It’s 1998. The Saturn, my beloved NiGHTS-playing machine, is undeniably on its last legs here in the UK but with the trusty Sega Saturn Magazine as my guide and the likes of Panzer Dragoon Zwei and Street Fighter Alpha 2 to play I didn't care so long as there was something to look forward to. Sonic Team could do no wrong, and their final Saturn title merged their flair for character design with an unexpected premise: futuristic firefighting.
The game has two main playable characters, Shou and Tillis, with the rest of the team available to play through the use of special passwords given out by certain survivors once the main game’s been cleared. There are three main missions to play and while that doesn't seem like much at first glance the game benefits from a randomised layout system much like their later Dreamcast classic Phantasy Star Online, meaning that while key rooms and events always play out in the same way, survivors will more than likely be another person entirely (if they're even there at all) and doors may be locked, forcing players to take alternative routes.
But it’s not just about leaping through flames and navigating collapsing walkways to rescue school children and space station workers (Sonic Team members too, if you're lucky) – there’s the tricky business of putting out fires to consider as well.
In the future this is apparently done by shooting at fires with the Burning Rangers’ sort-of-water-pistols-but-not equipment – a handgun for Shou and a wrist mounted shot for Tillis. Normal shots take longer to put out fires, but when doused they release crystals which are needed to safely transport survivors away from the disaster zone. Charge shots are great for taking out the automated robots that wander around and larger fires quickly, but these blasts always shatter nearby crystals as well as any that would have been released from the fire. These crystals also work exactly like Sonic’s rings, keeping characters safe from harm so long as they have at least one in their possession and scattering if they get hit.
Luckily fires in Burning Rangers are all colour coded, so even in the tightest spots when hazardous barrels are on the verge of exploding and the pressure’s just peaked and unleashed jets of flames through the floor, it’s still easy to tell at a glance which fires need to be prioritised. Red fires are the most common, green are the really dangerous ones as they spit flames in the player's direction, and blue flames don't do much but they do take more shots to subdue. This ease of understanding — coupled with the game’s constantly shifting surroundings and unpredictable behaviour — makes for a pitch-perfect balance of stress and skill. The rules are simple and consistent, and give players who take the time to learn them an edge — while the distinctive locations with their shifting layouts keep even experienced players on their toes.
But there is a problem with Sonic Team’s unique and ambitious approach to firefighting - they pushed the Saturn to the limit with dynamic environments, fancy coloured light sources and transparencies (all of which were a big deal at the time) and the hardware really can't cope with the strain, meaning floors and walls frequently flicker in and out of existence, transparencies are often visible in front of objects that they should be hidden behind and fires sometimes break out inside walls where the player can't reach them. It’s completely understandable how someone could look at the game almost sixteen years after its release and not see what all the fuss is about.
Which leads us to the point of this feature; Burning Rangers deserves another shot on more powerful hardware so that it can live up to its original potential. Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed gave us a tantalising glimpse of what a next-gen Burning Rangers could look like and it was fantastic – any chance of treating us to the rest of the game, Sega?