It’s Sonic week over here at Skirmish Frogs…so to celebrate his dramatic fall from grace let’s have a lazy repost of an article that covers the only console port of Sonic’s video game debut:
The poor Sega Saturn. He definitely hasn’t had much love around here has he? That’s definitely not to say he’s a bad little machine though…so lets change things up by looking at a couple of Sega Saturn titles that didn’t make it out of Japan: Galaxy Force II and Gale Racer.
On the surface, there are two very obvious similarities here. Both were originally 32-bit arcade titles and both relied on scaled two dimensional graphics rather than fancy-schmancy three-dimensional polygons. However (genre aside) there’s an important difference when it comes to the home ports: While Gale Racer was Saturn launch title, Galaxy Force only appeared at the end of the console’s life. Neither title appeared in the west. What gives?
As both the earliest of the two arcade machines and latest of the two ports, it perhaps isn’t overly surprising that Galaxy Force never made it out of Japan. After all, the console was already dead in Europe (and largely moribund in the US) by the time that the title was released. In fact, while Japan got an entire ‘Ages’ retro line the only product we saw over here was a single Yu Suzuki-themed affair. Sob.
This is a real shame, as Galaxy Force II is definitely one of my favourite arcade games of all time. Eagerly borrowing thematically from the likes of Star Wars and making good use of the kind of weird techno-biological environments found in Space Harrier, the game sees the player cast as a lone star fighter who has to blast his way past hoards of enemies in a bid to infiltrate and destroy enemy bases in 6 exotic intergalactic locations.
That may not sound terribly exciting on paper, but stick in a 50p and you’ll find that Galaxy Force is one of the most brilliantly designed rail shooters of the 80s. Though the graphics are completely two dimensional, the visual effects the development team were able to coax out of them are absolutely stunning. From flying through the opening stage’s fake death star through to navigating the alien ridges and canyons found in later stages, the whole thing feels like one massive themed sci-fi roller coaster ride.
In fact, the design team seemed to have thought so too: Uncharacteristically for an 80s arcade game, Galaxy Force not only lets you pick the level you start on, but it even lets you play on if you’re doing badly: Rather than deploy the usual 1-hit-kills mechanic, the ship in Galaxy force is powered by an every-decreasing energy value. This energy is depleted more quickly as you take damage, and can only be restored by successfully completing a level. This means that, though you may have reached a point where completing a stage is no longer possible, you can still see a little bit more regardless. It’s almost as if the design team are over your shoulder yelling ‘Don’t die yet! Just look what we did up here!’
Oh, on top of that, it sounds absolutely fantastic too. Creating tracks that can only really be described as FM-Powered space Jazz, Katsuhiro Hayashi and Koichi Namiki managed to mesh the melodic with the futuristic and alien, and in doing so created what is probably the most memorable Sega arcade soundtrack since Outrun (in fact I thought the soundtrack was so good I actually covered it myself here.)
Sadly, however, Galaxy Force was a title that was destined to never really to have a proper home conversion in the west. In the year of its release it was ported to pretty much every format under the sun (from the Amiga to the Zx Spectrum,) but none of the 8 and 16 bit machines really had enough grunt to do it justice. By the time home hardware had caught up, Galaxy Force itself had actually been over taken and the focus shifted onto fancy 3d games.
This is a shame, as the Saturn port is really quite good (some minor slow-down aside.) The original game has been left largely unmolested (aside from the addition of a replay function which allows you to both watch and jump back in to your last game,) and is all the better for it. If you have a Saturn capable of playing import games, there is no reason not to add this to your collection. Had the Saturn had a longer life span and a line of budget software, I imagine we would definitely have seen this in the west. Which is more than can be said for our next title…
Though Galaxy Force may have had a more expansive setting, the more humdrum Rad Mobile (the arcade version of Gale Racer) was actually more impressive in terms of technology. Literally Putting the player behind the dash board of a fancy super-charged sports car, the game covers an action-packed North American road race that takes the player from LA all the way to New York.
Yes, on paper it may sound vaguely like an inverted Turbo Outrun, but Rad Mobile is actually a really interesting little title in its’ own right. Not only does the game feature a novel first person perspective and control scheme (the player has to manually trigger the windscreen wipers and head lights,) but each of the game’s stages feature unique characteristics that help to keep the gameplay fresh. From mountain top duels to dashes through dark underground caverns, there’s always something new to see and a new challenge to face.
In fact, Rad Mobile is probably worth checking out just for its historic significance alone: Released a year before the original Sonic the Hedgehog, it just so happens that the mascot swinging from your car’s rear view mirror is a certain blue hedgehog.
As ports go, its worth noting there’s a couple of crucial differences between Galaxy Force and Gale Racer. Firstly, unlike Galaxy Force, the Saturn version remains the only home port of Rad Mobile. Secondly, Gale Racer is less of a port and more a complete make-over. Not only does the title feature fancy CGI cut scenes and a new red book audio soundtrack, but the developers even replaced all of the sprite-based opponents with polygonal models. In fact, the only thing they don’t seem to have changed – quite bizarrely – are the in-game banners that still read ‘Rad Mobile.’ Hmm.
It’s also worth noting that, on top of the modifications, the game was also already completely localised into English – including all of the text in the cut scenes – so why didn’t Sega simply press some copies in order to bolster the Saturn’s relatively meagre Western launch lineups?
The answer, sadly, can be found the second the opening stage loads. Though the polygon-based opponents are an interesting addition, the gameplay has unfortunately been butchered in the transition to console. Though anyone who has used a Playstation or a Saturn for any length of time will know the pain of limited draw distances, Gale Racer takes these to the extreme as vehicles generally pop up at a distance that’s too close to allow for any sort of evasive action. It’s a bit like driving through fog, except there isn’t any fog.
If the draw distances weren’t bad enough, the game is further hindered by the CD medium. The original arcade game was made up of quick-fire stages that flowed into each other without removing the player from the game. The port, however, inevitably features loading passages between these short stages which both substantially damages the sense of immersion and (unfortunately for a launch title) helps to show-cases one of the console’s major flaws. If that wasn’t bad enough, the scenery was also significantly cut back from the arcade, meaning some of the locations even fail to make full visual sense, which is a pity.
That’s not to say that all of the additions aren’t entirely welcome, mind. The polygon-based cars are ok, and the soundtrack is definitely a step-up from the rather forgettable arcade original. It’s also pretty clear that a lot of effort went into the cut-scenes. Also, the ability to swap your Sonic mirror toy for other characters is a pretty nice addition, so it would be wrong to say that the port is unforgivably lazy.
Regardless of the effort however, an unplayable port is a bad port. Though the core game still has its charms (a mountain-top race against an aggressive Duel style truck remains my favourite,) the whole thing is filtered through an unpleasant layer of poor implementation. It’s quite easy to see why the regional Segas weren’t interested in releasing the title and it really is a shame that, MAME aside, Gale Racer remains the only way to play Rad mobile without tracking down an original arcade machine. Hopefully, one day, Sega will see fit to release a port this game deserves.
Until then, both titles can be found freely on amazon for a price of less than £20 (at the time of writing, at least)