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SEGA Versus: Space Harrier [Part One]

We all remember the classic arcade title, Space Harrier. Released in Japan during October 1985, this fast paced third person shooter blew gamers away with polished graphics and addictive gameplay.

The hardware was a technical feat in itself as it was one of the first sit-down cabinets on the market. Players park their behinds on a built in seat that leans and rotates along with the cabinet when the joystick is moved, giving a sense of flying that just could not be emulated by any other arcade hardware. There was nothing like it and it’s a perfect example of how the developers at SEGA were ahead of the times; the pioneers of arcade gaming, so to speak. It makes sense that the man behind this genius was none other than Yu Suzuki, not only one of the most recognisable names in SEGA history but perhaps in the games industry as a whole.

Yu Suzuki
Space Harrier was the third title produced and directed by one of the most iconic members of SEGA, Yu Suzuki.

Now better known for his work on popular SEGA franchises OutRunVirtua Fighter and Shenmue, Space Harrier was the third documented title produced by one of SEGA’s greatest developers. Suzuki has built up an incredible portfolio of titles over the years working on games for arcades, home consoles and even mobile phones. Space Harrier is no doubt one of the man’s finest pieces of work and the original arcade game was impressive for its time. With its pseudo-3D visuals and a look that is just over-flowing with colour, it’s a perfect example of how SEGA dominated the arcades throughout the mid-to-late eighties and Yu Suzuki was a key asset in making that happen.

So, let’s talk about the game itself. The premise is simple, which is exactly what you want in an arcade title. This one in particular sees the warrior Harri, one of the last sentinels of the surreal Dragonland attempt to protect his world from the evil demon Absymbel. As Absymbel’s terrifying forces attack the planet, Harri is forced to take to arms and stop the threat no matter the cost.

On his way into battle Harri happens upon a jetpack allowing him to fly through the air, one of the key gameplay mechanics of Space Harrier. This freedom of flying around the screen created a familiar feeling for fans of scrolling space shooter games such as Gradius, but the new camera perspective and scrolling 3D environment gave an experience like never before. This could only be achieved with a special system board, which was appropriately named the SEGA Space Harrier Board. At the time of release this was one of the most powerful gaming motherboards in the world (and it certainly shows!) It was later re-used for titles such as Enduro Racer and Hang-On.

Space Harrier - Arcade [1985]
The original arcade title was ahead of its time and is no doubt one of SEGA AM2 teams finest works.

The visuals for each stage varied greatly and the power of the new board also allowed for digital voice sampling, an uncommon addition to video games of the era. Upon starting the game, players are greeted with the iconic line “Welcome to the Fantasy Zone. Get ready!” If players are unfortunate enough to meet their demise, Harri lets out a harrowing scream of pain while falling to the ground, but not before getting back up on his feet again if extra lives are present.

It is safe to say that the arcade game was an instant hit and it helped spawn a tonne of other third person shooter titles and more specifically, games that made use of sit-down and moving arcade cabinets. Of course, towards the late eighties the home console market began to grow. SEGA saw this as a good opportunity to bring the unique gameplay of Space Harrier into the home and man, did they milk it.

Join us now as we take a look at some of the twenty plus home console ports of the action arcade title. It’s going to be such a roller-coaster ride of highs and lows that you will feel like you’re sat in the arcade cabinet itself!

SEGA VS - Space Harrier - 1985 Banner

While SEGA themselves handled the Master System, SEGA 32X and Game Gear ports of Space Harrier, many if not all other versions of the game released during this era were outsourced to different companies. This is where Elite Systems Ltd and Dempa Shimbunsha come in. Elite Systems held the home computer rights to the title in Europe, while Dempa held similar rights in Japan. Both companies worked on porting SEGA games over to many systems in the late eighties and early nineties, with Dempa working on such other well known franchises such as Afterburner and Fantasy Zone.

Space Harrier - Commodore 64 [1986]
The C64 version of Space Harrier looks, sounds and plays great. Impressive when you consider it was developed by only one guy!

