Space Harrier - A retro look back of a SEGA classic

Welcome to the fantasy zone. Get Ready!

When I heard the first ever samples on my Atari ST my mate and I were in awe. Computers can now talk at you as the low quality distorted sounds came at us. Barely distinguishable but cool none the less. We knew what the computer was telling us. "Fun time" , yet another fantastic hit from Sega, Space Harrier came to the arcades back in 1985 along with Sega's other popular titles back then, Super Hang-on, Afterburner and Outrun. They really did revolutionise the design of games and used a technology known as "Super Scaler" to produce what was the forefront of 3D games.

Other systems too were at the time beginning to develop 3D games Sega were not the first to consider 3D as the way to go, such as Star Wars for example. However, while they were using full 3D objects to emulate cars, spaceships etc. the line graphics and later filled in blocks were a long way off. Sega's idea was to utilise the detail and colours possible in 2D graphics and simply scale them down. If an object was smaller, the human brain would discern it is further away than an object that is larger. The technique is not much more complicated than that.

With 32,000 colours available on screen, and the super smooth Scalar technology at hand, the game took off. The mixture of Chinese dragons flying around and the wonderfully fast chequerboard floors hurtling towards you at break neck speed dragged you into the fantasy world that Space Harrier created.

Add to this the simple yet effective game play of move and shoot, it both generated the sweaty palm excitement while giving any audience around a chance to marvel at the wonderful detailed and colourful graphics.

Yu Suzuki in typical form also managed to get the controls spot on. By using an analogue joystick and an easy to aim system when firing, the gameplay felt natural. The biggest enemy being your own reactions rather than a clunky system that befell many games in the early 80’s.

To give an idea of how advanced the technology used in that arcade machine was, it wasn’t until 1994 (9 Years later) when Sega launched the 32X (32bit add on to the Megadrive) that finally a home computer was powerful enough to reproduce Space Harrier at “Arcade Quality”. Even then, the sound was still not quite up to par. It is, therefore, the Sega Saturn version (1996) that is classed as being the first “Arcade Perfect” port of Space Harrier finally appeared.

So, enough prattle about how it came to be and what it stands for etc.

How does it play?

Well, to start off, the first level is nice and easy. Just as it should be. Control is nice and fluid, all the enemies are animated and moved about the screen smoothly and the Yu Suzuki signature pastel shades give a bright relaxing start.

This soon changes come stage 2. As you suddenly find out half way through that your laser cannon can't shoot the stone towers. (Shock among shock) You now have no option but to dodge these as hitting them at break neck speed will only lead to being knocked flat on your back. Probably with a big headache or at least mild concussion. Perhaps this explains the fire breathing floating heads.

Now Stage three. Hmmmmm! I do wonder if there was any help given while coming up with this world. Things speed up further and you have to avoid or shoot (if you are fast enough) floating and bouncing brightly coloured mushrooms!

Erm, yes!

As surreal as it is, it looks fantastic and the ramp-up in speed starts to twitch your reactions. Especially when you are greated by a 2 headed dragon again, of course breathing fire.

Next, Stage 4, things start to change. We have had our fun but now we get a glimpse that the game has begun to turn serious. Gone are the pastel colours, fire breathing heads and bouncy mushrooms. Instead are hexagon ball type thingys and metal towers. The sky is replaced by a further roof, giving a trapped in feeling and we are moving faster still.

Now for the bonus stage. After a clever introduction to prove that Space Harrier is in face a serious shooter, you get a break. A nice ride on a fluffy dragon (Never Ending Story anyone?) Guide him to eat everything in his path and then we are back into the game.

Back to the more serious missiles being fired at you rather than flashy lasers and we are dealing with jets and sky scrapers to dodge. However, although things now start to get harder, with a little practice the difficulty curve although steep is just enough to keep you interested rather than put you off playing again.

