Space Harrier was an arcade game released by Sega in 1985. This was the first title to use Sega's new 3-D sprite zooming technology, and designer Yu Suzuki (and his team), used the new hardware to the fullest (later titles on the same hardware include Out Run and After Burner).
In Space Harrier you control a warrior with a big blaster rifle. You move ever forward in a pseudo-3D environment. You can either fly or run (you have full freedom of movement over the entire screen). The object is to blast the various floating (and walking) enemies, and beat the boss at the end of each level (there are sixteen normal levels, and two bonus levels).
The graphics in this game are wonderful, they hold up well even today. Some games have graphics that age very quickly (such as Space Invaders, but Space Harrier has wonderfully rendered sprites that take full advantage of the available hardware, without trying to do too much (many games try to do more than their hardware can handle, and they end up looking awful). The images in this game are quite varied, but include things like huge mushrooms, giant stone heads, trees, columns, mecha, and giant floating octopi (just to name a few).
Each level has a boss at the end (mostly Chinese style dragons), that can be defeated by shooting repeatedly at their heads. On the last stage you get to face all the previous boss characters again (in a different order). This is obviously the hardest part of the game.
Space Harrier can be a difficult game until you realize one simple fact. That is the fact that the enemies always shoot directly at you, they don't fire where you are moving towards, or randomly, just right towards your man. You can use this to your advantage, just keep moving all the time in a large circle (while still dodging any fixed obstacles that you may encounter), and you will almost never be hit.
There were three different dedicated cabinets made for this game, and upright, a cockpit, and a full motion cockpit. I am going to concentrate on the upright here, as the others were less common, and pretty hard to find today (that full motion stuff tends to break easily).
The image on the marquee reminds me of the artwork on the old Sega Master System game boxes, a field of lines with a "3-D" Space Harrier logo, and a green cartoon dragon that looks nothing like the dragon on the side (they really should let the same person do all the art).
The control panel uses an analog joystick, and is decorated with several guages and blinkenlights. Unfortunately all of the control panel parts are unique to the game, and are not available from any distributor, but substitute parts can be readily adapted.
This game does not save up credits, instead each quarter buys you more lives. So if you plunk a bunch of them in, you will have to keep playing until you run out of lives, there is no way to start over.
This title makes a guest appearance in the game Shenmue. It is in the back of the arcade in Dobuita. (Shenmue was done by the same design team as Space Harrier).
Where to play
Space Harrier was ported to several of Sega's console systems, although the Saturn one was only available in Japan. You can also play this game on your home computer using either the System 16 emulator or MAME (emulation is identical in each, as much of the System 16 source code was used in MAME).
There are still a lot of Space Harrier machines out there, waiting to be found by arcade game collectors. Most of them were not converted, because the control panel was simply not a flat panel that you could install joysticks onto. These machines tend to run several hundred dollars (USD), on the used market. When buying one, be sure and examine the joystick carefully, as it is an analog unit, and a replacement one can cost as much as $150 (or more)