Sunday, June 24, 2018

Space Harrier II (GEN) Review

🌠Written: June 12th-24th, 2018🌠
Year: 1988 | Developed and Published by: Sega

Hello everyone, StarBoy91 here; passionate about video games, big retrophile, aaaaand it's been way too long since my last video game review.  Let's rectify that.

Image from Wikipedia
December 1985 saw the worldwide debut of Sega's Space Harrier in arcades which was described by the company as a taikan (or "body sensation" as it's translated) arcade game, being one of the earliest third-person/rail shooters ever made.  Originally conceived by a Sega designer known simply as "Ida", there was a whopping one hundred-page treatment that proposed the idea of a three-dimensional shooter with the word "Harrier" in the title due to it involving a fighter jet shooting missiles into realistic foregrounds... at least that was the initial concept before the main protagonist was simplified to a human by Sega developer Yu Suzuki on account that it required less realism and memory to depict onscreen than a fighter jet (it also would've taken up a lot of extensive work to cram something into a coin-op with technical and memory limitations at the time).
Image from Wikipedia
Suzuki rewrote the proposal of the game making it take place in a science-fiction setting while still retaining the word "Harrier" in the title with the new designs being inspired by artwork from Roger Dean, the 1982 anime series Space Cobra, and the 1984 Wolfgang Petersen adaptation of the first half of Michael Ende's The Neverending Story, with certain enemies modeled after those from Gundam.  Space Harrier was one of the first games to use 16-bit visuals and scaled sprite technology ("Super Scaler") which allowed pseudo-3D sprite scaling at high frame rates, allowing it to scale as many as 32,000 sprites filling the moving landscape on them and displaying 6,144 colors out of a reported 98,304-color palette.  While the character was sprite-based the pseudo-3D sprite/tile scaling was used for stage backgrounds thanks to the Sega Space Harrier arcade system board.

The game was a huge success in the arcade market and saw many a home conversion in the years since minus Suzuki's involvement both on Sega and non-Sega based video game systems; seeing a release in consoles (the Sega Mark III/Master System, the PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16, the Famicom, the Super/Sega 32x, the Sega Saturn), computers (the Amstrad CPC, the Commodore 16, the ZX Spectrum, the NEC PC-6001 and PC-6601, the Sharp X68000, the FM77AV, the Commodore 64, the NEC PC-9801, the Atari ST, the Amiga), and the Game Gear handheld.  In 2012 and 2013 the developer M2 recreated the game from scratch and converted the classic arcade game to the Nintendo 3DS' eShop for Japan and the West respectively with stereoscopic 3D visuals and widescreen enhancement, a process that reportedly took eighteen months, which Suzuki was pleased by given that his designs were made with 3D in mind from the beginning.

The fact that Space Harrier still sees home conversions even over three decades after the fact is a testament to the impact this game made since its inception and it shows that people are still interested in this game, it's rather remarkable to say the least.
So impactful in fact that it would serve as a partial influence for the 1989 Infogrames A-RPG Drakkhen which was the earliest game in the genre to utilize 3D overworlds that rotate and scale as you roam around; even some of the enemies you fight outdoors scale in and out as a likely nod to Space Harrier.
Image from Wikipedia; Happy 30th Anniversary, game I've never played
Following the success of the 1985 coin-op it would end up seeing a sequel in the form of the Sega Mark III/Master System-exclusive Space Harrier 3-D on February 1988 in Japan and would see an American and European release later that year, requiring the Sega Scope 3-D Glasses in order to play it, which apparently can be disabled with a code.  To this day this game has only seen two rereleases worked on by M2: one as a playable game in the 2005 Japan-only PlayStation 2 compilation Sega Ages 2500: Vol. 20 - Space Harrier II: Space Harrier Complete Collection and the other as a playable game in the 2014 compilation Sega 3D Fukkoku Archives on the Nintendo 3DS alongside its arcade predecessor among other titles, but only in Japan (and unlike most Nintendo handhelds which were region-free, the 3DS sadly doesn't share that same distinction meaning if you want to play that compilation you'd have to buy a 3DS from Japan in order to experience it firsthand).
Image from Wikipedia; Happy 30th Anniversary, Sega MegaDrive console
On October 29th, 1988, Sega's newest console in the form of the 16-bit MegaDrive was released in Japan, with an American counterpart being released in the NTSC gaming region on August 1989 but as the Genesis (apparently due to a trademark dispute), but elsewhere saw the release of the console as the MegaDrive in Korea on August 1990 and in Europe and Brazil that September.  While it placed third in Japan behind its competitors in the form of Nintendo's Super Famicom and the NEC's PC Engine, its real success came from North America, Brazil, and Europe (especially once Sonic the Hedgehog sped into the scene in 1991) and lasted until 1997.  Why is this important, you may ask?  Because the next entry in the Space Harrier series, oddly titled Space Harrier II, was one of its two launch titles in Japan and one of six launch titles for the Genesis in America.

