Although I’ve long been aware of Space Harrier, playing through the Master System version provided my first hands-on impressions of it, for better or worse. Originally released by Sega as an arcade game in late 1985, it was one of the first games designed by the now legendary Yu Suzuki. The following years saw a multitude of ports to popular home computers but it wasn’t until the 1987 Master System port that one of them had the distinction of being handled internally at Sega, helmed in part by the similarly iconic Yuji Naka. The resulting version faithfully adapted the fast-paced shoot ‘em up gameplay, vibrant stages, and varied enemies of the original release, despite the technically inferior Master System hardware that could’ve been a devastating drag on quality.
From the outset, I was taken aback by how good this version looked. The Master System played host to numerous first-party arcade ports, which makes sense considering Sega’s prolific arcade output during this period and the strict third-party policies Nintendo employed at the time. A significant portion of my collection falls directly into this category and the quality has been mixed. Thus far, the more visually taxing ports I’ve played like After Burner and Thunder Blade have been, at best underwhelming, at worst laughable. The former featured unimpressive visuals that waived any pretentions of a third dimension while the latter’s pseudo-3D stages were devoid of detail and suffered from an atrocious framerate. All three originated on similar arcade hardware, but Space Harrier was the most successful at portraying pseudo-3D visuals on the Master System.
Enemies and obstacles were represented by detailed sprites that grew larger as they approached my avatar, giving the impression of sprite-scaling. Their progression towards me was undoubtedly stilted but the speed of their movement and the responsiveness of my character portrayed a fluidity that was lacking in Thunder Blade, which felt more like a stop animation flipbook. The way enemies and obstacles were rendered, seemingly jumping forward one space at a time on the z-axis, required adjustment when attacking. Firing upon enemies that just appeared on screen would result in a delayed effect, as both the enemy and my shot creeped towards each other. Nearness did away with this effect however, and when I was right up on a hindrance, I could destroy or evade it with swiftness. Landing shots on far-off enemies was strategically beneficial but excelling at the fast-paced, close-proximity action was more vital to my success.
The visuals were impressive from a technical standpoint, considering the hardware, but also from a creative standpoint. Stages and enemies were vibrantly depicted using a wide color palette that changed often. Yu Suzuki was reportedly inspired by the artwork of Roger Dean, best known for the album covers he produced for progressive rock bands Yes and Asia, which routinely featured unusual settings and fantastical inhabitants. This influence was apparent in every stage, each a multicolored wonderland, filled with a variety of inventive enemy designs and structures. One-eyed wooly mammoths, futuristic mecha, and airborne serpents were just a few of the diverse enemies that populated the game’s eighteen stages. As I progressed deeper into Fantasy Zone, the game’s setting, I was confronted with faster gameplay and massive bosses.
With each stage’s layout and enemy composition being so varied, it may be surprising to hear that my general strategy wasn’t. For the most part, I was able to succeed by hammering on the fire button and moving around in large circular patterns. Although enemy designs differed from one to the next, the vast majority were destroyed simplistically. Even bosses, who were enormous and initially daunting, were easily dealt with; in fact, they offered a brief respite from the grueling lead up. By haphazardly attacking, my odds of striking a distant foe increased, allowing me to focus on more immediate threats such as incoming structures and enemy attacks. A few stages in particular, made up of densely populated structures, forced me to improve my evasion skills by weaving in and out of danger at a breakneck pace. In the latter stages, losing a few lives, or continues seemed inevitable.
Through a combination of repetition and cheat codes I was able to gradually improve to the point of being able to regularly reach the final stage. For the better portion of a week, I relied upon a cheat code that granted nine continues before learning of one that offered unlimited continues. This is what ultimately aided in my completion although the hours I put into this game underscored the importance of familiarity and practice with this style of game. At times, it was maddening to get so far only to run out of continues in the final stage. I grew increasingly bitter and I know this hurt my performance. Instead, I should’ve looked at those failed half-hour attempts as learning experiences of what not to do in specific encounters.
After all the time I put into it, the mixture of enjoyment, frustration, and satisfaction, I’d conclude that it was most definitely a good thing to have played this version of Space Harrier. Judging it from two distinct perspectives, as a game based on its own merits and as an adaptation of another, I feel it was tremendously successful and unquestionably worth my time. It was an eye-catching game that looked good technically and artistically, with vibrant and varied designs that kept the game fresh through its conclusion. While the shoot ‘em up gameplay lacked much depth, it was nonetheless enjoyable due to the fast-paced action and responsive controls. Now my only question is how much better can the original version be?