Welcome to the Fantasy Zone!
So I’ve already looked at some of Yu Suzuki’s masterpieces, namely Hang On, Out Run and Shenmue II. Now, how about we start off 2014 in style and take a good look at classic arcade game Space Harrier? Also one of Suzuki’s timeless creations.
Of course, you can find all kinds of Space Harrier games on various systems, even a spin-off, but let’s look at the original for now, and its Sega Master System port because… that one’s just worthy of mention.
You’ll soon see why.
Space Harrier on the arcade was a visually inventive and gorgeous game with a lot of depth and a crazy, hypnotic perspective. You played as some tough-looking blonde dude with sunglasses and your goal was to use a big space gun to basically shred everything in your path to pieces, from monsters to mushrooms, even trees.
The game is a third-person shooter, except your character can move along the entire screen (he runs when you reach the ground), that is, during levels which don’t involve a ceiling, of course. This, combined with all the vibrant colours on-screen, the ability to move faster by pushing on the joystick slightly harder and the stunning 16-bit visuals, helps to give you the illusion of 3D and immense depth when, in reality, you’re moving along a grid. Space Harrier’s genius is making you forget that inherent rigidity completely through its cool look, its simple gameplay and its fluid animation.
Needless to say that Suzuki’s plan worked completely.
There’s never a dull moment playing this game. It’s relentless from the very start, as you burn everything around you, whether it deserves it or not. Whatever this guy’s angry about, he’s REALLY angry about it and he’s not about to let a single bush get away with it!
It’s hugely satisfying to create damage in this game and, in that sense, it’s exactly the opposite of Out Run and Hang On, where every crash was a devastating event to avoid at all costs. If anything, this lust for destruction is more reminiscent of Yu Suzuki’s other masterwork After Burner.
Speaking of masterworks, does this game remind anyone else of the 1978 movie Laserblast or am I just nuts?
So anyway, you play through like 18 levels and the pace never slows down for a second, even the occasional bonus stages require your undivided attention. You might as well not blink if you’re thinking of beating this game. You go from level to level, eventually going back to beat harder versions of bosses you’ve already beaten.
The first boss you face is a dragon, who looks pretty intimidating:
But he’s just like a big, green puppy dog.
Not hard to beat at all.
I swear I didn’t even shoot him, I just sneezed.
But don’t celebrate too soon because the levels and their bosses get much, much harder as the game goes on, plus it gets hard to keep up that kind of momentum for 18 stages.
The second level sees you face big giant heads from really far away:
And from freakishly, uncomfortably close:
These guys always creeped me out.
Stage 3 is like a Super Mario Bros.-style setting packed with big, colourful mushrooms and pipes everywhere:
The mushrooms don’t make you any taller, unfortunately, they just get in your way.
And, therefore, deserve to burn!
The boss on that level is like a two-headed, uglier version of that dragon from the first level:
The next level introduces a tunnel with a ceiling, a new challenge as it does limit how high you can fly to blast your enemies and obstacles. The game, you’ll notice, increasingly feels Tron-esque.
By that, of course, I mean that it just looks cooler and cooler.
The game’s at its best-looking the more colour there is on the screen, obviously, but these grid-like levels have a special quality to them in that they lure you deeper into the game’s three-dimensional vortex, keeping you playing like a mindless zombie.
The obstacles around get increasingly futuristic as you go along:
Stage 5, I must admit, took me by surprise the first time I reached it.
I had no idea that there even were bonus levels in Space Harrier!
So here I am, playing my head off, not blinking, not swallowing my own saliva, when I see this coming towards me in the distance:
What… the hell is that?!
Whatever it is: it’s going down.
Big NeverEnding Story cat!!!
So I try to “laserblast” it out of existence when…
Oh… I’m just meant to ride it and fire at trees?
Later levels put you in far messier situations with laser beams everywhere and enemies coming at you from all sides:
Each level has a silly name, but one, back in the 80’s, must have sounded rather promising, especially for Star Wars fans!
What could one possibly find in “Lucasia”?
Nope, this was 1985, remember?
The year of the one-eyed Mammoth!
Other goofy villains you face in the game include Autobots:
(careful, they’re more than meets the eye)
Whatever this guy is:
(why do I feel like I should be censoring this screenshot?)
(and people said Avatar was “original”…)
And two-headed skeleton monsters:
(now that’s just “metal”)
If you expect the game to end on a lighter note, with a little joke, like Out Run, then you might be disappointed to know that Space Harrier ends with your hero riding his flying space cat into the sunset.
Overall, Space Harrier is still a blast to play through and, even though it can get really hard unless you’re willing to devote every single piece of your brain to it, it’s near impossible to turn it off once you get started. It looks fab and it’s one of those simple yet very effective classics you should definitely try to hunt down and cherish.
Again, you can play this one in both Shenmue games.
Now, just a word about the Sega Master System port of the game because it’s a pretty good example of how turning a 16-bit game into an 8-bit game can be a bit of a struggle.
Firstly, though, let’s take a look at the STORY of Space Harrier.
Yup, as it turns out, there’s an epic plot to this whole game! Who would have thought?!
Well, I guess that explains all the dragons…
Ok, so in case you’re already lost, the plot so far, in a nutshell:
BAD THINGS HAPPEN.
BAD = BAD.
It turns out that the cat dragon is in fact called “Uriah” and is the only friendly dragon left in that realm, which has been invaded by all kinds of evil creatures. Uriah was hoping for a savior when…
I’ll… take your word for it.
Then the game begins and, very quickly, it becomes obvious that some “bits” are missing and… will be sorely missed:
Look at that explosion, it’s got a green square around it!
And why does our dude’s gun have a smiley face on it?!
Wow, glitchy much?
Hey, I wonder what Uriah looks like in this game, I bet he looks adorable.
What… the hell…
Is this thing?
What have they done to my cat dragon?!
I can’t even tell what that’s supposed to be!
Let alone what THAT is:
Well, I guess the moral of the story is always stick with the original if the original’s awesome.
At least the Sega Master System game had a plot, gotta give it that, I suppose. Though I wonder if any of it was actually necessary. Plus it introduced the notion of having all of the game’s main characters look really tiny and cute as buttons and have them all bow to us in what was surreal even for that game!
Oh Master System…
You screwed up but you know I love you, right?
Yeah you do.