Some of the ideas for end of level bosses are interesting, some levels, you only have a limited amount of time before the fly off into the distance while still allowing you to continue to the next stage. For the majority of the bosses, however, the best plan is to either rotate and fly circles around the screen while firing, for others, a figure of 8 pattern is required.

Throughout the game, many of the original foes keep popping up just to remind you "we have plenty of us and as you keep shooting, we will keep coming" The ending too feels very satisfying. After fighting the final boss, you finish of battering with each of the end of level bosses in reverse order until finally you fly off into the sunset on top of the friendly dragon seen in the bonus stages, Fantastic.

So..... Arcade sorted. Space Harrier was converted to an awesome array of computers and consoles.

These included 8 Bit & Game Gear

Released in 1991. The first thing that hits you is the 8 bit music. The title screen doesn't really do it justice. You need to get into the game to see where this has been taken. When looking at this game, you do need to bare in mind how limited the hardware is in comparison to its Arcade big brother.

Hit start and you are greeted with the music you know and love (in 8 bit though) the floor scrolling is lovely and smooth and with an option for a password to skip to levels, at least you have the option to continue where you left off. Hit start again and you see Space Harrier running just as in the arcades, all be it larger as the Game Gear has a much lower resolution, Sega wanted to keep some detail in the character.

However, this is where similarities start to disappear. Although the floor moves smoothly, nothing else does. The game runs quite slowly in comparison and all the graphics have been changed. This was done to make the characters easier to see on the LCD screen but I am not sure this change was needed. Again, due to the limited capabilities of the Game Gear graphics engine, there are many graphical glitches in sprite masks which means that you get blocks of solid colour at times around the enemies at times. While this doesn't affect the game play, it does get in the way of seeing anything behind the graphics crash.

Strangely, Stage 2 fools you into thinking it is the same as in the arcade, with the same floor colour scheme but up come the bouncing mushrooms of stage 3, did some one get a little confused?

Things change further, Stage 3 (4 in the Arcade) Instead of Hexagon balls to dodge, there are these strange face things and come stage 6 these strange bear things show up. It does feel that the Game Gear struggles and the difficulty playing the game I feel is not due to the game being hard but the sluggish controls and graphics crashes impede what is still a cool game to have if even just from a pure geeky retro sense.

16 Bit - Atari ST

Well, this is where it all started for me. Seeing for the first time, along with Outrun the simulated 3D graphics using sprites.

Knowing now what I do about the capabilities of the Atari ST, I can say that while the sound effects do the job quite nicely, the music although very recognisable is very beepy. It was an issue that almost all Atari ST games suffered from. For some reason, programmers were very lazy when it came to sound on the Atari ST. This is largely because it had on board the same FM chip used by all the 8bit computers ZX Spectrum, Older Ataris etc. So the audio was simply ported from a single source.

The graphics however, were not to shabby. You can tell the low resolution instantly 320 X 200 pixels but this was used as well as possible. Although the graphics update is slow causing a jerky look, the speed was maintained so the game flowed as it should. Bearing in mind the Atari ST version was released back in 1985 (Just 1 year after the arcade) considering that many gamers were still playing on the 8 bit ZX Spectrum, this version looked fantastic.

Though interestingly two bits are missing. Stage 4 doesn't have the top ceiling and some of the end of level bosses are missing a few sprites. However, this can be forgiven as it was a calculated decision to keep the speed of the game.

Commodore Amiga

This version was released in 1989 as Amiga owners were upset that such a great game had missed out the Amiga. So, how did it compare? Well, to start off with, it is obvious that the sound and graphics are better than the Atari ST. Interestingly, they opted to go for a smaller character on screen however the view point is also lower. Snitch makes the playable area limited to the too 3/4 of the screen only.

The floor scrolling is smoother but what about the playability?

Well, after a short while of playing, you realise that the Amiga version has the exact opposite problem that the Game Gear does. This time, Space Harrier moves too fast. The motion is accelerated, in other words, the longer you hold the direction, the faster he moves but the acceleration is too fast. This along side the poor collision detection makes this in enjoyable in comparison. After a short while, I soon wanted to play the Atari ST version again. Amiga owners must have been very disappointed.

