Remember when Sega was more than Sonic and Yakuza? Back when they were an absolute powerhouse in the gaming sphere, rivaling Nintendo and eventually Sony in both scale and quality?
Well, I for one sure don’t. Being born just months after the company’s final console, the Dreamcast was discontinued worldwide, I could never experience the company’s console-producing, ‘tude-ridden heyday. While I did own some gems like Sonic Mega Collection, Super Monkey Ball, and Sonic Generations growing up, they were still more afterthoughts than anything when compared to the hours I’d sunk into Nintendo’s heavy hitters. In fact, I’m pretty sure I thought Monkey Ball was just some B-tier Nintendo franchise until I’d purchased the DS entry.
But then, everything changed come Christmas of 2012, when my parents got me the Wii U version of Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed.
Playing this game made 11-year old me feel like a freakin’ archaeologist discovering a society long forgotten. Every character (besides Wreck-it Ralph!), stage, and even vehicle was a reference to some property I’d never heard of before, even though their designs filled me with the same nostalgia as any Nintendo franchise. Clearly Sega wasn’t just a Sonic factory, but rather a sort of alternate-universe Nintendo, complete with franchises spanning all genres, art styles, and age demographics.
And that’s the basis of what this is all about. With this series, I’ll try to bring to light the many franchises Sega spawned during their tragically creative downfall as first-party developers for their own hardware. Some of them are masterpieces, some mediocre, and some are hilariously bad, but they’re all undeniably SEGA.
So anyway, Burning Rangers.
Burning Rangers is a 3D action platformer released in 1998 for Sega’s fifth-generation console, the Saturn. It centers around a band of quarter-aged jetpack-equipped firefighters tasked with saving people from dangers brought about by their own rapidly advancing technology (in SPAAACE).
I believe it was a three-week wait to ship my copy from japan, and boy was it an agonizing one. Out of all the whimsical new franchises I’d discovered thanks to All-Stars Racing: Transformed, this had won by a landslide in the “eluding me to the point of uncomfortability” department.
During those three weeks, I accidentally developed a bit of an obsession with the game. I vigilantly dug through forum posts (all four of them), tirelessly listened to the game’s kick-ass vocal tracks (all three of them), and with an indefatigable spirit, made a point to look deeply into each of the game’s future cameos (all four of them). I’ve never done this with any other game to this day, so what was the deal? How does any game about space firemen have the right to be this charming, and why has nobody heard of the dang thing?
Well, I think I just answered my own question, at least partially. This is a game about space firemen! I mean, who WOULDN’T get down with that? If anything, I’m shocked there haven’t been more games that use the fire fighting concept. Come to think of it, this game saved me from myself. Had it not been here to fulfill my irrepressible urges to play and review firefighting video games, I could be out here writing about Rescue Heroes for the Fisher-Price Smart Cycle.
But, I digress.
Edutainment bikes aside, this game really does evoke a charm unlike any other game I’ve played. The cutscenes, especially the intro, encapsulate this perfectly. Shots of the rangers flying at high speed, dodging explosions and saving civilians whisk about the screen while the game’s main theme, Angel’s with Burning Hearts, blasts in the background, sung by the best men for the job regardless of which language you go for. The English version was done by Denis St James, a heavy metal artist whose roaring vocals fit the game’s heroic nature perfectly, and the Japanese version was sung by the Daytona USA guy. If you’re unfamiliar with the Daytona USA guy, then I’m sorry to say there’s simply no hope for you (or I just need to write another blog post).
Moving past the game’s handsome a e s t h e t i c, there’s actually a lot of really cool ideas to uncover here. The semi-futuristic setting prophetically brings up issues that concern scientists some twenty years after release, such as the ethics of genetic mutation and the possibilities of cryogenic revival. The characters also all have backstories that range from tragic to gruesome, such as Big Landman, the Ranger’s token veteran member who essentially had to reconstruct himself into a cyborg in order to recover from an accident early in his career. Side effects include about as much muscular health as the Saturn can render, as well as eternal badassery.
Of course, this is all assuming you actually bother to look into the lore. In the case of Big here, I wouldn’t have known much about him besides his oldness and burly stature if it weren’t for the instruction manual. This similarly applies to the game’s two protagonists, Shou and Tillis, though their backstories are hinted at in-game so long as you choose to play as them.
There are a few other faces you’ll grow familiar with, including Lead Phoenix, and Chris, your navigator. These characters are, indeed, Burning Rangers.
They aren’t the most complex team of heroes, but do they really need to be? This is late 90’s-early 2000’s Sega, after all, the kings of bright colors, space, and busting out the spunkiest jams to release just a decade or two from being culturally appropriate. It’d be a different story if the IP were to flourish enough to receive its own anime, but alas… Let’s just say you’d be hard-pressed to come across a fan who prefers their Crazy Taxi with Final Fantasy levels of depth.
Burning Rangers, at its core, is a game about saving people as opposed to killing them. This isn’t a dystopian universe, but rather a utopia that accepts the inevitability of human error. Every threat faced, large or small, is the result of another law-abiding citizen’s accident, meaning there’s no clear antagonist to pursue besides the burning of oxygen that got just a bit too exothermic to handle without professional help.
Each of the four main stages presents fires to smother, malfunctioning security robots to take out, and civilians to save, with a total of 108 possible civilians via repeat playthroughs. Once the civilians are found, they can be teleported to safety via the use of crystals, a collectible which also serves to power the Ranger’s shields, essentially making them behave the same way as Sonic’s rings.
