Friday 4 March 2011

Space Harrier

1985 saw Sega make one of the most cutting edge and legendary pieces of software to date - Space Harrier. It's a game I've grown up with in one form or another, and though the modern gaming media have different views, I still believe this is one of the greatest arcade games of all time.

And predictably it was ported to everything, including computers so bad that the fantasy zone was reduced to mere rectangles. This port, for the Amiga, was hailed as one of the better options upon its release in 1989.

I wonder how it stacks up today!

One of Yu Suzuki's creations, Space Harrier in the arcades boasts intense gameplay with colourful smooth scaling graphics, digitised audio and a real sense of fun. It was one of the first "rail shooters", pitching you, a "Space Harrier" against the various objects and enemies in the "Fantasy Zone" which pass you by as you fly into the screen. It's also a simple game - simply shoot everything that moves and avoid being hit. Space Harrier is one of Sega's greatest icons, and although, like OutRun it was subject to several half-baked sequels, it continues to impress to this day. If you haven't played it it's probably time for suicide.

Space Harrier also teaches us much about the video game industry in the 1980s. As it was ported to almost every platform under the sun, it's good at highlighting the strengths and flaws of systems. It's also very good at showing us how great the Japanese are in comparison to... dare I say it... the British when it comes to making games.

Because before we go any further it's worth seeing what was happening across the pond when Space Harrier on the Amiga was released. In Japan, Dempa brought it to home computers, desperate to deliver the arcade experience even if graphics and sound were sacrificed along the way. Their attempts are surprisingly very admirable.

But in Europe at least, computer ports were handled by Elite. But don't let the name fool you - these copies aren't higher up the social scale at all. The above YouTube links highlight that even the very worst computers were able to keep the following important features of the game - the frantic gameplay, the tempo of the music and even to some extent, the arcade graphics. Sure it's all been butchered to some degree, but the general look and feel of the game is somehow, against all odds, retained. You're just often fighting squares instead of actual enemies.

Yet I look at this Amiga copy and I can't help but feel that something isn't right. The Amiga, as a computer, is better than five out of six of the systems I've demonstrated above. Only the Sharp X68000 betters it, and from a time where the X68000 bettered everything, this is completely understandable. So why then does the Amiga version look so... poor? Aspect ratio considerations aside, everything in Space Harrier on the Amiga has been re-drawn from scratch with second-rate results. It still looks a bit like Space Harrier... but it could have been so much better.

In fact, the game gives you the impression that perhaps Elite didn't have a lot to work with. I even have to question whether they were able to get their hands on an arcade machine, as the game's flaws are obvious from the start. The music in Amiga Space Harrier is too slow, and although this by no means ruins the game, I can't quite understand why it was allowed to stay this way.

Was it a design choice attempt to curve repetition? Having had its levels split across two releases it's not an explanation that sounds plausible in my mind. It can only be a case of not having heard the arcade machine or having a, frankly, poor taste in video game music.

The gameplay in the Amiga version suggests that Sega were absent from this version's development cycle. Death is far more common in the Amiga copy of the game, as the illusion of depth is hindered by choppy graphics (much like the Master System copy). Acceleration issues mean the controls aren't as responsive as in other versions (apparently life is better with the Amiga mouse though) and things just feel noticeably "off".

As you can expect though, things are far more "off" in lesser ports by Elite, namely those to the likes of the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum. The Amiga version I was running was also cracked to give me extra lives, so things were able to stay pleasant.

In short, this isn't a terrible copy of the game to own, but it's not quite as fantastic as they say. As to why you'd bother with any version of the game that wasn't built for the Sega 32X or beyond I can't say, but there's no harm in owning this copy. If I was hunting for lesser ports of arcade games, lacked common sense and enjoyed the concept of old computers littering my bedroom floor, I'd invest in the X68000 version... or play my Saturn copy. Or that version in Shenmue. Or download it via the Wii's Virtual Console. Or something... but this might be an option too.

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