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Re-release this: Burning Rangers
Fly hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh! With grace and pride
This column is “Re-release this,” which will focus on games that aren’t easily available, or even available at all, but should be once again. Previous entries in this series can be found through this link.
Burning Rangers is often cited as one of the best games on the Sega Saturn, which I don’t find to be wholly accurate. It’s one of the best ideas on the Saturn, for sure — rather than going around fighting and killing as was so often the case in video games of the day, the focus here is on being heroes who nonviolently save people from fires. Firefighters, but ones in a futuristic sci-fi world where fires were put out using laser technology that converted the energy in fires into crystals that could, in turn, power other technology. Sure, you also had to blow up some robots that had gone wild, but these weren’t robots with self-awareness. More like truck-sized Roombas with laser beams attached.
And Burning Rangers is a good time, don’t get me wrong. The Saturn library is better than it gets credit for, though, and Burning Rangers has plenty going for it, but it’s also frustrating on a number of levels. The controls aren’t great — better with the 3D Control Pad that has an analog stick, but still not as reliable as you’d like — and the camera is flat-out bad. Burning Rangers is arguably a little short, too, which is something coming from me, a person who usually rolls their eyes at “it’s too short” video game discourse, and despite that runtime, there are entire stretches of the final stage that I would like to memory hole.
Compels me, though. Burning Rangers isn’t a bad game — I am saying it should be re-released, after all — but it could have been a better one more deserving of its reputation. If only Sega had decided to hold it until the Dreamcast released about a year-and-a-half later, so it was on a more powerful system with better 3D technology and a controller better able to handle what was expected of it. Burning Rangers, in a lot of ways, reminds me of Bulk Slash, in that it’s a 3D game played on a system and a controller that weren’t designed specifically with that kind of thing in mind. Unlike Bulk Slash — which I’d happily argue is one of the best games on the Saturn — everything you’re doing is on a smaller scale. Indoors, in corridors, etc., while huge chunks of Bulk Slash take place outdoors, where you have space to maneuver and room for error in your shots, your dodges, your movement, which helps to hide some of the inherent issues of the platform and time. Burning Storm is a lot more claustrophobic, and, when combined with some dodgy collision detection that sometimes serves to aid you and more frustratingly can mess things up for you, it’s a problem.
Even with myriad issues, though, Burning Rangers is fun. The platforming is far from rock solid even for the era, but the level design itself is top notch, and the act of flying around and double jumping with your jetpack while putting out fires and rescuing survivors still works well 25 years later. Sonic Team might not have had an actual Sonic the Hedgehog game for the Saturn, but they were experimenting all over the place during that console’s life, and while the lack of Sonic was bad for business, the focus elsewhere was great for creativity.
Sonic Team wanted to make a game where killing wasn’t the point, where you could play as a hero for a different reason. (There’s a 2008 interview with the game’s director, Takao Miyoshi, where the GamesTM interviewer says, “Blame it on the inexplicable cravings of Western gamers en masse or perhaps the global malaise felt in recent years, but it can seem as though games whose very reason for existing is to facilitate the desires of those who wish to terminate the existences of game characters (whether modelled on humans, aliens, or monsters) have never been more popular,” before discussing this very issue with Miyoshi, which is frankly amazing to see in a video game magazine from any time period.) They also didn’t feel like there was a need to make anything super realistic, but instead to just roll with the idea that hey, this is set in the future, and we’re putting out fires with special lasers and crystal-powered shielding, our firesuits are too thin because they look sick as hell that way. Don’t worry about how the Burning Rangers eat and breathe, and other science facts.
You pick one of two characters to play as: Shou Amabane, or Tillis. Why does the man get a last name and the woman doesn’t? My only guess outside of that someone just plain forgot to give her one — probably the same person who decided Shou needed to be huge on the box art while Tillis is not even the second-largest character on there — is that it’s because Tillis is an orphan whose parents were killed in a fire, and this was what Sonic Team thought would help get that across again. Hey, at least her name is what it says it is: poor Reed Phoenix has his name written out as “Lead” in the localization that’s got plenty of noticeable errors in it for a game with so little text, but at least the voice acting script got it right. That or we’re supposed to read that as “Lead” like the metal, and his nickname makes him “Lead Phoenix,” the kind of phoenix that releases toxic fumes when it rises. We are probably spending too much time on this. The point is that you can play as two different characters from the outset, and outside of a few lines of dialogue and such, there’s no real change. Other than that Shou comes off as kind of typical late-90s annoying man in his 20s, and Tillis is very excited about talking to a dolphin.
