Happy birthday Burning Rangers!

Burning Rangers, Sonic Team’s other Saturn game that also wasn’t the 3D Sonic platformer everybody was waiting for, is now officially an adult! It’s been eighteen years today since these Angel with Burning Hearts with their Wings of Shining White ♫~Aquamarine coloured sky/FLY HIIIIIIIIIGH Wi~♫

*cough*

In any case, I thought this anniversary would be as good a time as any to take a moment to talk about this wonderful mess of a game, a fine display of ambition over common sense and somewhat shaky proof that the Saturn could pull off all those fancy 3D effects that PlayStation and N64 games seemed to do with little effort.

There is no escaping an uncomfortable truth with Saturn technical tour-de-force and a personal all-time favourite Burning Rangers, and that is that it looks… a bit rubbish. It makes no difference whether you’re looking at still screenshots or a video of the game in motion, there are almost no instances where you won’t spot some nasty clipping, or spy an object sitting in the black void of an undisplayed room through a flickering wall, or see fire stuck inside the scenery again. The Saturn really tried, bless it, but at the end of the day it just wasn’t capable of pulling off everything Burning Rangers asked of it.

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But it’s not  actually the Saturn that’s to blame here, because when you really look at exactly what’s going on in each stage you’ll realise Sonic Team were bonkers to even think they could try to get the Saturn to handle half of this stuff in the first place! Take for example the most mundane of environmental details – the floor. Here’s a very typical bit of this functional but usually unremarkable surface from the second mission ‘Silent Blue’ -

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So what, right? It’s a floor, all flat and floor-like. Look again – the floor Tillis is standing on has great big strips cut out of it on either side, and underneath that is another polygonal floor (the only 2D image outside the HUD is the blue background seen in the distance) – and this lower floor has its texture animated to look as if water is running under your feet. All this for a floor on a game that’s already stretched to the limit doing a ton of other things it’s not supposed to be able to in the first place. It’s a small detail that’s as unnecessary as it is impressive.

Sonic Team’s attitude towards the entire game seems to have been ‘Break the Saturn or die trying’ – there’s a lot of tinted and translucent glass and water, wibbly underwater scenes, translucent fires on top of other translucent fires, multi-coloured lighting that can change on the fly… There’s no getting away from the fact that even with all this graphical extravagance Burning Rangers still looks like it’s held together with nothing more than enthusiasm, but Sonic Team’s style and passion for the project does its best to shine through regardless.

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Thankfully these big ideas didn’t end with the graphics, and Burning Rangers other bold innovation was in its impressive semi-random stage design – anyone who’s ever played Phantasy Star Online will be familiar with this, where even the very first area can feel drastically different just by blocking off a few rooms and forcing the player to detour through an unfamiliar area. It’s not just the odd door that’s effected either - while after many, many, runs you’ll realise that the vast majority of flash fires always occur in the same spot every time there’s never any way of knowing if the area you’re exploring will contain a survivor, some crystals, or nothing at all - and even if you do find a survivor you have no idea who you’re rescuing until you’re right next to them and can get a good look of their face and clothing.

And yes, you really can tell who these people are just by looking at them. In another display of Sonic Team’s grand (crazy?) vision for the project every single survivor in Burning Rangers is an individual who’s 3D model matches the 2D illustration in their ‘thank you’ emails. You can even rescue Claris and Elliot from NiGHTS (second mission) and the game’s staff (third mission) too! Thank you emails are received a maximum of five at a time at the end of a successful mission and once obtained can be re-read as many times as you like – some of them even come with files attached, including a minigame and several pieces of artwork. Survivors often have several emails to send your way, ranging from simple fluff to revealing how they’re coping after their ordeal; it’s a neat way of bringing some depth and lore into an otherwise very arcade-like game without disrupting the action.

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Burning Rangers is the gaming equivalent of a genius architect building a 200ft castle out of sand – you can clearly see their passion and talent show in their work, but ultimately the base material just wasn’t capable of handling such a monumental task. Sonic Team’s futuristic fire-fighter constantly teeters on the edge of oblivion, at all times just a single moment away from coming together beautifully or falling apart at the seams. Technically brilliant and yet always lacking, it’s a game that deserves to be appreciated for its daring ideas over its shoddy execution - few other 3D games before or since have dared to push their host hardware as hard as Burning Rangers did, and the concept of a constantly evolving 3D rescue-em-up remains an alluring and underused concept almost twenty years on.

If you’ve got this far and you’d still like to hear more about Burning Rangers, take a look at this post I wrote about the Japanese trial disc - http://shinjuforest.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/the-house-of-deadburning-rangers.html

Oh! For some wonderful reason the official Japanese website’s still up and can be found over here - http://burningranger.sega.jp/