Friday, April 10, 2015

Space Harrier for Sega 32X

The Sega 32X has gotten a lot of flak over the years, for being an under-supported kludgy add-on to the Genesis, and a cynical attempt by Sega to squeeze the last few drops of revenue from a dying platform...

Anyway, onto the review: Space Harrier is a "2.5-D," on-rails 3rd person shooter, originally released to arcades way back in 1985. Much like DOOM, it uses scaling 2D sprites on top of a 3D background to simulate a fully 3D environment. Your character, a blond, be-jetpacked fellow, runs, flies, and shoots his way through wave after wave of robots, cycloptic woolly mammoths, Easter Island statues, laser-shooting orbs, rocks & bushes in a colorful landscape called the Fantasy Zone. It's a simple game, even by arcade shooter standards, but it is very intense, and it excels both in presentation and gameplay. It looks and sounds great even by today's standards, but the smooth-scaling, detailed sprites, the generous use of color and digitized voices, and the fast-paced, fluid action must have been mind-blowing to its original audience.

Space Harrier's success in the arcades meant it was soon ported to nearly every contemporary computer and game console. However, the arcade version of Space Harrier utilized a brand new "Super Scaler" arcade board, equipped with dual 16-bit CPUs, a powerful GPU capable of displaying thousands of on-screen colors, and sophisticated sprite scaling/rotation hardware. The home ports running on more humble hardware ran the gamut from skin-peelingly awful to surprisingly playable, given their limitations, but none came close to matching the Super Scaler's capabilities and thus none could do justice to Space Harrier.

Fast-forward to late 1994, when Sega released the 32X add-on, and Space Harrier was among its launch titles. A 10-year-old arcade game may be an odd choice for console launch title, but Space Harrier's fast-paced action really helped show off the 32X's chops. Nostalgic gamers suffering from a decade-long Space Harrier drought finally had their thirst quenched by what turned out to an outstanding port of the arcade. The graphics, sound effects, music, levels and characters are all dead-on perfect, and it even sports the arcade original's disappointingly terse "The End" screen when you beat it. There's just a tiny bit of chug that shows up when too much is happening on-screen at once, and the Genesis' D-pad is a poor substitute for the superb analog flight yoke the arcade machine used.

Unfortunately, I still can't recommend seeking out this version of Space Harrier, unless you already own a working 32X and you're looking for something to play on it. If that's the case, it's cheap and readily available on eBay. However, ports of Space Harrier continue to be released to this day, on hardware that's much easier to live with. For example, the Sega Saturn version is every bit as faithful as the 32X's, but it does support analog controls, using the Knights Into Dreams' 3D controller. Space Harrier has also appeared in various Sega collections for the Dreamcast, PS2, PS3 and Xbox 360. Most recently, Nintendo has released a version of the arcade Space Harrier for the 3DS' virtual console, complete with stereoscopic 3D support. I'd suggest steering clear of the Sega Master System version on the VC, though, unless you're curious enough to pay actual money to find out just how badly Space Harrier sucked on 8-bit hardware.