the arcade prowess of the Genesis. Not that anyone minded, and though the majority of the market continued to plug away at their NES consoles, Sega fans gleefully ate up the new game.
Nothing was really changed for the second installment, and Harrier still raced forward towards hordes of speeding enemies, his jackhammer-looking weapon still clutched firmly in his hands. Taking place in the new Fantasy Zone (hmm, now that sounds familiar), Space Harrier II made the rounds on several different computer systems, but it is the Genesis version that most people remember. Its smooth scaling and great use of color – check out how they fade into each other – was a big step up from previous home versions. Many gamers were quick to complain that it was much easier than the first game, perhaps too easy, since it was possible to blow through on the hardest setting with a good supply of reserve lives left. Did it ruin the game? Hardly. The action was still as intense, and the gameplay, this time designed around a game pad as opposed to an analog stick, was solid and natural on the big Genny controller. Even with its low difficulty, Space Harrier II is still an excellent title that should have a place in any Genesis fan’s collection.
While the series wouldn’t receive any new entries for more than a decade, Sega kept the brand name alive by periodically releasing new versions of the arcade original. The 32X, the bastard child of the 16-bit generation, received an excellent rendition that was about as accurate as anyone could have ever hoped for at the time. Everything but the audio – a typical problem on the 32X – was almost perfect. The colors and the sense of speed were both there, done beautifully, and perhaps the only significant problem was the lack of a turbo fire option. Having to repeatedly press the button through all eighteen stages was sure to leave one heck of a blister, unless you had a turbo pad. Using one made the this a non-issue, and you could instead focus on the pure bliss that is Space Harrier. I say bliss, because this was one of the few stars that really shone in the 32X sky, so by George, you enjoyed it!
So could it ever get any better than this? Absolutely! The Sega Saturn (you know, that other 32-bit console) had a pixel-perfect release as part of its Sega Ages line. Released individually in Japan, American owners were lucky enough to get it as a part of the Working Designs bundle that also included awesome versions of Afterburner II and OutRun. Yes, this was the same old Space Harrier again, and by now you could own it on every single piece of Sega hardware released since 1985, including the Game Gear. Yet there are two important factors that makes this one stand head and shoulders above all the rest: the sheer perfection of the port, and the compatibility with the Saturn Mission Stick. Trust me, this is as good as it gets, unless you emulate on a huge, high end monitor with the best analog stick money can buy. The Mission Stick was made for Space Harrier and the two go together like chocolate and peanut butter. All you need is for someone to twist your chair around as you play and you’ve got the best version of Space Harrier available to this day.
Sega would continue to pimp its 1985 masterpiece without shame, and it was really beginning to appear like it either just didn’t want to make a new game, or was afraid of not being able to top the brilliance of the original. I guess someone referred the company to a good therapist, as Sega surprised everyone in 2001 with the release of the first true sequel since 1989. Planet Harriers used the powerful Hikaru chipset (Star Wars Racer Arcade, Brave Firefighters), and was available only as a deluxe twin unit. Upon first inspection, the casing looks a lot like the one used for Outrunners in both size and shape, though it is unknown if they are one and the same. Not the friendliest route for arcade merchants, and by this time coin-ops were easily being eclipsed by home systems and gamers were opting to save their change. Personally, I can’t blame them. Just think about this for a second. Exactly how many of your local game houses had one of these 1300-pound monsters? I didn’t think so. This, of course, made Planet Harriers quite rare, and the fact that it had also almost nothing in common with its predecessors probably did a good job of turning off many long-time fans. This is a shame really, and what it lacks in heritage it does its best to make up for in options.
To begin with, you’re no longer forced to blast aimlessly at enemies. The new lock-on feature allows for multiple targeting, something that is instantly appreciated in this type of game. There are also four playable characters from which to choose, and now two people can tackle the stages together cooperatively (the second player could buy-in at any time). At the end of each stage, you could choose different power ups to augment your weapon. All of these were great additions to the series, as it was about time the formula received a facelift. What wasn’t good was that it got a face transplant. What was missing? A lot. Let me just run down the list of biggest no-shows: no Land of Dragons, no Fantasy Zone, no Harrier, more than half the stages (only five this time), no classic soundtrack or enemies. But hey, at least it has the Harrier name, right? Ok, so Sega went and released this spiritual successor to the classic favorite. It was still an awesome game in its own right, filled with all the hectic scrolling and non-stop action the series was famous for. I do question its use of the Harrier name, since it wasn’t a true sequel, but I feel it should have come home regardless. Sega, however, decided they didn’t want to give it a console release. Did they bring it home to the Dreamcast? Nope? Playstation 2, Xbox, or GameCube? Na-ah. It stayed in arcades and quickly disappeared.
