Updated: Oct 30, 2021
It's been over a year since this I was reunited with this amazing sitdown version of Sega's fantasy shooting classic. Space Harrier was unlike anything anyone had quite seen before in an arcade when it debuted in late 1985. It successfully combined the concept of a “on the rails” pseudo-3-d like shooter with a unique fantasy setting, and kick ass music. Sega not only created a game with a rich and interesting environment for players but presented it in a series of game cabinets that by themselves were also very innovative and helped heighten the gaming experience.
Attempts by various arcade video game manufactures to create a 3-D like environment started early in the 1970’s, but arcade game developers were somewhat limited in their ability to accurately display 3-D like perspectives to the game player due to limits of technology. Many early attempts at a realistic 3-D presentation would come in the forms of racing games such as Atari’s Night Driver or Nutting’s 280 ZZZZAP. With the introduction of wire frame vector graphics 3-D environments could be rendered with more realistic dimensionality even if the environments were still fairly barren of detail. 3-D shooters had a harder time with the technology, often creating a confusing to the player presentation with little control. Innovative yet unsuccessful games such as the Atari designed but Centuri released game Tunnel Hunt, or William’s Blaster still should be noted for their attempts to push the technology forward. Atari’s I,Robot also deserves a mention here as the first game with polygon graphics in an attempt to create a more immersive environment for the player. Unfortunately for Atari this innovative game left players more confused than interested, leading companies to put polygon technology on the backburner for now.
Sega’s Attempts to create more realistic 3-D perspective worlds using raster graphics successfully started with the racing classic Turbo. Turbo created a unique ability to zoom pixels for more a more interesting game environment on the roadside with a neat programming trick dealing with regulating voltage. Sega also found success with the isometric shooter Zaxxon in 1982 which did a great job showcasing to the player the concepts of a space shooter using more dimensional gameplay. However perhaps a closer cousin to Space Harrier from the early 80’s can be found with Sega’s Buck Rogers in the Planet of Doom, a somewhat crude shooter by later standards but you can definitely see the evolution of Sega’s thinking towards a pseudo 3-d on the rail type shooter taking place here.
Sega would release the motorcycle racing game Hang-On in the fall of 1985. Developed by legendary game designer Yu Suzuki it was the first in a series of 16-bit powered arcade games from Sega using advanced sprite scaling and zooming techniques to create better and more immersive puedo 3-d environments for the player. The game used two of… the at the time state of the art Motorola 68000 processor chips along with a Zilog z80 for the sounds and music. This same hardware set up would be used for Space Harrier. Hang-On was a huge hit thanks to its innovative graphics, and unique cabinet designs. But Yu Suzuki wasn’t done innovating yet for Sega.
Space Harrier was originally conceived as a military style Ariel combat game. However, it soon became apparent the hardware power wasn’t quite there yet to realistically pull of a airplane combat style game. The game was redesigned as a fantasy based on-the-rails shooter. Three different cabinet styles would be released, a standard upright cabinet… a shorter cabinet with a built-in seat (like the one we have), and a deluxe sit-down version where the game moves with the player.
The inspiration for many of the environments and creatures in the game are reported to come from several sources including fantasy prog rock LP covers from such bands as Yes, the anime series Space Cobra and Gundum, the 1984 movie the Never-ending Story and the cult classic film Zardos… yes the one with the giant floating heads in the sky and where Sean Connery runs around in a thong outfit.
3-D style shooters had not been successful in the arcades previously so designer Yu Suzuki designed the game around a system that allowed shots from the player to have almost a “homing system” to the targets to allow for less frustrating game play. The colorful and almost downright trippy design of the game elements were unlike anything that had been seen in a video game before. Game play was fast and smooth and each level brough new unique designs in both the enemies and the backgrounds.
It’s also important to point out the amazing music in Space Harrier which was created by Hiroshi Kawaguchi who would also go on to create legendary soundtracks for many other Sega games such as Out Run and After Burner. The Space Harrier sound hardware shares much of the same circuitry as the classic Yamaha DX-7 synth which Hiroshi composed the music on originally. The soundtrack for this game is so revered a vinyl LP of the music was released a few years ago.
Sega’s Space Harrier pixle scaling 16-bit hardware would continue to be used in other games and evolve to even more powerful processing feats. Some of these games include Enduro Racer, After Burner, Galaxy Force, and may others. Sega would become one of the most dominate forces in the arcade market in the mid to late 80’s which what seems like a endless stream of innovative hits using a unique combination of hardware advancements, high quality visual and audio presentations, and games that were just down right fun to play.
The impact of Harrier for both Sega as a company, and the history of video games is quite monumental. Space Harrier would be converted to versions for almost every home computer and home video game system for years to come. Sega would release a sequel for home systems starting in 1989, and a true arcade sequel would arrive in 2000 with the game Planet Harriers.
So, a question a lot of collectors ask is if Space Harrier was such a big hit why is the arcade game so rare today? It’s a complex question but I have a few theories that I will throw at you. We don’t have production figures for Space Harrier to definitive say how many Sega manufactured, but I am willing to bet it wasn’t a lot. First you must remember that by late 1985/early 1986 the arcade game industry was in a huge downturn. Many arcades had closed all over the world, and several major companies had even gone out of business. Secondly Space Harrier was an expensive game for operators to buy, especially in the deluxe sit-down versions. As a young kid when Harrier came out, I usually only saw these deluxe style Sega games at Amusement Park or busy beach side style arcades. By the mid 80’s the arcade industry was dominated by inexpensive conversion kits to convert older games into newer titles, and Space Harrier was only sold in a dedicated cabinet. This atmosphere brings us to point three, what probably happened to all those Space Harrier machines after the quarters stopped coming in. Most arcade game cabinets once they stop making money were converted to newer titles, but the cabinet for Harrier is so unique it is almost impossible to convert it to anything else. Some unsold or overproduced Harrier machines seem to have been converted to Enduro Racer games at the factory, but I am unaware if Sega offered an official conversion kit for the game. Because of the limited “after life” of Space Harrier for operators who only cared about a game if it made money… many games either got sent to a vending auction after several years of service or were stripped of useable parts and then thrown out.
I bought my Space Harrier around 1996 if my memory serves correctly at a vending auction in North Carolina, and I want to say I bought it for well under 200 dollars working. There was another one at that auction which sold for less since it was missing the seat. This would have been the time period where the game wasn’t quite old enough to gather too much collector interest but too old so operators didn’t mind auctioning them off for peanuts. One of the cool things about this machine is it is the exact same machine I played when I first played that game probably during the summer of 1986 in the Playland arcade in Ocean City, MD where I would usually spend most of my summers at my grandparent’s house. It’s also the only game I have from my original collection still, but that is a long and involved story.
Today Space Harrier machines are highly sought after by collectors, and parts for those attempting to restore the machines can be very difficult to find. All versions can so for thousands of dollars on the collector market, with the deluxe motorized sit down versions reaching used car prices if you can even find one for sale. Check out the video below for a bit more texture to my restoration and questionable pop culutre refrences.