Here is the basic version of how Burning Rangers plays. You fire shots off from a laser pistol at fires that come in various colors. Red is the weakest, blue is the strongest, and green ones are strong, and might also start lobbing fireballs in various directions. Red doesn’t take much shooting to put out, but the others require a pretty constant barrage of shots, and are also likely to be larger in size to begin with, meaning you’ll have more of them to put out in addition to their general resilience. Shots have a bit of homing to them, so as long as you’re facing in generally the right direction and with enough space for them to plot out the course they need, they’ll find their target. You can charge up your shot to automatically clear whatever fire is in front of you in one go, too, but there’s a downside to this: you won’t receive any crystals for doing so.
Why do you need crystals? Oh, for everything. Red crystals are worth one, green crystals worth five, and they power basically everything you do outside of shooting and jumping. You need at least five crystals to transport a survivor to safety, and if you can spare 10 instead, you’ll get an extra life for it, too. There are 12 survivors in the first stage, so that’s a whole bunch of extra lives if you can get them. Crystals are also basically like rings are for Sonic the Hedgehog, too: if you take damage, they all come flying out of you, and you have a moment to try to collect as many of them as you can once again before they disappear. If you take damage when you aren’t holding any crystals, you die. A major difference here is that not having enough given rings at any time in classic Sonic meant you couldn’t get the Chaos Emeralds: in Burning Rangers, it means you can’t save the very people you’ve entered the burning building/aquarium/spaceship to save in the first place.
There’s a fairly set path to the end of each level, and it’s the one that your voice navigation will lead you to. You’ll want to go off that path, though, to find all the survivors you can, which also means finding hidden crystals, a result that’s good both for having more of them to spend on the survivors in order to basically buy extra lives, and because the more crystals you have, the more will fly out and be able to picked up once more when you inevitably do take damage from a fire, an explosion, a robot you’re fighting in a cramped corridor and goddammit why can’t I turn the way I need to while he’s firing at me.
Speaking of those explosions, there are two different kinds. The first is not quite a quick-time event, but it does require you react quickly before an event, where the event is “an explosion blowing out a wall with you next to it.” You’ll hear a high-pitched whistle before an explosion, and the thing you’re going to want to do, rather than determine where it’s coming from, is to just assume that it’s right next to you and press down on the D-pad or analog stick. You’ll backflip out of harm’s way and then be in a position to put out the new fire that the explosion caused. Things get a little tougher to avoid later, due to how the game measures the time you spend in a stage. There’s no time limit in Burning Rangers, but instead, there’s a Limit gauge. As you put out fires, the meter (which is represented by a percentage on your HUD) will decrease. The longer you take in a level, though, and the longer the various fires rage on, then the Limit will climb. There’s a green meter that slowly turns red in the top-middle of your screen, and if that goes all red while your Limit percentage is at a certain rate, there will be a series of explosions from underfoot, and there is really nothing you can do to avoid them besides to run without stopping. Backflipping out of the way of one might result in backflipping into another; run instead.
Putting out fires and moving along to where Chris tells you can help keep the Limit from climbing so high that you’re just perpetually being firebombed, but if you’re actively looking for survivors and searching out the various optional corridors, then you basically can’t help having it happen sometimes. There’s a balance to be struck, where you can manage to save all the survivors and avoid taking so long that it adversely impacts your end-of-level grades, but you probably won’t find it on your first playthrough. And maybe not your second, either, since, upon completion of the game, you can play it again but with the corridors all randomized from where they were the first time you went through the game’s four (well, five) stages. You do want to grab those survivors, though, and not just for better scores: members of Sonic Team are among the survivors, and they’ll give you codes that let you play as the previously non-playable Rangers on your team.
Each of the game’s stages take place in a different location, with the fifth an extension of the fourth: you end up inside of a giant spaceship, without survivors to rescue, for reasons I’ll leave for you to find out. There’s a very weird platforming bit here that’s frustrating if you don’t nail things just right because again, the controls and camera are not stellar, and then you wrap with a gameplay segment that is unlike anything you’ve done the entire time before, that’ll make you pretty happy about all those extra lives you picked up earlier when there were survivors to rescue. If you insist on putting a vehicle section into a game that otherwise doesn’t have any, it better be flawless.