In the Space Year 6221 the titular hero went to combat in space for the first time in Space Harrier, afterward in the Space Year 6226 he distinguished himself with his valor at the Battle of Dragonland in Space Harrier 3-D.
Ten years later, Space Harrier II takes place in the impossibly distant future of 6236 (or it would be if not for the fact that Frank Herbert's Dune takes place in the 102nd century) where once again the harrier flies off with his full-bodied and tight red spandex into combat as he receives an alert informing him of Fantasyland's present crisis.

Shooting at Star Destroyers
The controls are very simple as you can move in any part of the playing field as you can go straight, sideways, above, below, and diagonally in any portion of the playing field (even the corners of the screen, both on the ground and in the air) as you shoot at any oncoming enemy and group of like enemies.  Along the way are towering stationary obstacles like pillars and columns that you must clear away from whether through a gap or as far away as it allows you lest you collide towards it at the expense of a life.

Excellent symmetrical formation
The main protagonist constantly moves and never stops until it's time to face off against a boss at the end of each stage, generally speaking.  Another thing you have to be careful of is the enemies firing projectiles at you as you have to evade them, because normally they start firing when they're very distant from you rather than when they're close by or right in front of you; it would also help to move out of their way because, again, colliding with them head on will result in a lost life.

Firing at a Thunder Lizard
Space Harrier II has got one solitary continue, so it's game over when you lose your last life.  There are three different difficulty settings, accessed from the title screen with the A button (Y when playing it on the Classic Controller on the Nintendo Wii Virtual Console), and depending on the difficulty you earn a new life after every different amount: on Easy you get a new life after every million points, on Normal you garner a life after every million and five hundred-thousand, and on Hard it happens after every two million.
There are two bonus stages, the first one after clearing the fourth stage and the second one taking place after the eighth stage, where you ride on a hover board that renders you invulnerable until this segment has run its course as you shoot at as many enemies as you can in order to accumulate a lot of points in the end.

Killer plant life
The game's music was composed by Tokuhiko Uwabo, credited in this game as "Bo", whose previous audio credits were the Sega 8-bit ports of Fantasy Zone, Space Harrier, and Choplifter, the SG-1000 version of Bullet-Proof Software's The Black Onyx, the Sega Mark III/Master System platformer Alex Kidd in Miracle World and the original turn-based RPG Phantasy Star, and the Sega Master System version of Nihon Falcom's Ys: The Vanished Omens; he would later go on to compose for the classic 1990 MegaDrive/Genesis Disney platformer I Love Mickey Mouse: Fushigi no Oshiro Daibōken/Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse (and is credited as one of its original composers in its 2013 2.5D remake).  Considering that the console is known more for excelling at blast processing than for its overall sound quality due the samples it uses, Space Harrier II's music is serviceable but catchy.