The game is quick to plunge you straight into the action, though not without a brief tutorial. This is because Burning Rangers goes beyond the typical jumping, flying, and spinning players were used to in 1998. Not only can Shou and Tillis jump, fly, and spin, but they can also summersault, hover, dodge roll, and shoot fire-extinguishing lasers all with a single button press. This may not sound too impressive nowadays, but for a game competing with the likes of the first Tomb Raider, it serves as a testament to its incredible ambition despite being developed for a failing console.
Even more impressive is that unlike Tomb Raider, Burning Rangers is silky smooth to control. Both rangers feel agile as they do light, a trait only enhanced by the Saturn 3D controller’s weirdly comfortable analog orb. The camera does leave a lot to be desired in narrow passageways, but considering most of the “enemies” presented can hardly be considered animate, it’s almost a non-issue save for a few frustrating moments involving robotic bees.
Diving into stage 1 for the first time is a bit like signing up for a weed-out college course, only in video game level form. It takes a matter of seconds once you’re given control of your character to be met with a bout of explosions that temporarily reduce the game to slideshow levels of sluggishness. Sometimes the slideshows got so sporadic and pixelated that I began to wonder if what I was viewing wasn’t the game itself, but rather the result of the cd drive’s laser dying, or perhaps a visual representation of whatever black magic the Saturn’s eight processors had to conger up in order to make any of this happen. Still, this is space firemen we’re talking about, so most will be able to forgive this.
If they can get past the explosions, however, players are then required to bear the burden of polygon glitching. This was also in the tutorial level, but its abundance in the first stage lets players know that the flickering tiles of their peripherals are a demon they’ll have to bear within this universe forever.
In other words, this game is rough.
It takes a gamer with nerves of steel and olympian determination to be able to overcome these trials, but for those who can push through lies something oddly beautiful, even today. What the game lacks in technical performance, it more than makes up for with brilliant use of colors, translucency and lighting effects. I’ve even seen some claim that this is the best-looking Saturn game, and I can’t say they’re wrong. I like to equate it with using a kaleidoscope– even the levels that’d be the most boring in real life (like an abandoned aquarium) can appear as psychedelic dreamscapes if you squint a little!
Despite there being no main villain, each stage is also home to a boss or two for some reason (“because SEGA” is the best reason I could come up with), though they’re nothing to write home about. They can seem exciting at first if you “play along” so to speak by stunting around on your jetpack and doing your best to fire at just the right moments. In fact, I’d recommend this method, as not only is it a lot more fun, but you get to witness some of the most impressive graphical effects of the Saturn’s 3d library as a result.
The problem is that in actuality, a good chunk of the bosses require little more than a few seconds of jumping and thoughtless charged shots to be defeated. It’s a bit of a letdown, though I suppose it’s nothing new looking over Sonic Team’s earlier works (Sonic CD, anyone?).
And to clarify, this doesn’t apply to all bosses. The final boss, for example, is absolutely glorious, featuring multiple phases and a slew of attacks that force you to break out every stunt in your jet-packing arsenal in order to survive. It’s a shame not all the bosses could be this fierce, but hey, at least their battle music makes it seem that way.
Once the space demon is defeated, the game introduces a “random level generation” system, opening up new paths each time you replay a level so you can rescue more civilians. You’re also graded at the end of each level, but it’s mostly for how well you explored as opposed to how fast you completed it. To be frank, this is one ranking system I can’t really get behind. It may cause me to never see certain extras the game has to offer, but for me, Burning Rangers is perfect as a one-and-done experience. That isn’t to say I don’t replay it, just when I do, I make sure to begin with a fresh save file. This makes the game more arcadey, and I guess Sonic-like to me due to the placement of everything being familiar. It also means I can play my original copy without running around in circles too often…
There’s one crucial aspect of the gameplay I’ve failed to mention until now, being the voice navigation system. Essentially, instead of a traditional minimap, Burning Rangers uses high-tech CD technology to have Chris verbally tell you where to go. I assume this was to make the experience more immersive, which it certainly does– when you can understand what she’s saying, that is…
You see, I’m not exactly the wealthiest guy in the world (though I have a feeling even Bezos would hesitate to spend $600+ on a game like this), so I decided to import my copy from Japan for a much more reasonable price. There were a lot of pluses to this, such as the inclusion of a full-color manual and mini soundtrack cd, but without any option for subtitles, I was completely lost when playing the actual game the first time around. I’d run into dead ends that solely exist for Chris to scold you to turn back, but without a lick of Japanese to my name, she might as well have been saying “Great job!” or any number of things.
In preparing for this review, I completed two more playthroughs: one on (gasp) a CDR of the USA release, and another on (GASP) an emulator. I know it’s a legal grey area, but looking at the state of Sega now, they’re the methods I’d recommend. Playing with the voice nav made a world of difference in how smooth the whole experience was, and in my opinion, no game is worth the amount this one is going for nowadays.
Despite its obvious weak points, Burning Rangers is a jolly good time overall, and a fantastic place to start for those newly curious about Sega and Sonic Team’s history. It features an incredibly creative premise, some jaw-dropping visual effects, and charm so irresistible that it only takes one playthrough for your nostalgia for it to rival the first games you ever laid eyes on.