Twenty one years ago Burning Rangers took the normally risky business of firefighting and disaster rescue into a visually stunning sentai-esque future, eschewing the standard-issue bulky safety equipment and enormous water-spewing hoses of their Earth-shackled counterparts for personalised skin-tight suits, don’t-think-too-hard-about-it sci-fi water pistols, spaceships, and extremely catchy theme songs.
These days it’s mostly famous for having a lot of transparent special effects – a technique the Saturn famously “couldn’t do” (except for all those times it did) – and being a prohibitively expensive exclusive. But there’s far more to the game than being yet another costly Saturn-only gem: Its true point of interest, and the thing that sets it apart from many of the more graphically stable third-person action titles that followed, is the same core design idea Sonic Team built their wonderful score attack acrobat ’em up NiGHTS into Dreams around – arcade-like replayability.
With NiGHTS it was all about racking up as many points as possible – learning each “mare’s” (course’s) most effective route and practising until you could get around it in a single flawless link. Burning Rangers still offers end-of-mission D-S ranking in four key areas for those who like to keep improving on their best times and other statistics but the real reason to keep coming back to the game’s three main missions is down to the “Generate System” – most easily described as the direct predecessor to Phantasy Star Online‘s semi-random level layouts – and the unknown quantity of survivors waiting to be rescued within.
“Semi-random level layouts” may bring to mind the sort of nondescript procedurally-generated dungeon-crawler that happily jams whatever’s closest to hand from it’s grab-bag of rooms behind the nearest door in a disappointingly disconnected way however Burning Rangers’ system is far more controlled and far more in keeping with the sort of unpredictable calamity a futuristic firefighter might find themselves in, creating a system that ensures the hand-crafted foundations of each mission are always executed according to the original design plan but the small details, the unexpected snags that help keep things interesting and players giving the game their full attention, are always completely unpredictable.
It works like this: If every door and barrier was unlocked or removed then each mission would have the exact same layout every time you played it – the basic “bones” of each stage are predetermined, designed by nothing but human hands, and absolutely unchangeable. The clever bit comes from the way Burning Rangers slices these locations up into specific rooms and areas connected by a network of fire shutters and variable-state doors, allowing the Generate System to use simple on/off decisions in set places to create unfamiliar routes for the player; blocking off a corridor that’s normally open, or unlocking a side door that was otherwise impassable on a previous run and hoping curiosity and the desire to save as many people as possible will lead you inside. According to the official guide book there are over three thousand different permutations across the entire game, which means that if you played Burning Rangers once a day, and assuming you got a different layout every single time, it’d take almost ten years to experience every possible variation of every mission.
To further complicate matters the contents of both extra side areas as well as main thoroughfares can differ on every single run too – plot-related switches and people will always be placed at fixed points to make sure these key events are always as exciting (and perhaps even more important than that – as fair) as possible, but everything else can change: The first time you play a mission you might come across a room that’s completely empty – but the next time you play that “useless” room might contain bonus crystals (these behave very much like Sonic’s rings, protecting you from all harm so long as you’re carrying at least one of them and scattering when you’re injured. Crystals are also consumed when you need to transport survivors to safety – it’s rather fitting that a Burning Ranger would literally sacrifice some of their own personal protection to help others, don’t you think?), a person in need of rescue, or filled with extremely dangerous explosive tanks. This unstable environment forces you to be constantly observant no matter how experienced you are, making calls based only on the immediate information you have to hand – if you’ve only got a handful of crystals and an unexpected barrier is blocking off a familiar route through the area do you still go out of your way through tricky side rooms looking for what may turn out to be nothing, or do you decide to play it safe and make your way carefully through the unknown, taking in as little as possible for the sake of self-preservation? Whether it’s your first run ever or a silky-smooth session after twenty years of practise you honestly won’t know if you’re putting your Rangers’ life on the line for the sake of a distressed child or risking it all – your score, your safety, your precious time against an increasingly volatile environment – for nothing at all.
