SEGA's forgotten mascot lives!
The Mega Drive is a "mainstream" console with a weird history. Released in Japan in 1988 as the world's first real 16-bit videogame console (NEC/Hudson's PC-Engine/TurboGrafx-16 had an 8-bit CPU and soundchip hidden behind a powerful 16-bit GPU), SEGA's machine had the power to conquer the realm of videogaming. But even with it's fast Motorola 68000 CPU and powerful Yamaha 2612 soundchip (the exact same hardware that powered the company's beloved SYSTEM-16 arcade hardware), the system fell flat in Japan, bottom-feeding on the sales charts under Nintendo's much older and weaker Famicom and NEC/Hudson's still-new and comparable offering. While the commercial failure of SEGA's previous Mark III/Master System holds a part of this bad start over it's shoulders, the lineup of games available at the Mega Drive's launch was... how can I put this... UTTERLY TERRIBLE, mostly composed of bad ports of some of the company's arcade games from the mid-to-late-80's and half-baked
"sequels" to them (I'm looking at you, Space Harrier II!).
On North American shores, the story was quite different. Maybe due to the lack of competition from the PC-Engine (still a nipponic novelty at the time), the now-re-branded SEGA Genesis' 1989 release was met with a furious marketing campaign (Remember kids, "SEGA does what Nitendon't!") and SQUEEEES from gamers all over the 'states due to it's (almost) arcade-quality graphics hardware. The 1990 European release was no different due to it's specs mostly matching the all-powerful Commodore Amiga's.
So after estabilishing it's domain (and subsidiaries) on Western shores, SEGA Of Japan had an idea. With the massive success of Nintendo's brand-new Super Famicom console and the looming release of it's international counterpart Super Nintendo Entertainment System, the company was facing hard times in the home console industry (but not in arcades, mind you). Knowing that their machine sold better outside of Japan than it did on it's homeland, Service Games decided to create a new mascot character. Pushing their previous superstars Alex Kidd, Opa-Opa, Space Harrier, Hang-On Motorcycle, After Burner Jet, OutRun Ferrari and Flicky aside (but not forgetting them, as they had new games starring or cameo-ing them produced later), SEGA came up with the crazy idea of having a single mascot that appealed both to the cuteness/funnyness-loving Japanese and the radness-seeking 90's American, so it could maintain it's dominance on international markets and captivate the hearts of
locals. Assembling a special team of developers and designers from Japan and recieving input from SEGA Of America, the developer sketched many characters and developed many concepts, the result of ~2 years of development being Sonic The Hedgehog. Needless to say, the game was a hit in America, sparking the greatest war of American history, a war between SEGA and Nintendo... But it didn't achieve such success in Japan. It seems SEGA's console line-up was doomed from the get-go...
But whatever happened to all the other possible designs for the lovable blue blur? While some top-secret documents regarding the matter leaked into the internet years
later, most of the information about Sonic's long development proccess is lost on SoJ's headquarters - and maybe in design-document heaven, if the Sonic 1 Prototype
case happened to other stuff too. But there is at least one early design for the lovable 'hog that was known publicly even before the internet bubble bursted, and this design is Feel. Originally conceived as a rabbit with a round body and red sneakers, the critter would use his extendable ears to grab, pull and crush objects and enemies in a game where high-flying acrobatic action was key. The controls were going to be pretty simple: One button makes Feel grab something, automatically
executing the next action (be it grabbing, pulling or crushing) and the two other buttons made the 16-bit lapine jump. Pretty basic, right? Well, not for SEGA. The
company wanted their game to have a control scheme where all of the Mega Drive's/Genesis' three joypad buttons had the same function, so instead of going the Bionic Commando route and nixing jumping from the game's mechanics, Naoto Ohshima and his crew scrapped the Feel concept entirely and began work on yet another character.
Fast-forward to 1995. After a rough start from 1988 to 1992, SEGA's 16-bit wonder finally hit it's stride on 1993, with developers mastering the console's powerful
hardware, thus showing that it was a suitable competitor to the SNES and even later-gen consoles. 1993 was the year of Shinobi III, Contra Hard Corps, Rocket Knight Adventures, Streets Of Rage 2, Phantasy Star IV, Gunstar Heroes... It was the 1998 of the Genesis! After a very busy year, things cooled down in 1994 and 1995. Konami and Treasure kept releasing a continous stream of gems, but SEGA went quiet, focusing on the development of their next console and preparing a big surprise scheduled for 1995. Little did the 90's know that this surprise was going to be Feel! Yup, the "Sonic Team" at the company's Japanese branch re-assembled and rescued the rabbit from the scrap pile so they could finally finish their original vision for the game.
