I’ve always thought of the Mega Drive’s lifespan as something that could be split into two neat halves: The first period from 1988 to 1991 felt like a system trying to find its feet, hardware that in an odd sort of way seemed to be a little too powerful for the era – a console housing blistering nineties tech being forced to run games that were still being designed with a very eighties mindset. It wasn’t always like that in those early years, but beyond Sonic and a few other bright spots it felt like a system struggling to show the world how good it could be – too far ahead of the competition for anyone to know how to use it well, but not quite powerful enough to brush aside concerns about Nintendo’s upcoming Super Famicom (the Dreamcast vs PlayStation 2 issue a decade early, I suppose). This all changed at some point around 1992, and from then until its demise the Mega Drive had a wonderful second wind that really harnessed the potential it had all along: Gunstar Heroes‘ “The Mega Drive can’t do sprite rotation” sprite rotation, Virtua Racing convincingly bringing the arcade classic home (albeit at a greatly inflated price), Castlevania: Bloodlines‘ swaying towers and reflective water (also used – and admittedly to better effect – in Rocket Knight Adventures), Sonic 3 (& Knuckles) giving the world a bespoke physical standalone-DLC-hybrid-patch cart, Phantasy Star IV showing up with a PC Engine (Super) CD game’s worth of cutscene art and detailed battle animations that changed depending on the weapon held and the action being performed (at the time this felt absolutely mind-boggling), and Gau Entertainment’s wonderful mech ’em up, Ex-Ranza (AKA: Ranger-X).
I would hope that a lot of people are already at least vaguely aware of how good Ex-Ranza is, but I’ll say this for the benefit of anyone who’s not had the chance to play this fabulous run ‘n’ gun: If you’ve got any love for the genre then you owe it to yourself to play the game as soon as possible. Sadly it hasn’t been ported elsewhere (it’s not even part of any compilations or retro digital storefronts), but thankfully this is one good old game with a proper international release so being able to find a copy is an expensive reality, rather than an impossible dream (yay, I think?). It’s (very) challenging, inventive, and exciting – all the hallmarks of an easily recommended action game – but what I’d like to do with this post is explain why it’s special. As much as I do like the game it’s not actually the joys of playing it – think of something less Gunstar Heroes and perhaps a little more Bangai-O – that I want to (directly) talk about here, but the superb presentation that doesn’t just tie it all together but lifts the whole thing up into the stratosphere.
Ex-Ranza is famously fancy in the art department …OK “famous” might be stretching things a little for a niche Mega Drive game that’s almost thirty years old but it’s one of those games where if there’s one aspect that’s guaranteed to leave a good impression, it’s how good it looks. Much like Treasure’s better-known genre equivalents Ex-Ranza sees the Mega Drive’s technical limitations as a laughable challenge to be mercilessly crushed underfoot rather than a real threat to the team’s creative ambitions and sets about making sure every last line of code bends the hardware to its will, regularly showing off impressive scrolling effects, lengthy wireframe stage intros, moving shafts of light (not the expected dithered “webs” either), and all sorts of other details most 16-bit games wouldn’t even dare attempt never mind make look as easy as Ex-Ranza does.
This graphical showcase starts before the title screen’s showed up, the atmospheric introductory sequence serving as both a staff roll and a glimpse at the imposing fleet heading to attack the Terminal research HQ and kidnap Nina Alice, childhood friend of the game’s lead, Cain Brian. I’ll need to make a small diversion here before we go any further: The story and most names are different between the Japanese and international releases, but the Japanese version goes something like this: Mysterious space gift “Terminal” has been used by humanity to rebuild Earth for the better after a terrible war. Professional Last Boss Ozzy Wize wants to use it to rule the world but he needs a special sort of psychic person to control it, which is why he captures Nina, Cain’s friend. Unfortunately for him Cain found a mysterious mech – the titular Ex-Ranza – in some ruins and is determined to rescue her. TL;DR: Evil man needs special girl to make magic alien space thing work but too bad, hero friend in convenient mech is in hot pursuit. Anyway. A lot of Mega Drive games kick off with an impressive pre-title sequence – Rent-A-Hero is another one that springs to mind – but the reason Ex-Ranza’s stands out from the crowd is down to the way it runs a clear thread through from that gorgeous opening and into the game itself, with the exact same assault continuing in the background of the first stage in real time. Between the ominous threat shown in the opening, the barrage of enemy fire that starts up as soon as the stage comes into view then refuses to ever let up, and the shots being unleashed at the research headquarters (these are animated in such a way as to give the impression they are being fired from an invisible spot in the foreground over the play area towards the headquarters, not tiny side-on shots in the distance) there’s the distinct impression this chaos is all happening right now, the immediacy so tangible it’s easy to feel that with a little more skill and a little more speed it just might be possible to reach Nina in time.
