We’ll spare you the usual spiel about how the Sega Ages series is offering definitive versions of Sega classics on the Switch: given we’re approaching the 10th release in the series, you probably get the idea by now.
Game number 9 is Space Harrier, Sega’s 1985 coin-op that blew arcade-goers away back in the day with its impressive 3D-style graphics. While this Switch port is an impressive rendition and even adds some extra goodness to make the game more approachable, it’s still worth bearing in mind that it’s Space Harrier.
For those new to it, the game puts you in the garish red suit and jetpack of the nameless Harrier as you make your way through the ‘Fantasy Zone’, which consists of 18 colourful stages filled with enemies and obstacles all seemingly out to knock you out of the sky and firmly onto your bright red rump. Luckily, you’re armed with a laser cannon that can fire big chunky blobs of death, helping you settle the score somewhat.
Designed using the same sprite scaling technique previously used in motorbike racer Hang-On (and later used again in Out Run), Space Harrier’s pseudo-3D appearance remains striking to this day, especially when it’s running in true 60 frames per second like it did in arcades (and like it does here in the Switch port). The feeling of depth is still brilliant 34 years later, especially in the stages where a roof appears above you and essentially creates an enormous, seemingly endless tunnel.
That said, while it’s still an impressive visual technique it does crucially have a negative impact on how the game plays. Shooting enemies accurately can be extremely difficult given the game’s viewpoint: not only is it generally tricky to estimate where your bullets are going to go, but half the time the perspective means your character is right in the middle of the screen, blocking your view of both your enemies and your shots. There’s a lot of blind firing in a general direction and hoping for the best in Space Harrier, and that doesn’t always make for the most immersive experience.
The game’s speed can also be a bit of an issue, particularly in later stages. The levels zip by at a fair rate of knots, which can look fantastic but can also lead to some frustrating moments where bits of scenery appear without warning. This may be an on-rails shoot ‘em up, but an unhealthy number of deaths will come from you hitting into columns, trees and big stone heads rather than as a result of any actual combat you may encounter.
This shiny new Sega Ages version of Space Harrier includes two features designed to combat both these issues and make the game a little more approachable for players who haven’t spent the last three decades getting used to its various quirks. The first is the addition of a rapid fire button, which means your single laser shots are now a flurry of plasma death balls, making accuracy less of an issue. Whereas before shooting some enemies was an exercise in patience, now you just have to aim your fire in their general direction and waggle around a bit (a technical term) until one of your shots clips them.
More notable though is the new ‘KOMAINU Barrier Attack’ mode (Sega’s caps, not ours), which is designed to limit the number of times you die by hitting pieces of scenery. In Japan, Komainu are a pair of lion-like statues that you usually see guarding the entrances to Shinto shrines, and they’re supposed to ward off evil spirits. Since there are no evil spirits in Space Harrier, though, in this instance they’re here to stop you smacking your jaw off a tree instead.
Start the game in KOMAINU Barrier Attack mode and your Harrier will be accompanied by two Komainu flying by your side. Any time you fly into a piece of scenery, your Komainu will take the brunt of the hit instead, saving your life. We aren’t talking complete invulnerability here: your Komainu will take a while to recover when it takes damage – meaning you’ll be on your own for a little while – and they’re also useless when it comes to enemy bullets so you’re still very much vulnerable to them.
By and large, though, playing the game with KOMAINU Barrier Attack mode turned on and using your autofire button should give you a much less frustrating, much more beginner-friendly way to play the game. What’s more, this mode also gives you infinite continues, meaning you can brute force your way to the ending should you so desire. For those of you Space Harrier purists doing infuriated headstands of rage at the way your beloved game is being nerfed due to something something snowflakes mumble grumble, fret not: you can still play in the normal mode as God intended (well, as Yu Suzuki did) and you’ll only get three continues to your name.
All this aside, it’s business as usual when it comes to the Sega Ages port. Once again, emulation is flawless and you’re once again given a decent (if limited) variety of scaling and screen filtering options. There are online high score rankings and the ability to save and upload a full replay of your performance to relive your best playthrough, or download those of other top-ranked players so you can see how it’s done. Fun fact: they all use autofire too, so stop moaning.
Ultimately though, it’s still Space Harrier at the end of the day and as visually impressive as Suzuki’s creation is – and even though its soundtrack is one of Sega’s greatest ever – it’s still a relatively repetitive shooter that’s light on variation. This isn’t the sort of game you’re going to regularly load up for a quick game like you would with Out Run or Sonic the Hedgehog, because as engaging as it is it’s still missing that ‘spark’ many other Sega games of its era have. A fantastic port, then, but one of a game that was only ever considered decent even back in the day.
It looks lovely, sounds superb and offers an interesting new assist for newcomers, but at its core Space Harrier is still Space Harrier and M2 is only able to do so much with it. This isn’t one of Sega’s masterpieces and therefore isn’t a must-have: it’ll have to settle for being merely ‘pretty good’ instead.