GameSpite Journal 12 is a print-on-demand book and will never run out of stock, but today is the last day to take advantage of the coupon code WONDERFUL (which nets you 15% off through August 31 on our Blurb store). Viva thriftiness!
Rail shooters where you control an avatar tend to get the short end of the stick. Straight-up light gun games, where you are the screen and merely have to aim and shoot, see much greater popularity thanks to the simplicity of their design. On-screen avatars add an extra dimension of complexity to the game, forcing you to not only aim your gun, but move your character out of the way of danger as well. One of the only games in this mold to gain any kind of popularity is Star Fox, which features a fighter moving along a pre-determined path at a methodical pace as you shoot at enemies along the way. This same steady pace may be exactly what drew people to this type of game, but Space Harrier, one of the first examples of this type of game, made no such concessions, instead challenging players with sheer speed.
On paper, the gameplay is the same. You are propelled forward as you shoot down enemies and avoid obstacles while occasionally running into a boss you have to kill. You could move anywhere along the screen by either running or flying (an odd thing given your character is just a dude with a big gun) as you shot enemies with your only gun. Some enemies can only be hit at certain points, while others prove too durable to dispatch. That’s all there is to the game, though the simple mechanics allowed the developers to throw some crazy levels at you featuring some truly surreal landscapes.
But the speed at which the world moves immediately gets your blood pumping. Once you get through a couple of levels, it becomes clear that the real challenge of the game is avoiding the obstacles that whip past you while simultaneously avoiding enemy fire. In Star Fox, you had a good ten seconds to move out of the way of an approaching object, but in Space Harrier, you might have a little under one. The game required lightning reflexes, so your avatar can move quickly to match. The introduction of pseudo-3D effects reinforced this sense of speed, especially when a checkerboard ceiling appeared and flew by. It’s easy to take for granted because it’s often a necessary component of a rail shooter, but Space Harrier truly seemed to be built around speed and how people react to it.
Of course, Space Harrier is an arcade game. It’s supposed to go by in a flash with brutalizing difficulty. Future games like Star Fox had no need to challenge people with arcade difficulty because they were free to go a different route on consoles. But the blinding speed of Space Harrier, along with its similarly nimble brethren After Burner and Hang-On, is exactly why so many people still regard Sega arcade games in such a reverent fashion. Their talent for building impressive games around single characteristics cannot be overstated.
Article by Jeremy Signor
GameSpite Journal 12: Space Harrier