For most of the world the Mega Drive as well as this Game Gear version of Ristar were released on the exact same day back in 1995 (PAL gamers sadly had a small gap between the two); a time when the Saturn and PlayStation were both a common sight in homes across the globe and everyone could spend their days playing Virtua Cop 2 and Tekken 2 in arcades before coming home to magazines filled with enthusiastic previews of AM2’s upcoming console port of Virtua Fighter 2. The era of the 2D mascot platformer had been and gone but the staff remained, the industry awash with last gen’s talent, experienced people more than capable of making what was once thought impossible look so very easy on every developer’s payroll. This period, when 16-bit gaming was “dead”, was the time of Alien Soldier, Front Mission: Gun Hazard, and Yoshi’s Island to name just a few of the incredible releases that were still appearing on now-legacy formats. This embarrassment of expertise meant even a relatively tiny project – like a Game Gear port of Ristar – could still be a beautiful example of pixel art craftsmanship and programmer skill, simply because everyone around at the time was working on very familiar formats using years of established skills and known technical workarounds. It’s in part thanks to Ristar’s lateness that even on the handheld’s small screen everyone’s favourite stretchy-armed star still has multiple idle animations, a special post-boss victory pose, unique stage art, multiple ending illustrations, and a whole host of adorably expressive enemies. It’s as visually close to the Mega Drive title as anyone could reasonably expect any Game Gear game to be, and the bright, bold, graphics suit the format well.
The same can be said of the gameplay: There’s impressively very little different between the console and handheld ports; Ristar still uses those signature extending arms to grab onto a range of walls, bars, metronomes, star posts, and just about anything else within his long grasp, the game’s still structured around themed worlds with a boss encounter at the end, and it still begins on the lush green platforms of Planet Flora (or Neer, if you’re playing on a Japanese Game Gear) and ends with a climactic one on one battle against Greedy in his throne room.
It’s just everything between that’s a little different.
Or a lot different.
Or almost the same.
And this wilful divergence from the base game starts as early as Round 2 – Planet Terra. Not only is the Mega Drive’s second world, Planet Undertow, nowhere to be found (even its general waterlogged theme is absent – perhaps because Ristar can’t swim in this version of the game anyway) but it’s also only one level long… in the English-language versions of the game, that is. When played on a Japanese system (for those that may not already know: The Game Gear uses a regional BIOS, meaning universal carts like Ristar and GG Aleste II automatically switch to match the handheld’s region when played no matter the language displayed on the game’s packaging) it’s a normal two stage planet known as Planet Fanturn just like all the rest. International Game Gear users can still access the stage via the debug cheat (it’s Area 04 if using the level select – not level skip – button combination) if they want to play it for themselves, but officially speaking this area doesn’t exist. Strangest of all Terra’s skipped stage is a charming collection of fluffy clouds, giant beanstalks, and walkable rainbows set to a remix of Planet Freon’s “Ring Rink” – it couldn’t be a more pleasant and universally inoffensive environment if it tried. The second stage – the one everyone can play – is again completely exclusive to this handheld port, seeing Ristar swing and slide across a series of pirate ships before reaching the planet’s boss, a dozy elephant with an infinite supply of pillows. At a glance he appears to be an all-new adversary but once the fight gets going fans of the Mega Drive game will soon realise he’s using the same throw object/suck in mechanic as the absent Planet Freon’s soup-eating robocat monster-thing, Itamor – and can be defeated in much the same way too (just don’t forget to take out the little bat at the top of the screen first).
We may only be two worlds in at this point but the game has already gone from being instantly recognisable to brand new to… both?! An unpredictable switching between two extremes and every point in-between that feels bewildering and exciting all at the same time, leaving you wondering what on Earth the game’s going to do next; which as it turns out is plonk you on Planet Sonata – Round 4 in the console game – as if this portable Ristar had never dared to do nothing un-Mega Drive like at all. The first stage accurately mimics the puzzle-ish “get the metronome to the sad bird” gameplay of the 16-bit game (incredibly the melody still fills in as you go too) within an altered stage layout, complete with a slightly smaller version of the robo-bird midboss (using two ground-slamming robo-birds rather than the Mega Drive’s three – a much better fit for the Game Gear’s screen). The second stage is equally close to its console counterpart, retaining the upbeat “On Parade” music and signature bouncy kettle drums in the run up to the same aurally offensive bird we already know and have star-headbutted into merciful silence before, Awaueck. This entire planet was always one of the highlights of the Mega Drive game, so to see it recreated so closely in handheld form is a real joy.
So maybe the second planet was just a weird blip before resuming normal service? Not quite. After this brief interlude Ristar’s portable reimagining once again decides it’s going to do its own thing, this time on Planet Timu. The opening level of this Game Gear exclusive icy world features a string of time-based challenges (not all that surprising considering the name), making you pass through numerous gates that attach a little bomb (!!) to Ristar as you go through them – and also setting off a countdown timer and some tense music. This could have been awful: What if when the bomb explodes it instantly kills poor Ristar? What happens if you don’t reach the goal in time – are you made to walk back to the beginning and do the whole thing again? Thankfully neither of those awful scenarios occur. Leaving the time to run out does detonate the bomb, but it only takes one star off Ristar’s health (he has a maximum of four) and nothing else – a clear penalty, but not enough to sour the game’s cheerful mood or force you to play large segments of the stage perfectly. Once you’ve survived that the level after can only be described as “Castlevania with a twist”, clock tower cogs and all, before finding yourself going up against a bunny with springs for limbs inside a gigantic sand timer. It’s odd. The it gets very odd. And after that…
The final stage mostly snaps back to Mega Drive normality, which somehow only makes the preceding weirdness feel even more weird, like a dream you’ve just woken up from or an extravagant lie you’ve managed to tell only to yourself.
For all its charm and inventiveness this Game Gear title is, perhaps inevitably, still the sideshow to the Mega Drive’s main event, and like Sonic The Hedgehog Pocket Adventure this wild mash-up of ideas is not quite as cohesive as the game it draws its inspiration from – Game Gear Ristar is an enjoyable collection of levels whereas the original is an adventure across the stars – but ultimately it’s still a fun and highly polished platformer, and like the 16-bit game it’s outshone by it’s still one of the very best you could possibly play on its host hardware.