It was 1998, and the Saturn was dying.
Sega’s ill-fated 32-bit console had seen its day, and was fast succumbing to the cancer that was Sony’s PlayStation. None of Sega’s late-breaking hits had been enough to turn gamers back around to the big black box. Even NiGHTS into Dreams…, Sonic Team’s most recent ground-breaking masterpiece, couldn’t turn the tides of the next-gen war. Sadly, it looked as though the Saturn’s days were numbered, and time was running out.
However, all was not lost. Sonic Team had one more trick up their sleeve; probably not enough to save the Saturn, but a brief flicker of hope for all the Saturn owners who so desperately wanted just one more moment of glory before their beloved system was eclipsed for good.
Sonic Team’s third and final Saturn game (the first being Sonic Jam, a collection of the 4 Genesis Sonic the Hedgehog games, and the aforementioned NiGHTS) was yet another innovative release from Sega’s premier development studio. It was called Burning Rangers- a game based around a futuristic firefighting team. Combining the tense action of battling flames (among other things), with the humanity of saving lives and an anime-inspired style and flair, Burning Rangers gave Sega fans one last hurrah, and gave the Saturn an incredible swan song.
Players take control as either Shou Amabane or Tillis, the two newest Burning Ranger rookies, fighting fires alongside their teammates: Reed Phoenix, the cool-headed leader; Big Randman, the hot-headed strongman; and Chris Parton, the woman at the wheel who pilots the Burning Ship, and guides you to your various objectives throughout the game as the Team Navigator. These objectives are wide-ranging, running the gamut from standard rescue-the-people and put-out-the-fire affairs, to follow-the-dolphin and dismantle-the-underwater-lab goals, and other deviations from the firefighting norm.
Needless to say, each of the four missions you face in the game is diverse and unique; as chaotic as a real firefighting scenario yet as routine for your Burning team as a fire drill. You land in the beginning of each Mission equipped with the latest in futuristic firefighting tech: a shield to protect you from the heat, and a pulse gun to put out the fires. You can also press X or Z at any time to radio for advice from Chris, who helps guide you to your objectives as well as offer advice (although she isn’t always completely reliable). At the end of each Mission, you are treated to a replay of your performance, which is graded on a letter-based scale, factoring in the amount of people rescued, the total number of crystals you were carrying after beating the Boss (including the crystals you sent with your survivors), the amount of time you took to beat the Mission’s boss, and the Limit percentage you ended the Mission with, to give you a total grade.
It doesn’t make too much sense without first playing the game, because the mechanics are quite unique. There is no time limit in the conventional sense, but you can’t stay in one place too long- if you do, fires will start breaking out all around you. This incentive to stay alert and keep moving adds so much to the immersive experience, and adds a whole new layer of tension throughout the game. In fact, there’s a
heart monitor on the right side of the screen at all times, measuring your character’s Limit, as determined by his surroundings. The Limit rises and falls due to various factors and events that occur during the Missions, and you’ll find that the game wracks your nerves as much as your character’s. Adrenaline rushes abound as you struggle to complete the level without getting caught off-guard, and falling into a fiery trap. If your Limit rises too much, that’s when the fires start to chase you, appearing right under your feet. This happens every time your Limit hits the red, and the explosions get more frequent the higher your Limit gets. When your Limit reaches 100%, the fires don’t stop. The grading system assesses your Limit, and grades how well you kept your composure throughout your ordeal. However, you’ll find that no matter how low your Limit is at the ends of the Level, you’ll still be broken out in a sweat from the frenzied pace of Rangers.
I can’t think of another game in the 32-bit library that creates this level of immersion so well- the tense uncertainty you feel in this game from the constant chaos of not only the flames, but the explosions that chase you, the walls which break away right next to you, and the inhospitable robots and other creatures who ruthlessly try to eliminate you. It’s a feeling that clams your palms as you dodge wave after wave of back draft, and breaks you into cold sweats as you never quite feel safe from the flames. Yes, it’s Burning Fever, and if you enjoy this game long enough to see everything it has to offer, then you’ll catch it too.
Burning Rangers shows its true colors in its style of gameplay; it’s a true firefighting game. In addition to the tense pace of the Missions, each of the trapped victims you rescue appears on your Rescue List in the Options menu, complete with name and profile. You also receive Mail from many survivors, catching you up on their status or helping to flesh out the backstories from each Mission by revealing info about the conditions which caused the fire, and their opinions about who or what may have been involved. Sometimes, they’ll even give you some interesting info about your fellow Burning Rangers; but most of the time they’ll simply express their gratitude toward you for saving them. It’s a nice and surprisingly in-depth human touch that really enhances the rescue aspect of the game, and the 108 total survivors on your Rescue List will keep you searching LONG after you’ve completed the game once over.