Just as it happens, Elite Systems helped produce our first port of Space Harrier and it was released way back in 1986. Published by SEGA and developed by one Chris Butler, the Commodore 64 version of the well loved arcade title brought the frenzied gameplay into the living room. Butler is no doubt an unseen hero of the C64 era, working on top priority ports of arcade titles such as Commando and Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins. The time in which Butler had to create these games was incredibly short and no doubt he encountered many sleepless nights, with him working as every member you would expect to see on a development team. From creating the graphics to writing the code, Butler did it all and you can see from the fruits of his labour that he is a very determined individual.

Keeping in mind the limitations of the hardware and the short time frame Butler was given to complete this project, the results are impressive. The C64’s joystick is a favourable method of controlling our hero and while the graphics are not as awe inspiring as in some of the other ports, the amount of different stage backgrounds, colour palettes and sprites included are more than you would expect from a title released in 1986. The music is also no doubt one of the games highlights, with Butler himself expressing his love for music programming in several magazine publications of the time. The familiar Space Harrier tune can be heard throughout and even today it sounds fantastic running on the out-dated C64 sound chip.

This port is well worth a play, especially if you are appreciative of the C64 hardware.

Space Harrier - Master System [1986]
The Master System port of Space Harrier is one of the finest and also one of the first video games I ever played.

While Butler sure gave them a run for their money, SEGA stepped up to the challenge later that same year and released their own port for the Master System. At the time, SEGA was well known for their high quality home console ports of arcade titles and this version of Space Harrier was no exception. Developed by the AM4 division of SEGA, this is no doubt one of the best SEGA titles on 8-bit hardware. The game featured new graphics that were rich in colour, updated stages and of course, the memorable soundtrack that arcade gamers had come to know and love.

The sprites are large and well detailed for a Master System title and the pseudo-3D scrolling effect seen in the arcade version is emulated perfectly on the 8-bit hardware. The difficulty is high just like the arcade version and local leader-boards help give the game a fair amount of replay value. This version does have some issues with the controls, as at times Harri feels as if he is moving sluggishly. While the d-pad is perhaps not an ideal substitute for the originals arcade stick, the bright blue (and sometimes green) skies of Dragonland will encourage players to perceiver, if only to see how barmy the design of the next end of stage boss is.

This version gets a definite yes from us, go play it!

 

So far, I think it is agreeable that we have gotten off to a good start. That’s two ports in a row that have stood the test of time and have also lived up to the arcade original. There was however another port released during 1986, one that is better left forgotten. Developed and published by Elite Systems, the ZX Spectrum version of Space Harrier is next on the list and by Jove, is it ugly. It is clear that the hardware was simply not capable of emulating such tricky graphics, which is unfortunate since the game runs at a reputable speed.

Space Harrier - ZX Spectrum [1986]
This can be seen as quite impressive considering the hardware limitations, but after ten minutes or so of staring at this mess, you will wish they hadn’t bothered.

While it is a technical marvel that the pseudo-3D scrolling effect of the environment was somehow emulated on the ZX Spectrum, the graphics themselves are a mess. It is at times impossible to differentiate the enemy sprites from the background and the only hope players will have at surviving is to dart around the screen and spam the fire button. Speaking of which, the game contains no background audio and the sound effects for the gun fire can only be explained as a sort of hellish sound heard only from the bowels of a very sick individual with a bad case of the squirts. Still, we cannot be too harsh since as with the C64 version, this title was developed by only one staff member at Elite Systems. As many games of the era were, this was most likely worked on from home.

The game screen, as you can see in the above screen shot, proudly announces that the man behind the madness goes by the name “Keith.” That would be Keith Burkhill, one of Elite’s main developers on the ZX Spectrum hardware. Similar to Chris Butler, Burkhill also worked on porting across home console versions of Commando and Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins. We can only hope the sound effects weren’t also home made, a by-product of Burkhill’s long hours spent sat in front of his monitor eating junk food. We think this one is best avoided unless you are a hardcore ZX Spectrum nut. Sorry Keith.

SEGA VS - Space Harrier - 1987 Banner

Moving swiftly on, let’s now focus our attention to 1987. A further three ports of Space Harrier were released during this year, starting with an Amstrad CPC version developed by Elite Systems.

If you haven’t heard of the hardware before, CPC stands for Colour Personal Computer. It is exactly what it says on the tin, an early PC developed by the British electronics company, Amstrad. While it did not really take off in Japan and America, the Amstrad computers of the nineteen-eighties were relatively popular in parts of Europe, including its home turf, the United Kingdom. Six models were released in total and the system unfortunately began to decline in sales towards the end of the eighties, leading the hardware to be discontinued in 1990. The CPC itself isn’t too difficult to find these days and cassette versions of the games are still available to buy on eBay.

