The run and gun genre has consistently remained one of the most well-remembered genres from the pre N64/PS1 era. Ever since Contra invented the notion that you shoot at bad guys and move AT THE SAME TIME there have been a large number of video games aiming to expand on this simple concept. And then some GENIUS from a small japanese video game company called NCS Corp decides that instead of playing as a human (Contra) or a human like robot (Mega Man X) that playing as a robot like robot could provide for an interesting video game. This game would best be known as Cyberbots (or Assault Suits Valken in Japan). The game was hardly a commercial success, although some companies realised that Masaya was onto something here. Cyberbots is often credited for starting the mecha genre, which is less of a genre and more of a collection of games with mechs in them (Popular examples include Zone of the Enders by Hideo Kojima, Border Break by SEGA-AM2, the creators of Shenmue and Outrun) and Oculin’s favourite game of all time: Metal Wolf Chaos) [Editing note from Oculin: No one will get this. Just proceed to the next paragraph.]
Getting back to the point, some companies took note of Cyberbots’ example and started their own take on the genre. The biggest problem is that mecha is a very, for lack of a better word, “Japanese genre”. Some of the most famous mech games that ever came out of Japan, such as Night Slave or Aquales, have barely been heard of in the west with no thanks to the arrival of the Sega CD which would later produce such classics as Sewer Shark and Night Trap. The one truly great mech game to get released during this period was created by GAU Entertainment and went straight into the bargain bins after release. It would only be remembered by a few people as not just an under-rated mech game, but one of the most under-rated games of all time: Ranger X.
The redundant story of Ranger X involves the take over of his home planet by the Rahuna forces for which the protagonist puts on the Ranger X suit and takes up the mantle as defender of Earth. Now that I have that summary out the way, the gameplay somehow pulls of the incredible task of making a complex array of options seem very simple and easy to follow. As far as your suit goes, your main weapon is a pulse rifle for which can be fired in either direction (think DeathSmiles) and a special weapon which is fired with the centre button that is represented by its own special gauge, which would be standard for most game of its kind. However because you’re a mech out to save the planet, you have a lot more freedom than just that. For one thing, there’s another gauge in the bottom right hand corner of the screen that shows how long you can fly for a brief period of time, adding a sense of mobility that is the major downfall of most games in the same genre. Also in each level you can either get a motorbike or a fighter jet at your disposal. This is an important part of the gameplay as it utilizes the six button Mega Drive controller to dual control you and your motorbike, adding another layer of strategy into the game. You can combine with your bike to relinquish your special weapon (and change it if need be) and instead gain a homing laser, which is useful for playing keep away with enemies (This combination has a separate health bar if you are ever in danger)
All of these special features may make the game seen too easy for your average run and gun. However, Ranger X compensates for this by allowing for an open playing field rather than a linear corridor (most of the time anyway). This is because in order to complete each stage you have to destroy a number of targets scattered throughout the levels. In the first level, you are put into action with your motorbike Ex Indra to destroy six enemy bases placed on a linear path. This may contradict my above statement, however this gives you time to take in the brevity of the game as well as experiment with tactics such as to send your motorbike up front to scour the area for flying enemies or combine with your motorcycle to use the homing beam to destroy what you can’t see. The second level places you in a cave with enemy bases located inside, here is when you are asked to put the experimentation done in the first stage into use and so on, with the challenge increasing in a linear curve.
In the cave stage you realise that there are parts of the ceiling you can destroy to bring sunlight into the cave. Standing underneath the sunlight causes your power meter to increase, letting you use your special weapon for a longer period of time (This feature is expanded into a great risk/reward mechanic where you can stand in front of a spotlight to increase your power meter at the cost of alerting enemies to your position). I like to think of this as a testament to SEGA’s legacy of having a blue, sunny sky motif in all of its games, and instead of using it as a setting, it turns it into a gameplay mechanic. This sounds superficial, but throughout Ranger X it becomes clear that the game has taken inspiration from a wide range of source material. Ranger X itself as previously mentioned was inspired by Valken (which was inspired from Gundam). In between levels there are short cutscenes displaying the next location using vector like manners used by the likes of Tempest and any Vectrex game. The bosses clearly took some inspiration for Life Force/Gradius (With one boss requiring you to shoot the core!).
As far as technical qualities go, it might not be that much of an overstatement to say that Ranger X might have some of the, if not THE best graphics that the Mega Drive had to offer. There’s a wide variety of locations such as a post apocalyptic planet, a dark cave, a forest with a sunny canopy and a tall skyscraper. The wonderful aesthetically choices complement the gameplay nicely along with the amazing design of Ranger X himself and his equipment which could be the best mech design for any game ever. It was revealed in an interview with GAU that they managed to expand the Mega Drive’s 64 colour pallet, improving the visuals. The music is also very nice as well, providing some interesting synth tunes that seem forgettable but are never able to leave your head.
Unfortunately, the story of Ranger X is not a happy one. The reason that GAU entertainment aren’t considered to be one of the best third-party developers for the Mega Drive along with Treasure and Technosoft was that Ranger X was the only game GAU entertainment made before closing in 1993 (The remaining members went onto form Nextech who worked on Resident Evil: Code Veronica and some decent games in the Shining series). It’s a shame really that Ranger X isn’t remembered as fondly as other run and guns on the Mega Drive such as Gunstar Heroes and Contra Hard Corps as there’s a lot that can be taken from the game’s design philosophy. However, until Ranger X gets announced for a Mega Drive Collection along with Herzog Zwei, I will be content replaying Ranger X and paying tribute to one of the greatest Mega Drive games ever made.