Take out that ring of killer veggies
All throughout there is a main theme playing in the background, and the further along you go the more it gradually shifts to the next portion of said song, so as to prevent from sounding very repetitive which I like as it's a pretty long and at times relaxing song; I also like how each boss has their own distinctive themes in terms of tone and instrumentation which separate them from the other bosses (like for Mantichora, Cragon, Cthugha), especially Dark Harrier who has an impending do-or-die theme; the bonus stages have a quaintly breezy theme going for them; the title theme is understated; and there is a sad-sounding epilogue once you beat the game.
Luckily in the options there is a sound test where you can listen to them uninterrupted (it's refreshing to see the songs actually titled in the sound test as opposed to being assigned number codes), which is the only way you will hear the title and epilogue themes all the way through because in-game they both cut off before you hear the remainder of these cues (which I find annoying when that happens).  The only theme absent in the sound test is the high score theme, which is understandable since you might be stumbling upon that screen often (particularly the first several tries).

Fighting against Paranoia
Uwabo also worked on Space Harrier II's sound programming alongside Kazuhiko Nagai (credited as "Navy" here), the latter of whom had audio credits for the Sega 8-bit port of Alien Syndrome and Hoshi o sagashite… which was a Sega 8-bit exclusive.  The choices for the sound effects are decent but are rather overused, particularly when it comes to the sound cues alerting you of each and every oncoming enemy, your projectiles and when the enemies get destroyed, they also slightly obstruct the music that's playing at times, but the lightning sound effect before the bosses come into the fray is understated which is a nice touch.  Occasionally there are also digitized sound bytes for when the titular space harrier loses a life ("Aaaargh!") and when he gets back in action ("Get ready!").

Jellyfish and star posts in the way
Being a third-person shooter, there's naturally going to be a lot of scaling throughout; the only things that remain constant in terms of size and proportion are the main character and the backdrops in each stage, the bottom of which are seemingly attached to the furthest end of the ground no matter how high or low you are during the proceedings.  Each area has got a chess-patterned floor beneath and below you which shifts forward and to the side as long as you're moving, and it also expands and contracts depending on which position of the screen you are in, changing color scheme after each stage; in a few stages it also appears as a ceiling above you almost touching the floor where only the briefest glimpse of the backdrop can be seen (sometimes flashing different colors).

Anti harriers
Also scaling towards and at times away from you are ground obstacles, towering obstacles that you must clear from (i.e. totem poles, pillars, and Grecian columns), the enemies you shoot at, the projectiles coming from both sides (the enemy shots actually varying depending on the stage, ring-shaped or fiery blasts), and the enemy explosions.  Enemies you stumble across are star destroyers, killer cabbages, electric jellyfish, anti harriers, frog type enemies that look off-putting and creepy the closer they appear, mech robots, phantom samurai, stone heads, and demons to name several examples.
At the end of each area is a boss in which they all have an imposing design as they frequently scale towards and away from you, all of which are preceded by a lightning storm as the sky gets appropriately darker.

Creepiest frog enemies ever
Animation is minimal as far as the enemies and bosses are concerned, but where most of the animation stems from is the main character, primarily because it's one of the only elements that doesn't scale in and out.  The titular space harrier's running animation as he moves on the ground is decent if not swiftly played and his poses are well-drawn while airborne (and I love that the sprites for when he's on the left is not sprite flipped for when he's on the right, unless the character is made to seemingly appear ambidextrous the sprite flipping from games made during the '80s and '90s always bugged me--particularly because a design or important item on one side would magically appear on the other when turned around), but whenever he trips on something on ground level and whenever a life is lost (regardless of how high or low you are) the animation is bizarrely delayed which I don't think was Sega's intent when developing the game.

"Halt!  You are trespassing Dom territory!"
Despite Space Harrier II being made specifically for the Sega 16-bit console and not the arcade like its earlier predecessor it did also see its fair share of different versions--in Europe it also saw PC ports on the Amiga, the Amstrad CPC, the Atari ST, the Commodore 64, and the ZX Sprectrum in 1990 (all of which were published by Grandslam Entertainment) and they all varied in quality.  It also popped up in the aforementioned PlayStation 2 Sega Ages 2500 compilation, in 2006 it was one of the earliest MegaDrive/Genesis games to be made available to download on the Nintendo Wii Virtual Console, and in the course of the 2010's it was also made available to play on Apple's iPhone, Google's Android operating system, the Linux OS, the Windows PC, and on the Apple Mac on Steam.
Image from Wikipedia
After a twelve-year hiatus the Space Harrier series saw another outing in the form of the arcade-exclusive spinoff Planet Harriers developed by Amusement Vision for Sega in 2000.  There were plans for a Nintendo GameCube adaptation after Sega adopted the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" attitude (as they no longer worked on the console-making business following the steady decline in public interest for the Sega Dreamcast in 2001 but is still making games for Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft today) but sadly that home conversion never came to fruition.  No new games in the series have been made since, although Yu Suzuki had expressed a desire to work on another Space Harrier by himself in an interview years ago.

