Welcome to the Fantasy Zone! Get ready!
Full disclosure? I’ve never played Space Harrier before this version for Nintendo Switch. I have never seen the arcade machine. I only know it by its name and reputation. I have therefore zero nostalgia for it. Am I the best-equipped mage for reviewing this re-release? In the words of a space ghost: “from a certain point of view.”
Space Harrier first debuted, to my utter surprise, in 1985 where it was an arcade sensation. Why surprise? Well I mean just look at it! While the NES and Sega Mega Drive were banging sticks and stones together, Sega’s Space Harrier was designing the arch, the Coliseum, the Pythagorean theorem. It is arresting now (if you’ve never played it and know about its historical neighbors) but I can’t imagine what this, one of the first 16-bit games in the arcades, must have been like to play back in ’85. I didn’t know because I was less than one years old in ’85.
Yu Suzuki (Out Run, Virtua Fighter, Shenmue) initially planned to design a realistic flight-sim game where players controlled a fighter jet, but hardware limitations forced his concept to evolve. Instead of a military setting, the game took off to some 1950’s sci-fantasy universe full of sentient statues, cyclopean mammoths, coiling dragons, and gigantic mushroom spires. The analog flight stick and mobile, cockpit-like seating remained as artifacts from the original plans, but the newly dubbed Space Harrier saw the lead space cadet, Harrier, blasting his way through eighteen diverse stages.
This pseudo-3D, third-person rail shooter pits Harrier against a host of foes in the Land of Dragons, ridding the realm of its monsters. With laser cannon blazing, there’s no stopping as each stage plays right into the next on a fast-paced streak toward the end or a game over screen.
If its surrealism looks vaguely familiar, that’s because you might be acquainted with some of its influences, according to Suzuki:
“At first, we wanted to make a game where a jet could fly and shoot. But then we realized that it’s gonna be difficult to draw in all projections, and it will take a lot of free space in the memory of an arcade machine. Drawing a human is much easier, and it’s not necessary to make him fully realistic, and it doesn’t require much free space. Also back than[sp] I liked the manga “Space Cobra,” a movie called “Neverending Story”, and works of the artist Roger Dean, based on which Cameron created his “Avatar” world. From all three of these sources I got my inspiration when I worked on “Space Harrier.””
Within the retrogaming community, the discussion surrounding games preservation pops up now and then. To my mind, that discussion has less to do with ROMs and emulation than it does with valuable re-releases such as this one for modern consoles. This is not a watered-down home port of the arcade classic. The SEGA AGES series to which this Space Harrier belongs is a project dedicated to bringing Sega’s classics back to life on the Nintendo Switch (go back in time and blow my console-warring kid-brain with that news back in the ’90s!). SEGA AGES Space Harrier, developed by Japanese studio M2, attempts to bring the entire experience home: graphics, gameplay, even that analog flight stick.
More on that next!
SEGA AGES Space Harrier is, according to Sega themselves, the definitive version of the game from antiquity, and I’m inclined to believe them. The title is presented with flair and polish. Believe me when I say I’ve played a lot of retro repackagings, so I know that this one received some TLC. It has the usual scanline filters and screen sizing features to adjust the visuals exactly how you like them, accompanied of course by the background frames you can use to evoke the original arcade cabinets. However, I think it’s ultimately that early 16-bit look–the mix of starved and vivid coloration, the quick sprite scaling, the garish monster heads, the flowering explosions–which give the game its visual appeal. Everything else is bells and whistles for a game that has always appeared impressive.
You have to love that synthetic voice encouraging you as you go along; it already sounded clearer and crisper than did a lot of synthetic voices that mumbled in other games at the time.
Veteran composer, Hiroshi Kawaguchi, who is one of a small number of composers who has remained active since the ’80s, brought spunk and energy to a 3D shooter made of pure spunk and energy. It’s not music which stands out, completely, but I thought it lent the game a crystalline, empyrean atmosphere, appropriate for the visuals, if not entirely memorable.
What to do about that flight stick? Well, they got you covered. You can use a single Joy Con, held upright, to mimic the old flight-sim design. Considering the controls are inverted, I found this input scheme to work rather nicely. I also spent some time playing the game through with the standard controls (holding the controller normally and using the analog stick) which got me by.
When I say “playing the game through”, I don’t actually mean beating it. Not on the classic arcade mode, that is. A combination of the game’s relentless speed and my unfamiliarity with it meant I died frequently, sometimes multiple times on even early bosses. Given time and practice, I did see my skill increase, but built into the SEGA AGES version of Space Harrier is Komainu Barrier Attack mode. This makes the game much kinder to new players by creating a shield around Harrier which protects him from crashing into obstacles. He’ll plow right through them instead! It’s not impenetrable, though. If the shield is hit by an enemy projectile, it’ll power down temporarily.
As mentioned, Space Harrier can be cruel. The Komainu addition helps make it easier, plus this new mode allows you infinite continues, unlike the classic arcade mode.
Something that did cause some difficulty for me is Harrier’s tendency to gravitate toward the center of the screen, unless I’m imagining things. Everything already happens quickly in Space Harrier but having to fight against this magnetism to position him where I wanted him to be to land hits or dodge attacks took some getting used to. I soon found that circular movements during boss fights (especially) helped me get a few shots in while still avoiding the barrage of beams.
Despite its difficulty, Space Harrier is easy to learn how to play. It is an arcade game at heart. I love that classic arcade games could teach you how to play with practically a single screen or a simple marquee placed right above the controls on the cabinet. It was a simpler time, before games with tutorial sections that can last for hours, stuffed with exposition, trial portions, and NPCs asking you over and over if they want you to repeat that (raise your hand if you’ve accidentally hit “yes”). Games like this are refreshing palate cleansers for me between larger modern titles. It’s nice to be able to pick something up and get right into it without having to read in-game Wikipedia articles worth of text.
That all said, the only thing I struggled with was figuring out what was an obstacle and what was an enemy. The latter can be blasted into oblivion. The former will simply make you splat.
With multiple modes and the ability to set your difficulty level, Space Harrier boasts an above-decent amount of replay value, particularly for those high score chasers out there. Because the action is so fast, not too much ground is lost should you get a game over. I found myself wanting to try once more.
Suzuki was initially told by Sega’s market research department that he shouldn’t make the game. 3D shooters didn’t do well with consumers. He made it anyway, taking steps to fix problems with 3D shooters at the time. Space Harrier wasn’t the first 3D shooter but it was one of the most successful in the ’80s, spawning several lookalikes and concepts aiming to follow in its footsteps. Square’s 3-D Battles of WorldRunner, I’m looking at you!
My Personal Grade: 6/10
I finally got to play a game I wanted to play for so long now. SEGA AGES Space Harrier was a real delight. My only disappointment is I didn’t get to play it back in the day, sitting in that cockpit and letting it roll me around on its hydraulics. I imagine this title has a lot of pull with those to whom it’s nostalgic. Still, I was transported for a few hours to the Fantasy Zone. What more could I ask for out of an afternoon getaway?
We’d like to thank Sega and M2 for giving us a copy of their game for this review.
Aggregated Score: 7.1
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Categories: Game Review