|Source // Wikipedia|
If I guessed that Thrust would involve air or spacecraft of some sort, then surely I've got to guess that Space Harrier involves aircraft in space. It does not, and once again I've been made to look a fool.
Space Harrier sees you pilot some sort of rocket (not a rocket enginged vehicle, a straight up rocket slung under your arm) around a fantasy landscape that screams into view, a la OutRun before it. As well as dodging around stage hazards in the form of trees and stone pillars, there are enemies that include alien craft, one-eyed mammoths and floating stone faces, and that's before mentioning the equally bizarre boss fights scattered throughout.
The 1001 entry explicitly says that we should play the arcade version, so let's see how we get on.
I haven't been able to play the recommended arcade original, but I have been saved by the Sega Master System port. It's not exactly a looker, is it? But it's playable. Move and shoot, then move some more and shoot some more. All the important stuff - the things you need to avoid and the things you need to destroy - will come to you, so there's no need to seek anything out. Sit back, get your trigger finger ready, and go to town on the onrushing waves of enemies.
Space Harrier isn't really about any grand strategy. It's not really about having to question where to put yourself or what to do. At the same time, it's not a mindless game. You'll still need to stay alert to what's rapidly heading towards you, just as you'll still need to decide when and where to move in order to deal with something, but as far as games go there's not a whole lot to the gameplay.
However, it's nowhere near the arcade version so we're going to have to try and find a better alternative.
The Sega Mega Drive 32X port will certainly do instead. The graphics are much improved, as one would hope, as is the sound. What we've got is more than 'just a game', like the Master System had - we've got a port.
Ports come in all kinds of course and a great many are of lesser quality than the original. This is no exception, but where the Master System port might have come across as a shooter, this comes across as Space Harrier, and Space Harrier is more than a shooter. That was a bit of a mouthful.
Make no mistake Space Harrier is very simple, with its lack of power-ups and other mechanics, but it doesn't need to be complex. At the end of the day it's just your d-pad and your fire button, but the fact that you face wave after wave of weird enemies makes it stand out from the pack.
And not just weird enemies, but weird stages even. Space Harrier isn't about making sense, and so everything from giant mushrooms to malevolent icosahedra, hideous flying monsters and threatening robots makes an appearance, generally right in front of your face and getting larger all the time.
The sprite scaling is the big selling point of Space Harrier, so you've got to expect everything to move, and more often than not it moves towards you. You get used to flying, dodging incoming fire, returning plenty of fire of your own, and then you're face to face with a fire breathing dragon thing.
Or, in my case, you're face to face with its fiery breath. Lack of skill aside though, these boss battles make Space Harrier worth playing. You'll need to mix up your strategy a little bit - usually from dodging and shooting to dodging and shooting with more precision - but you've got the skills required to defeat these bosses from playing the game normally. They're a challenge, they should be, but they shouldn't overwhelm you.
Like the regular enemies, you'll face weird and wonderful bosses that are there to show off the technology behind the scenes as much as they're there to give you a fight. There's not a whole lot of animation going on, yet all those multiple scaling sprites are put to work making something look animated and alive.
That's perhaps a strange thing to think about. Is Space Harrier a tech demo? In some sense it is, many games are, but it's not 'just' a tech demo, is it? There is a game here. There are stages, there are boss fights, there are scoreboards - yet I can't quite shake the feeling that there perhaps should be a little more to it.
I've got to make it clear that you should play Space Harrier. It's great pick-up-and-play material: nothing much to learn, action from the very start. It's been ported damn near everywhere over the decades, with mixed success as I say, but options for playing it somehow, somewhere, are available to you.
While I can see myself playing it a few times, it'd only be to see if I could get a little further than last time, rather than, say, being determined to conquer it. Maybe that's just my attitude in general, rather than towards Space Harrier in particular, but there we go. I'm in no rush to see it to its end.
Even though I watched it to the end on YouTube.
Maybe that's my problem...
The boss of stage 16, Haya-Oh, isn't found in the arcade version at all, created for the Sega Master System port. It has stuck around to every other port since, making my argument for whether ports are ever as good as the original a bit more complicated.
Space Harrier, developed by Sega AM2, first released in 1985.
Versions played: Sega Master System, 1986, via emulation.
Sega Mega Drive 32X, 1994, via emulation.
Version watched: Arcade, 1985 (U4iA)