Tokyo Game Centre #02: Space Harrier

Tokyo Game Centre series

Welcome to the fantasy zone. Get ready!

Space Harrier

Space Harrier is an arcade legend. Released in 1985, it was the third game of Yu Suzuki’s 20-year career at Sega. This is the moving sit-in cabinet, with a delightfully 80s-style carpeted seat that tilts about smoothly, and surprisingly vigorously, along with the movements of the analogue joystick, which is also outrageously 80s-style. It even has an adorable little 80s seatbelt.

Space Harrier Arcade seatbelt 2.jpeg
The joystick. I’m sticking with the family-friendly description, “80s-style”.

The joystick. I’m sticking with the family-friendly description, “80s-style”.

It’s a rail shooter, with 360-degree movement in 2D at varied speed thanks to the analogue stick, and a single fire control represented in a trigger and stick-top button.

It’s brutally hard by modern standards. The extremes of the stick map to the extremes of the screen, so you get a precise and twitchy positioning of your guy, requiring a sensitive touch on the stick even while your seat swings up and down.

Space Harrier is notable for being a very early third-person shooter, possibly the first moving sit-in cabinet, an early example of digitised speech in a game, and a vital predecessor to later rail shooters. Starfox gets mentioned on Wikipedia, but I think Rez is its clearest descendant, as I’ve suggested before.


So did you play it?

I’ve seen the pictures and longed to play on this thing for many years. I used to play the Atari ST version of the game as a kid and it has a brilliantly nostalgic aesthetic for me. The checkerboard plains, the bizarre, mythological sprites — totems, dragons, cyclops mammoths — and the music and sound all represent delightfully raw forms of videogame tropes.

The technical limitations of gaming’s early years meant that inexplicable abstract ideas were accepted unquestioningly. Space Harrier showed the bizarre and unexplained stories of early games flying into life in wild, 16-bit colour. Imagine my joy when I found this retro cab after 20 years, in a Kowloon-themed Tokyo game centre.

As I sat in the seat, the whole thing felt terribly quaint, like a child’s toy built at adult size. There were stickers picturing buttons and dials on the dashboard, but none of it meant anything. The sound was great, though — screamingly loud, and with digitised speech far better than I’d expected. I don’t remember if the ST version had the speech, but I have a faint memory from somewhere of it being much squelchier.

Anyway, the music wailed so my ears hurt, and I had a blast. However, one thing really niggled me about this fabled cabinet: What the hell has this seat got to do with anything? It’s not any kind of simulation — I mean, the guy on the screen is standing up, running, and flying with a jetpack. Sitting down doesn’t come into it. And the dashboard stickers — those dials and buttons — really have nothing to do with anything. Even the movement of the seat wasn’t really reflected by the game.

What would be awesome is a 2D version of the input device on Alpine Racer, with a fire button on the handrails. You could fly up and down as well as left and right with your legs, and mimic what the guy is actually doing. That would’ve been cool.

So this long-dreamt-of moving-seat cab was silly, and kind of didn’t work — but I wasn’t let down by it. It’s just so adorable. I fed it full of hundred-yens until I’d had enough for this lifetime.

“Welcome to the fantasy zone.” Beautiful.


Some connections

On the topic of digitised speech, there was a Gauntlet cab just across the room, and while I’m making connections, I should also drop in the networked Mobile Suit Gundam pod game, which is a wonderful, wonderful thing with a modern sit-in cabinet, albeit one that doesn’t move. Those will both show up in later postcards, at which point I’ll add links.

Until next Monday, then, when I’ll have a postcard of a game that’s hard to beat. No, wait: easy to beat…

(See all postcards from the game centre here.)




Photographer and writer covering Tokyo arcade life – the videogames, the metropolis and the people