Like stars, video game consoles have predictable lifespans. And they usually burn out slowly, hanging on to life years after they’ve been outshone by their peers. Sega Genesis faded faster than most. Its legacy is embodied in Sonic the Hedgehog, a video game hero who saved his furry friends from the grips of cyborg slavery. Though the system and its mascot enjoyed rock-star levels of success from 1990 to 1993, rival platform Super Nintendo boasted better hardware and amassed a superior game library. Even in the face of certain defeat in the “console wars,” Sega continued to produce more games. “Ristar” — the system’s last hurrah — arrived in 1995.
While “Ristar” wasn’t the last game released for the Genesis, it was the last great one. Its title is ironic in a way, suggesting that the console’s “rising star” (the main character is also star-shaped) was rapidly falling. Such great games are testament to the conditions of a system’s twilight days. At the time, there were technical limitations and the system’s profit potential had been exhausted. In this dire situation, some developers might have reckoned that they had nothing to lose, and went on to create the masterpiece they had always dreamed about.
If anything about “Ristar” is forgettable, it’s the vanilla storyline. The evil space pirate Greedy (seriously) has enslaved all the leaders of the planets in Ristar’s solar system, and it’s up to the titular hero to save the day.
Our hero’s superpower is simply a pair of stretchy arms, but they’re surprisingly versatile. He can grab items, climb walls, head-butt baddies and swing his body to and fro. Much of the game’s pleasure is found in acrobatics, and the levels are chock full of objects to ride, climb, swing and vault on. So if Sonic’s adventures provide pinball thrills, then “Ristar” captures the childlike joy of playground romps.
Superficially, the game’s levels are just riffs on tired video game aesthetics: spooky forests, water-logged temples, frozen mountains and volcanic wastelands. Planet Undertow’s flooded dungeons are filled with devious traps and mini-boss battles. Frigid planet Freon features slippery jumping segments and a snowball fight. Yet Planet Sonata is the most intriguing, with rhythm-based obstacles and puzzles based around delivering metronomes to songbirds. Each world’s bosses are equally impressive, with their complex attack patterns and whimsical designs. Planet Scorch’s guardian is a mechanical mole that fires his claws, burrows underground and even engages Ristar while the two plummet down a rocky abyss. And that’s just one of eight planets.
While the game’s ideas are fresh enough on their own, the graphics and music bring the title to life. Genesis was often criticized for its limited range of colors, but the psychedelic palette of “Ristar” is still stunning today. From soft lavenders to neon greens and earthen oranges, the game’s environments pulse with life. Enemy designs are distinctive, drawing inspiration from real-life armored animals like lobsters, hermit crabs and armadillos. The soundtrack is even more creative, blending funk, electronica and hip hop. Song “Crying World” joins eerie pitch-bending wails to watery synth chords and bare break-beats. Fittingly, Ristar can swim through the air in the level. Throughout the game, musical and visual themes are woven together.
The story of Sega Genesis is written into “Ristar” through its ornate pixel art. Ristar himself was based on the same prototype character as Sonic the Hedgehog, and thus could be thought of as a distorted image of the Genesis’s mascot — a new symbol for changing times in the industry. Sonic symbolized an environmental activist, echoing progressive ideas of the time. Ristar represented something more localized: Sega’s own anxiety about its impending doom. Bursting with creativity, color and ambition, “Ristar” is a glibly optimistic work of game art. Genesis didn’t fade out with a whimper; it went out with a bang.