Space Harrier - Sega Ages 2500
Sega's classic Space Harrier is reborn in the next-generation, but are the enhancements enough to appeal to today's gamers?
Conspiracy Games (US, UK)
The original Space Harrier arcade game is without a doubt one of the top 5 greatest games of all time in my opinion. A bold statement perhaps, but one that I've stood by since the game first hit arcades in 1985. Till this day very few games offer the fast paced thrills and excitement that Space Harrier provided, and after 18 years, the original still stands the test of time quite beautifully. That being said, we got our mittens on Sega's PS2 remake of the Harrier classic and after total dissection are ready to provide you with the goods.
In 1985, Space Harrier burst onto the arcade scene and dazzled gamers with high speed, pseudo 3-D graphics that brought with it a very unique play experience during a time when 3D technology hadn't been adapted to games yet. But that didn't stop Yu Suzuki from making sure that Space Harrier could fake it well enough to be convincing.
As players maneuvered Harrier along futuristic checkered grids throughout the fantasy zone they had to remain in constant motion, dodging hazardous objects while destroying hordes of enemy creatures headed their way. Players successful in surviving the enemy onslaught were then presented with 2 bonus levels that allowed them to ride aboard Uriah, a friendly dragon-like creature that could be steered into environmental objects throughout the bonus levels in order to rack up bonus points and extra lives. Featuring excellent gameplay, bright, colorful graphics, and awesome music pumped from Yamaha's soundchip, Space Harrier became an instant classic.
Now 19 years later, after many console conversions and two mediocre sequels, the original Space Harrier is born again on the PS2.
With a fast paced game like Space Harrier, you need a control scheme that's very responsive and easy to pick up. The single button setup of the original was as easy as game controls can get and worked perfectly. The PS2 remake takes it a step further by providing players with more control options than the original. This time around Harrier's cannon can unleash rapid fire shots that'll make short work of enemies and spare our poor thumbs of all that work.
Also new to Space Harrier are special flash bombs that can wipe out a screen full of objects and enemy creatures. These flash bombs are very powerful and must be used sparingly as they will destroy everything onscreen, including power-ups. And while the flash bombs may be considered sacrilege by hardcore Harrier fans, there's nothing forcing anyone to use them.
Another new feature is a lock-on laser that should make it easier for rookies to land their shots compared to the manual targeting system of the original. Similar to the lock-on laser used in Sega's Panzer Dragoon series, by holding down the manual firing button and moving parallel to the enemies, Harrier will lock-on to them. Once locked on, releasing the fire button will unleash homing lasers that are pretty effective against slower moving enemies and bosses. A similar firing scheme is also available with Harrier's main shots. Very similar to the auto lock-on feature used in Afterburner 2, by simply lining yourself up with an enemy Harrier will lock-on to them, and regardless of his position on screen the shots will home in on their target(s). However, you'll need to be quick on the trigger as you'll only have a short window to remain locked on and successfully discharge a shot.
The d-pad and analog stick allows you to maneuver Harrier through a futuristic world where great timing and precise movements are key. Space Harrier uses a reversed control scheme where pushing up moves your character down, pushing down moves your character up, left and right directional presses maintain normal left and right movements. If you're not particular fond of the default control scheme the options menu provides you with the opportunity to configure the controls and switch them to a normal set-up, but fans of the original, why would you want to?
Space Harrier is a very simple game that doesn't require much explanation. The object of the game is to basically shoot anything that moves, and in some cases don't move. Successfully making it through the game requires that you remain on your toes from beginning to end, ridding each level of as many enemies as possible while trying to avoid crashing into the dangerous obstacles located throughout every level.
You can usually clear the way by destroying some of these hazardous objects while others such as metallic spheres and pillars aren't affected by your shots and must be avoided at all costs. Easier said than done when you've got swarms of enemies sweeping through the air , bombarding you with deadly projectiles. Often times you may find yourself successfully avoiding a slew of enemy attacks only to crash into a stationary object and vice versa.
While the original contained no power-ups at all, Sega Ages: Space Harrier allows players to collect power-ups that improve their shots and lock-on lasers, supplement their flash bombs, increase their lives, and equip them with Bit shields that provide Harrier with limited protection so he can sustain a hit or two without losing a life.
The enemies encountered throughout the game are certainly an aggressive bunch and fortunately behave pretty much like their original counterparts. You'll take on fierce battle robots, fire breathing stone heads (no drug reference intended), and super sonic jets among many others that will bombard you with destruct discs, missiles, and energy discharges. It's in the player's best interest to learn to anticipate enemy attacks and evade them with clockwise or counter-clockwise motions that can be a great help against the intense enemy onslaught headed their way in later levels. Fortunately many of the same strategies used in the original can be reused here.
At the end of each level players are challenged by a variety of end bosses that will put their maneuvering skills to the test before being allowed to proceed to the next area.
