Our tour of the Master System library brings us to another port of a famous arcade title. In the mid 1980s Sega unleashed its line of “super scaler” coin-ops in the arcade, starting with Yu Suzuki’s classic 3D rail shooter Space Harrier. The game was a success thanks to its fast action, smooth scaling and trippy graphics, rocking soundtrack (with voice clips) and the fact that you use an analog flight stick to control your player on the screen. So it’s not too surprising that Sega would try to bring a home version to the Master System and they even used it to kick off their line of ‘two-mega’ cartridges, promising twice the action, twice the graphics and all that. But even with the extra cart memory you might think the console’s limitations may prevent it from truly matching the fast-paced action and visuals of the coin-op and you’d be correct but it still gives it the old college try.
The gameplay is simple, as with most shooters at the time. You play as the titular Harrier, a jetpack-wearing warrior who’s out to protect the land of Dragons from a fierce invasion or something like that. In each of the 18 otherworldy levels you zoom across the checkered landscape while constantly under siege from the strange enemy creatures ranging from evil robots and jets to strange life forms like one-eyed mammoths and flying squids, and you have to blast them out of your way with your cannon. Many of the enemies do shoot back and you have to dodge their fire as well since one hit will fell your Harrier. There are also obstacles in your path such as trees, metal poles and stone pillars, and while some can be blasted others are indestructible and smacking into one will also end your life instantly. Basically the action is mainly flying, dodging and firing back until the end of each stage where you must do battle with a massive boss creature before you can proceed to the next stage and the action continues through 18 levels, including a few bonus levels, but unlike the arcade version you have a final boss confrontation as well as an actual conclusion at the end (the arcade version just says THE END after the final level).
As I mentioned this cart tries to emulate the original as best it can and the core gameplay from the coin-op is there for the most part, but there are some obvious shortcomings, especially with the visuals. The game does resemble the arcade but moves at a much slower pace with choppy scaling for the enemies and sprites, making them look like they’re being stamped on the screen frame-by-frame. The big bosses in particular can really look like a jumbled mess at times. There’s not much in the way of backdrops, usually just a solid color, though some levels have a checkered ceiling which makes for an interesting visual. The music is an okay rendition of the famous background theme and some nice melodies and a few of the voice clips (such as “Get Ready” or the death scream) did make it into the cartridge, though they are quite scratchy. Also the D-pad is a step down from the analog controls of the arcade but they do a decent job moving the Harrier around. Your three lives can seem to go quickly, but a hidden continue feature (hold down-left on the D-pad and push button 1 when Game Over appears) keeps you going up to three times and it’s not real difficult to get very far.
So overall the home version of Space Harrier can’t really do the original justice and that problem will crop up repeatedly as Sega attempts to bring more of their arcade hits to their home systems, especially the Super Scalers. But the fact that this game resembles the original in the slightest is still a little impressive, and as long as you’re not expecting too much, you might find some nice arcade action here. Otherwise those looking for a real arcade experience might want to stick with the excellent ports on the 32X and Saturn.