Review: Space Harrier (VC Arcade)

An interesting slice of gaming history for fans of early 3D games.

Space Harrier is notable for being one of the first arcade games to use a motorised cabinet in its sit-down version, and in the realms of sprite-based third-person 3D shooters it's certainly at the more advanced end of the scale. It was highly popular back when it was released in the mid-80s - a fact borne out by the numerous ports it's had across several game consoles - but has it stood the test of time?

According to the Operation Guide for the Virtual Console Arcade version of the game you are the Space Harrier; your mission in the Fantasy Zone is to fight the baddies who are endangering the dragons who live there - basically you need to shoot everything in sight, as usual! The Space Harrier himself is a blond kid holding a giant rocket with a laser cannon attached to it, who can either run along the ground or fly up in the air. Zipping through the Fantasy Zone you'll see much shrubbery and giant trees, giant stone heads and pillars, dragons with one or two heads, enormous mushrooms, various mechanical enemies like ships and mechas or flying tentacled balls, winged goggle-eyed monsters and cyclopean mammoths. All of these things are very colourful and presented in an aspect ratio that will nearly fill a widescreen display with only small black borders around the screen. The game also makes use of surround sound and has a decent electro soundtrack which was released as part of a CD collection in Japan soon after release in the arcades.

The game is presented in what is technically 3rd person, since you control a character, however in terms of how the game is played you could substitute a set of crosshairs for the Space Harrier and you wouldn't know the difference. Scenery is largely destructible, though as you progress through the game you'll go through areas with large amounts of things you cannot destroy, becoming more like obstacle courses with a rather unfair difficulty curve since scenery pop-ups much closer on the horizon than enemies. Firing and moving constantly are required if you're to survive for long in the game, though you're assisted by partially guided shots which move into enemies as they get closer. Rapid movement isn't helped by oversensitive analogue controls which also automatically place the character in the centre of the screen when the stick is released. Interestingly the default option if using the nunchuk is called Arcade Mode, which uses the nunchuck itself as the movement control. Although tilting your nunchuk to simulate an analogue flight stick sounds a bit strange, it's actually a more precise control method than using the control stick on the nunchuk or the left analogue thumbstick on the Classic Controller. Using the default sensitivity on the motion controls makes the character shudder about as if he were having spasms, so this probably isn't a great control scheme for people who like more stability in their game visuals.

The most stable control method is probably the D-pad on the Wii remote or Classic Controller, which not only provides more precise control over character movement, but also benefits from not wanting to put the character back in the centre of the screen all the time. The remote on its own doesn't work too well because the analogue input is still required for signing your name up on the high score table, so without the nunchuk the character select just continually scrolls through the letters at high speed. As a result the Classic Controller ends up being the best controller for the game.

The lack of precision in the analogue control was probably a design decision to encourage feeding coins into the game to see what's next, as there are many easy deaths to be had from hitting the indestructible objects that can pop-up with little warning. You can not only continue a game, but then buy dozens of additional lives by continuing to insert coins whilst the game is playing. On a home console this tends to remove much of the challenge of the game; even more so as your score remains unchanged regardless of how many dozens of lives you buy or times you continue. The cheap deaths are rendered moot at home and make a game that was challenging and technically impressive in the arcade into something of a repetitive chore, as you'll start seeing the same enemies repeated by the time you reach stage 10 or 11 and begin wondering if the game will ever end.

Conclusion

In its day, Space Harrier was a technical marvel; it's easy to see how playing this game in a giant moving cabinet could have been quite an experience when it was first released. It certainly created a spectacle with its vibrant 3D graphics and active soundtrack, but without adapting the difficulty for home console use you're left with a game than can be fun to play once in a while, but is only likely to provide long-term entertainment for people who were big fans when it was in the arcades.

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