Burning Rangers (1998, Sonic Team for Sega Saturn)
Burning Rangers is one of those great farewells that appears in a videogame system’s final days, one that celebrates its history and pushes its hardware to the absolute limit before developers move forward to new horizons. It is a masterful triumph that makes you thankful for the Sega Saturn, proud of its achievements, wistful and forgiving of its many struggles, sorry to witness an ignoble end, yet thankful to have experienced the journey. Here is Saturn’s Abbey Road farewell, where you take one last walk across the street barefoot, and sing to yourself, “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”
It is often said that this videogame really should have been released on Sega Dreamcast, which is not a knock on Saturn as much as an awareness of the directions Sonic Team would take in the following years and Sega’s optimistic, futuristic software hits to come. Burning Rangers carries the spirit of anticipation in its bones, a preview of exciting things to come, including Sonic Adventure and Phantasy Star Online, as well as providing an exciting experience in tself. Its tone is cheerful, upbeat and highly ambitious, like students at the cusp of their high school graduation.
I am also reminded how Sega just couldn’t catch a break in the 32-bit era, especially in the West. Saturn was written off before it was even released, and its first wave of software titles included the notoriously glitchy Virtua Fighter and Daytona USA, which doomed the system with a toxic reputation for poor 3D graphics that could never be shaken. Of course, Sega did themselves no favors by designing such a complicated machine, partly due to being flatfooted by Sony’s Playstation, partly due to their internal quirks for such things as dual-CPUs, specialized hardware chips and a graphics processor that rendered 3D quadrilateral polygons through a 2D sprite engine. But in the hands of skilled Assembly programmers, Saturn could truly sing and on rare occasions even surprise its critics.
Burning Rangers pushes the Saturn hardware harder than any title ever released. It not only uses the dual CPUs and the two Video Display Processors to great effect, it also utilizes the SCU DSP chip to crunch more polygons (a technique only seen in a handful of late Saturn titles, including Quake, Shining Force 3 and Panzer Dragoon Saga). The efforts pay off handsomely. The environments feature amazingly complex and detailed architectural designs, including buildings with multiple floors, railings, pipes, transparent flooring, collapsing platforms, large tanks of undulating water, tunnels and 3D platforms. Everything is illuminated in gouraud shading and multiple layers of light sourcing of different colors and intensities, from blinding lights to complete darkness. And through it all, endless waves of explosions, flame and fire. There are times when it seems as though the entire screen is melting down four ways at once, and it’s a miracle that smoke isn’t coming out of my Saturn. Sometimes I wonder if Sonic Team really wanted to burn the console down to ashes, either as a fiery farewell or as a massive middle finger. Or probably both.
The game is set in a futuristic world of space-bound anime firefighters who wear flashy outfits like they’re on route to a 22nd Century rave party. They travel to space stations and interglactic outposts to battle fires and rescue hostages who are trapped by the flames. You play as one of two rookies who have just passed basic training and are now thrust into the middle of a mission aboard a space station that quickly spirals out of control. You are armed with a laser gun that extinguishes flames and the occasional backdraft, and also dispatch wayward robots from time to time. Your goal is to rescue civilians who are hidden inside the many rooms and corridors. Some of them are easily seen, while others are hidden. After your mission is over, you may receive emails from rescued civilians that will flesh out the overall story arc. You can even rescue the members of Sonic Team if you’re so lucky.
One element that is especially innovative is the navigation system. You are never given a map of your environment; instead, your team navigator will communicate with you directly, telling you where the next objective lies, whether that be a control panel that restores power, a device that will unlock critical doors, or the location of trapped civilians. I’ve had to rely on her aid when I’ve become lost, which happens more than I’m willing to admit. In addition, you will hear constant chatter from your teammates as they relay their adventures, often providing you clues to the overall state of things. At one point, I even saw one of my teammates through a transparent floor as she boasted about who would reach the finish first. All of this adds to the atmosphere of the world and makes it feel more lived-in and less like a videogame obstacle course. For these reasons, the US retail release has become one of Saturn’s most expensive titles, while the Japanese release remains far more affordable.
There’s a strong Sonic the Hedgehog vibe in Burning Rangers, from the loading screens to a boss battle that reappears later in Sonic Adventure. The strongest example are the red gems, which appear when you put out fires with your laser pistol. These serve the same role as Sonic’s rings, and when you are hit or damaged, those gems will fly out in similar fashion, leaving you unshielded and vulnerable. I find myself scrambling through open flames to get those shiny things back, and often feel like a sucker for acting so desperately. Sega really knew how to ramp up the tension that way.
One wouldn’t think that a firefighting videogame would be exciting, and goodness knows there have been many attempts made over the years: Towering Inferno on Atari 2600 VCS, The Ignition Factor on Super NES, Fahrenheit on Sega CD, the infamous Duelin’ Firemen on 3DO. Burning Rangers perfectly captures that sense of danger and dread, where walls can erupt in flame at any moment, where rooms can suddenly erupt in a frenzy of explosions, and even the floors themselves can buckle and collapse. All the while, the structural integrity of the space station endlessly deteriorates as the fires grow, increasing the chances of a massive backdraft as that number rises towards 100 percent. You may feel confident that you can reach the final goal, but add in a couple major power outages, a room with detonating gas canisters, and a couple collapsed floors that leave you disoriented, and you’ll be reaching panic status soon enough. And once that structural number crosses 90 percent, all hell begins to break loose. It’s all so massively chaotic, a brilliant use of a time limit that I haven’t seen anywhere else.
Burning Rangers is relatively short, with only four major missions. Within that framework, you will traverse on land, under water and even in a spaceship (one of the great visual showpieces of the game). The final climactic battle takes place in a 3D platform environment not unlike if Mario followed Terence McKenna’s advice and consumed a heroic dose of magic mushrooms. After you complete a stage, you are graded for your time and number of possible hostages rescued, much like NiGHTS: Into Dreams. Repeat play reveals that the level designs are randomly generated, which greatly enhances the replay value.
That said, count me among those who would have loved to see an enhanced version of this game released on Sega Dreamcast. But didn’t we already get that in Phantasy Star Online? It seems fitting that Burning Rangers would never appear again. It’s belongs to the Saturn with all its glorious designs and, yes, all of its visual glitches, which are nowhere near as bad as some people would have you believe. Personally, I prefer creativity and ambition over polish. I want to see game consoles and software developers alike pushed to their absolute limits, then pushed just a little further.
What made Sega great was their ability to defy convention, take great and terrible risks, and push themselves to their limits to prove their genius. They caught so much flak for their hardware, but it was those very machines that inspired the greatness. “You should get out of the business,” they said. You should become a software company and make games for Sony and Nintendo,” they said. Look at where that got ’em. In 1998, gamers couldn’t get rid of Sega Saturn fast enough. Today, you’d kill everyone on your block to bring Saturn back. Burn, Baby, Burn.