So, to compliment the scaling sprite shooter that ostensibly showcases what a power house their new console is, Sega releases… another scaling sprite shooter. I was not kidding when I mentioned that these were the salad days for Sega’s arcade division. The company made their fortune in this sort of game, to the degree that during this golden age Sega family crest was just eight spheres of varying size that vaguely resembled a dragon flying towards the viewer, wrapped around Alex Kidd’s winged cherubic form and standing guard over an endless cascade of 100 yen pieces. That being said, there are no two examples of Sega’s trademark cottage industry so disparate as Super Thunder Blade and Space Harrier II.
The difference can even be seen in the theme. The previous entry embraced the post-Rambo one man army trope that popular entertainment had all but permanently installed at the tail-end of the Reagan decade with open and impossibly janky arms. While the Space Harrier series fundamentally has the same gameplay mechanic at heart as the rest of Sega’s scaling sprite creations, it rejects the military trappings for a unique sense of design that is openly and aggressively weird. The original game’s attract screen had the hero just relaxing on the shoulders of one of the robot enemies while a cycloptic mammoth passively stared at the player, open daring him or her to part with their quarters. “Yeah, I know I’m weird,” the one eye seemed to say “but I’m just the title screen. If you want to see more, it’s only a quarter.” Space Harrier II has absolutely no issue with returning to the psychotropic well, and one has to look no further than the box art for proof. Super Thunder Blade had the helicopter and everything, but Space Harrier II is just sitting there for the same price, sporting the kinds of things Harlan Ellison might see after dropping acid at a museum. And the best part is, unlike so many Famicom covers, every single one of those nightmarish elements are represented in the game. Well, except maybe the Harrier’s curiously smooth Ken-like nether-regions. But what is entertainment without a good mystery.
So not only is it infinitely more interesting than the only other choice for a Mega Drive game in the October of 1988 (I am trying to find as many other ways as possible to refer to Super Thunder Blade because even typing it out and italicizing it properly is a turgid and vaguely painful bore) but Space Harrier II (which features a roman numeral that is both fun to type and absolutely pops off the screen italicized) also functions much more coherently as a game. There are thirteen separate stages, each utilizing the seizure friendly checkerboard pattern that keeps me from being able to play these games in a window bigger than a postage stamp in unique ways, and each featuring at least one new enemy or boss, from the jeweled sets of sentient armor on the box to the giant vampire tiger of stage five. Everything attacks in the same way (firing at the point on the screen where you once were) and you can only attack one way (firing at the point on the screen where the enemy roughly is) so it just becomes a matter of zipping around the various zones and genuinely enjoying the experience, scored to that ur-acid house that Sega was so enamored with at the time. And while the game is fast, the sparse and abstract scenery doesn’t require the game to run as fast as possible to keep things from looking hideous – you may even notice that some of these pictures almost look nice when taken out of motion.
The game is hard, sure, but in the old arcade sense of the word, where you savor every time you start the game. The fact that you can pick any of the first twelve zones (from the nightmarish and nauseatingly pulsing FELCOLD to charming HELLS PEAK) really adds to the variety and sense of discovery that are missing from so many games released in modern times to a demographic that was still in the process of being born around the time of Space Harrier II’s release. Naturally, the game doesn’t really show up on any compilations, though it is available on Nintendo’s Virtual Console service. Still, of all the games released during the Mega Drive’s infancy, it would be hard to do better than this.
NEXT TIME: Not a shooter, maybe!?