As fleeting as time may be and as swift as the passage of time may pass, Christmas 2013 marks a significant milestone here on the MegaBites blog – my 20th anniversary as a Mega Drive gamer.
The 25th of December 1993. It my first day in ownership of the Sega’s black-boxed bombshell – a day overloaded by pixels, platformers and gaming perfection. Such a shame that my little brother got carried away with the sweets and vomited down the cartridge slot. But let’s not dwell on that little saga.
As I pondered how I might celebrate this Christmas on the MegaBites Blog, I received a rather interesting Christmas request from a fellow blogger – one with a passion for a console that evokes such venomous rivalry, I can barely bring myself to write its name in full-sized text. This blogger was Julian Hill, the owner of BoxedPixels.co.uk – a website dedicated to the Super Nintendo. That’s right, the Super Nintendo. .
Boxed Pixels: MegaBites, my Sega-gaming nemesis, it’s Christmas once more – a time of goodwill and cheer to all. This in mind, I thought I’d transform you into Kris of Super Play fame. How do you like your new look?
MegaBites: Kris? Super Play? Wasn’t that a Super Nintendo magazine?
BP: It’s what people had instead of blogs twenty years ago. Although, it was much more effort as you had to turn these things called ‘pages.’
MB: Perfect, just perfect. Happy Christmas to me and a Merry Mode-7 holiday to you!
BP: I see that this Christmas marks your 20th anniversary as a Mega Drive gamer. Any intention of getting your younger brother to mark the occasion as he did in 1993?
MB: You’ll be happy to know that Christmas 2013 has every intention of a being vomit-free affair. That is, unless you plan on bringing the SNES over…
BP: You leave my majestic white box alone!
MB: You see, although the unfortunate events of that Christmas still haunt me to this day, I fondly remember Saturday 25th December 1993 for one thing – the day my obsession for all things Sega Mega Drive began. That entire day was an epic 16-bit odyssey, one that ultimately shaped my future as a gamer and all round Sega obsessive. How was the 90s Christmas experience from across 16-bit enemy lines?
BP: For me, Christmas was the one time I got to see my games on the big-screen TV – if you indeed consider 22″ to be ‘big’. Donkey Kong Country looked fantastic on it. You’ve heard of Donkey Kong Country right?
BP: You know, it’s that game with pre-rendered graphics that would never have been possible on your beloved Mega Drive.
MB: I’m sorry, I must have been too busy eagerly anticipating the blast-processing prowess of Ristar. That’s right blast-processing!
BP: I’ll let you in on a little secret MegaBites, Donkey Kong Country was the last thing I ever got from Father Christmas. For that reason alone, it holds a special place in my heart. Why don’t you give it a go?
MB: MegaBites? Nintendo? Are you mad?… Only if you promise me one thing.
BP: Name it.
MB: I’ll play your Donkey Kong if you play Ristar and write all about it on this blog. Deal?
MB: Where’s the sick bags?
When it came to the dark bloody console wars of the 90’s I was more that a foot solider, I was a standard bearer. If you cut me I bled Nintendo red. I laughed at the Game Gear for needing 54 batteries to play, I scoffed at the 32X & the MegaCD with their grand total of 3 games. But despite my fanboy showmanship I was jealous and I have to admit there was certain things Sega did that Ninten-didn’t. I thought Michael Jackson was pretty great – but I never got to dance in MoonWalker. I used to play Outrun in the sports centre cafe but would never drive that red Ferrari at home. Then of course there was that blue hedgehog.
To me Sonic always seemed to be deliberately everything the Mario games weren’t. While Nintendo’s plumber’s games focused on exploration, caution and precise tight controls, Sega’s mascot enjoyed adventures that were much more free-form. The focus on speed meant that fast reactions yielded success and there was absolutely no point in exploring. Of course there were the rings to find, but considering you didn’t need to find them all to open the bonus stage, why would you bother to look when the minimum had been found? As a gamer who grew up on Mario, I may have wanted to play the Sonic games but I probably wouldn’t have got on with them too well. The two series are so different and in many ways reflect the consoles themselves; the SNES was white, the Mega Drive black. Nintendo was something your Mum would approve of, Sega was edgy, dangerous and stuffed with attitude. Mario was Blue Peter, Sonic was Grange Hill.
There was a version of Sonic I would have liked as a youngster though and it involved a rabbit called ‘Feel’ with long floppy ears. With these he could do all manner of tricks, including clutching, then throwing enemies and scaling new heights. He didn’t run at lightning speed, he didn’t curl into a ball when he jumped and he didn’t exist beyond sketches on paper. This version of ‘Sonic’ was simply a concept, abandoned when the game became fixated on speed. Feel’s long floppy bunny ears confused and bogged down the game.