The survivors you encounter will often react differently to the two Rangers you can play as, and send different mail for each character who rescues them. The storyline even divulges during parts of the last two levels, as you get to see the human side of Tillis and Shou as they try to make things right for their rescued victims, while dealing with the painful memories that they’ve unearthed. The end result stays mostly identical regardless of the character you choose, but this little twist offers still more replay value for those wanting to uncover the full story behind the Rangers. There are also few ‘special’ victims hidden randomly in the game, who trigger easter-eggs in the game when rescued by a certain Ranger, or both Rangers. Keep your eyes peeled for some familiar names and faces of some very special survivors, too, including the game’s creator himself, Yuji Naka!
The levels’ specific objectives vary significantly, but the general goal is the same: rescue as many people as possible, in the shortest amount of time, with as many crystals as you can find. You’ll find victims of the infernos stranded throughout each level, and it’s your job to transport them to safety aboard the Burning Ship. You do this by collecting crystals, which you find scattered throughout the stage, and also appear when you put out fires. You need a minimum of 5 crystals to transport someone, and you can transport up to 10 crystals with them. These crystals cannot be lost, unlike the crystals you carry with you, so it’s a wise idea to bank away as many as you can with every transported survivor. Depending on how many crystals you transport, you can earn continues with each rescue. Additionally, after saving someone, you gain back some of your shield, and reduce some of your Limit- the amount varies depending on how many total crystals you’ve stashed aboard your ship so far in the Mission. You’ll need your shield to be as full as possible- once you take a hit you lose all the crystals you currently are carrying. Your shield won’t hold up too long afterwards, and another hit of damage will burn you out completely, forcing you to either use up a Continue or say goodnight.
Another important aspect of the gameplay is putting out the actual fires, which you accomplish using your pulse gun, pressing B to fire laser shots at the flames, putting them out and turning them into crystals. You can also charge your gun by holding B, which will send out a powerful homing blast to take out the stronger types of fires, but also destroys any crystals they produce. This is a bit of a tease, as some fires can only be put out with a charged blast, such as the green fires, which jump at you in a most annoying way, and the blue and purple fires. Don’t focus too much on putting out the fires, however: you don’t get any kind of extra credit at the end of the level for putting out the fires, and if you spend too much time dawdling, your Limit will climb and you’ll find yourself being chased by geysers of flame.
The fires behave as badly as any real-life fire; one of the biggest parts of the gameplay is dealing with the AI, sort of speak, of the fires. In every level, you’ll come across “hotspots”, points on the ground that explode into flames when you step on them. You’ll hear an audible clue a nanosecond before the explosion, during which you can dodge the blast by holding back on the D-pad or the Analog pad, causing your character to automatically dodge the inferno. It sounds complicated, but it’s really fairly simple and adds a lot of tension by forcing you to stay alert at all times. Thanks to compatibility with the 3D Analog Pad, control and movement are pretty smooth and responsive (although the D-pad is still passable), and the Training Space you complete before taking on any missions explains the basics quite well. Your Ranger is very mobile, equipped with jetpacks that allow him/her to double-jump and perform aerial twists and turns in midair. You can also grab onto ledges, which is infinitely handy during the platform-hopping segments in the game. Your gun also charges twice as fast while jumping, which is important to remember when dealing with the bosses, which typically require charged blasts to inflict damage. The Boss stages are cleverly designed and range in difficulty, from ‘easy to the point of being fun’, to ‘deliciously challenging’- never becoming tedious or frustratingly difficult. Burning Rangers offers some of the coolest boss battles I’ve seen in a while, and while none too challenging, they are a blast to play- which makes it a pity that there isn’t a Boss Attack mode hidden somewhere in the game.
If there was one thing I’d have to gripe about as far as the controls, it’s the camera: the L and R buttons rotate the screen 90 degrees in either direction, but the absence of a free-rotating camera makes for a bit of tedium at first. You’ll find yourself tweaking your point of view by moving the player as you rotate the camera; but the camera tends to right itself behind the player, so this mish-mosh of angling and adjusting tends to work itself out, as players quickly adapt to compensating for the sometimes-awkward views. By the time you’ve grown accustomed to the other controls, the camera somehow doesn’t seem nearly as flawed or even distracting at all, and adjusting your view on the fly becomes second nature. Nevertheless, if you just can’t get the hang of the default controls you can switch to a custom button layout at Options screen.
The Story Mode’s Missions offer plenty of variety, blending platforming, shooting, and clever door-and-switch puzzles, into well-balanced stages that almost never get repetitive. There are only four Missions in the game, which is something that’ll give the immediate first impression: it’s short. Sonic Team’s rationale for this, was that there just wasn’t enough time. And in this case it’s pretty much forgivable, considering the amount of extra goodies and hidden secrets they were able to cram into the final game. There is gigantic replay value, as the levels themselves randomly generate fires, victims, and other objects in dozens of preset patterns after completing the game for the first time, which means that there’ll be different people to rescue in different places, certain areas will/won’t be accessible, and the patterns and locations of fires/crystals are different every time, which means you’ll never play the exact same stage twice. You obviously can’t possibly find all 108 survivors in one 3-stage sitting (the fourth Mission doesn’t have anyone to rescue), so you’ll be playing through all the stages dozens of times if you want to rescue every single survivor. If you can’t rescue every person in one specific level variation, don’t worry: there are Passwords for each unique combination you play through. After completing the stage, the Password is displayed at the bottom of the screen- you can input these passwords to access a specific level layout. There are also several secrets you can access with special Passwords.
