Sitting here in 2013, it's almost impossible to fully appreciate the kind of impact Space Harrier had when it hit arcades way back in 1985 — a year when many of today's active gamers weren't even alive. A showcase for Sega's "Super Scaler" technology and the company's skill at creating impressive hydraulically-driven arcade cabinets, it has gone down as one of the company's most beloved outings. Space Harrier's massive sit-down arcade unit is the stuff of video gaming legend, and those lucky enough to have experienced it first hand usually have nothing but happy memories to recount.
Like the vast majority of Sega's coin-op hits, the game was ported to domestic formats soon after release and continues to attract attention even today — hence the large amount of interest in 3D Space Harrier. Considered by developer M2 to be the definitive version of the game, it augments an arcade perfect replication of Yu Suzuki's coin-gobbling classic with 3D visuals, lending Space Harrier a thoroughly convincing feeling of depth. This isn't the first time this trick has been attempted — Space Harrier 3-D on the Sega Master System used the SegaScope 3-D Glasses to create a similar effect — but it's by far and away the most convincing.
For many veteran players, the coin-op version represented their first contact with true analogue control, something which is commonplace today but was a massive deal back in the mid '80s. The 3DS console's Circle Pad might not possess the same imposing heft as the arcade version's bulky flight stick, but it arguably provides the a greater degree of precision and comfort. Releasing the Circle Pad causes your character to snap back to the centre of the screen, which feels odd at first but soon becomes second nature. There's also the option to use the touch screen — firing is triggered automatically in this mode — but oddly your character doesn't move back to the middle of the display when you lift up the stylus. There are benefits and drawbacks to both interface choices, but the fact that we were perfectly comfortable using either indicates that players are sure to find at least one of them suitable.
3D Space Harrier also features a wealth of options, including the ability to dial down the difficulty level, give yourself more lives per continue and even invert the controls to suit your own personal taste — the latter being an essential choice if you're serious about using touch control. You can even enable a screen tilt effect which simulates the feeling of being inside the original arcade cabinet, along with accompanying sound effects — right down to the clicking noise made by the coin-op's flight stick trigger. To be honest, many of these settings are entirely superfluous additions, but dedicated fans will appreciate being able to tinker around to gain the experience they desire.
There are other features which are unique to this particular version of the game. You can save your progress at any point and reload at a later time, and completed stages can be replayed even after you've expended all of your continues. It's also possible to save a replay of your performance for posterity, and you can listen to the game's iconic soundtrack from the options screen.
In fact, the sheer volume of options on offer belies the simplicity of the game itself. 3D Space Harrier is unashamedly an arcade experience, and that means it was designed to entertain in short bursts. Much of its initial fame arose from its amazing, smoothly-scaling visuals and that legendary arcade cabinet; the actual gameplay itself is incredibly basic, with little variety or room for experimentation. Your character flies through the various levels which make up the Fantasy Zone and shoots his cannon at a weird and wonderful selection of enemy sprites; the game never really develops beyond that core mechanic.
While the enemy design is typical of the 1980s arcade scene — dragons rub shoulders with massive Japanese-style robots and modern-looking fighter jets — all you really do is fly, avoid incoming projectiles and try to take out as many opponents as possible. Parts of the environment are destructible, while others are solid and will cause you to lose a life should you be unwise enough to collide with them. There are moments of genuine tension when you're tasked with guiding your character through an obstacle-filled section, but in general the gameplay is as shallow as a puddle.
Despite this, Space Harrier still manages to entertain on a very basic level. The straightforward appeal of simply flying into the screen and shooting things might not make for impressive longevity, but on a portable platform — where short pick-up-and-play sessions are more likely — Sega's arcade outing feels strangely at home. It's ideal for killing a few minutes, and score-chasing players will find focus in trying to improve on their personal best.
Even the staunchest of Sega fans will admit that Space Harrier has never been the deepest of experiences, and this 3DS iteration does little to change that. However, the introduction of an impressive 3D effect — along with a striking selection of options — makes this an attractive purchase for anyone who has a soft spot for the series, or Sega titles in general. This is arguably the best conversion of Yu Suzuki's seminal smash-hit, and while the gameplay is a little on the basic side, 3D Space Harrier still manages to communicate the excitement and intensity which claimed so much spare change way back in 1985.