However, it is not game over for home versions yet. As new generations of home and hand held consoles came out, Space Harrier was reborn again and again.

Sega Megadrive

The Megadrive was launched with Space Harrier 2.

This was an obvious ploy that Sega had decided that it would not show that their new hardware was still not as powerful as their old arcade machines, instead they released a new game. This meant that they could use new graphics and not worry about the age old comments of "It's good but........"

Playing the game, you can see that some thought has been put into the design. A level select to begin with so you can simply choose which level you want to begin with. However, Space Harrier 2 just lacks substance. It feels and looks some what flimsy in comparison with the original arcade. Instead of lasers, dirty great rings are fired at you and no continues. This means that you do use the level select when you get to a level that you just can't complete. A nice idea, a Space Harrier with a very pert looking bum but just not quite there.

32 bit - Gameboy Advance

At last! From the moment that you select Space Harrier from the "Sega Arcade Gallery" you feel the full power of the arcade in your hand.

Music - Great

Graphics - Great

First tip, go to options and select "Control type B" for some reason, Sega decided that we all want to have reversed controls. Yea, I want to press down when I mean up!

What's even better is that it plays well.

The gameplay takes up the whole screen, all graphics are wonderfully smooth and looks almost arcade perfect with only tiny discrepancies that are really not even worth worrying about "Oh dear me, how terrible it is that the lasers are blue so don't flash multiple colours"

However, the sprites are again a bit smaller on screen. Interestingly, they have learned about controlling Space Harrier via a digital controller (the original don't forget was analogue). No accelerating movement, Space Harrier moves at a fast but constant rate. This make him much more controllable.

We have our roof back in stage 4 and being given 5 credits means that even when you are trying to get used to the digital controls, you still get to have a decent attempt at ploughing through the levels.


In 2004, Space Harrier returned in 3D on the PS2. This can be found in the "Sega Classics Collection"

Now, not all games work well in this updated collection but Space Harrier is by far the best.

Although for the PS2, the graphics look dated, the game plays very well. All the levels from the arcade seam to be there and reproduced using 3D models so they are instantly recognisable. From the trees and ships of stage 1 to the bouncing mushrooms of stage 3.

Even the bonus stage is still here.

Space Harrier himself has undergone a makeover and now supports amongst other tweaks a spiky pony tail. The dragons too have received an overhaul. Rather than the typical Chinese dragon look similar to the carnivals, they now look like more modernised dragons with flapping wings etc.

The music too, while still recognisable has been upgraded with techno beats and some great synth sounds. Gameplay has had a slight upgrade. There are 2 new weapons, a "Big bad da boom" bomb that takes out everything for quite some distance and lock on lasers that remind me of the homing missiles in Afterburner.

A great game addition to for any Space Harrier fan but still doesn't beat the original.

So where do we go from here?

Only one place to go!


Yep, you can even get Space Harrier on the 3DS and it is great.

Graphics wise, it looks just like the arcade including emulating the arcade cabinets if you like (tilting as well)

However, I prefer just playing in full screen with 3D whacked onto full. And WOW! love the 3D! even with the retro 2D objects, it is clear and really does give some perspective.

I would say it is without doubt the most casual of the Space Harrier games as each level you play becomes unlocked to play whenever you feel like it so it doesn't take long to be able to gain access to all the levels whenever you fancy it.

On top of this, the plethora of options gives you a nice trip to nostalgia land. :-)

Playing the game feels just right. controls are very responsive, you have the choice of using 3 different controls. + pad, Analogue pad or Touch screen. The latter 2 make play very responsive the + pad however, not so much.

Just to add to this further, there is now also a save game option (common in all of the Sega 3DS games) so you can continue where you left off.

All in all, I would give the Space Harrier series 96%

Flipping Awesome!

Great gameplay, plenty of replay value.

Some of the home versions could have done with a bit more time spent on them.

Drew Kenaz

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