Ristar (Game Gear) review
"The evil doings of Greedy roused a sleeping star. His name is Ristar. We’ve seen him before; he took on Greedy in his side-scrolling Sega Genesis adventure with such style and grace as to cement for himself a place among the very best in his genre. The cutesy platformer genre (also known as the mascot genre) was imbued with the young star’s startling brilliance, and though Ristar never achieved the popularity of a Super Mario, or a Sonic, those who have taken control of the celestial phenomenon know his greatness. "
The evil doings of Greedy roused a sleeping star. His name is Ristar. We’ve seen him before; he took on Greedy in his side-scrolling Sega Genesis adventure with such style and grace as to cement for himself a place among the very best in his genre. The cutesy platformer genre (also known as the mascot genre) was imbued with the young star’s startling brilliance, and though Ristar never achieved the popularity of a Super Mario, or a Sonic, those who have taken control of the celestial phenomenon know his greatness.
Right away, the same first level music that thrilled us in the Genesis version manages the same feat here. Planet Flora is a lush and magical forest of sorts that welcomes us to Ristar’s realm. At this point, you’ll think this Game Gear version is going to be a near perfect port of the Genesis classic. Well, yes and no.
Ristar still pulls blue ‘orb’ enemies toward him and slams them bodily so that their form dissipates and leaves a blinking, black orb ‘soul’ bounding away harmlessly. He still climbs expertly with his long arms reaching lithely up ladders on cliff faces, still climbs hand over hand on rungs that hang from ceilings. As before, he can bounce his way up tree trunks, pull his star-shaped body up and down tree branches as if they were parallel bars. Bouncing giant rabbits, watchful owls, and burrowing moles all reappear on Ristar’s Game Gear itinerary in world one.
But there are a few differences that set the portable adventure apart. First, the obvious: outside of the little stars that make up your vitality gauge (four in total), there are much larger stars scattered around the environs, as abundant as rings in Sonic The Hedgehog. To continue with that comparison, netting 100 will earn you an extra life. This star-collecting addition, along with now unlimited continues (that's also new), make Ristar a bit easier in the palm of your hand.
The bonus rounds are also easier, though probably quite a bit longer in completing. Rather than navigate through a sort of obstacle course to find a treasure in a short, allotted time, the goal is to collect all 200 stars available while avoiding falling. But these changes are minor in comparison to the liberties taken with the game's actual worlds.
Planet Flora, or level one, is the same here on the Game Gear, but Planet Undertow (the water level and second stage), and Planet Scorch (the fire level and third stage) from the original game have been replaced with Planet Terra for on-the-go gamers. Planets Sonata, Freon, Automaton, and Greedy remain the same. If your math is as good as you think it is, this means that Game Gear players lose a level.
The bad news is that one of the levels lost in the translation, Planet Undertow, is one of the very best of the Genesis mission. Furthermore, the Planet that has replaced it, is a bit dull in comparison. Instead of racing about underwater passages against the flow of water churned violently by giant turbines, we settle for clambering up decks on a massive ghost ship - and that description makes the latter sound better than it really is. Still, if something positive can be taken from the losses, it is that Planet Scorch was the most tedious world from the Genesis game, and so you mightn't miss it much.
After the brand new Planet Terra, we are consoled by a faithful and rousing rendition of Planet Sonata. I don’t know if there has ever been a more charming level in a game of this type. You need to locate bottles of… well, we’ll say rum, for lack of a better name for the drink. A seemingly stoic green-headed bird will stand guard at various points in the level, making progress impossible. The trick is to bring him the booze. And it's not that easy - but damn is it ever fun. If you manage the feat, the bird will ditch his quiet exterior and he'll sing joyously, flitting around excitedly, flying off, allowing you passage. The chanting, synthesized music is so relaxing, so inspiring, so singular, so memorable. (I thank Sega wholeheartedly for the sound test in both versions of the game.)
Sonata's angry, crowing eagle boss, Auweck attacks Ristar in a variety of ways. He’ll ruffle his feathers, literally, raining them down dangerously; he’ll dive-bomb our little hero; or else he’ll sing his horribly warped song, the actual notes issuing crookedly, bombarding you.
