Sonic the Hedgehog and Ristar actually began life as basically the same game. When Sonic Team began developing the game that would become Sonic the Hedgehog, they initially envisioned the character having the ability to reach out and grab things as part of the game's core game play. But as the speed element began to take shape, the character was soon transformed into a hedgehog and the grabbing ability was soon dropped. It wouldn't be until 4 years later that Sonic team would pick up where they left off with this game play concept and the character we know as Ristar would be born. But instead of the blazing fast and more streamlined type of game play featured in the Sonic titles, Ristar takes on a more deliberate and unique play control style that makes it a completely different, but equally enjoyable game play experience.
While Ristar features the traditional run and jump game play moves commonly found in most platformers, it's his ability to grab on to things that gives the game its unique twist. Ristar can reach out with his arms in any of 8 different directions. This allows him not only the ability to deal with the game's many enemies, but also to navigate through some of the challenging levels in the game. Since Ristar's jump isn't very high, you must learn to make use of his grab move in order to latch onto ledges and other things within reach in order to progress through the game's many levels. You can even use Ristar's grab move to latch onto enemies and bash them into oblivion. You'll soon find that there's an almost endless number of ways to make use of this unique game play move and the game will challenge you to come up with more unique ways to use it every step of the way.
The play control in Ristar is a bit slow-paced in design, but that's more due to the game's unique level designs and forcing the player to come to grips with the game's unique style of game play. The control itself is quite responsive and even making use of the grab move will soon become second nature to anyone that spends a significant amount of time with the game. The game even features quite a few puzzle elements to add even more challenge to the levels and the boss fights you'll endure at the end of each planet are extremely well designed and implemented. It's clear from the moment you begin playing the game that Sonic Team wanted to take a radically different approach to the design with this game and it really paid off in the finished product.
Ristar is easily one of the best visual performances available on the Mega Drive console. The backgrounds in each level are lush and vibrant, showing the type of depth and detail you'd normally associate more with a 32-bit platformer than a mere 16-bit title. The game also features several layers of parallax scrolling that add even more depth and visual appeal to the package. But as impressive as these backdrops are, it's the animation in the game that tends to be the most eye-catching. Ristar himself features a huge number of animations ranging from his typical game play moves to his many facial and body expressions he makes during various situations throughout game. The bosses in the game are also quite impressive and show a lot of imagination for a platformer. It's nice to see a development team put in the extra time to create such a stunning visual presentation on the Mega Drive console.
The musical score in Ristar is every bit as unique as the game's play control system. You won't find a more bizarre set of musical tracks in a platformer, but oddly enough, they seem to fit the game like a glove. Even the sound effects are a bit zany, but with a presentation like this, you wouldn't expect anything less. Some of the musical pieces are a bit on the short side, so you will get to hear them repeated quite often, but it's certainly not done often enough to become grating in any way. In truth, you'll normally be so engrossed in the game's many levels that you'll find little time to notice the actual music playing around you anyway.
Ristar proves that taking a radical approach to play control in a platformer can sometimes really pay off in the end. Not only did Sonic Team create a game that easily differentiates itself from their Sonic the Hedgehog series, they've also come up with some of the most unique game play ideas to come out of the 16-bit era and a game that's every bit as much fun to play today as it was almost 15 years ago when it was first released. If you can get past the fact that this isn't a Sonic title and enjoy it for what it is, you're likely to experience one of the truly unique platforming titles to come out of the 16-bit era, or any era in gaming for that matter.