While Saturn owners tried to suppress their feelings of buyers remorse and clung to the vain hope of seeing polygon-pushing Sonic the Hedgehog title on that misbegotten console, the folks behind Sega’s flagship franchise focused their attention on developing a pair of new intellectual properties for the marketplace.
1996′s Nights into Dreams was the first of the two. The game was an acrobatic glide through a trippy dream world featuring a jester-like mascot who tread the thin line between adorable and disturbing. Thought it was fairly well-received and heavily hyped in the gaming press, Nights failed to claim the “killer app” territory that Sega had been positioning it towards. Using the game as a bundle vehicle for the Saturn’s UFO-shaped analog control pad didn’t help things, but the bigger problem was how the game managed to provide a convincing proof of concept for a next-gen Sonic game without actually featuring that signature spiky mascot.
“Can’t be done” is difficult enough for fans to wrap their entitled little heads around. “Could be done, but we decided not to” is the stuff around which angry, Dorito-reeking mobs will form.
To rub salt additional salt into the wound, Sonic’s first foray into the 3D realm appeared the following summer as an limited “interactive museum” slapped onto Sonic Jam, a Saturn collection of four Genesis Sonic titles. I wasn’t even a fan of the franchise and I felt pity for the poor saps who realized that tantalizing taste was all they were going to get during that console generation.
Sonic Team’s other non-Sonic offering for the Saturn came at the tail end of the console’s lifespan. The game was an offbeat shooter-platformer-exploration hybrid titled Burning Rangers.
Burning Rangers puts players in the role of a jetpack-boosted firefighter tasked with rescuing civilians and extinguishing blazes in a futurist Utopia. Though the Rangers are a five-person organization of anime archetypes, player choice for the story mode is limited to Brash Young Dude and Squeaky Naif Chick.
There are no in-game maps for the scorched and twisting corridors the player must explore. Navigation assistance is instead provided by incidental and button-triggered radio chatter from Ranger HQ. It’s a neat touch that adds to claustrophobic suspense, but most of the level layouts are simple enough to traverse without audio assistance.
There are no enemies to battle in the traditional sense, apart from an assortment of mutated creatures and robots that populate the game’s boss battles. The real adversary is the ever spreading and deadly flames that can escalate into an deadly conflagration or unleash a violent backdraft with only a moment’s warning. The process of extinguishing these flames is carried out by way of a wrist mounted spray-blaster which can lob a default normal burst or an impressively implosive charged shot.
Putting out fires generate crystal pick-ups which function as damage buffer similar to Sonic‘s rings. The crystals are also used to power the teleportation rig used to spirit any civilians encountered to safety, adding a tactical element to the traditional hoarding tendency.
The game is fairly short — consisting of only four (fairly large) levels and an infuriating rail-shooter sequence — but beating the final boss opens up a randomization option with alternate pathways to explore and civilians to rescue — some of whom will offer their thanks in the form of in-game email messages and codes to unlock various cosmetic goodies.
Burning Rangers‘ ambitious innovations can’t mask a number of glaring problems. For starters, it’s a third-person action game from an era before dual-stick controls became genre standard. The in-game camera can be a deadlier foe than any surprise explosion, and the game’s emphasis on aerial acrobatics is hampered by some really dodgy collision detection. When things work properly, there’s no beating the exhiliation of pulling off a vernier-assisted backflip away from an exploding bulkhead. However, it’s more likely that you’ll end up cursing a blue streak after screwing up a simple platform jump for the umpteenth time.
Despite those issues, Burning Rangers is near the top of my list of favorite videogames. Timing had something to do with it. The import version (with a bonus mini-CD featuring the rock, rap, and ballad tracks used in the game) dropped just as I was shifting my focus to the Playstation’s more robust library of games. The uniqueness of the game rekindled my affection for the Little Console That Couldn’t and stoked my enthusiasm for its last (and best) wave of big first-party offerings.
Its slick anime aesthetic and upbeat J-pop soundtrack was the apotheosis of the double-faceted fandom that drove my interest in both videogames and animation from the mid-Eighties up through the turn of the millennium. It never meshed quite as perfectly for me as it did in Burning Rangers, and I doubt it ever will again.
I was 26 in 1998, finally free of college and working a job which let me immerse myself in the bold new world of computer hardware, the internet, and enough pocket money to blow on frivolities. The aesthetic vibe of Burning Rangers dovetailed perfectly with tDR and big beat vision of the WipeOut games — the techno-glitter promise of the Eighties minus the apocalyptic dread. The domestic release of Burning Rangers was one of the first things I purchased off of eBay (back before a loose copy would set you back two hundred bucks) and an image of the characters from Sega’s official site was my desktop wallpaper for well into Bush the Younger’s first term.
The digital frontier was wide open and big things loomed on the horizon.
If only I knew how right and wrong I was.