Well... It didn't go as planned, as the character went from Feel The Rabbit to
Volt The Lighting Bolt during development, and finally hit shelves as Ristar The Shooting Star! But, as 32-bit consoles and polygonal games were gathering all the
attention of gamers and professionals of the time, Ristar sadly underperformed on sales and got few (shining) reviews.
After it's inclusion as an unlockable on Sonic Mega Collection (GC) on 2002 out of sheer love from Yuji Naka and it's obscure connections to Sonic, Ristar has been facing a burst in popularity, often cited as one of the best games of the Genesis, of the 16-bit era and even of gaming history! But a question remains unanswered if you still didn't play this masterpiece: Does it deserve such reputation? The answer is - plain and simple - yes, it does.
GAMEPLAY AND DIFFICULTY: 10/10; 8/10
Since Ristar is now a little star-shaped alien and not a long-eared bunny as he and Sonic once were, he uses his stretching arms as a method of offense - not by
punching, mind you, but by pulling himself near enemies and obstacles and headbutting them. (It's complexity is taken aback by the fast animation frames, thankfully.)
The cute little thing's extendable limbs also has other functions as you grab items, timber down trees and even wall-headbutt in a fashion similar to Mega Man X's wall-kicking (but with a more strict timing).
The "high-flying acrobatic action" concept from Feel thankfully wasn't scrapped. If you simply tap the "stretch" button (pre-mapped to button B in the standard
settings) and grab something, Ristar will instantly headbutt it, but if you hold it when grabbing certain objects and enemies, you'll hang from them and will be able
to control the shooting star's momentum and launch to the skies! You can do it with anything that is airbone, but you'll mostly do it with poles that appear around the
stages. There are three types of poles: standard round ones that will help you reach high areas, star-shaped ones that marks a levels's finishing line and will help
you net a big score bonus depending on the height of your jump and ones that will lead you to each stage's special zone - only one of these is present in each stage,
so you'll have to explore and hunt them down!
The game progresses in a similar fashion to the Genesis Sonic games, with seven different planets to explore, each broken down into two stages that share a similar
theme and arrangements of the same melody running in the background and with a big boss at the end. Unlike Sonic 2 and 3, however, exploration takes the front seat and you'll be rewarded by exploring/head-butting every nook and cranny for point bonuses and extra lives (a secret password actually reveals the locations/trigger spots of secret items). Each stage has it's own gimmick that messes with Ristar's grabbing abilities, like the puzzles to de-activate traps in Planet Scorch (World 3) and the icy walls of Planet Freon (World 5), that are cold to the touch and thus are impossible to wall-headbutt on.
The difficulty curve is very odd, with all of the levels being very easy while most bosses are though and require it's attack patterns to be memorized. The bonus
stages, required to learn the game's secret passwords, are maddening and only a well-trained player will be able to complete all twelve of them in a single run. But hey, you can find all of these passwords on GameFAQS and such, so you can skip them entirely.
One thing I have to nitpick, however, is that your score is completely insignificant, and I don't even know why SEGA put point bonuses in the game. But they're there,
and it's just a small little thing, so the gameplay still deserves a 10 out of 10.
Many mid-to-late era Genesis title are known to push the hardware's capabilities in fantastic ways (see: Konami's and Treasure's titles), but Ristar stands above them
all in a level of technical superiority. While the gameplay isn't as adrenaline-pumping as Contra Hard Corps' or Gunstar Heroes', this game's graphics only stands
below it's sound in levels of awesomeness. Backgrounds are big and detailed, with tons of animated scrolling layers and sprites receive the same attention. The most
remarkable graphic in the game is Ristar himself, the shooting star being incredibly well-animated and even having unique idle animations for each world. My favorite
is definetly Planet Freon's, in which the little alien makes a tiny snowman! There's also some pretty special effects applied in the strange worlds you visit, such as
the waving auroras in Freon or the screen-warping when Planet Sonata's (World 4) boss Awaueck attacks/sings.
But the shining aspect of this game's graphics is it's use of color and depth. The Genesis' graphics chip is severely lacking in power compared to the SNES' or PC-Engine's, with a limited pallete of 512 (64 on-screen) colors and only three layers of depth (one sprite layer and two background ones), while the SNES has an amazing
32,768 color list (256 on-screen) and six standard BG layers with appliable transparency effects plus MODE-7, that ran on a separate layer (strangely named "layer 0" in code). But with the intelligent use of programming tricks and the shortcomings of 90's CRT TVs, Sonic Team made Ristar one of the 16-bit era's most beautiful games, with levels whose colorful landscapes look amazing and surreal but surprisingly natural. It's a real work of art that shows how SEGA was (and still is, somewhat) utterly brilliant and, if played nowadays, brings nostalgia of the golden age of videogaming, when tons of developers everywhere were trying all kinds of crazy stuff and made sure their games had blue skies.
