Before Sonic became the main mascot for Sega, there were plenty of other characters created to give the Genesis/Mega Drive a strong chance in the spotlight. While the speedy hedgehog was chosen, a rabbit with ears to grab stuff with was not completely forgotten about. After neglecting the project’s original title “Feel” and changing the bunny into a different creature altogether, Ristar was born. This little dude was sadly overshadowed by the Playstation and the Sega Saturn that came out the same year, but has gotten to shine brightly these days through tons of rereleases. If you have yet to experience this classic, allow me to enlighten you on what you are missing out on.
How to make a small concept the star of the show
Despite there being some differences between the English and Japanese versions of this game’s story, all you need to know is that the evil alien Greedy has caused havoc on multiple planets and it is up to Ristar to save the galaxy from this cruel tyrant. It is a good enough excuse to headbutt some baddies nowadays as it was in the 90s, and I am always fond of a plot that lets the gameplay become the overall focus.
This is a linear 2D platformer with six worlds to tackle, each of them containing two acts and at least one boss fight, as well as two extra final bosses at the end of this adventure. For a title meant to be beaten in one sitting, it offers a solid amount of areas to visit without overstaying its welcome. What will keep you captivated throughout this journey though, is its main gimmick; the protagonist’s stretchy arms that he can use to pull himself in for a fierce headbutt and for grabbing things to collect. This works fantastically for traversing, since Ristar will bounce off surfaces and can use this to climb around! Furthermore, he can also swing upwards vertical poles and do quick attacks on enemies which can act as platforms themselves, just to give some examples of its diverse functionalities.
It is beautiful how this minimalistic concept provides many purposes and since our star cannot jump very high, it gives a strong focus to use his long arms that can extend in eight directions. An idea such as this one is only as good as the stages are designed, but Ristar impresses here too. The first planet gives a wonderful introduction to this mechanic by presenting different pathways to take through varied means, including using climbable ceilings and grabbing onto flying pappuses. After this, the other levels continue to bring in even more creative setups, with the water world having currents pushing you back and forcing you to find something to grab onto or the music stage that interestingly limits your ability to use your arms by having you carry items to significant places.
However, a personal favourite part of this journey is whenever a horizontal pole is presented, letting you swing and launch Ristar into a blistering speed. This is never an overpowering way to simply make our hero fly, as the levels are made with this in mind with either cleverly hidden secrets or obstacle courses you must venture through. When in this state, this small hero goes fast and will ricochet off anything he comes into contact with, making it an exhilarating aspect of this title. Actually, every single stage is engaging and unique by keeping the core concept in mind, offering never a dull moment. Even the enemy placements are only used as forms of platforms or quick hindrances to test your reflexes, keeping the flow of this platformer at a steady pace.
All of the levels have multiple areas to explore, giving you the ability to find helpful secrets such as extra lives, stars in order to refill your health, and treasures for points that can lead to more retries upon death. Ristar can grab any item with his arms and it is fun to look around for supportive trinkets and use your moves diversely to uncover every nook and cranny of these vast locations. This will also be important to do due to how Ristar can be a challenging game to beat by testing you increasingly with each stage, providing a perfect difficulty curve to this playthrough.
Finally, the icing on this gorgeous cake is the boss fights which offer unique setups, such as the songbird that must be knocked down from his stand or the mole who digs underneath to hide. They are all enjoyable to take on by testing your reflexes and knowing when to be offensive or defensive, while keeping their gimmicks in mind. Because of the creativity being mixed so well with one small concept, Ristar delivers an outstanding adventure that is hard to put down. It is simply perfect.
Gameplay Score: 10/10
Gorgeous wonders of a galaxy
This fantastic and imaginative game for the Genesis/Mega Drive continues to deliver in its presentation, with every single stage brimming with plenty of colours and surreal landscapes. Starting already with the first level, you will be travelling through a forest that contains different set pieces like platforms being made out of carnivorous plants and the scenery consisting of blue trees and purple mountains. This inventiveness persists onwards, with one place being based on the lost city of Atlantis and a music planet that is made out of only instruments, providing excitement upon witnessing each new world. Combine this with multilayered backgrounds and diverse layouts, and you get a mesmerising and vast universe to behold.
Each globe holds two acts with both being similar in theme, yet different in designs. A great take on this is the winter place that starts out having huge amounts of snow and is set in the nighttime, while the next part is set in daylight and has big puddles of water instead. The enemies are even appropriate to each level you visit, such as the mechanical creatures in the sphere of machines. I also love how the sole exception to each stage’s lineup of fiends are the odd aliens, making them distinctly the unwelcomed invaders. The bosses are no slackers either, be it the mentioned songbird or a cute snowball fight against an inhabitant of the cold planet, every single battle offers charming creativity to them and all of the creations come with a cartoony art style to give them clear expressions and personalities.
Although, the star of this show in terms of visuals is the idle animations of Ristar as they are different depending on the location he is in. To give some highlights, he will take a rest to cool off in the fire stage, rotate his arms for loosening up his muscles in the water world, and my favourite: make small and adorable snowmen in the winter level. It is all endearing and I admire how far the developers went with all of the details and charm in order to create an outstanding looking title.
The music complements the visuals wonderfully with an incredibly upbeat tone, using Genesis’s twang to represent organs, guitars, drums, and even more instruments in each track. All of the melodies are outstanding by being rhythmic and varied, offering plenty of tunes that are memorable and comfortable to listen to. Strengthening the audio further, are the sounds of every action you can perform with Ristar, such as swinging off poles, headbutting or just stretching out his arms, all providing an overly cartoony effect. These can actually work alongside the score’s beat, due to how the flow of the game is all about the protagonist’s main gimmick. I am not sure if this was intentional, but it truly enhances this magnificent experience subtly.
Presentation Score: 10/10
Reaching for the stars
By exploring around the world, you will encounter poles that will take you to bonus levels where you must take on an obstacle course that tests your capabilities with Ristar’s moveset. All are great challenges to take on, and winning in one will award you with points and a trophy. Getting multiple of the latter will lead to acquiring passwords for more goodies to unlock, such as a boss rush mode, time attack, and harder difficulties.
This is a really nice inclusion for replay value, but I do find it odd that you cannot unlock a stage select early on for making treasure hunting easier and actually being able to save your progress. This is my only complaint as, despite this being a short adventure, going through the entire game with few chances of seeing everything is a harsh setup. A fun tip: the Japanese version has even more codes to play around with, so I recommend giving it a look as well.
Extra Score: 8/10
Ristar is truly one of the best titles ever made by Sega. By putting one single concept at the forefront and making every level and fight evolve around it with fast-paced and entertaining challenges, it shines in its imagination alongside its gorgeous presentation that will turn any frown into a smile. With how it has been rereleased for multiple platforms, there is honestly no reason to not try out this forgotten gem.