Once the stage targets have been taken care of it’s on to the commander – or rather, the short cutscene sequence before the commander. Tiny pixel people run for their lives, reinforcing the mission’s sense of urgency and also giving an important sense of scale – the Ex-Ranza is absolutely huge – and also showing Nina almost, almost, making it to safety before being whisked away in a capsule (shown again before the final battle) to forcibly assist in the villain’s nefarious schemes. It’s far from a heart-wrenching moment but it does serve up a few subtle hints: This future Earth is more than just guns ‘n’
roses fighting, and it would be utterly hopeless for anyone other than the Ex-Ranza to stand against Ozzy. Then there’s a pause – just long enough to make someone wonder what could possibly happen next – and then suddenly everything is explosions and fire and players are confronted by an end of level monstrosity so big it’s literally impossible to see the top of the thing until its legs are blasted out from underneath it.
The game is filled with countless show-don’t-tell instances like the above, all of them useful grounding points in a title that has no dialogue, character portraits, or any explanation for the game’s events outside of the manual. The third stage opens with a good example: In the background a flock of birds break through a dense canopy of trees into clear blue skies, and then the Ex-Ranza is encouraged to plunge through the tops of the trees and into battle with the metallic enemies being belched out onto the dark forest floor below, scattering lush green leaves as it goes, the contrast between the natural beauty the game has just taken a moment to emphasise and the harsh metallic structures invading that same space take on the slight tinge of something more serious – just a light suggestion that this one-man war against an evil force filled with bright lasers, metal homing birds, and eye-popping special effects is less shooty-cool and something more destructive and ruinous. Not a single one of the small purely artistic details found here or in any other stage add directly to either the running or the gunning parts of the game, but they do go a long way to making it feel like Ex-Ranza’s events are happening organically around players as they go, that the stages they visit are just one small part of a much bigger picture even if they never get to see it.
If this game had been a programming tour de force tied to some incredibly detailed pixel art (do gasp in wonder as the Ex-Ranza’s legs bend and move to accommodate the slopes and uneven terrain beneath them) and nothing else then what we’d have here would amount to little more than a very pretty, and very expensive, tech demo. Thankfully Ex-Ranza isn’t one of those prohibitively expensive games everybody wants to own but nobody actually wants to play, always asking how it can use its graphical talents and awe-inspiring technical tricks for the player’s benefit beyond that quick initial wow-factor and some light storytelling. Those frequent and absurdly impressive wireframe stage intros don’t exist purely for the sake of flexing some programmer muscle but show perfectly recognisable approximations of upcoming targets and even help to set the scene: The second stage’s shows a first-person view of the Ex-Ranza venturing deep into a cave system… and then opens with the mech standing directly underneath a vertical shaft of light – that’ll be the hole it entered the cave from, the same one represented a few seconds earlier by a blue wireframe line. Stage 3’s tracks an enemy carrier dropping in multiple targets from the sky, and when the stage starts these giant enemy-spawners really are falling into the level from above – players can not only see them coming in if fast enough are able to destroy them before they even hit the ground.
This marriage of artistry and game mechanics continues throughout the game, as if the staff had an excess of great ideas they really needed to get out of their systems and just one game to do it in. Those shafts of light in the cave? Those can be used to destroy the small and otherwise invincible (and irritating) organisms that sometimes break out of the rocks blocking the way. The deep-set bays in the underground bunker that scroll by so beautifully? The area’s target’s come charging out of those towards the screen before turning to a side-on view to attack – and just when that’s happened a few times and there’s a worry the next will feel predictable one of them bursts through a closed shutter without any warning, the same impressive perspective effect peeping through the torn hole. That happens once, and then never, ever, again. Stage 5’s aggressive main targets travel back and forth along suspended runners throughout the level, making it hard to shoot them down without coming out of the fight worse for wear… but eagle-eyed mech operators will (eventually, in my case) spot small glowing boxes along the tracks which when shot destroy short segments of the rails – causing these tricky opponents to plummet to their deaths without the player having to go anywhere near them.
Ex-Ranza is a game constantly pulling and prodding at itself, discontent with resting on its laurels even though it was a complete one-off without even so much as a small cameo or forgotten spiritual sequel released somewhere down the line (the staff did however go on to work on the equally inventive monster-murdering RPG Ragnacenty). Every new scene presents fresh one-off puzzles and exclusive problems, ranging from environmental hazards (powerful fans that can push players directly into damaging laser beams… or give them a lift towards the disabling switch), unique enemy attributes (shield carrying enemies that can be disarmed by ramming your gunbike, the Ex-Upper, into them), and imaginative boss behaviour. It’s the best sort of consistently uncomfortable sensation, a constant test that doesn’t rely on rote memorisation or even raw skill but in the player’s curiosity and resourcefulness. An important point in the game’s success is that these constant twists and turns don’t come at the expense of a cohesive experience, and Ex-Ranza is careful to introduce basic ideas first, such as sentry guns with very obvious glowing lines leading to their power boxes, and then builds on those concepts and starts to slowly demand more and more from the player in terms of both their mech control and ingenious thinking, expecting them to re-apply those skills in new and unusual ways. It’s as beautiful on the outside as it is well-designed on the inside, a rare sort of action game that encourages experimentation, rewards the inquisitive, and still has a strong flair for the dramatic.