During the height of this series' popularity there were games inspired and influenced by it like SquareSoft's Nintendo 8-bit Tobidase Daisakusen/The 3-D Battles of World Runner and its sequel JJ - Tobidase Daisakusen Part 2, Newtopia Planning and Scitron & Art's Famicom-exclusive release by Pony Canyon Attack Animal Gakuen, Namco's Burning Force, and Success' über rare MegaDrive cute'em up Panorama Cotton.
Images print screened while watching NintendoComplete's footage on YouTube
There was meant to be a game made for the PC Engine CD-ROM² System that combined the gameplay of Space Harrier with the colorfully lighthearted worlds and cute'em up charm of Fantasy Zone, another Sega series that began life in arcades in 1985, in the form of Space Fantasy Zone which had you take control of that series' sentient spaceship Opa-Opa, but sadly never got an official release despite being mostly complete (but is available online as a ROM).  There are two different stories as to why that is: one being that NEC was not authorized to use Sega's IP in the making of the game and that's why it got unceremoniously canned, and the other being that Sega weren't confident in the NEC console's ability to scale objects.  I watched the gameplay footage on YouTube and I'm like, "What are they talking about?"  This game looks impressive given the software it used and its scaling looks smooth and polished considering the PC Engine was an 8-bit console at heart.  General consensus of those who played it say that it's good and lament that it was never given a fair chance.

One of my least favorite enemies
Space Harrier II has never really been regarded as a classic or as a quality title even three decades after its initial release, and not without reason.  This was the third game I downloaded on the Nintendo Wii Virtual Console downloadable service back when I got the console during the Epiphany (January 6th) in 2007 after downloading the NEC TurboGrafx-16 games Red Company's Bonk's Adventure (first) and Hudson Soft's Bomberman '93 (second), and it was the first Genesis game I downloaded on the service, so I'll always have a fondness for the game because of that (I've neither played Space Harrier nor Space Harrier 3-D as of yet).  That being said, I am not blind to its faults, and there are many.

Going through the gap
Today's game was one of two launch titles of the MegaDrive console in 1988, the other one being Super Thunder Blade (which I played on the 2006 PlayStation Portable compilation Sega Genesis Collection by Digital Eclipse) which is billed as a sequel to the 1987 Thunder Blade coin-op but in reality is pretty much the same game if you took out the opening bird's eye segments of each stage because they involved zooming in and out (which the Sega 16-bit was incapable of accomplishing).  Both games are similar in terms of structure in that they involve pseudo-3D and have you move in any part of the screen shooting at enemies while also avoiding being shot at and crashing into towering obstacles (because you die in one hit, but do resume right at the spot until the last life is spent), with the only difference being that Super Thunder Blade had top-down portions once you reached a certain point in each stage and it was possible to stop in position on occasion.

Stone faces staring at you
These were essentially tech demoes that showcased the console's technical capabilities (in this game's case the letters of the title scale towards you from the center), and while Sega was certainly ambitious with these games, the limitations prevented them from achieving their full potential.  The limitation in question was the inability to scale objects, so what Sega did was they designed sprites for the obstacles, projectiles, explosions, enemies, and bosses at different distances to make up for that shortcoming.  It's certainly serviceable when in motion, but if you lost a life and there were still certain enemies, enemy explosions and firepower on the screen they often look like cardboard cutouts (even the space harrier himself appears as such when he falls as the ground fixes its position).

