Guilty Party – Retro Redress
Crime – being unable to play Space Harrier II for more than five minutes
Redress – dedicate an hour to playing Space Harrier II
After my attempt to defend one of my favourite retro games , the next stop on my Sega holiday is to play a game that I’ve only ever really dabbled with, despite owning various versions of it over the years.
Space Harrier is a game that I…just don’t get. I first encountered the original Space Harrier on the Atari ST nearly thirty years ago. At the age of five, Space Harrier was little more than a novelty to me – running into the screen and shooting strange creatures was a new experience for me, but after the game over screen, I just moved on to a different game. That’s never changed either – my attempts to play Space Harrier usually end after a few minutes and I move on to the next game.
A few months ago, I addressed another game I had this problem with.. I decided to dedicate an hour to playing Columns so I could say I had given it a fair chance. I enjoyed my hour with Columns and thought maybe Space Harrier II would benefit from the same treatment. So…am I ready to go to the Fantasy Zone…for an hour?
So let’s start the clock…a fairly uninspiring title screen is the first thing I see, but I’ll cut them some slack. Space Harrier was a Japanese and American Mega Drive launch game back in 1988, so I’m sure the title was the last thing they were worried about. A sequel to 1985’s Space Harrier (duh), my research shows that Space Harrier II was published in Europe by the same people who published this crime against gaming, so not a good start so far.
The intro screen sees us get the warning that Fantasy-Land is in trouble, so I should probably stop the clock and explain for the uninitiated. Space Harrier is set in the Fantasy Zone (the same setting as Fantasy Zone, though this has been disputed) and the hero, Harrier, must save the Fantasy Zone from seemingly random monsters and bosses over 12 levels. If you’re wondering why the hero is called Harrier, it’s because the original Space Harrier was to be a plane game, until Yu Suzuki changed the plane into a man and the setting into a more fantastical one. This was due to systems limitations, but in hindsight worked out pretty well. Suzuki would go on to develop Afterburner later on, so we did get that plane game in the end.
So let’s restart the clock…55 seconds in and I’ve already been hit twice. Space Harrier is a confusing game, despite it’s simple design. I always find myself aimlessly flying around the screen, until I’m taken out. Also, why can Harrier run? Given the choice between flying and running, I’m sure flying would make more sense? Harrier would be harder to hit if he was airborne and have more chance of shooting the enemies. The frame rate isn’t the smoothest either – there is a lot going on in game, so things do seem a bit creaky.
My first ‘Game Over’ comes at 2:01…the boss of Stage 1, a three headed turtle kills me via fireball. I remember what Yu Suzuki said about Space Harrier (So, I made a homing system that guaranteed that the target could be hit. When the target was close, it would always hit, but when the target was in the distance, the player would miss”) and tried to get in close. I managed to hot the turtle once, but it catches me and ends my pitiful attempt to play Space Harrier. Still I’m 7th on the scoreboard. Go me.
A second go at Space Harrier sees me storm through Stage 1 quickly. I’ve learned how to dodge the enemy attacks and take them out – only fire at them when they are close to me and dodge their fire when far away. There are lots of stationary items to dodge too – imagine being the protector of a galaxy and being able to destroy monsters, but dying due to a crash into a hedge or a stone pillar? Level 2 is harder due to the stone pillars, I keep crashing unceremoniously into them, causing no end of embarrassment to Harrier. Then again, being called Harrier probably led to some awkward conversations growing up so he’s probably used to embarrassment by now. The boss of Stage 2 is a humanoid figure surrounded by balls acting as shields. I use the Suzuki strategy – rapid fire when the boss is close to me, then dip, duck, dodge, dive and dodge when the boss moves out…and the boss is easily beaten.
By 6:12, I’m on Stage 3. The above picture looks serene, doesn’t it? Minutes later, it’s a underwater level with jelly fish and gold pillars in the way. I crash into a jellyfish and that’s all for that go at 6:30. I’m at the point where I normally turn Space Harrier off and to be honest, I can see why I turn it off. Many smarter people have written this before, but I’ll repeat it here – Space Harrier, without it’s flashy arcade cabinet, is a really shallow experience. Playing Space Harrier II on Steam with a 15 year old Logitech pad isn’t the same. Without the moving cabinet and the incredible graphic effects, Space Harrier is a bland ‘on rails’ shooter.
Still, I said an hour so….I start again at 6:30 and play through to 16:51. I come to a few conclusions in this ten minutes’
1) Space Harrier is the ultimate arcade game…as it was never intended to be played at home. I’m bored out of my mind and I’ve only been playing it for over 15 minutes.
2) Anyone who complains about Altered Beast being shallow needs to play Space Harrier. At least with Altered Beast, you get unintentional comedy, good music and some punching. Space Harrier offers nothing and the novelty wears off fast.
3) If you are trying to take over a galaxy and are faced with a hero who flies, don’t hire any enemies to fight him. Just go B&Q and purchase trees and pillars…you will likely save a fortune and the hero will be defeated quicker.
For my next go, Space Harrier II let’s me play Stage 12. I’m not sure why, is there a level select or something? Stage 12 is grim…basically, the enemy (the Dark Harrier) has positioned pillars in rows. Harrier, try as he might, is walking into these pillars. It’s a short go and at 19:07, I’m back at the menu again. Starting the game up again, I realise that I can select the stage on that intro screen…it’s time to explore the Fantasy Zone.
