One of the best things about the Mega Drive — and one of the aspects that makes it a system so enjoyable to revisit — is the prevalence of unabashedly arcade-style games — and indeed arcade ports — in its catalogue.
Namco’s Burning Force is a particularly fun example that offers something a little different from the norm; while received with fairly mediocre reviews on its original release thanks to a superficial resemblance to Sega classic Space Harrier, looking back on it from a modern perspective reveals a pleasingly distinctive shoot ’em up that both looks and plays great even today.
Also it features a pretty girl in a neon pink leotard riding a transforming hoverbike. What’s not to like about that?
Burning Force casts the player in the role of space cadet Hiromi Tengenji, who is coming to the end of her training. Unusually for a shoot ’em up, the action revolves not around saving the world from an alien threat, but rather simply seeing Hiromi through the rather brutal finale to her training regime, which appears to consist of six days of solid combat exercises with no time to rest.
Each in-game day is split into four parts: the first two consist of waves of enemies and obstacles which Hiromi must avoid or destroy while riding her bike. In these phases, it’s only possible to move left and right as well as speed up or slow down the bike to a small degree, though occasional jump pads put in an appearance allowing you to reach suspended powerups hanging from pillars or floating in the air.
The third phase of each day unfolds at night, and sees Hiromi briefly dock her bike in a mothership, receive a rudimentary briefing on an upcoming enemy’s weak points, then transform her bike into an aircraft to continue her mission. During this phase, the ability to accelerate and decelerate is replaced by the ability to dive and climb, giving you an extra dimension to think about when avoiding and destroying enemies. Bosses tend to make particular use of this aspect, requiring you to increase or decrease your altitude to avoid attacks while inflicting damage on weak points.
The fourth and final phase of each day actually takes place as the sun is rising on the next, and is a bonus round with no enemies. During this phase, Hiromi maintains her airborne capabilities and must follow undulating strings of orbs to score points and obtain extra lives. Once this phase is complete, you receive a score bonus for all the orbs you collected, then you move on to a new day with a new background, new colour palette, new enemies to challenge… and Hiromi back on her bike in its original form.
One of the things I really appreciate about Burning Force when revisiting it from a modern perspective is the fact that it doesn’t simply let you credit-feed your way to the end. You have the ability to continue, yes, but you don’t have infinite continues as you tend to be provided with in many modern arcade ports such as those of Cave shoot ’em ups and their ilk. Instead, upon losing Hiromi’s last life, you’re presented with a level select screen allowing you to start again at any of the non-bonus phases you’ve previously reached. In this way, if you’re chasing high scores, you can deliberately set yourself back a bit in order to inflate your score on a level you know you’re good at — or if you just want to try and beat the game, you can pick up from the beginning of the phase you left off at.
This aspect of the game’s design may be frustrating to those who just want to beat the game, but it’s a potent reminder of how games used to be, and how arcade-style games didn’t rely exclusively on the player’s own discipline not to simply credit-feed the way to the end. The limited continues provide new players with an ability to get a bit further than they might otherwise be able to should they only have a single credit to play with, and also increase the game’s overall longevity. In other words, it’s unlikely you’ll start and beat Burning Force the first time you sit down and play it, even on the default “Easy” difficulty.
Presentation-wise, Burning Force is still a good looking game. While the Mega Drive lacks the hardware scaling capabilities of the Super NES, sufficient frames of animation are used on Burning Force’s sprites to make the 3D effect reasonably convincing, particularly when combined with the smoothly scrolling striped ground effect. The enemies show a great deal of variety, and the different days each have a different overall theme that is reflected in their colour scheme, background and the obstacles you encounter; for example, in the first stage, where you’re riding over water, the obstacles are largely rocky outcroppings and metallic pillars in the sea; in the second, meanwhile, you’re in a desert, so you’ll need to carefully weave around palm trees while dealing with enemies that burrow beneath the sand.
The soundtrack is quintessential Mega Drive-era music, featuring exuberant use of the system’s trademark tinny FM synth to produce some crackingly catchy melodies, while the sound effects are typical of the era, consisting of synthesised beeps, burbles and distinctly crumbly-sounding explosions rather than digital sampled sound. The dated nature of the overall audio experience is part of the game’s charm, though; it’s making good use of the Mega Drive’s capabilities and working around its limitations, and I defy anyone not to have the first level’s music stuck in their head even after playing it only once.
Burning Force is by no means as well known as some of the Mega Drive’s more established classics in the shmup genre, but it’s a wild ride that is a lot of fun, as well as an experience that offers something a bit different from the more typical horizontal and vertical scrollers the system was primarily known for. While comparisons to Space Harrier are understandable given the two games’ similar aesthetic, Burning Force offers an experience very distinct from Sega’s classic, and as such is very much worth examining on its own merits rather than comparing it to something that it isn’t.
And if you can’t get enough of Hiromi and her pink leotard, she also showed up in a few later games, too, most notably PS2 tactical RPG and Project X Zone predecessor Namco x Capcom, and defunct Namco subsidiary ShiftyLook’s dating sim Namco High, the latter of which you can still play online here despite its official service ending in 2014.
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