Retro First Impressions: Space Harrier [Sega Master System – 1986 / Rail Shooter / Third Person Shooter]

space harrier sega master system box art
I used to love how uniform Master System boxes were

Welcome, one and all, to another Retro First Impressions. This time around I’m revisiting a system that I actually owned: the Sega Master System. As always, the idea of Retro First Impressions is for me to try out an old classic that somehow passed me by. In this case, it’s the home console port of Space Harrier.

The game was originally released into the arcades in December 1985, and sees you playing as a jet-propelled person with some sort of laser. The idea is simple: zip through a fantasy world and blast everything in sight. There are actually a couple of interesting titbits to cover here too. First of all, the game was originally designed to be a realistic military simulator where you fly a fighter jet in the third-person. Sega’s Yu Suzuki ended up redesigning the game due to memory and technical issues. Meanwhile, the 1986 Master System port made further changes to the game. First, it was given a loose plot – Harrier must save the Land of the Dragons. OK, so it’s not much but it’s more than the arcade got. In keeping with this, it also features an actual ending sequence rather than the simple ‘the end’ message seen in the coin-op. Then there was Haya Oh (named after Sega executive Hayao Nakayama), the twin-bodied fire dragon that served as an exclusive final boss. Oh, and don’t forget, it was also the very first two-megabit cartridge on the console.

Phew. That’s a fair bit of revamping for the home market, isn’t it? But, was it all worth it? Was it a decent port? Is it a true tragedy that I missed out on it the first time around? Well, the fact that it’s so well remembered and even had a 3DS port should tell you that the game is in some way decent. I think that what helped it was that it was actually quite simple to pick up and play. You move with the D-Pad, and use the buttons to fire. Outside that, it just comes down to watching out for oncoming obstacles and keeping on retaliatory blasts from enemies. That certainly gives it a high level of accessibility, and I can honestly that there is far from a steep learning curve in terms of getting started.

My word, it was difficult though! I managed to clear the first two stages, eventually. Iven that there are eighteen though, that’s barely scratching the surface. I can’t make any real excuses either; I was simply really bad at the game. What really sucks with that is that I was enjoying some of the enemy designs and was eager to see what the later levels would bring. But, hey ho. For less than an hour of play on a system I haven’t touched for years and a game I’ve never played before, I’ll take it.

space harrier sega master system Title Screen gameplay screenshot
Bright and colourful graphics

Now, despite my lack of progress, I did encounter one issue with the game. Graphically, it tends to glitch. The characters flash in and out, the connecting parts of larger enemies aren’t overly smooth, and the movement can be a bit jumpy. I wouldn’t judge this too badly if it wasn’t for the fact that the Master System had some nice-looking games on it. Both Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap and Psycho Fox for example, were really quite beautifully for their time. And before anyone points out that these two games came years after Space Harrier, and that this could account for some of the difference in graphical quality, I am already aware of that. In retort, I would say that the console itself came with Hang-On built in in 1985. This motorbike racer saw a similar on-rails style and behind-the-character viewpoint as Space Harrier, but didn’t suffer from quite so much graphical jumping (though it wasn’t immune to it). But, is it as bad as I may be making out? Well, here’s some footage from the original arcade machine, followed by some footage form the master system port. See what you think.

Still, I really did enjoy Space Harrier. It’s a fun distraction, and the quality of gameplay makes up for the graphical issues. Is it a new favourite? No, I wouldn’t go that far. It does deserve the historical praise though.

But what about yourselves? How do you find the game?


5 thoughts on “Retro First Impressions: Space Harrier [Sega Master System – 1986 / Rail Shooter / Third Person Shooter]

  1. Good to see the Master System get some game time! I wasn’t convinced by MS Space Harrier – I think the MS struggles with arcade ports that depend on graphical prowess, though I’ll admit I’m not the biggest fan of Space Harrier.

    You’re right though, Space Harrier is tough. There is so much going on and it’s too easy to get distracted flying around and lose focus!

    Liked by 1 person

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