Line of demons up ahead
Whenever you rise up or lower yourself down the ground follows suit with half a second's delay when it's supposed to happen simultaneously, and the reason for that is because it lacks smoothness and could benefit from polish.  This is especially apparent in the few stages where there is the ceiling above you and because there is so much going on at once it starts to lag during these proceedings.  Games in Japan and North America ran at 60 Hz speed, alas in Europe they ran at 50 Hz speed at the time (for those that don't know that's approximately 16.7% slower than the American and Japanese versions, an issue that wasn't fixed until the mid '90s; pretty much the sole justification for European gamers importing games from America and/or Japan) and if the game slowed to a pulp in the NTSC and JP versions then it must've been unbearably terrible when that happened in PAL versions (and to add insult to injury, the Nintendo Wii VC rerelease in Europe ran at 50 Hz despite the fact that the speed issue had long been resolved).

Oh noes, Tomos
There are a few major factors when it comes to playing Space Harrier II.  One is you have to evade enemy fire which is usually shot at you from far away; you have to move out of the way of enemies unless you collide with them; there are ground obstacles when you're running on the ground which must be destroyed lest you trip on them and/or lose a life depending on whether there is a hazard on them; and most pressingly there are towering obstacles that you must clear away from or get through a small gap for if you try to shoot at them your projectiles will be deflected (the only exception being the trees in the opening stage Stuna Area which can be destroyed).

So much enemy clutter
At times you'll have to put up with these sort of obstacles individually, but then there are times when you have to undergo all those at once--that can be a problem as the screen gets cluttered and busy with enemy activity to the point where you might not see enemy projectiles coming or you might collide with a towering obstacle which you don't want to happen, and when that happens it becomes a distracting mess.  You could always perform the pause-unpause trick (like I did when playing the game recently) to get out of the way of any of these obstacles before there is even a chance it will end you in these instances, but even if you do that there's the fact that you never stop moving for sometimes you might go too fast.  I do appreciate there being shadows though, I found that to be a helpful touch (even if it is bizarre to see light-based projectiles coming from both you and the enemies have dark shadows appear below them).
Certainly would've helped Climax Entertainment's 1992 MegaDrive/Genesis isometric adventure game Landstalker: The Treasures of King Nole exponentially (among many other things, but that's neither here nor there).

This is the last of the ground/ceiling stages
It is possible to get through the whole game without losing your single continue, but it may take several tries in order to do that (and the pause-unpause trick may enable that to happen).  The bosses are huge compared to you as they constantly go towards and away from you and they look so intimidating, and some of them have really good entrances (the Medusa boss in Craddha, for one, has got a genuinely unsettling entrance as it flies towards you and once it gets close it opens its eyes slowly and once they're fully open it makes a monstrous expression as it suddenly sprouts horns)… what a shame then that none of them are as imposing as they look.

Golden Dom army
I suppose on one hand it's a bit of a mixed blessing as you have to put up with a plethora of obstacles on the way to the end of each stage (being an arcade-like game it is pattern-based, with certain enemy formations coming from one side followed by them coming from the opposite direction), but they are pathetically easy once you got their pattern down pat (where there's only the boss to worry about and nothing else; remember, they fire when they are away from you and not when they are directly close); one boss actually bites it a mere second or two after shooting at it (lame); one of the later bosses is a direct palette swap of an earlier boss and its pattern is virtually the same aside from differing speeds and projectile designs.  And if you're one of those people who have a severe aversion to boss rehashes at the end prior to engaging in combat with the final boss, then I've got bad news for you: this is one of those games--luckily the bosses are so easy in this case that they don't pose much of a problem.  The final boss, Dark Harrier, is one of those antithesis battles where both sides fight each other with the same capability only the enemy is bigger (and has one ability that you don't), but again it's easy once you have the pattern memorized.

