Typically, Burning Rangers (Sonic Team’s second effort for Sega’s Saturn console) has something of a Marmite effect, generally gamers either love it or loathe it, with very little middle ground to be seen. It is a game that probably would have benefitted immensely from a delay (though it was delayed often enough) to see it switch onto the Dreamcast hardware, its ambitions generally outweigh the technology that powers it, and so occasionally the game does falter, but on the whole it is a marvellous achievement, and yet another string in Sonic Team’s bow. Yet more than this, it was a rather forward thinking piece of design, with some brilliant features that have more than stood up to the test of time, which is why this often maligned masterpiece deserves another look.
In Burning Rangers, players assume control of a firefighter of the future, these were designed by Hiroyuki Ochi, and were done so to have their silhouettes resemble images of angels, symbolic of the righteousness of what they do, saving lives. In this reality, these futuristic firefighters are idolised, held upon high and aspired to, with civilians saved by these heroes gushing over them incessantly in the letters that they send to players, some expressing a desire to become one of their ranks-they are spark that inspires others to change their own lives, and to become better people.
In terms of its visuals, Burning Rangers was still fairly cutting edge upon its release in 1998, running on a retooled version of the engine that powered Nights into Dreams, levels are fully traversable 3D areas that vary from an underwater aquarium to an abandoned space colony. There may only be five of them in the game, but aesthetically they show enough variety to keep them feeling unique and interesting, but perhaps even more importantly, they still remain connected. Surprisingly, despite being littered with flash fires of several colours (the colours depict the strength of the fire, and therefore, how difficult it is to put out), Burning Rangers does not fall victim to the mesh curtain effect that blighted the Sega Saturn’s many other attempts at transparency, though unfortunately, not everything is quite so strong. Character models are the biggest disappointment in the game, once again lacking the gouraud shading to smooth out Sonic Team’s angular creations, the team opting for a less processor intensive alternative, though given all that is going on in the game, this is perhaps understandable to a certain extent.
The music for Burning Rangers was composed by the same team that crafted the magnificent score for Nights, though in truth there aren’t many compositions in the game, levels are atmospheric affairs, with the deathly silence punctuated mostly by the high pitched warning that screams out just before a flash fire erupts beside the player. Radio chatter between the various members of the team is quite common, as characters update the Rangers’ leader on their mission status and location, but more importantly, this brings me to one of the most advanced features of the game, it’s ground breaking voice navigation system.
From the very start of the project, Sonic Team decided that they wanted little on-screen clutter in Burning Rangers, this included any maps of the areas in the game, much like the conscious decision to remove background music from the title, the core aim was to create a highly atmospheric experience for the player. To overcome the danger of the player becoming lost, whilst adding a certain realism to the proceedings in the process, the development team added in a navigation system to alleviate this danger. Whilst traversing a level, the player can simply press a button on the controller to contact team leader, Chris Parton, who will tell the player in which direction that they should move in. The team went through various iterations of this system, before finally settling upon the version that they thought was best, which, in 1998 was a rather special addition to the proceedings, and it may yet remain rather relevant today-though for very different reasons. Contrastingly, from the state of game design upon the release of Burning Rangers, video games have come to mollycoddle gamers too much, consistently leading them entirely by the hand, which is now seeing many flock in droves towards the likes of Dark Souls, itself an unashamedly old fashioned gaming experience, completely devoid of this pandering. Though for many, of course, this is too steep a change from the status quo, so perhaps some middle ground has to be found? And in the voice navigation system, designers may just find what they are looking for, though of course, this is only an observation of my own.
Assistance in navigating the five levels of the game is an essential addition to the experience, firstly because players are technically competing against the clock, as they strive to prevent the limit level from rising, for upon reaching an total of 20% (and each subsequent 20% increment), the area around the player will erupt with a vast magnitude of flash fires, these become more pervasive and perilous as the limit level climbs towards its maximum level. Completing a mission will see the game reward the player with a rating, similar to Nights, but here this award is based upon the amount of crystals collected, civilians rescued, time taken to defeat the boss and the limit level upon completion of the mission. A password is also provided to allow the player to replay that specific layout of the level again. This, of course, then raises the topic of another area where Burning Rangers was rather forward thinking, and the second core reason for the inclusion of the navigation system.
Upon completion of the story with either of the two playable characters (Shou Amabane and Tillis), the brilliant level generator is activated, randomly generating one of thousands of potential level layouts which alters which areas can be accessed-which doors can be opened and what corridors can be accessed-fire placements and civilian locations also alternate, this not only provides near limitless replay value, but leaves players having to utilise the navigation system to successfully circumnavigate level layouts that are unfamiliar to them. If rumours are to be believed, this wonderful mechanic allows for more than 2,500 potential level variations in total, which is still as overwhelming a figure today as when I first heard it all of those years ago. Of course, by noting down the passwords provided at the end of a level, players can still bypass this random generation function and replay their favourite level layouts if they so wish.
With unlockable characters (through the use of the password system) and an additional mini game (this can be unlocked by rescuing one of the characters on the level Zero Gravity twice), on top of its random level generator, Burning Rangers is indeed a video game of substance-not artistically or philosophically, but in a more old fashioned sense, there’s simply lots to do, and with it, a level of longevity that is uncommon in most games, especially these days. Most of all though, Burning Rangers is another example of Sonic Team’s quest to explore all creative possibilities, and their desire to expand the boundaries of interactive entertainment. Whilst the team, along with Sega, may have fallen upon hard times in the last decade or so, the period of 1996 through 2001 was a time of great creativity for both, the results of which can still be felt today.
– James Paton (@theblackpage81)