I’m no Hannibal Lecter, but due in no small part to this game, I too seem to have reached the lowest levels of human depravity. Witness this scene: I, a grown man, observe three young children at play, shiny black controller in the hand of one, while the other two shout instructions above the rollicking din. I enter the fray, and notice the red light on the hot black console resting on a dusty shelf adjacent the television. The large TV screen flashes brilliantly; could it be a Disney movie on, and the children are only feigning to play at this Ristar?
But then I see the star-shaped creature. He reminds me of a degenerate twin brother to Lisa Simpson, though I notice he is naked. Right now he is approaching a small spherical enemy of sorts, and I wait to see his reaction. Spurred on by the wild button-mashing of the smallest child, Ristar reaches out resolutely, and his arms stretch unnaturally, their range befitting a much larger character. Now he has the little enemy in his grasp. Apparently the small child in control of our gold, pointy-headed hero has not released the attack button, and as such, the now-harmless foe struggles, though in vain, to escape the white-gloved hands that won’t quit. The other two kids in the room cheer on the player, imploring that he release the button. He does, and to my amazement, Ristar pulls the enemy to him, simultaneously launching himself, bodily, at the green circle-thing, and effectively crashes him into oblivion.
My eyes were wide, and the children must have seen this. I simply had to have the controller. My depraved self uttered a barely intelligible, hastily constructed excuse: ”Let me help you with this next level,” I breathed, knowing full well that I had not played the game before. I wrested the controller from the hands of the small child seated on the cushion. ”Hey, what are you doing Uncle Marc!” I brushed their comments aside: ”I don’t know you!” Er, the rest of that episode isn’t important.
So we know that Ristar corrupts. There can be no doubt of this. He manages because there are very few weaknesses in the armour of the little star man. Consider this: I didn’t have an extensive library of Sega Genesis games at the time, and while on vacation, I was presented with dozens and dozens of choices. Yet I went for Ristar, and stuck it out with him. The selection included Sonic, and Sonic could not hope to compete with this spiky-headed wonder. Sonic was faster, and perhaps spunkier. But Ristar had the hedgehog beat on every other level, including the one merit that is most priceless to gamers.
Ristar had more moments. There are moments in Ristar that are truly inspired and brilliant beyond anything the little blue speedster has experienced. Truly, this underappreciated masterpiece surpasses the level of a Yoshi’s Island, in terms of underrated creative qualities. But before the brilliance under the surface, witness the high-gloss finish that Ristar offers.
The game is brilliantly coloured. Pastels and primaries both, merge into the lively palette of a children’s book painter. It’s a sight to behold, especially on the Genesis, a system perhaps unfairly maligned for it’s hue-deficient games. Are you a Sega Genesis ‘fanboy’? Do you have a best friend who thinks that your favourite plastic son is colour-challenged? Here’s a suggestion: don’t flip him the bird. Well, you can, but showing him Ristar will have an even more pleasurable effect for you. Watch him squirm as he struggles to hold down the question: ”This is a Genesis game, right?” When it finally comes up like last night’s Taco Bell, you will respond, ”But of course. What, did you think, your SNES could manage this? [Insert guttural laughter here]”
So our hero is a yellow star with arms and legs of black. He does not jump on enemies (thank heaven for that). Instead, as we know, he grabs them with a pair of exceptionally limber, outstretched arms and yanks them toward him. His childish style of slam dancing takes him through seven worlds, each with sublevels within.
Ristar generally beats up on shell-like creatures (kopywritten koopas?), owls, purple salamanders and other land lubbers. But while underwater, the amphibious hero entertains a bothersome species of spiked marine life, as well as a particularly nasty type of fast-moving fish that darts this way and that, forcing you to take evasive action in the midst of a submerged network of thorny plant growth, effecting a creepy confinement.
Besides molesting the wildlife, Ristar can seize walls and ladders. Ladder-climbing is self-explanatory, but by clumsily banging himself against any given rock face, he is also able to climb seemingly insurmountable surfaces, a la Ninja Gaiden. Perhaps outweighing – in terms of importance – the body-bashing climb function, is Ristar’s tendency to swing all ways (he isn’t limited to two).
He can grasp onto poles and swing dizzyingly fast. The act renders him temporarily invincible, but more importantly, releasing the pole at speed will allow for supersonic (excuse the pun) travel in any direction. That’s right – the poles that point out at the screen like the centre of a watch face will have Ristar making time with anyone he chooses. The aiming function is reminiscent of Yoshi’s Island, only much, much faster. This is how you really get around in the game, this is how you access secrets and delve into the depths of gameplay.
Now, to those sweet moments. Hop from bubble to dissipating bubble in a fleeting, watery stairway to goodies. Swim hard against a relentless current that tries to force you into spikes at your back. A swift hammerhead shark might scare any other mascot, but Ristar will treat the crazed creature like any other foe; using the thing’s T-shaped head as if they were handles, to bash his way to victory. Run right up to the screen so you can see enemies coming out of pipes like tic-tac-toe, one to a pipe. You have to kill them in order of appearance, and they appear faster with each sequence! If you’re not cross-eyed by then, move onward.
Bonk a crooning bird off his pedestal while his crooked notes assail you, his feathers crowd you, and his beak seeks you out. Allow cranes and conveyor belts to help you carry a special prize to a special gatekeeper to grant you pass. This particular mission will engage you incredibly with its simple ‘find object A and bring it to character B’ concept, and the beautiful, cathartic melodies will charge your soul. You won’t have time to reminisce fondly on the level once it’s completed though; the jarring effect that snow and ice bring in the next level will have your attention. Struggle to gain your footing in glacial ground, and survive a snowball fight with an odd purple creature, only to have him aid you later with freshly baked poison pies for use against a massive creature named Itamor, and his voracious appetite. You can’t beat these moments. Not with a bat, not with a lotioned hand.
You won’t beat Ristar easily either. The game is long (perhaps a bit too long, for one sitting) and features a difficult final boss. Due to the amount of secret gems (for points), stars (for sustenance), and extra lives available in obscure regions, the game calls for the explorer in you to stand up and be accounted for. Add the fantastic, hidden bonus rounds, as well as the exiting move at the end of each level where Ristar must swing up, up, and out of the screen, and it’s a sure thing that Ristar and all his many memorable moments will last you. Children, and men and women who act like them, will all be thoroughly entertained by Ristar. The little guy’s tireless attitude and timeless adventure are instantly magnetic, but only over time will Ristar start to haunt you with its greatness, asking that you return to it every so often, no matter what other games you might have lined up.
And you’ll acquiesce.
I’ll agree that the cutesy side-scroller genre was flooded in ye olde 16-bit days. Many titles, especially those not blessed (or cursed as the case may be) with a big name license would fall into the kaleidoscopic cesspool of forgotten cuteness. Ristar hangs bravely above the precipice – perhaps on one of his special poles – undaunted, yellow dome shining brightly, refusing to let go.