Everyone's got that game they used to love but nobody else seems to remember it. This site it dedicated to those games. Check in each week for a fresh look at another hidden gem and weigh in on whether it should be remembered as a classic or not.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


Year: 1995
Developer: Sonic Team
Publisher: Sega
Platform: Sega Genesis, Game Gear (originally); later Virtual Console and also bundled in compilations for PSP, PS2, Xbox, GameCube, PC, PS3 and Xbox 360
Metacritic score: Not available
VGChartz sales to date: Unknown

For those of us born during a certain time, the 90's represented a coming of age in more ways then one.  For the video game industry, the 90's was when gaming transitioned from youthful fad to full-fledged entertainment industry juggernaut.  In 1982 at the height of the home console market just before the Great Crash of '83 the industry was pulling in around $4 billion annually, a number that would rise to over $20 billion globally in just ten years.  While there have always been multiple competitors in this market, it wasn't until the 1990's when we saw two companies so evenly matched.  By the end of the 16-bit era Nintendo would claim a slight victory in the Console Wars with 49 million Super Nintendos sold compared to Sega's 40 million Geneses (fun fact: the plural of genesis is geneses, you can look it up if you don't believe me).  It's fitting that the two generals of this conflict, Mario and Sonic, were both mascots from platformers because in many ways the 16-bit era was tailor made for the platforming genre.  The SNES and Genesis still had the same 2D rendering limitations as the previous generation, but modest increases in addressable memory space and processing power gave developers access to a greater palette of colors, sounds and sprites to craft worlds that possessed far more personality over their predecessors.   

If your first experience with video games was Pong, seeing this many colors onscreen at once could give you a stroke.  
This unique set of constraints favored games that were well-suited to 2D graphics and didn't require realistic graphics or gameplay to be enticing, so fans of platforming gameplay were absolutely spoiled for choice during the 1990's.  While many of the best selling platformers had gotten their start back on the NES (Mario, Mega Man, Metroid and Castlevania to name just a few examples) Sega was making headway with new properties of their own, of which the speedy blue hedgehog was undoubtedly the king.  But anyone who stuck too closely to Sonic did themselves a great disservice by missing out on titles such as Ristar.  The game stars an anthropomorphic star who is either the child of a Star Goddess or a "Legendary Hero" in the form of a shooting star, depending on whether you played the Japanese version or the English translation.  Your task is to save the Valdi galaxy by preventing the evil space pirate/19th century German imperialist Kaiser Greedy from enslaving the inhabited planets through mind-control.  The U.S. version also sees you rescuing your father/Legendary Hero/shooting star because somehow this makes the plot more...I'm not sure what exactly.  Maybe the Japanese thought we had a lot of daddy issues, but for whatever reason the plot was altered during the localization process.   

Apparently nobody notified Ristar of the change, because he maintains those arched eyebrows throughout the game
It's no surprise that the game borrows heavily from Sonic, especially since it was born from an early concept art in which Sonic was a rabbit, but Ristar set itself apart with a unique gameplay hook.  Ristar can run, jump and swim with the best of them but rather then rely on jumping, speed or a collection of weapons to defeat enemies and traverse levels, Ristar uses his extendable stretchy arms both to explore and fight.  Using the B button sends Ristar's arms shooting out in front of him, grabbing onto a handhold, switches, ledge, etc. will pull the rest of his body forward and releasing the button will make Ristar let go so his momentum can carry him.  Just like how stages in Sonic are designed to take advantage of speed, Ristar's stages are designed around swinging from place to place and the mechanic feels really enjoyable when you get into a rhythm.  The Star Hooks are especially fun to use as grabbing one sends Ristar swinging around at high speeds until you are ready to let go, at which point you rocket off like a shooting star.  Ristar is invulnerable while a shooting star and the player has some degree of control over charting his course, but mainly it's a matter of timing and gravity.  Each level has a hidden Star Hook that sends you to a bonus stage where you can earn special items by completing an obstacle course in a set amount of time.  Enemies can also be defeated by grabbing them and holding the button to pull Ristar into them for a high speed headbutt.  In this way, attacking enemies is just another means of traversing the levels allowing skilled players to swing themselves to the finish at a brisk pace, making the game popular for speedrun challenges.