Strangely enough, that wasn’t the end of the franchise. Sega brought the original back yet again for its Playstation 2 compilation Sega Classics Collection. Once more it poked and prodded at the formula, concentrating on finally making it completely 3D. The company seemed to have learned its lesson with Planet Harriers, and mostly left the gameplay intact. Four difficulty levels were added, apparently to appeal to those who found the original too hard and the second game too easy. The only problem with this approach is that Sega simply put Space Harrier, along with nine other individual releases, on the same DVD with nothing new to show for it. There was never anything wrong with Space Harrier, so why even bother to change the visuals at all? The gameplay is still the same, so what’s the point?
Time for Harrier to Retire?
All in all, Space Harrier has had a great run for a franchise that essentially only has four real installments. Sega has milked the first title to the breaking point, so it must mean that someone has an urge to keep it going. I am thankful that the Sega Classics Collection is not the swan song of the brand, as last year’s release of the Space Harrier Complete Collection for the Japanese Playstation 2 brought all the games back into the limelight through proper emulation of the original games, but you never know with Sega. I’m pretty sure we’ll never see a domestic release of this compilation, so importing is your only option to have it. Hopefully, the next generation of hardware will see the rise of a brand new game, and perhaps Space Harrier is the classic franchise Sega and Totally Games are working together on for the PSP. I’d rather have it on console, but any new Space Harrier is a good thing. It would be a crying shame to let it die, and I would really love to see Harrier soar once more.
The complete release chronology is as follows:
- Space Harrier, Arcade (1985)
- Space Harrier, Atari ST (1986)
- Space Harrier, Commodore 64 (1986)
- Space Harrier, C16 (1986)
- Space Harrier, Sinclair Spectrum ZX (1986)
- Space Harrier, Acorn Electron (1986)
- Space Harrier, Amstrad CPC (1986)
- Space Harrier, Sega Master System (1986)
- Space Harrier, PC-Engine (1986)
- Space Harrier, NEC PC-60 (1987)
- Space Harrier, NEC PC-88 (1987)
- Space Harrier, FM-77AV (1987)
- Space Harrier, Sharp MZ-700 (1987)
- Space Harrier, Sharp X1 (1987)
- Space Harrier, Sharp X68000 (1987)
- Space Harrier 3D, Sega Master System (1988)
- Space Harrier II, Genesis (1989)
- Space Harrier, Amiga (1989)
- Space Harrier, IBM-PC (1989)
- Space Harrier, NES (1989)
- Space Harrier II, Amstrad CPC (1989)
- Space Harrier II, Amiga (1989)
- Space Harrier, Turbo Grafx-16 (1989)
- Space Harrier: Return to the Fantasy Zone, Amiga 500/600 (1989)
- Space Harrier II, Atari ST (1990)
- Space Harrier II, Sinclair Spectrum ZX (1990)
- Space Harrier II, Commodore 64 (1990)
- Space Harrier, Game Gear (1991)
- Space Harrier, 32X (1994)
- Space Harrier, Saturn [Japan Sega Ages series] (1996)
- Space Harrier, Saturn [U.S. Sega Ages Collection] (1997)
- Space Harrier, Japanese Dreamcast [Shenmue mini game] (1999)
- Space Harrier, U.S. Dreamcast [Shenmue mini game] (2000)
- Planet Harriers, Arcade (2001)
- Space Harrier, Japanese Dreamcast [Yu Suzuki Gameworks Vol. 1 (book)] (2001)
- Space Harrier, Japanese & European Dreamcast [Shenmue II mini game] (2001)
- Space Harrier, Xbox [Shenmue II mini game] (2002)
- Space Harrier, Game Boy Advance [Sega Arcade Gallery] (2003)
- Space Harrier, Playstation 2 [Sega Classics Collection] (2004)
- Space Harrier, Spacer Harrier 3D, Space Harrier II, Japanese Playstation 2 [Space Harrier Complete Collection] (2005)
- Elias, Brian. Game of the Week: Space Harrier. Classic Gaming. April 10, 2001.
- Game Info: Planet Harriers. Killer List of Video Games. 2004.
- Game Info: Multiple Games. The Space Harrier Absymbel.
- Gerstmann, Jeff. Space Harrier Complete Collection preview. Gamespot. September 16, 2005.
- Space Harrier deluxe cab picture courtesy of Pelikonepeijoonit.
- Planet Harriers cab picture courtesy of System 16.