Retro Resolution Retro Review
System: Sega Megadrive / Genesis 32X
Enter the Dragon
Back in 1984 it was possible to Chase the Dragon and experience a full-on psychedelic trip for a paltry 50 pence, all thanks to Sega’s legendary AM2 team, creators of Space Harrier; this technicolour wonderment provides an early glimpse of magic from Yu Suzuki, author of the yet-to-come coin-op classics Outrun, Virtua Fighter, Virtua Cop, and groundbreaking open-world extravaganza Shenmue.
At my local arcade Space Harrier attracted long queues, being both a spectacular introductory showcase for Sega’s System 16 Super-scalar sprite-scaling technology (long before the infamous SNES mode 7 made such effects ubiquitous) and among the earliest articulated sit-down cabinets. Each credit for the deluxe incarnation cost a small fortune in comparison to contemporary machines and, for the average punter (well, for me at least), yielded a scant 30 seconds of gameplay in return.
In this early example of the rail-shooter the player is cast in the role of the eponymous Space Harrier, rushing into the psychedelic chessboard screen by means of a combined jetpack and laser-canon device. A frankly insane collection of enemies assaults the player, ranging from alien spacecraft to psychotic green heads (possibly modelled upon the mentally-challenged Gizmo doppelganger from Gremlins II. Then again, possibly not).
The unrelenting, heart-poundingly fast action is both simplistic and addictive in equal measure. With a gameplay mechanic that can be summarised as ‘dodge, shoot, die’, the oft-quoted comment ‘the game is tough, yet never unfair’ simply isn’t true here – you will die, often, and not even know what hit you, with enemy fire and obstacles obscured by explosions, and even your own avatar. Suddenly those cheap and cheerful third-party controllers make sense, availing the player of auto-fire.
The effects-driven title was converted to myriad systems, vastly ranging in capability, with varying degrees of success; noteworthy are the swift, albeit monochrome, Speccy outing; a satisfyingly chunky C64 offering; and a noble PC Engine / TurboGrafix-16 incarnation. Naturally Sega ported the coin-op to many of its own systems, including the 3d-glasses compatible Master System, the underrated Saturn, an arcade-perfect rendition on the Dreamcast (located within Shenmue‘s in-world video arcade), and an inaugural 32-bit appearance on the 32X.
Despite the 32X attracting heavy criticism for its aural limitations, the enhanced Megadrive’s Space Harrier sonically is spot-on, providing a brilliant rendition of the classic theme tune and in-game music, complete with funky Level-42-style bass lines. Scratchy but recognisable digitised voices encourage, urgently yelling ‘Get Ready!’, and distract, shouting ‘You’re doing great!’ -inevitably triggering yet another instant death- whilst the scintillating scifi sound effects are worthy of the legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
The issue of immense difficulty is alleviated in this virtually arcade-perfect home version with the provision of user selectable difficulty levels and lives, yet the console incarnation still pales in comparison to the coin-op experience; as is often the case with arcade titles much of the magic is peripheral to the game itself, provided by the imposing cabinet (especially so in the deluxe electrically articulated version) and atmosphere of a smoky, dark, loud, almost womb-like arcade, all of which is lost in the conversion. Nevertheless the solid core gameplay, responsive twitch-controls, and frenetic pace deliver a genuinely satisfying ‘just one more go’ experience.
If only Sega had packaged Space Harrier and Virtua Racing Deluxe in a bundle along with the 32X itself perhaps many more players would have experienced just how great the Magic Mushroom could be, and droves of one-time fans would not have switched loyalties, ultimately killing the once great hardware innovator.
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