Monday 7 March 2011

Space Harrier II

Space Harrier Harder

Space Harrier II is one of those games people love to hate. Released for the Sega Mega Drive in 1988 (as a launch title in Japan!), it's aged pretty poorly and is has always lived in the shadow of its older arcade brother. But that doesn't mean it's a bad game... does it?

And it also doesn't mean it's a Mega Drive exclusive. Contrary to popular belief Space Harrier II made its way onto other systems - the Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum, all even worse than the original game. But it's the Mega Drive version we tend to care about and it's the version I have on this hard drive.

Space Harrier II was a logical but poorly thought out idea. In order to show off the Mega Drive's power, Sega needed a game that was both cutting edge and "exclusive" to the console. They also needed a franchise people could relate to, so a sequel to Space Harrier, one of their most popular arcade games of all time, fits the bill nicely.

Releasing the original game when superior a superior Sharp X68000 port existed in the homeland wouldn't be a great way to plug the console, though in retrospect we can see that it didn't really make much difference in Japan as the console would tank anyway. But a sequel is also a stupid idea, because the Mega Drive can't even handle the original game. To both replicate the original gameplay and expand on it for a brand new console is far too ambitious.

The hardware had not yet been explored by the entirety of Sega's research and development divisions... and who knows, perhaps this game entered production before the Mega Drive specs were finalised. The idea was never going to work, and so it should be no surprise that the end result isn't spectacular.

The major problem with Space Harrier II is that is just can't live up to the standards set by its prequel. Had the original game not existed, perhaps Space Harrier II would have seen more love. Nothing is as good as what Sega AM2 dished out in 1985 because the Mega Drive, as great as it is, can't do native sprite scaling. This leads to a choppy experience where your sense of depth tested at every turn.

The gameplay remains mostly the same as in the original, flying into the screen and shooting at enemies, with the only real innovation being a level selection screen. Of course, nothing is really recycled from the first game, but it can't help but deliver a similar experience. Perhaps too similar.

Graphics and sound take a hit, as you'd expect, and as your character sails around in Lycra through fairly boring environments it's difficult to see exactly where things have improved. Some of the bosses are interesting I suppose, but it fails to give any other impression than "Space Harrier: The Lost Levels". In fact, as the bonus levels were dropped, it would make more sense for this to be an expansion pack.

But is this a reason to hate the game? No not really. It's theme tune, though not quite as memorable, is still pretty good. Life is better on home television screens than previous attempts at mimicking the Space Harrier formula (unless you bought a Sharp X68000 of course) and it's still very playable. It's much like the scenario that surrounds Streets of Rage 3 - it doesn't succeed at toppling the perfection of its prequel but it doesn't need to in order to remain a great game.

But as said, there are other factors in Space Harrier II which eat away at its reputation. It stands as one of the oldest Mega Drive games out there, and in many respects, it shows. The layer of polish almost forced upon Mega Drive games when the SNES game to town does not exist. The framerate is noticeably lower than later Mega Drive games and the choppy movement doesn't paint the system in a good light. Also some music tracks are absolutely terrible.

The dying scenes are slow and any interruptions in the music cause it to start from the beginning (which is surprisingly annoying if you find yourself dying often). Had this been made a few years down the line none of these issues would have allowed to become a concern, but sadly Space Harrier II is littered with little problems that make it an inferior product.

It also feels as if the developers completely ignored the original game in places. Despite Space Harrier clearly saying "WELCOME TO THE FANTASY ZONE" upon starting a new game, they still manage to call it "Fantasy LAND" in Space Harrier II. The team behind this game were also big fans of light greens, blues and pinks - almost all the levels look washed out, and as scenery is less common and less varied, things just feel empty. This is despite the first game boasting hoards of colour in its artwork.

On the plus side, it's a very easy game to get a hold of as it's a common choice for Mega Drive compilations, and retails very cheaply on the likes of eBay. Plus, the Mega Drive game still manages to remain "above average" thanks to all the weaker ports on lesser systems.

But whatever people may say, Space Harrier II is not "bad", it's just "old". It suffers because later games are better in almost every aspect, but as time travel wasn't an option in 1988 there was no way to prevent this.

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