Just missing out on the hallows of my all-time Sega top 5 is ace fire-fighting adventure Burning Rangers, the Saturn’s last hoorah and a perfect slice of Sonic Team gaming.
Burning Rangers is remarkable not just for being one of only a handful of games dedicated to saving lives, but for its unique style: combining anime cutscenes and full voiceovers with gameplay places BR more in line with an interactive cartoon dissected into four episodes. Each character’s personality shines through, from Big’s nobility to Phoenix’s snide comments, and short cutaways in each level bring a strong sense of teamwork to the Rangers. Sonic Team originally planned for the player to switch between team members in levels, but personally I always find the focused approach more worthwhile, showcasing as it does the teasing relationship between Shou and Tillis as well as their individual determination in saving lives. There’s plenty of humour in there, particularly over the team’s radio communication system, most of which you can use on a PC if you pop your game CD in the disc drive.
Stylish though it is, there’s no shortage of substance in Burning Rangers. An extremely streamlined control system lets you rip through levels like there’s no tomorrow, and one of my favourite innovations is the ability to escape an incoming fire by tapping Down as the walls visibly heat up. It’s extremely simple and admittedly wouldn’t work in many similar games, but it succeeds in giving real-time reactions a QTE-style quality without interrupting the game flow. The other major innovation is the use of audio direction instead of music and a game map; Chris Parton issues directions automatically, but can also be called upon with the tap of a button to send you the right way. Aside from its functional performance as a guide system, it’s also extremely effective at developing the story within a level, as other Rangers radio in with their current locations, requesting teleportation for survivors and assistance with everything from lifts to locks. It’s a unique take on character development that keeps the story flowing, limiting the number of interruptive cutscenes to a handful within each level.
Burning Rangers communicates in other innovative ways, too; many of the characters you rescue send emails of thanks, often explaining their actions and giving little insights into their lives, from boyfriends and pets to aspirations and dreams. It’s a great feature that humanises the survivors, and often reveals secrets such as artwork and sound test if you manage to find members of Sonic Team. There’s always someone new to rescue too, as the levels are randomly generated each time you play, extending the replay value immensely.
All in all, Burning Rangers is an amazing game that is, I feel, sometimes cruelly overlooked in the annals of Sega and Sonic Team greatness (although Sega Europe have a football team named “Burning Rangers”!). The fact is it came out at a difficult time – the Saturn was nearly finished in Europe and the Dreamcast was on the horizon, and I’ve no doubt if it were a Dreamcast launch title it would be remembered for the amazing game it is. It could even have used real-life email!
Considering we saw a resurrected NiGHTS, I believe the much more commercial Burning Rangers could find a home on any of the current generation consoles.