Tension in Space Harrier: The Predictable vs. the Random

-Greg Livingston

(For those not in the know, Space Harrier is a classic series of rail shooters from Sega. You sail forwards, ever into the screen, and face wave after wave of enemies.)

In just about all forms of entertainment, tension is a balance of determinate and random elements.

Like when you go to see a horror movie. You expect the axe murderer to kill someone; that much is predictable, or determinate. However, you cannot predict who gets killed and when it happens—there is an aspect of the random to it. If one of these elements was missing, there would be no tension. First, if you didn’t expect the axe murderer to murder anyone, then you’d have no reason to worry. Second, if you knew who would die when, then the movie would be spoiled for you. There would be no suspense.

Space Harrier games take an interesting approach to tension by making a clean split between the predictable and unpredictable elements.

Usually, these two elements of tension come from the same source. For instance, in the above example, the axe murderer’s actions are the source of both the random and determinate aspects of tension. In Space Harrier, the predictable elements and the unpredictable elements belong to different entities.

I should note that this approach isn’t unique to Space Harrier, but that’s no reason to stop. Read on to see how Space Harrier uses its elements to create tension.

Let’s take a look at the start of Platia, the first stage of Space Harrier 3-D. If you’re into poetry, this will be the first foot of Platia, and if you’re into music, it will be the first bar. Basically, it’s the first unit that forms some kind of structure, but it isn’t a complete thought.

Anyway, the first foot of Platia has three segments. For simplicity, I’ll refer to each segment of a foot as a syllable. So, the first foot is made up of three syllables.

The first syllable looks like this:

You run forward through a series of randomly placed blossoms (those blue flowerish things). The blossoms are not genuinely randomly placed, since they’ll be in the same place every time you play the game. However, there is no pattern to their placement. Predicting each blossom’s position before it’s visible would involve some intense memorization of unrelated objects. Like all randomly placed objects in Space Harrier games, the blossoms are stationary. Also, if you run into a blossom, you’ll die.

The second syllable introduces the flyers (not fliers), a determinate element.

You can see them enter the screen here—they’re the TIE fighters at the top right. They swoop in from there, then…

…they switch gears and fly towards the foreground. They also shoot those blue spheres at your current position.

As you can see, they never break formation; they always follow one right after the other. On the other hand, what you probably can’t tell is that this path is very predictable. I’ll combine the before and after pictures.

The red line indicates their direction. Flyers always take this elbow flight path. Because it’s a predictable and simple path, it’s easy to learn where to place Harrier (the guy you control in this game—the sharp-looking floating fellow in a red jacket and blue pants) so you can shoot them down. Plus, because all three fly in a line, once you shoot down the first one, it’s easy to stay in one spot and shoot them all down.

For example, if you planted yourself at the joint of the elbow (the far left point of the red line), you could sit in place and continually press the shoot button while you wait for all of the flyers to cruise into your line of fire.

It’s like Darius, if you’ve ever played that.

Note that there are still blossoms on the ground. This is how Space Harrier games create tension.

When you see a formation of flyers, it’s not hard to find a good place to stay in order to shoot them all down. You know how they’ll behave. However, you can’t predict where the blossoms will be placed. Remember, you die if you hit a blossom. So, what if you’re camped in a good spot to shoot down the flyers, when all of a sudden a blossom blocks your spot? You’ll have to improvise.

The flyers take a determinate path, so it’s easy to create a plan to deal with them. However, blossoms are indeterminate, so they possess the ability to dash your plans. You can plan to occupy one spot in order to dispatch the flyers, only to have that spot stolen by a blossom.

The third (and last) syllable of the first foot has a similar design. You’ll face blossoms and a formation of three flyers.

This approach to tension grants Space Harrier games a sense of speed, since you’ll never be focused on one thing for very long; the enemies enter the screen and leave it in short order while tons of stationary objects whiz by. However, an element of strategy remains, since you can plan for dealing with enemies that fly in formations.

Most other rail shooters tend towards strategy. For instance, Star Fox keeps your interest with complex enemy flight patterns and enemies that take multiple shots to down. Star Fox also has no answer for Space Harrier’s randomly placed stationary objects. As a result, gameplay feels slower and more complex.

Games like Star Fox want to keep your focus. You’ve got to pay attention to enemies and follow the subtleties of their movements in order to make it through.

Space Harrier games are all about shaking your focus. You may want to focus on enemy flight patterns, but the randomly placed stationary obstacles will distract you. In Space Harrier, you’ll need to focus on enemies, but that focus will need to be tempered by paying attention to the random objects, as well.

The overall structure of Platia is interesting, and it goes a decent ways to flesh out the interactions between determinate and indeterminate obstacles. If you would like to see it in motion, you can find a video of it here.

I’ve also taken notes on each foot of the stage so that it’s easier to think about how the stage is structured. I’ll leave them here for you, accompanied by timestamps matching the video. The foot markings are my personal choice, but the timestamps are of course objective.

Foot 1

Blossoms: 0:24

Blossoms: 0:31

  • + 3 Flyers - background right -> left -> foreground right: 0:32

Blossoms: 0:43

  • + 3 Flyers - background left -> right -> foreground left: 0:47

Foot 2

Towers: 0:54

Towers: 1:00

  • + 3 Turbo Jets: 1:01
  • + 3 Turbo Jets: 1:07
  • + 3 Turbo Jets: 1:12

Foot 3

Towers: 1:16

Towers: 1:22

  • + 3 Turbo Jets: 1:22
  • + 3 Flyers - foreground left -> right -> background left: 1:30
  • + 3 Flyers - foreground right -> left -> background right: 1:31

Towers: 1:36

  • + 3 flyers - background left -> right -> foreground left: 1:45
  • + 3 flyers - background right -> left -> foreground right: 1:45

Foot 4

Blossoms: 1:51

  • +3 Flyers - foreground right -> left -> background right: 1:52
  • +3 Flyers - foreground left -> right -> background left: 2:01

Towers: 2:05

  • +3 Turbo Jets: 2:12