While most of the game is spent running through wide open fields, I've always found the most exhilarating moments to take place in levels like "Ceiciel", "Revi", and "Asute" where the field closes in and you're running through some type of futuristic corridor filled with metallic spheres and towers. These are the most challenging levels in the game and arguably the most fun. The levels move at a faster rate than the others and the majority of the time is spent avoiding groups of metallic spheres positioned in alternating patterns throughout the upper and lower portions of the screen. And to add even more challenge to an already tough situation, you still have to deal with the distractions caused by enemy attacks.
The bonus levels where you ride aboard Uriah are also back and provide your fingers with a much needed break from all the action. Compared to the original, controlling Uriah is the one area where the remake offers an improvement. The controls have been tweaked so players will have an easier time steering Uriah into environmental objects, racking up bonus points and scoring extra lives.
Fortunately for Space Harrier fans, there's more to this remake than just updated graphics and sound. When playing in fractal mode, there are 21 levels to play through including a new ice-themed bonus stage. Playing with fractal mode toggled off reverts the game back to the 18 level setup of the original, with an extra level tossed in as a bonus.
Along with the added levels in fractal mode are strange new tunnel levels that players need to successfully navigate through. Some of these levels have replaced a few of the original areas and I honestly don't know why. Harrier's movements are a little restricted when flying through them and everything moves by at such a slow pace that I found myself groaning everytime I entered one of these tunnels. They're certainly nowhere near as fun as the rest of the levels in the game and tend to remind me more of Planet Harriers than anything else.
As with the other Sega Ages 2500 releases, special notes on the game's history are included with every copy of Space Harrier and should find a nice spot in the special Sega Ages binder given away with the Phantasy Star remake. Whether such novelties are made available with the U.S. releases remains to be seen, but I wouldn't hold my breath.
Despite the speed issues, the gameplay is pretty solid while the graphics were upgraded and downgraded in a few areas. Most of the enemies are well represented with a few that may leave fans wondering just what in the world happened? Harrier's character model is somewhat of a letdown as well. With his geeky new goggles, helmet, armor, and giant cannon he looks more like a Rollerball reject than anything else - a sharp contrast to the casual look he had before. Like the old saying goes, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!".
Unfortunately Harrier's not the only victim of odd redesigns. Some of the bosses like Squila - the first level dragon boss, as well as Uriah - the bonus level wind worm, look a bit scrawny this time around and don't animate as well as their original counterparts did. The level designs seem to have faired a little better but not by much. While the landscapes retain their futuristic checkered grids, there's a darker shade to everything in the game now. Gone are the fast moving, bright, colorful graphics of the original replaced by slower, darker visuals more reminiscent of Space Harrier 2 than the original. Even Amar, the once vibrant mushroom kingdom of the fantasy zone looks quite depressing now due to the darker contrast of colors.
When playing in fractal mode the visuals are further ‘enhanced' with realistically defined terrains replacing the checkered grids. Space Harrier's fractal engine does an admirable job of generating random well-textured environments. Other minor improvements include wind streaks that now appear while flying and explosions that provide longer lasting fireworks displays. Fortunately even with all the onscreen action the game manages a respectable frame rate with only a few instances of slowdown rearing its ugly head during some of the more intense battles like the 11th stage encounters with wave after wave of Mukadem battle robots shooting projectiles all over the place.
Space Harrier's audio department is equally well-served with some surprisingly pleasant techno arrangements. With the exception of the altered bonus level theme, the soundtrack retains most of the original melodies and key transitions that kept the music from quickly becoming too repetitive.
Admittedly I was initially concerned that the composers might take a few too many liberties with the music and turn it into something that's barely recognizable, but after hearing the beautifully orchestrated rendition of Harrier's main theme, I was sold. The only downside being that there isn't a sound test mode so players can kickback and enjoy the music without having to deal with the sound effects.
And speaking of sound effects, there are a solid assortment of sounds created by explosions and enemy attacks throughout the game. Personally I found the sound effects and voices in the original to be just a little more endearing. Harrier's death scream and classic phrases such as "Welcome to the Fantasy Zone, get ready!" sound almost as good as they did in the original, while cheesy new phrases like, "You've got an attitude, Harrier, release yourself now!" and "It's all good, keep on the move!" make me cringe every time I hear them. Why the developers omitted the "You're doing great!" line you heard after clearing each area and added some new cheese ball lines will forever remain a mystery to me.
Overall, Sega Ages: Space Harrier is a fun-filled classic revisited. While it plays slower than the original, the difficulty was been bumped up considerably and may require a good deal of practice in order to successfully make it to the end. The added extra features should make Space Harrier a little more appealing to casual gamers while fellow hardcore Harrier fans cry foul at the implementation of flash bombs and lock-on lasers. There's a simple solution to that problem. Simply turn fractals off, limit Harrier's actions to just manual firing, avoid collecting power-ups and using flashbombs and you should be able to relive the glories of Space Harrier with just enhanced 3D graphics and sound.
If you loved the original or enjoy reflex intensive arcade action in general and have the means to play imports, Sega Ages: Space Harrier is definitely worth a look as the low price point and English menus eliminate the need to wait for a domestic release. Now, let's hope that the Afterburner II and Outrun remakes are as good as Fantasy Zone and Space Harrier as opposed to the dismal Golden Axe remake.
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Space Harrier - Sega Ages 2500
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