Each stage ends with either a mini-boss or boss battle.  Battling the boss on Planet Undertow is made easier by not needing to breath since stars live in the vacuum of space.  Doesn't stop them from wearing sneakers, though.  

But you'll likely want to take your time as you explore the Valdi system since each stage is filled with hidden treasure chests in addition to the previously mentioned bonus stages.  It's also worth slowing down to check out the great background art and design touches that gives each planet a unique feel to match it's environmental theme.  While the platforming tropes of water zones, ice zones, etc. is still firmly in place, the level designs still make the grabbing mechanic your primary focus for navigation and attack.  The designs themselves are lustrously colored and filled with interesting details, for instance on Planet Undertow the screen brightness gets darker as you dive deeper beneath the water.  But perhaps the most standout feature of the design is the soundtrack with it's infectiously happy beats and surprising variation.  It's like MGMT meets Skrillex all filtered through 16-bits of pure joy.  

Bonus chests can contain anything from points to extra lives and are scattered in various hard to reach places
Timing is everything.  Ristar was one of the last new games to release for the Genesis before the launch of of the Sega Saturn in the North American market.  The Saturn had already arrived in Japan and it's famously botched U.S. launch was only two months away from becoming a reality when Ristar was released.  Sega's attention was completely fixed on their next console and Ristar received very little marketing.  If that wasn't bad enough, an electronics powerhouse waded into the Console War by rolling out a new platform of their own.  Sony's Playstation had already followed the Saturn into the Japanese market in December 1994, and it would arrive in the U.S. in September '95.  The 16-bit era had ended, all hail the 32-bit reign!

...Moving on...
It's too bad everyone's attention was elsewhere, because Ristar was a really awesome game.  It was everything you expected from a classic Sonic game but with a whole new gameplay twist.  Game Informer gave it an 8.25 in it's original review and a more recent IGN review of the Virtual Console port is a testament to the game's sustained appeal.  With the Playstation's rise came new genre's based on first- or third-person perspectives along with true sports simulators like Madden NFL 97, the first in the series by current developer Tiburon.  After a decade of dominance the platforming genre was beginning to decline, and Ristar stands as a paragon of what developers had learned over the years.  In that way it was both derivative of them as some critics have pointed out, but also the ultimate refinement of those mechanics and principles.  

Despite starring in only this single outing, that determined little luminous sphere of plasma has grown in popularity over the years.  The game was re-issued in collections of Sonic games for GameCube and PS2, and was more recently brought to Steam and Virtual Console on it's own or bundled on PSN and Xbox Live in the form of Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection.  Ristar has also made two cameo's in the Sonic & Sega All-Star Racing series but never as a playable character.  He's become such a cult icon that homebrew sequel have even sprung up based around the original gameplay.  

Maybe we'll see a true sequel come from Sega, at the very least the cameos prove they remember the game exists.  Bionic Commando, which uses a similar platforming mechanic, has tried to refresh itself to mixed success but perhaps Ristar can make a more comfortable move to 3D platforming like Mario Galaxy accomplished.  If you want to play Ristar on the go, you'd better have a working Game Gear and a truck load of batteries because it's not available on 3DS or PS Vita.  While some Sonic games have made it to mobile Ristar is not one of them.  A touchscreen version may be difficult since your finger would always be obscuring the exact place you're moving to, but using a digital button pad might work.  We may never get another Ristar game, and it's possible the platforming genre will never be what it once was, but for a very short window of time Ristar gave fans of the genre one last fleeting moment of greatness.

Do we dare to wish upon this star?  Picture credit
Have you played this game?  Is there a game you remember being great that no one else has heard of?  Sound of below and be sure to Like us of Facebook or Follow us on Twitter!

1 comment:

  1. Hey man

    Just wanted to drop a note commenting on how I like your page! I think it's very informative (especially the "what went wrong" part) and made me acctually go and try out some of the games you have highlighted (psychonauts & beyond good and evil for the moment) - keep it up!