The ’90s were an interesting era for gaming. The incredible success of mascot-driven platformer Sonic the Hedgehog touched off an protracted and bitter turf war between Sega and Nintendo and their own mascot, Mario. And inspired by this success came many other mascot-driven platformers from other companies eager to try to find their own hit, or maybe even displace Mario and Sonic from the top of the heap. History was not kind to many of these mascots, however. But was Ristar among them?
Born of the minds behind the Sonic games, Ristar is a bit of a holdover from the original development ideas from Sonic. Originally, Yuji Naka intended for the main character to be a rabbit that would extend its ears to grab enemies. However, Sonic went a completely different direction, as is evidenced by history, but the ideas were never truly left behind. The character went through several iterations until we are left with Ristar, a shooting star which extends his arms to grab enemies and objects.
This mechanic leads to a much different feel from the Sonic games, very nearly a combination of Sonic’s design sensibilities with Bionic Commando’s traversal methods. And it makes for an absolutely spectacular game. While the Sonic titles were notable for the ability to either blast through stages or to take the time to explore, the slower pacing and stretch-and-grab mechanics allow for a tighter experience. It maintains some of the openness that was a hallmark of Genesis-era Sonic Team games, but it provided a nice balance between the rather open and meandering Sonic games and the tightly-designed Mario games.
That the game is a joy to behold is also a large part of its appeal. Holding to the Sonic design ethos, there are jungle stages, the always-necessary ice and fire stages, a water stage, and a technological area, among others. They are lavishly detailed, maximizing the Genesis’ limited color palette, and the sprite work and general art design is stellar (no pun intended). Even the soundtrack is well-composed, comprised of tracks that fit the areas in question, and always having a nice beat to them.
So if the game is that great, then why on Earth wasn’t there a sequel? Well, it might have something to do with being released only three months before the Saturn’s debut and the advent of a new hardware generation. The Genesis was very nearly dead, and much like other nearly-gone consoles, some of its best games came out at the end of its lifespan yet didn’t receive the marketing push or the public recognition they deserved. So rather than being a follow-up to Sonic and spinning off its own series, the game languished in obscurity. And it’s truly a shame. Sonic has had tremendous difficulty to this day making the transition to 3D, and one wonders if perhaps Ristar could have stood a better chance in the conversion process. As it is, we’re left with an excellent one-shot wonder that almost fools us into thinking that perhaps the mascot-platformer should have never died.
Article by Lee Hathcock
GameSpite Journal 12: Ristar