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…