The BR graphics engine is a modified version of the NiGHTS engine, which was designed for free 3D movement. And while compared to some later PS games the graphics don’t quite match the benchmark, for the Saturn they are actually very well-detailed. Pop-in is fairly frequent, but is minor and doesn’t detract from the overall appearance as much as expected. The game’s very colorful, and the textures are greatly varied; none of the levels look nearly alike. The fires are blocky, however, which could’ve been fixed. But the game isn’t plagued at all by fog- in fact, it benefits from it. Thanks to the limited visibility, Sonic Team didn’t even need to add in any smoke effects. Normally this type of lazy programming would garner a slap on the wrist, but hell, it works like a charm here. The game’s story is tied together with FMV cut scenes and real-time in-engine sequences that are very well-done. It’s here that the Rangers shines- unlike most examples of Saturn FMV, notorious for grainy qualities and detracting from the quality of a game, Burning Rangers’ FMV sequences are beautifully grain-free, and the cut scenes and triggered events are used appropriately to advance the storyline, rather than distract the player from the rest of the game. This quality of cinematics is rarely seen in a 32-bit game, let alone on the Saturn.
The ambient sound effects are nice- there are many well-used audio cues integrated into the gameplay, and the sounds of flames and explosions are decently done, too, although not quite as spectacular as they might have been. The voice acting is actually pretty high up on the scale, and the language translation to English has been done perfectly by Sega’s Sound Studio. The voices of the victims are decent, although occasionally their lines will start to sound repetitive- but there’s plenty of variety in the voices nonetheless. The music, however, is where this game truly shines. The background themes that play during specific events during Missions or during the various boss stages (each of which has at least two different BGMs) completely outshine the graphics, adding to the game’s production value.
The rest of the music is equally great. The songs that play during cut scenes and menu screens are catchy, upbeat, and match perfectly with BR’s anime-inspired style. Any true Sega fan counts ‘We Are Burning Rangers’ and ‘Burning Hearts’ among their favorite game theme songs, and the rest of the songs are equally memorable, and never ever get repetitive. Simply put, Burning Rangers has the best soundtrack I’ve ever heard on the Saturn (NiGHTS being a close second).
The innovation is all in the gameplay. The rest of the game makes it a solid overall package, but the heart is the unique premise behind Rangers. In some ways it is similar to Ignition Factor on Super NES, or Fahrenheit on Sega 32X/CD, but its execution in 3D is better than could’ve possibly been hoped for. No other game on Saturn creates the same atmosphere that Burning Rangers delivers, or can give the player so much immersion with its blend of traditional action-platforming and imaginatively devised firefighting elements. I can’t remember the last time a Saturn game gave me so many moments that made me feel so tense and constantly on-alert as BR. If you ever wanted to know what it was like to battle the forces of nature as a firefighter (albeit one in the near future), this game is about as good as it gets. The gameplay can be somewhat confusing at first, as the mechanics are far from basic action-platforming fare, but the fresh ideas presented here are well-rounded and even better-executed. Until a sequel or a similar niche title surfaces, Burning Rangers will remain as the best of its own kind.
If only things had been different, this game could’ve been so much more. The length of the main game is the only major drawback worth mentioning, but Sonic Team clearly did everything in their power to make up for it (which is much more than can be said of today’s developers). The game’s Story Mode takes about 2 hours or less to complete, which would be a bargain bin death sentence were the game not so packed with goodies and extras that make the Story Mode not just worth playing through again, but introduce a whole new way to play the game, something that some of the more celebrated games of the time couldn’t accomplish. What the game lacks in initial length it makes up for in its branching character plots, dozens of hidden secrets and extras that are actually worth uncovering (especially for hardcore Sega fans), and 108 innocent victims just waiting to be added to your Rescue List. Many games have thrown in extra goodies before, but few include so many different ways to enjoy the same game again. Add in all the uncover-ables and extras, and you’ve got several hours of additional playtime added to a game whose main Story Mode barely exceeds 2 hours. Not bad at all. Just imagine what could’ve been accomplished if Sonic Team had had another 6 months to complete their work, and incorporate everything they had originally planned to include (like the axed 2-player mode)….
If you own a Saturn, don’t hesitate to play this game if you ever get the chance. There’s a reason it’s so highly regarded among Sega fans- it was the pinnacle and last chance of a dying system. 'Love-it-or-hate-it' status nonwithstanding, Burning Rangers is proof that a console on its last legs can still deliver one hell of a swan song; as Yuji Naka himself says of the game: “Burning Rangers reflects out future. For the bright future we’re all hoping for.”
Ratings (out of 10):
Replay Value: Very High
Entertainment Value: 10