The game is fully voiced, and mostly does a good job of that. The main characters, for the most part, sound good and like they fit in the game world they’re in, which has a lot to do with Sonic Team making sure that the voice actors for both the Japanese and English-speaking versions of the game were experienced voice actors, with Japan’s cast a who’s who of the voices of 90s anime characters, even, which perfectly fit the vibes of Burning Rangers, a video game whose title theme namedrops the game. The NPCs are where the voices are pretty dodgy and the lines a level of cheese that makes you remember when Burning Rangers released, but hey, those people just aren’t cool enough to be Burning Rangers, is all. They can’t help that.
The cutscenes are fully animated, and were created by the same studio that worked on Akira and the Transformers television series, so, yeah, those look great on the actual hardware a. They weren’t made the traditional way — ink and paint — but instead were created digitally so they could fit onto the Saturn’s CD-ROM format. As members of Sonic Team explained in an interview with Official Sega Saturn Magazine, “In normal animation, everything is done on cells, but for digital animation it's all done on CD. Nowadays, everyone's changing over to digital animation. This is different from the 3D CG used in Beast Wars. It's more like the anime used in Disney's Aladdin.”
Sadly, none of the versions of the cutscenes I can find on YouTube look anything besides extremely compressed…
…but you can trust me that they look great on the original hardware played through an S-Video connection on a CRT, or you could just go to the Internet Archive version of the video above to watch it in an uncompressed form there. They’re an excellent use of the CD-ROM format, and a great way to further show off the character and world designs found in Burning Rangers. Which, again: sick as hell.
Another wonderful use of the extra storage capacity that CD-ROM formats allowed is the game’s voice navigation system (see, I told you it reminded me of Bulk Slash). You don’t have a map in Burning Rangers, but instead, you receive voice commands from one of the Rangers, Chris, and can request more of them if you get lost: she’ll give you hints if she’s able to, but sometimes, there are places where she has no data to go on, and you have to sort things out for yourself. Burning Rangers also uses the voice acting to allow for conversations occurring between other members of the team as they go about rescuing survivors, putting out fires, and discovering problems that need to be solved — often by you — which helps make each of the game’s levels feel more alive. It’s all scripted, sure, but it moves things along in a way that avoids anything ever feeling static.
Burning Rangers is known for its music, but because of a design decision, there’s very little actual in-level music. This wasn’t the wrong call, for what it’s worth: the lack of music in the game’s stages is meant to make the crackle of the fires, the voice navigation, the notifications for incoming explosions, and so on all really pop: you feel like you’re in the middle of a building with dozens of fires within it because that’s what you’re hearing while you’re in that kind of location, rather than music. Boss fights have music (yes, there are boss fights, luckily they’re pretty simple to figure out), as do the various cutscenes. And it wouldn’t be a Burning Rangers feature if I failed to embed the game’s title theme in all its extremely 1990s glory:
It’s not my fault that I had Project X Zone 2 before I had a Saturn, but that’s where I first was made aware of this theme, in a stage named for the song where the Burning Rangers themselves are referenced. Video games. Anyway, you should seek out the entire OST, because it’s all just Like This, and I mean that in a complimentary way.
Burning Rangers has only released on the Saturn: there are no ports elsewhere, no re-releases, no remasters. Which is a shame, as the Burning Rangers we did get is pretty good, and the Burning Rangers that we could get if someone cleaned up the controls and camera and did absolutely nothing at all to the perfect soundtrack would rule. Sega didn’t bother trying to make a game that, in North America, was more lame duck than swan song work on the Dreamcast, and it’s just sat in a vault since. Or, maybe like Panzer Dragoon Saga, it’s not in a vault, because the source code is missing. We know that Sega still remembers it exists — I mentioned Project X Zone 2, but the Burning Rangers also get a shout in Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed — but it would be much better if they decided to introduce it to all the people who have never played it before.
A full remake or remaster maybe isn’t necessary — just do what Microsoft did with Nintendo 64 game Perfect Dark on the Xbox 360 (and now GoldenEye 007 on the Series X) and upgrade the visuals while fixing the performance and control scheme for modern hardware and control options. Give it the Treasure treatment, a la Guardian Heroes and Radiant Silvergun and such, rather than changing anything in the soul of Burning Rangers. All of that stuff was great as is, back in 1998, on the original hardware. Fix that camera, though, and put it on a platform people actually own, so they might decide to play it.
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