When I was younger, I was stuck in Shenmue. No matter how many tractor races I completed I was doomed to do more each and every day. Did I look at gamefaqs? No. Did I eventually unstick myself? No. I raced a tractor, worked at the docks and then spent my hard earned money on prize-draws to get cool stuff for my house. One of these take-homes was a copy of Space Harrier, and for a while I was playing Shenmue wrong just so I could go home after work, sit infront of the TV and play a retro arcade game. Apparently, not a lot has changed
I love Space Harrier, and part of that affection comes from not having any idea what the story is. I don’t even know if there is one. There’s no ignoring that amazing title screen though featuring a woolly mammoth cyclops, a giant robot and our jet-packing hero. This has nothing to do with the rest of the game, as you will be killing both of these rather cute title characters sometime later on.
It’s a shooter with an original style, setting the stage for future titles like Afterburner and Star Fox. You control a character by moving him across the screen out of the way of gunfire and trees while also getting a better shot on your targets, however you are constantly projected forwards without any power to alter that speed. This means you have no choice but to blast through everything you find, and there will be a lot to destroy. Most objects and enemies can be destroyed, but you’ll often see your shots ricochet off them when they can’t.
The pace is incredibly fast, with shots fired pretty much as fast as you can hit the button. There’s a huge variety in enemy design, from small spaceships to creepy squid-life UFOs and resilient robots which are as agile as you. Gameplay is kept simple despite these variances as there are no sub-weapons or desperate bombs to unleash. Dodge and fire, that’s all you can do. Unlike a lot of similar style shooters, it’s also remarkably lengthy. A full play-through encompasses eighteen levels, each with a different boss to tackle at the end of it, except for bonus stages. The bosses can be particularly tricky to take out, like the earlier dragons who will only expose their heads to you while they’re firing a barrage of fireballs, meaning you have to try and sneak shots in as they’re retreating or fire as much as you can -just- before ducking from fire.
The audio design is also absolutely outstanding. The sound effects are great, whether it’s the ‘blop’ sound of enemies warping in, or the velocitous rounds of your cannon firing in large volleys. It’s an incredibly repetitive game, so the way the music changes every stage certainly helps to alleviate that, but somehow I never got bored of the gunfire or impact sounds despite hearing them thousands of times every time I play. The bonus stages break up the frantic repetitious pace nicely, as a much more casual bouncy theme plays and you mount a dragon that looks very reminiscent of that damn dog from Never-ending Story charging across the landscape smashing down trees for bonus points.
There’s a lot of curious charm to the game as a whole, which these bonus stages certainly add to. I still have no idea what the phrase ‘More battle stages are coming soon!’ was ever meant to mean, that crops up every time you’re unfortunately blasted out of the sky. The scaling effects are also still really impressive, and it’s amazing how well it conveys the sense of speed more than twenty years later. The way perspective shifts depending on character position is also pretty cool, and I’ve always loved how you can push yourself towards the ground and Harrier Hero will just start running along it. It would’ve been easy to have him not collide at all and keep flying, but it’s a nice attention to detail.
It’s great that the game is still a blast to play, and it also has a bonus of being ridiculously accessible. There are versions to play on any number of consoles, as it’s included in the Sega Ultimate Genesis Collection and there’s a Sega Ages remake on the PS2 which also bundles in the entire series together with it. All the games are pretty decent to playthrough, although the 32X version of Space Harrier is probably the best of the original game (The Master System version unfortunately cannot emulate the super cool scaling effects), the Mega Drive’s own Space Harrier II is often over-looked despite being pretty damn great.
What’s most disappointing, aside from the fact that I don’t think I’ve even managed to one credit clear the whole game (stupid final stage boss rush), is that there is another game in the series known as Planet Harrier released in arcades, which as far as I know has never received a home conversion. It may be somewhat dated now, but when we’re still getting Wii releases of arcade titles like Gunblade NY/LA it seems strange that more sophisticated outings have been almost completely forgotten. Especially given how much fun the XBLA/PSN port of Afterburner Climax was. I guess I’ll just have to wait for Bayonetta 2 to be a success and Hideki Kamiya to make another request.
Essential if you own a 32X. Or an Xbox 360. Or a PS3. Or a PS2. Or Shenmue 1 &2. Or a soul. A