While working recently on One Coin One Play, my self-proclaimed greatest compilation of arcade music ever, I (of course) recorded the music from Sega’s classic arcade hit, Space Harrier. Since the game’s built-in sound test omitted some of the tracks, I had to re-play the game in order to get some of that tasty music. In so doing, I was reminded of what makes a great game and why, among so many other games that do not hold up as one would hope, Space Harrier stands that all-important test of time. If you do not agree, read on and be persuaded. If you are already a Space Harrier convert, by all means reaffirm your faith below!
A legendary game usually has to have impressive graphics or sound, at least for the time when it comes out, and Space Harrier totally did. The game came out in 1985, which in case you didn’t notice, is a long time ago. The state of graphics in games was pretty much what you would see in staples such as Gauntlet, Commando or Rush n’ Attack. Indeed, Sega’s own offerings from that year include Fantasy Zone, which was stylized but not exactly mind-blowing. Onto the field came Space Harrier, sporting simulated super-fast 3D graphics (achieved through scaling sprites, not actual 3D rendering) and dazzling colors set in a imaginative world where every stage has a different look and feel, with enemies ranging from mammoths and floating puffballs to giant polyhedral dice, robots and multiheaded dragons. Space Harrier was, and in many ways still is, graphically mind-blowing. The soundtrack is nothing to sneeze at either, with a 4+ minute main theme (unusually long for its time) and individual music for each boss.
Space Harrier was also tough. Of its 18 levels, only the first one or two were gimmes. After that, you’re in for it. As mentioned before, the game moves fast. That’s great for impressive graphics, but it also makes for a hard experience. Enemies (including indestructible ones) zip toward you at blazing speed and projectiles heading in your direction sometimes give you about a quarter of a second to react and move. In typical fashion for the time, it’s one-hit-and-you-die. With just three lives, it’s extremely likely you’ll need a lot of play before you master the game.
Space Harrier also introduced or heavily reinforced gameplay conventions. On your journey you’ll travel through icy lands, deserts and a futuristic world complete with a floating city-thing. In fact, all Space Harrier is missing is a fire/volcano stage in order to run the gamut of what would now be considered stereotypical–except that they weren’t tired and played out then. Its bosses, while all relying upon hitting you with things in order to kill you, otherwise display variety and set up the archetypes for many bosses to come in future games. Also–and this seems to be impossible to verify–but it appears that Space Harrier is the first game to feature a rush succession of bosses faced in prior stages.
In short, if you have never experienced the wild thrill of Space Harrier and are a fan of any sort of fast-paced gaming, you should play it. Emulation through MAME is a possibility (and allows for cheating if you’re down with that), but nothing beats taking on the game with an actual arcade screen. You might be able to find a Ground Kontrol-esque location in your area (although even they don’t currently have it.) One way or another, give this a try and I bet you’ll agree that after 25 years, it still has what it takes.