Saturday 26 December 2020

Space Harrier II for the MegaDrive/Genesis

Space Harrier II was one of those games I lusted for. Seeing the first screenshots sometime in the late 80s it looked head and shoulders above anything else then available, and I can remember my mate who was lucky enough to get a MegaDrive early on import waxing lyrical about it. Then, for some reason, the lustre faded. I got my own machine in the Summer of 1991 but the game never featured on my to-buy list. Even when Sega knocked down the prices of its early titles to a "budget" range of £20 a pop, I never picked it up. It was only when the MegaDrive was dead did the long-buried desire get met. I don't know why, as I wasn't interested much in games at this point, but on my way back home I found myself in Game Station in Derby in the summer of 1998, and as a load of MegaDrive games were getting sold off cheap I picked it up for bout eight quid. Don't know what I was expecting, but played it a handful of times and didn't think it was much cop. The much younger me would have been disappointed.

Time is a funny thing. My MegaDrive got packed up not long after and it went untouched for about 13 years. When it was broken out again Space Harrier II got the revisit treatment and, what do you know, I enjoyed it much more. As a Japanese launch title, Sega were hoping it would do something to showcase the potential of the MegaDrive, which I suppose, alongside Altered Beast, it did. While ropy-looking a couple of years following its release (though with some of the most clear speech on the system), it moved smoother and the graphics were more detailed than the ports of its prequel to other home systems, and was head and shoulders above the naff ports to the home computers. But the gameplay? I guess it speaks to evolving tastes.

For readers unfamiliar with Space Harrier and its progeny, the original game was a 1985 arcade monster known for its stunning graphics, speed, and fast gameplay. Popularising genre we now call today the rail shooter, but was back then simply known as the Space Harrier clone, the game has the eponymous Harrier flying into the screen to liberate the Fantasy Zone/Fantasy Land/Dragon Land from the bad 'uns who've outstayed their welcome. This means shooting everything that moves and/or avoiding them as they try careening into or blasting our beweaponed, airborne hero. The end of each level sees the compulsory boss fighr, and so it goes. Space Harrier II is simply a reiteration of the basic formula. The gameplay is exactly the same, though an obvious downgrade in the visuals, sound, and technical wizardry of its arcade inspiration (no scaling, for one!). The question is ... whether the gameplay is for you.

Spave Harrier II isn't for everyone. I initially thought I was in, turned out it wasn't my cup of tea, but became someone who appreciated the game for what it is. There is no depth here at all. As per the first, shoot the baddies, avoid the onrush of columns, pillars, clams and, um, starfish trees, and take on the end of level bosses. They're not too difficult once you know the patterns, and some are a complete pushover. Do this over 12 stages, pausing for two bonus stages, and then level 13 reveals itself as a boss rush. Once they're all despatched to the back of beyond, it's you versus Dark Harrier. Show him the door and you're treated to a melancholic ending that has your Harrier contemplating the nature of evil and how the fight never ends. Cheery.

Ulitmately, I suppose it's the undemanding nature of the gameplay that suits me now. As someone who flatters themselves into thinking they live life at a million miles an hour, the idea of learning how to play a game is just annoying. The advantage of something like Space Harrier II is how it makes no demands of the player. Indeed, perhaps inadvertently, while its soundtrack is nowhere near as memorable as the original it is quite chilled and relaxing. Indeed, for a frenetic game it's a calming affair and not one of those that sees the joypad curling through the air. Once the patterns are learned it can be a game that simply washes over the player and the experience becomes a multi-coloured barrage of thoughtless button presses. Cue something tangential about postmodernism here, but instead I'll spare the reader.

These days Space Harrier is much better remembered than its MegaDrive sequel. It has canonical status while this game, alas, is something of a curio. Worthwhile having a go if you can't get enough of your 16-bit rail shooters, or if you have some nostalgia attached, but ultimately now the arcade original is widely available everywhere it's worth going there for your slightly psychedelic blasting jollies.

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