Green demons
I don't know why this game is called "Space Harrier II"--that would imply that it's the second game in the series, which is false.  Several months before it came out the Sega Mark III/Master System saw the release of the actual second game in the series Space Harrier 3-D.  That game wasn't called that because it was the third in the series, it was called that because it was taking advantage of 3D technology that by today's standards is pretty dated.  It's not like you can pretend like that game doesn't exist in the series' timeline or that it takes place afterward because the epilogue acknowledges its existence as it shows you recreated pivotal moments from the first game, then 3-D, and finally II in small sepia-tone stills (as a way to play catch-up for those who haven't experienced the previous two games).  I just find it head scratching that Sega would do that.
Speaking of the epilogue, this game doesn't exactly end on as a triumphant note as one would initially think it does as it takes on a rather somber tone, further exacerbated by the sad-sounding music playing in the background after defeating Dark Harrier.  That's a pretty downbeat way to conclude your launch title, Sega, you sure you want to begin your 16-bit legacy like this?  Fortunately many games for the MegaDrive/Genesis after the fact would have endings that are either upbeat, downbeat, or a mixture of both.

I understand why Sega wanted to make a sequel to Space Harrier and couldn't ignore it due its popularity, but I don't think they should've had two visual tech demoes serving as the MegaDrive's launch titles as neither this nor Super Thunder Blade are generally considered to have aged well.
I honestly think they should've limited it to just one visual launch tech demo like Nintendo did with the Super Famicom in November 1990 with F-Zero, a racing game that completely showcased what the Nintendo 16-bit's Mode 7 scaling and rotating graphics were capable of and was revolutionary for the time, having comparatively aged a lot better over the years.
Speaking of: Kirby series developer HAL Laboratory's 1991 Nintendo 16-bit rail shooter HyperZone--which combined the core gameplay of Space Harrier with the speed, power, and area borders of F-Zero--is an inspired mashup choice which felt smooth and polished with a typically great soundtrack from Jun Ishikawa.  A shame there is no in-game plot and is largely easy (for the most part), but it does have some of the most seamless Mode 7 I've seen in the system considering how early it came out (being a tech demo itself, it makes sense) and is a lot of decent fun to play once in awhile.

Fitting through even the smallest gaps
Despite all the problems it has I never once considered Space Harrier II to be a terrible game, but that doesn't mean I think it's great either--honestly, I hesitate to say that this game is even good.  I honestly find it to be harmless fare and in my opinion edges out Super Thunder Blade on account that at least there's an easy sense of movement here whereas in that game it felt way too bogged down and choppily delayed to the point that it felt rather unplayable.  There are far worse MegaDrive/Genesis games in my opinion, and when I played it again this month I managed to beat it in all three difficulty settings for the first time thanks to the pause-unpause trick in moments that warranted it (in particular the penultimate stage Hot Palace as it's full of columns), even though I admit it kind of disrupts the flow somewhat; but hey, if you want to get far in the shoot'em up genre and are generally inept at playing those kinds of games (like I am) then the pause-unpause trick is your best friend, even if it may not be 100% foolproof in some cases.

Easier than he looks, like all before him
And while it is possible to start from any stage in the game, you still have to go through all the other ones first before engaging in combat with the boss rehash and Dark Harrier.  Having yet to play the original Space Harrier I think it's safe to guess that it might be the better game in the series.  If you were curious about this game it's interesting to play to see what the console could accomplish or at least attempted to accomplish with the pseudo-3D perspective if you could find a physical copy for cheap, or if you were to download it on Steam then it, like other Genesis games available on there, can be downloaded for a dollar which is apt in this case; but if you're searching for a game of high quality you won't find one here.  Space Harrier II may not have aged well and it may not have been as remarkable a way to launch Sega's 16-bit console as they would've hoped, but it did pave the way for other, better content on the MegaDrive/Genesis to come.
My Personal Score: 5.5/10
d(^-^)bTO EACH THEIR OWNd(^-^)b
P.S. I'm so glad I finally got another review done after all this time...  I worry I may have lost practice in all this time (I tried reviewing something a couple months ago but I had a hard time continuing), but I hope I was articulate enough in expressing my thoughts on this game.

P.S. 2 Funny enough, you can actually pause the game while both the ending and credits are playing despite the fact that it's over.  Hilarious!  XD

Happy 30th Anniversary, Space Harrier II!!!

Thank you for reading my review, please leave me a comment and let me know what you think (neither spam nor NSFW language will be allowed on my blog); hope you have a great day, take care!