And this is where the game might have been in danger of falling apart – if you can’t guarantee it’ll be worth all the effort of trekking through fire and flood then why bother at all? Why not just take the shortest route to the exit and get the mission out of the way with minimal fuss?
Because Burning Rangers has a fantastic trick up its sleeve, of course! And that trick is emails.
Every single survivor – all one hundred and eight of them – will send you a letter of thanks once you’ve saved them, offering precious and highly personal little windows into the world beyond your own adventures. Some people will tell you how they’re now nervous around cooking appliances, or how amazing you looked when you came to rescue them (a few of the kids want to be Burning Rangers when they grow up, and it’s all thanks to your efforts), or talk about the work they were doing before the accident. If you’re lucky enough to rescue a member of Sonic Team (that’s right! A good chunk of the lead staff are spread throughout the survivor’s list) you might even receive bonus artwork or interesting passwords, ensuring there are practical rewards to be had even for the most stony-hearted Ranger. It’s deliberately not much – these are brief messages of thanks from individual people, not pieces of some grand meta-mystery for you to unravel – but they ground the game in an ordinary sort of reality that would otherwise have been lost amongst the deep-sea adventures and enormous plant monsters found in the game itself. It’s a subtle reminder of who you’re supposed to be playing for – the game isn’t about looking cool (although with design as strong as this you frequently do, casually backflipping to safety or effortlessly navigating zero-g rooms), or even about containing the disasters, it’s about helping people. These emails nudge players into filling the spirit of the role they’ve been given – can anyone really resist taking a few moments to check a side room for survivors when thinking back to all of the grateful emails received and all the new ones waiting for them when they return to the main menu?
Over time you’ll even start to recognise them by sight: Survivors aren’t generic models like Metal Slug‘s underwear-brandishing POWs but distinct individuals with unique clothing and hair that perfectly match their character portraits – some of them even have unique voice clips (the others are still voiced but culled from a pool of “Scared Lady”, “Young Boy”, etc. lines). The sheer volume of survivors also means there are far more for the game to randomly pick this session’s unlucky bunch from than you can hope to rescue even on a perfect run, and there’s no way of guaranteeing who will appear or where they’ll show up on the map if you’re trying to complete the set. Even your own inbox works against you: While in Burning Ranger’s world humanity may think nothing of working in space or taking a school trip to the bottom of the ocean, email inboxes can apparently only hold five messages at a time and no more. So even if you rescue twelve people in one go you’ll still only receive five messages (there are no repeats but as there are one hundred and eighty three messages in total it’ll still be a while before you get through them all) and you won’t receive any fresh ones until you’ve read the ones sitting in your inbox, a small detail that modestly rations out messages and makes the multiple “You’ve got mail!”-like lines recorded by the Rangers (and available as .wavs in the “Extra” folder on the disc) feel more like an enjoyable alert than a warning about a bombardment of extra paperwork to sift through before carrying on.
What these messages do is transform what would have been industry standard token-collecting exercise into a chorus of gratitude for your skill and bravery. Burning Rangers builds a framework and context around your adventures that adds unexpected depth to repeat plays – you genuinely never know what’s coming up (as it should be in a game about tackling extraordinary out of control blazes in enormous futuristic facilities), but you know that when do you find survivors the effort you went to to track them down will be recognised and rewarded. Maybe this time you’ll rescue someone’s grandfather, or daughter, or the person normally responsible for maintaining the haywire droids you had to dispatch last mission – you’ll never know unless you try.
Of course as hard as the games wants you to believe that you’re stuck in the middle of an anything-goes catastrophe it’s not really randomly random – the limitations of the hardware (and no doubt the budget too) mean there are only certain specific floors that will collapse under your feet, or particular walls that will disintegrate into outer space before the shields come down, but even when you’ve played to the point where you know every variant and every trick the game can throw at you you still have no way of knowing what path you’ll have to take or where you need to check for survivors. That’s the magic of Burning Rangers: no game has tried so hard – or come so close – to making every time feel as dangerous and exhilarating as the first time.