Fondly, I remember Planet Freon serving up especially great moments in the Genesis version. A shell-headed enemy would engage you on the powdered hills in a snowball fight! Beating him would somehow earn you his respect, like some gang initiation in South Central L.A., and he’d help you out later when you confronted the gargantuan boss, Itamor. The ice creature crowded the vertical dimensions of the screen and would suck you into his massive mouth for lunch, unless of course you could find him a suitable substitute. The shell-head gang member would provide a hot dish to upset Itamor's stomach if your throwing arm was willing and able.
Unfortunately, this highlight is also missing from our handheld replica. Instead, Ristar takes a huge step down in gaming goodness when he is reduced to a series of explosive time trials. You’ll have to walk through archways as they appear, each one bearing a timed bomb that adheres to star-skin. The idea is to get to the inevitable oasis of water that marks the end of sequences involving sprinting, jumping, swinging, climbing and killing. If you get wet in time, the explosive ‘device’ will float away harmlessly. If you don’t… Well, you’ll lose a star. It’s actually fairly challenging, harrowing stuff, because at times you’ll hurry to get to the safety of the cooling waters, taking damage en route in your haste, only to not make it and take more damage. But it’s no snowball fight. And the battle against the small, strange creature to conclude the Freon world is no Itamor’s Lunch.
Thankfully, Planet Automaton is much closer to its Genesis representation. Even the bosses are the same: the hyperactive menace Uranium Power assails you relentlessly, daring you to make it to Planet Greedy where a series of orb challenges, the powerful Inonysis, and finally, ultimately, the evil tyrant Greedy await in the darkness of this shadowed world.
While the lost levels and misplaced moments (like the frolicking in Freon) seem to add up to an underwhelming downgrade of a classic game, new additions unique to this Game Gear port help with not only keeping it from looking like a downgrade, but also in making this version a classic in its own right. The shell-headed guys, for example, are not just bonked into oblivion anymore. Now you can claim the shell hat/head that they leave behind once bonked, and toss it, Frisbee-like, at foes. The control is particularly exceptional; you can actually toss it straight up, or arc it upwards and to one side, taking out airborne enemies in either case. Similarly, spear-chucking assailants can be persuaded (a good pounding will facilitate this) into leaving their spears in their wake. You will not only be able to fling the spears at foes, but launching the lance at say, a tree trunk, will see it embedded in the wood, creating a makeshift springboard to higher areas. Truly classic stuff.
But there’s more: Ristar was once able to actually grab onto enemies with a press of the attack button, and releasing this button would enact the pounding. This meant that if you didn’t release the attack button, he’d continue to hold onto his enemy. This is no longer possible. Now the holding and pounding actions have been combined into one move, one button press.
Now this isn't particularly important throughout the game, but consider the change in strategy for the final boss, Greedy! The vile villain has a rather nasty repertoire at his disposal, and his most potent attack occurs when he creates a vacuum, or black hole to do you in. No longer can you hang onto the orbs he dispenses to keep you away from the evil gravity of his magic! But there is a way… In addition, overcoming Greedy's final attack will also take more thought and subtle skill than was necessary the first time ‘round. Frustration might greet you to begin with, but you’ll have a sort of glowing satisfaction, and real respect for the way the scenario was re-crafted, when you finally finish it.
Ristar isn’t the best mascot game you can take on a trip with you. After all, the superior Genesis version can be bandied about on your Sega Nomad, and games such as Bonk’s Adventure, playable on the Turbo Express unit, and Super Mario Advance 2 and 3 for the GBA - also deserve consideration. But realistically, those systems are handheld versions of 16-bit powerhouse consoles and therefore, they're in a different weight class altogether.
A more realistic claim would be that Ristar is the best Game Gear game you could possibly buy, better than any game of its type on the Gameboy Color, and almost as good as its namesake on the Sega Genesis. I was incredibly impressed to see something look and sound so good on the diminutive Game Gear screen, within the quaint limitations of what is mostly Master System hardware. But Sega managed it.
Ristar is good enough and cheap enough that even if you already owned the Genesis game and the Nomad, you'd still want this. And to say that someone owning that brilliant game, for play on that brilliant system, would still want this game - a handheld port - is as profound a compliment as one could give.
Indeed, if you've even had a taste of Ristar on some level, you could order/purchase this game going only by the name, in complete confidence. If you haven't been privy to the little guy's greatness at all, rest assured that it is a far cry from witnessing a fat and blurry little plumber straining his aged joints under a good deal of eyestrain; you'll enjoy instead the compact chronicles of this twinkling star with a twinkle in your eye.
Staff review by Marc Golding (December 09, 2003)
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