If, like me, you thought Mega Drive platformers were all focused on frantic speed, think again. The very best on the system may be closer to 'Mario' than you think.
Developed by Sonic Team Published by Sega Release in 1995
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 depended on twitch responses. 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. "Congrats go to Sega for trying to add a twist to the platform genre" reviewer Steve Keen noted. "The novelty of Ristar's attack method give the game its own distinctive feel" Mean Machines magazine also said, perhaps not realising the pun.
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 overlooked upon release – lost in the excitement for the 5th generation systems and critics had low expectations. "When I saw the early screens of 'Ristar', I sure didn't expect a good game" admitted a reviewer at Game Fan magazine. However once he played the game he quickly changed his mind. "This is a very involved platformer with a ton 'o' play mechanics. I couldn't put it down." It was a sentiment echoed by Spanish magazine Hobby Consolas. "'Ristar' is a great platform game, excellently done and very entertaining" they noted in 1995. They certainly didn't mind that it was a game bound for the 16bit Mega Drive rather than a new Saturn. "When a game amuses, entertains and keeps us glued to the pad, everything else is irrelevant."
The games' 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 of planets in peril. Brainwashed by Greedy an 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 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 but here I was 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. "Ristar's fluid control is one of the most pleasant aspects of the game" Angus Swan wrote in Mean Machines magazine. "It is an enjoyable, quirky and well assembled little number even if its just too easy".
Swan is absolutely correct. 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 especially in Pal regions. In Europe the Mega Drive system has a higher resolution than the NTSC Genesis system. Most games notoriously just added borders to compensate for the extra space on screen, but 'Ristar' is one of the few that actually takes advantage of this resolution and uses the full screen.
The unique graphical effects liberally but subtly scattered throughout still impress today. I am obviously accustomed to the Super Nintendo’s superior graphical capabilities. However, I’ll be first to admit that the bright and colourful aesthetic of 'Ristar', with its detailed sprites and fluid animation, is on par with all but the best SNES games. The game could be released as an iOS title today and would be universally applauded for its appearance. It proves that while the Mega Drive may only be able to display up to 64 colours at once (from a palette of 512) rather than Super Nintendo’s 32,768, that didn’t prevent it offering some beautiful pixel art.
'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.
It may be wrong to say 'Ristar' is a Mega Drive game attempting to be a SNES game, but it certainly is a game aware of the virtues of the Super Nintendo greats. It’s a composed game, a confident game, a game you don’t rush through as quickly as you can and hope for the best. It looks far better than I thought possible on a Mega Drive and was a genuine pleasure to experience.
Imagine if the Nintendo fanboy of old could see me now, how he would shake his head in disgust.
Where did I get this game from? Like so many of my Mega Drive games I got 'Ristar' in a bulk buy. The fact it sells on its own for half the price that I paid for over 30 games shows how good the deal was, even if the condition of most of the games was awful. Sadly though, 'Ristar' didn't have its instruction book.
A slightly shorter version of this article has previously appeared on MegaBites, but it only seemed fitting for 'Ristar' to also appear on Boxed Pixels now that its officially a multi-format blog!