Space Harrier - Amstrad CPC [1987]
The CPC version used wire-frame images for the enemies. This actually worked quite well and helps make it stand out from the rest.

Anyway, back to the matter at hand. Thankfully, unlike their efforts on the ZX Spectrum, Elite’s Amstrad CPC port is not half bad. The music is chirpy and as with the Master System version, the game is full of colour. One downside would be the fact that enemies are rendered in-game as wire-frame shapes. This was due to the computers low amount of graphics memory, which meant only a very limited amount of sprites could be rendered on screen at once. This doesn’t really detract from the game too much and the only notable issue presented with this change is the fact that, despite their large size, the enemy bullets can become difficult to see in the later levels.

Despite this, sections of the environment are drawn quite nicely considering the limitations of the hardware and it actually helps make this version feel a little more unique. We would recommend giving this port a go.

 

Next on the agenda is the Sharp X68000 version. Published by Micomsoft and ported to the system by Japanese company Dempa Shimbunsha, this conversion is an absolute delight. For years, this was undeniably the perfect way of getting the arcade experience at home. At least, one that didn’t involve dragging the sit-down cabinet into your living room, that is. Unfortunately, as the Sharp X68000 system itself was absent outside of Japan, this port never made it across to the United States and Europe. This is a huge shame as the valiant efforts made by Dempa here meant that even today, many still do consider this the best home console version of Space Harrier.

Space Harrier - Sharp X68000 [1987]
Oh aye, this is the real deal all right. Dempa’s first home console port of the game was almost a pixel perfect conversion of the arcade original. Well done chaps.

The original systems powerful 10MHz CPU and impressive 1MB of RAM allowed for a near perfect port of the arcade version. Graphics, sound and content are more or less identical to that of the arcade version, which is an amazing feat for hardware released back in 1987. All eighteen stages are present along with the fast paced gameplay that made the original so addictive. Last but not least, the digital voice samples are also included and they sound crystal clear.

The X68000’s mouse-like input device made moving Harri around the screen incredibly easy, allowing for a level of pinpoint accuracy that just couldn’t be achieved on a traditional control pad. While there are much more convenient ways of playing the arcade original in the home today, if you lived in Japan back in the late eighties this was the only way to do it. Highly recommended and the best of the bunch.

Our final port released in the year 1987 was once again by Dempa Shimbunsha. This time the team set out to make a conversion for the NEC developed hardware, the PC-8801. Dubbed the PC-88, this home computer was first made available in Japan during 1981. The system proved popular in the east which eventually led the American subsidiary of NEC to release several variations of the PC-88 hardware in the west. Included on the system were many familiar titles, with even the likes of Mario Bros. and Silpheed crashing the party. Despite its strong third party support, the PC-88 system featured far less RAM and VRAM than that of the Sharp X68000 and it shows.

Space Harrier - PC-88 [1987]
Moot indeed. The PC-88 version of Space Harrier is not easy on the eyes. Surely things can’t get any worse than this… right?

The visuals were pretty shaky on the PC-88 and they varied greatly from game to game. When done right, the clever use of perspective and sprite art helped make titles such as Silpheed visually impressive. Unfortunately though, this isn’t the case for Space Harrier. It’s immediately apparent what players are in for as soon as your eyes have the displeasure of laying upon the game screen for the first time. Nothing but scan lines and giant flying squares litter the screen. Enemy sprites are very basic and bosses can only be described as animated pixel vomit. The visuals hinder the gameplay on such a level that if you do decide to give this game a try, maybe as a form of sadistic self torture, your best bet is to simply move side to side and continuously hammer the fire button.

One plus point we just have to mention is the music. Looking back on it, the PC-88 handled audio especially well and it was no doubt one of the strongest points of the system. Despite the disastrous visuals, the audio accompaniment to Space Harrier is a pleasure. It’s a shame the same cannot be said for the ear piecing sound effects though, as no doubt a screeching shrill will suddenly blast out of your television, sending any family pets you may have around you into a complete tizzy. Due to this, we advise that you think twice before cranking up the volume in an attempt to appreciate the catchy background track which is a crying shame.