Ristar's music is probably the best part of the game and (in my opinion) the maximum apex of 16-bit soundtracks. Composed by the same woman who would later compose
NiGHTS Into Dreams' legendary OST (I can't remember her name, darn it!), the Genesis lost gem's compositions share the same "feeling" as the ones of the Saturn's
flagship title: Whismical, fantasious, dreamy and at the same time sweeping, epic and adrenaline-pumping. Although all tracks are amazing, my personal favorite is the
boss theme, "Crazy Kings!" (each track has it's own title on the options menu's "sound test" mode). The compositions themselves are fantastic and complex, but most
importantly they sound great, something rare among Genesis soundtracks.
(TECNHOBABBLE/VIDEOGAME HISTORY/PSA TIME!!!!)
But why it was so hard to produce good-sounding music on SEGA's 16-bit machine? Most people blame it on the console's soundchip, and this is partially right. The Yamaha 2612 was the second-to-latest chip the company produced (the last and most powerful being the oddly-named 2010, used in Taito arcade games such as the amazing Metal Black, which I plan to review soon) based on their mid-to-late 80's professional synthetizers. It could produce up to four channels of FM synth and a single PCM
channel, which enabled sampling and voice synthesis. It was a pretty simple architeture except for the fact that FM was a proprietary and hard-to-master technology, but Service Games buffed it up by adding a Texas Instruments SN76489 PSG (Programmable Sound Generator) chip and Zilog Z80 proccessor to enable backwards compatibility with Mark III/Master System cartridges, but even with all this hard work the Power Base Converter accessory was also neccessary to achieve such funcionality. The thing is, the TI chip and Z80 were directly connected to the standard 68000 and YM2612, leaving developers free to use them as they wished in Genesis games, with the 76489
adding PSG channels to the already potent YM2612 and the Z80 being a sound proccessor whose use was completely optional. This made making music for the console a tough task, so many composers just slapped up some tunes that sounded like farts and dying cats and put them in the game, thus giving the excellent soundchip a bad reputation. If mastered, the YM2612 could produce some of the best tunes in videogame history, and Ristar shows it.
STORY: 8/10 (US) 10/10 (JP)
Aside from SEGA's standard "make the games harder for America" routine, Ristar had it's graphics touched up and it's story changed when brought to Western shores, and I definetly think that the japanese storyline is superior.
In the American storyline (detailed on the intro), Ristar's father, a legendary hero, got captured by intergalatic conqueror Greedy's forces and the whole (unnamed) solar system was thrown in utter chaos. The elder of planet Flora prays for help, and it is answered by the hero's own son - Ristar!
The Japanese plot (detailed only in the manual; the intro text was added in international versions) tells the story of the Valdi solar system, an once-peaceful part of the universe now being terrorized by the evil space pirate Kaiser Greedy. He sent his nefarious Shadow Orbs to possess the fauna and flora of all of the solar system's planets, controlling everything through his Sky Fortress stationed in Valdi's center while planet Automaton acts as his R&D department and factory under the
supervision of his top scientist, Inonis. Panicked, the leader of a small religious cult in Planet Flora prays to his goddess, Oruto, to help him, as a last hope. The elder eventually falls into Greedy's control, but his prayers are answered and Oruto sends one of her "star childs" to save Valdi - Ristar, the Shooting Star!
As you can see, the japanese storyline is much clearer on it's details and feels more full, thus earning an extra point when comparing it to the US plot. The JP manual is also in full color and has quite a bit of backstory for the bosses, thus adding another extra point to have a result of 10/10.
Ristar is very expansive for a 16-bit platformer, with tons of levels (each one having multiple routes), crazy-hard bonus stages to find and beat and tons of little secrets to be found everywhere, thus accumulating tons of replay value. The memorable stages and music also motivate you to play again and again, just to bask on the lush landscapes and mystical music.
For the hardcore player, Ristar also offers optional gameplay modes through passwords. Boss Rush (MUSEUM) does exactly what it says on the tin and Super difficulty (SUPER) challenges players to beat the game with a single health point and no extra lives, but with endless continues. What's even crazier is that you can actually combine these modes, if you want to.
Ristar competes with NiGHTS to the position of Sonic Team's biggest masterpiece, but it's undoubtly the best, most beautiful platformer on the Genesis. It has absurd levels of (good) 90's charm, polished gameplay and one of the best presentations in videogame history.
If only the original plans for the character went as expected and Ristar/Feel became SEGA's mascot...