Stage 10 is no different…the big robots that are associated with Space Harrier crush me pretty quickly. I’ve now been playing this game for 21:06 and I’m fed up of it to be honest. I decide that, as it’s 11:15pm, maybe if I go to sleep, the remaining 40 minutes will be better. This is the only time I’ve ever thought this about a game in 28 years of playing games though, so that can’t be a good sign for Space Harrier II? I’m also tempted to write ‘Space Harrier II’ on a big cardboard box and put it over my head, so I can pretend I’m in an arcade…try and improve the experience.
So the next day, with a bit of sleep, an afternoon on a Cornish beach and another tub of Ben and Jerry’s eaten, it’s back to Space Harrier II. I restart the clock at 21:06 and start again at Stage 1. Yesterday’s play through is still clearly fresh in my mine as I get through Stage 1 flawlessly. Stage 2 is tough until I note that I can just simply avoid most of the generic enemies a la Dynamite Dux, and I storm on past the weak boss. Stage 3 is next and I do well until I encounter the fire spitting frogs. I’m caught off guard and left with one life to hit the boss, a really quick blue dragon. He beats me easily at 26:53. forcing me back to the title screen to consider my feelings on Space Harrier after 12 hours away. To be honest, I’m indifferent to it now – Space Harrier II is more shallow than a reality TV contestant, so I’m having a hard time staying interested. I’m going to complete this redress though, got 35 mins left…
I start again, this time starting on Stage 3. My clever plan to avoid enemies fails almost straight away too as a glowing jellyfish slams into me. At least Space Harrier is smarter than Dynamite Dux. I’ve figured out the frogs though – the trick is to shoot them as they first come on screen. The boss beats me again however, he is simply too quick for me. I manage to shoot him enough times to change his colour to green, but his projectile clips me and it’s game over at 27:55. I go back to Stage 3 straight away and fight heroically back to the boss….if by fight heroically, you mean “jiggle randomly all over the screen and fire repeatedly.” The boss is still too fast for me, so I just sacrifice my remaining hit points to beat him. It’s not a great long term strategy, but I just want to beat him now. I’m thinking that, when I die, I will restart on the stage that I died on. Stage 4 is Zero Polis, which sounds like the sort of name an 80’s game developer would give to a futuristic level. I fight off the robots, but a metal pole takes me out, ending this trip to Zero Polis at 31:11.
My first full trip to Zero Polis ends badly – the level is fairly easy, but the boss, a load of flashing robots who move really quickly destroys me. My tactic of ‘move about and fire lots” is ineffective and I realise that I have abandoned my Suzuki Strategy of only firing when the enemy is near to me. The Suzuki Strategy really worked for me last night and I make a conscious decision to go back to it now. It works too – I take out the robots easily on my second playthrough by just letting them fire aimlessly then blasting them all once they move closer to me. This victory gives me a taste of Stage 5, Copper Hill, which lasts around 10 seconds before I’m gunned down. I’m blaming my failure on the name of the stage…,many years ago, I lost a game of pool to a suspected tramp from Coppers Hill, Chorley. He claimed he couldn’t “snooker the balls, only pot them”…unlike me who couldn’t do either… anyway, this is Retro Redress, not Pool Redress, let’s get back to Space Harrier II.
I restart the clock at 38:26, banish any memories of embarrassing pool defeats and return to Copper Hill…and promptly spend 10 minutes being battered. See, Copper Hill is full of pillars, in rows of three, with a gap in the row. The gap is designed for the player to pass through, but the enemies keep shooting me through the gap, causing me constant deaths. It’s frustrating until I discover that, if I push up on the D-Pad, I can fly faster. I’m not sure if moving recklessly and fast is a sensible move, but I eventually manage to fluke my way to the boss.
The boss of Copper Hill is,
a tramp with a pool cue a big cat with wings. I manage to shoot him enough to take his wings out of play, but eventually he kills me by crashing into me. To be fair, I was trying not to laugh – when the boss loses his wings, he starts scurrying across the screen like a house cat. The intent is for the player to shoot the boss while he’s doing that, but the boss is too quick and I’m trying not to laugh too hard at the house cat throwing fire balls at me. With the clock stopped at 51:03, I decide to try a different stage, as Copper Hill has taken up enough of my time.
Stage 6 has an Eyptian/Greek theme and a pretty cool boss…I’d tell you more, but I don’t last long against him. He’s a sort of evil flying wizard that splits into three and attacks. As you hit him, his robe falls back so you can see his head. He’s probably the most interesting boss I’ve faced so far. And frankly will face, as I’m running out of time…
Stage 7 has the lady snake creature from the box as the boss and she’s…the same as all the other snake creatures in the game. Yawn….she catches me with a projectile as the clock hits 60:00. I don’t think I’ve ever turned off a game faster…
Verdict – Well, I completed the Redress, but I never want to play Space Harrier II again. I can see why I never played Space Harrier II for more than five minutes in the past…it’s a game that is nothing without it’s graphical effects and moving cabinet. At least, I’ve given Space Harrier II a fair chance now…but it’s the last chance I’m giving it!