We would still suggest checking out some other titles on the PC-8801 system as there are plenty of hidden gems, but for the sake of your own sanity, avoid Space Harrier.

SEGA VS - Space Harrier - 1988 Banner

This is it, the final year for part one of this very special SEGA Versus. If you thought things could not get any worse than the previous port, you would be gravely mistaken. Dempa Shimbunsha once again redefine the meaning of the word terrible with a version for the Sharp X1.  Funnily enough, this port of Space Harrier was released in 1988, the very year that the X1 system was discontinued. Co-incidence? We think not. This comes as absolutely no surprise to us given the quality of said product. It’s difficult to decide where to begin with this one…

Space Harrier - Sharp X1 [1988]
If it wasn’t vomit educing enough already, imagine playing this after coming home from a night out in Glasgow…

Keeping to tradition, the X1 version of Space Harrier has excellent music but visuals that appear to have been programmed by the dark Lord Satan himself. While it certainly is quite colourful, especially for an X1 game, the graphics are blocky and very unclear. Blurry graphics were not an uncommon occurrence on the X1, but Dempa must have tried stupendously hard to produce something on this whole new level of bad.

Aside from the headache enduing visuals, the frame rate is incredibly shocking at times. This is apparent as early as the first stage, in which the game can becomes difficult to control as soon as multiple enemies appear on screen, resulting in yet another case of “spray and pray.” Not to worry though, as you wont be able to see what is going on regardless. Sound is good though and that is one thing that the X1 version has over its competitor, the PC-88 conversion. While the music was not half bad on the PC-88 either, the sound effects were a load of guff. Fortunately, there is a definite improvement on that front with the X1 version and the results are decent.

The visuals and the frame rate of this version are so painfully low quality that we just could not even imagine recommending this to anyone. Steer well clear of this one.

Space Harrier - Amiga [1988]
It’s always nice to end on a high note. Just look at it. The visuals are crisp, the animation is fluid and it plays like a dream.

Last but by no means least is a version of the game developed for the Amiga by our familiar friends at Elite Systems. The Amiga was a family of home computers sold by Commadore during the eighties and early nineties. They were known as high end computers with some of the later released top of the range models costing a pretty penny. The higher cost meant faster processor speeds than most other personal computers released during this time. In addition to this, the hardware could also be upgraded by the user. While it came at a price, this now all to familiar upgrade system allowed for better visuals and faster gameplay, which was great news for the more enthusiastic gamer.

Moving onto the game itself, not only is this version pretty but it also plays like a dream. Aside from the Japanese only X68000 version, this was the closest anyone in the United States was going to get to playing the arcade original in their living rooms. The gameplay is smooth, the graphics are colourful and the sprites are detailed. Elite managed to pull off some seriously impressive visuals considering the resources available to them. It is no doubt one of their finest works,

The only down side to all of this would be the audio. The sound effects for Harri’s plasma rifle become annoying very quickly and sadly an option to disable them is missing from the game. Background music also sounds a little dreary in places, which is disappointing as many Amiga titles had fantastic soundtracks. There is a type of charm to it though and the boss theme has been jazzed up a little, which is a nice little extra.

This is definitely one of the nicest looking ports and is a great alternative to the arcade version. If you can put up with the irritating sound effects then we would recommend giving this a go, if not for the gorgeous visuals alone.

 

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We have reached the end of our journey through the first part of this special Space Harrier edition of SEGA Versus.

So far our perilous ventures down memory lane have given us many fond memories, but I think it can be agreed upon that some of these ports are best left forgotten (we’re looking at you, Sharp X1 version.) Don’t forget to tune in next time for the second instalment in this two part article. We take a look at some of the later versions of this title, including an official release on the Nintendo Entertainment System! SEGA publishing on Nintendo? In the eighties?! It is surprising what Nintencando with Takara at the helm.

Lee Sparkes

Lee is a huge retro SEGA nerd and currently resides in bonnie Scotland. Starting out with a SEGA Master System, some of his favourite SEGA titles include Monster World IV, NiGHTS Into Dreams, OutRun 2, and of course, Sonic the Hedgehog. When he's not playing old SEGA games, he's probably sat watching Lupin III.

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