How exactly do you update Space Harrier of all things for the PlayStation 2 age? It’s too famous to take apart and then rebuild from the ground up in the way the 3D Ages team did with Monaco GP two volumes earlier, but at the same time the entirety of the 1985 classic’s gameplay can be pretty accurately summed up as “dodge whatever you can’t shoot“. It’s a sticky situation that creates unavoidable friction between what the Sega Ages 2500 series was at this point in time – enhanced (albeit budget conscious) remakes of a broad selection of iconic Sega titles – and what Space Harrier itself really needs to be, which I’d argue is a definitively “arcade” experience: buckets of colour and noise and speed and the need to be the most impressive game in the whole building.
This remake is thankfully just as blisteringly fast as Space Harrier old, the deadly scenery still whizzing by at breakneck speed and enemies either a constant threat or an exciting points scoring opportunity depending on your skill level (I’m definitely more the former). Helping ’80s-era fingers keep up with the game’s brisk pace a few decades later is a dedicated auto fire button (thank goodness) in addition to single-shot fire as well as a Panzer Dragoon-ish lock-on attack (something similar was also available in the sadly arcade-only Planet Harriers). The lock-on shot is especially welcome, helping players chip away at fast moving distant shapes that would otherwise be nigh-impossible to aim at and giving everyone a way to stay on the attack without putting themselves in the path of an incoming projectile – there are even some shield pickups and a new bomb-type move as well.
These are all features that could have easily upset Space Harrier’s delicate balance, one person’s helping hand another’s unwelcomed softening of memorably sharp edges, everything smoothed down until it becomes blandly pleasant in that mass market appeal kind of way. I honestly liked them all. The game’s limited lives/continue system ensures everyone still has to make an honest effort to engage with the game as intended, and the new features feel more like new opportunities to go on the offensive than crutches for the weak. I definitely did manage to last longer because of their presence, but Space Harrier was as keen as ever on taking away my precious lives in the blink of an eye.
That all sounds great, but unfortunately for this remake Space Harrier was always as much a show-stopping spectacle as it was a high speed action game, and it’s here that Volume 4 falls short. “Uneven” is perhaps the only honest way to describe it, as unlike the three Sega Ages 2500 games that came before it – Phantasy Star, Monaco GP, and Fantasy Zone – what has been reworked here feels messy and disjointed, a release trying to look busy but not really able to change much, and what it does change often struggles to reflect the original’s appeal.
But let’s start with a bit of good news before we go too far down that particular rabbit hole: Harrier’s new look – with cool green goggles, a striking flame-like ponytail of blonde hair sticking out the back of his bright red headgear, and a slight future-cool redesign of his memorably Sega-blue trousers – is pretty much faultless. He looks like he’s come straight out of a lost Dreamcast Space Harrier sequel, all strong shapes and bold colours.
And although the 3D Ages team clearly didn’t have the time or the budget to do the original’s greatly varied range of enemies justice, an honest attempt was made to bring the fantasy zone’s world of segmented dragons and smooth steel to the PlayStation 2. Everything you see is generally a recognisable facsimile of the sprite it’s based on, although the abstracted opponents turn out better in 3D as the more organic monsters just don’t have the polygonal budget to do fine detail like scales and fur justice. The dragon-type end of stage bosses are especially disappointing, as they’re neither different enough to be enjoyed as something new nor similar enough to look like an accurate recreation of the originals either.
The land passing underneath Harrier’s feet also suffers from the update, which by default is now rendered in textured 3D and in an effort to bring a more “natural” look to the game’s landscape now contains “lumpy” sections from time to time that can’t be sprinted over in the usual manner (which is purely an aesthetic change seeing as he can fly everywhere anyway). These floors are much darker than the eye-catching colours used in the arcade version, and as the game wasn’t designed around anything other than an eternally flat floor it’s hard to ignore the fact that these these new segments achieve nothing, unable to present players with stunning deep valleys or situations where enemies pop out from behind tall mountains because that’s just not how Space Harrier works. The good news is this new feature can be turned off in the options menu, bringing back not only the classic pancake-flat chequerboard pattern but also a few other familiar bells and whistles, including the charming “Ready? Many more battle scenes will soon be available!” on screen text when using a life.
It’s an awkward game to pin down. The “Arcade” mode – the only mode – doesn’t stick closely enough to the classic formula to satisfy coin depositing purists, but the game also doesn’t reinvent Space Harrier’s wheel enough for those ready to experience a new take on the much-ported formula either – and whatever your preferences there’s no denying there’s less to unlock in here than in any other game in the Sega Ages series so far. But… having said that I do feel it’s important to point out that there is no less to do in here than there was in AM2’s arcade classic or any of the more accurate home conversions it’s received over the years, so it feels unfair to declare what was enough for one to be hailed an all-time legend is not enough for the other’s low priced bit of fun.
So. On the whole this remake isn’t bright enough or weird enough to capture the essence of the original and because of that there’s a lingering sense of disappointment attached to the experience, a palpable gap between what is and what could have been. But even so there’s not anything really “wrong” with it at heart, and if anything this misstep proves that the finest games from any developer are more than a collection of clean code and good design: they have to convey a special sort of feeling too – it’s just a shame that’s not found here.