For the longest time ‘Feel’ sat abandoned on a designer’s sketch pad until the final months of the Mega Drive’s life. Keen to explore game play styles that couldn’t comfortably exist in the Sonic universe, Sonic Team revisited old ideas to search for a new direction. The long-eared rabbit was to make a triumphant return, only he would have a star affixed to his face and his arms would be stretchy, rather than his ears. He would be named Ristar and he would exist in a game that Sonic never could.
Of course, being a product of the 90s, Ristar was a 2D platformer. Released in 1995, just 3 months before the release of Sega’s 32-bit ‘PlayStation-beating Saturn, it was consequently overlooked upon release – lost in the excitement for the 5th generation systems.
Ristar’s story is introduced through a quaint opening cinematic that depicts an emotive story of how a young shooting star is called upon to save a number planets in peril. Brainwashed by ‘Greedy’ the alien oppressor, the leaders of these worlds are lost, enslaved, and in need of a star. In the Japanese release, Ristar even has the added pressure of having to out-shine (pun definitely intended) and rescue his father. This is a somewhat ridiculous plot, but it is bizarrely reflective of the unconventional platforming action that is to be enjoyed.
Despite the attempts for Ristar to be a separate entity, its engine echos sentiments of the Sonic series. Ultimately, the game play is best described as one part Sonic and one part Bionic Commando, with Ristar’s stretchy arms as the key mechanic of the game.
Much like the original ‘Feel the Rabbit’ concept these arms are depended upon for everything in the game – their long-reach ability is how you attack enemies, climb walls and traverse trees and pegs. It’s a bit awkward to control at first and at odds with everything I was used to. By default I jumped onto an enemy’s head only to be punished for doing so. It’s clear that Ristar is trying something new, not treading the familiar 16-bit platformer path. A little patience pays off and beyond the opening stages Ristar’s talent for extending his arms in 8 directions soon becomes second nature and intuitive.
The game isn’t overly difficult, but there are some tough points in later stages where precision movements are needed, and boss fights prove challenging. Despite these spikes in difficulty, you never feel cheated. Mistakes are often the fault of a lack of finger dexterity on the part of the player, rather than cheap design within the game.
With such a quirky and unique core element, there is a real danger that level design could be hampered. While it is true that you predominantly do the same thing throughout the game, the need to swing and climb never feels ostentatious or at odds with the level design. Finding each hidden space, defeating each eccentric boss and solving each stretchy arm puzzle feels integrated and organic.
The game’s continually fresh feeling is certainly helped by the distinct worlds that Ristar travels through. Of the seven planets that make up the game’s solar system, each is unique and distinct. The first world’s tropical jungle, where you swing through a lush green environment, is just a starting point in an adventure that sees you passing through an ice planet, a fire world, a mechanised level and, most excitingly, Planet Sonata; an environment themed entirely on music and sound. But it’s not just aesthetics that distinguish the stages; each level requires new ways to utilise Ristar’s versatile limbs and offers a different variety of enemies – from frogs on Undertow, fire beasts on Scorch and even musical birds on Sonata. The level of individuality and attention to detail even extends to the titular character himself, as Ristar has different idle animations depending on which world you’re on; building little snowmen, dancing and even mopping his brow as the environment dictates. These little touches give Ristar (the game and the character) personality and variety, and in so doing, disguises what could have been a slightly repetitive game. This is all aided by how stunning the game looks – I defy you to not stare at the backgrounds and environments with awe.
Ristar pushed the Mega Drive almost beyond its limits to portray each of these planets with a spectacular vibrant palette. This may have been one of the advantages that came from its extended development period, or it perhaps is also the result of Sonic Team honing their skills on the countless blue hedgehog games that preceded Ristar. It does feel at times that you are doing a whistle stop tour of all of the best locations seen by the Blue Hedgehog, but even so, these places have never looked better.
Ristar’s level design and visuals far exceed those of the Sonic games, but sadly Ristar’s music simply didn’t compare to the rest of the brilliance on offer. Sonic Team’s typical catchy melodies are present but too many musical pieces are short and the tune repetition is grating. It feels like the tracks were made in isolation to the rest of the game – not entirely appropriate for the stages at times. It’s not got a cohesive soundtrack, however good some tracks maybe individually. This may be nit-picking of course. Searching for faults that are only exist in comparison to everything else on offer. With a difficulty curve that’s a 45 degree slope, and continually inventive ideas, the imagination and craftsmanship of Ristar is a credit to its console.
Ristar was consciously, and deliberately, exploring ideas that Sonic couldn’t and consequently it ends up treading closer to Mario’s turf; the very game style that Sonic originally aimed to avoid and belittle. Perhaps this is why I like Ristar so much. Playing it now reminds me of Mario World to a certain extent.
Imagine if the Nintendo fanboy of old could see me now, how he would shake his head in disgust.
If you enjoyed this post by Julian Hill, you can read more of his writing at www.boxedpixels.co.uk.