My brief time with the Sega Mega Drive Mini 2 so far has been enlightening in so many ways, although it couldn’t have started more predictably… Out Run, of course! One of the few versions I’ve never played much of but it’s a good one, and I can now say I’ve since properly rinsed every single route on there too! Next up was Sewer Shark, one of the twelve Mega-CD (or Sega-CD if you prefer) titles included, and one I’ve never played before but have always fancied! It’s an on-rails, fully FMV shooter, with you hurtling through post-apocalyptic sewer tunnels, reacting to directional prompts and shooting nasties. It didn’t disappoint either, and I’ve had a really good time getting to know it!

From there, I wanted to experience the rest of the Mega-CD titles next because I’d never played anything for that Mega Drive (or Genesis if you prefer) expansion accessory before. Apart from Night Striker, which we’ll come back to in a sec, the real standout was Sonic CD, which I didn’t just see the end of pretty quickly, but also led to what has become an ongoing odyssey through all the 2D Sonic the Hedgehog games! It’s weird because the first one came with my brother’s Mega Drive at the time so I’ve played a bit of that but never been inclined to play any more than that or anything else in the series that followed! Something just clicked this time though, and I’ve somehow turned into a born-again Sonic fanboy, eleven completed games and counting down the line! From there, I played more or less of every single one of all fifty-three games on the system, and while about half of the regular Mega Drive games were familiar, of everything else I discovered, Night Striker was love at first sight. And what a sight! That first level instantly earned a place in the next instalment of my Wonderful Sights in Gaming (Parts 1 and 2 are here and here), and over the space of a few short months the rest of the game has established itself as a real favourite too, so we’d better stop wasting time and find out why!

Something else I really appreciate about the Sega Mega Drive Mini 2, albeit indirectly, is that Sega Japan have put together a full set of digitised original (where applicable) manuals for everything on there, all in English, which can be downloaded as individual PDFs or en-masse. And that gives us a good starting point to jump into Night Striker’s backstory! It’s A.D. 2049 and in a futuristic metropolis somewhere in the Far East, Doctor Masker Lindberry, a leading expert in optical laser technology, and his daughter are being held hostage by a mysterious terrorist organisation. The Intelligence Division of the United Nations Special Service Agency has dispatched agents to investigate but so far none have returned, and all they do know is that this nefarious lot have developed some kind of special secret weapons at a special secret factory. Due to the critical nature of this matter, Dirk Douglas, head of the Special Service Agency, is commanding an even more special task force to rescue Doctor Lindberry and his daughter, and take down the terrorists once and for all. “This elite group is made up of brave, experience soldiers. They control armored cars and have advanced tactical experience. Their code name is NIGHT STRIKER!

What a set-up! Let’s not forget it was originally an arcade game though, so we can’t be too hard on the plot, and there’s definitely a lot worse! We’ll come back to the arcade version later, as well as the Saturn port, both of which I’ve also played a fair bit of now, but it’s probably worth a note now to say this thing was originally developed and published by Taito in 1989 on their Taito Z System 16-bit arcade hardware, which at this point had been around for a couple of years and you might also know from the likes of Chase HQ, Continental Circus and my own personal favourite, the wonderful underwater rail-shooter Battle Shark. That said, looking at Night Striker in particular you’ll probably be put in mind of some crazy mash-up of Space Harrier, Thunder Blade and Out Run above anything else! It seems to have been received pretty well in the arcades, and done alright for Taito – I dug through some old copies of Computer & Video Games magazine and they called it a must-play! Interestingly, they also said the graphics were “beautiful” but doubted they’d be done justice on any home conversions that might follow. We’ll certainly talk about that later, but it might explain the four year gap before our Mega-CD version here was the first of the ports out of the blocks in 1993, so let’s head over there now and see how it went!

The first thing I want to mention is the warm glow I felt inside when I first saw the words “Zuntata Taito Sound Team” on the splash screen as the game is loading, but we’ll also come back to those guys later! From the gorgeous, shimmering, starlit cityscape on the title screen, we can either hang around for a recap of the story and a bit of a demo, start the game, or jump into a config menu, so we’ll check that out first. You can change the level of difficulty from default normal to easy, hard, very hard and extra hard, and that seems to affect the number of enemies on screen at once and the amount of firepower they have; regardless, you have three credits at your disposal whatever the difficulty. Next up you can switch from default inverted control to normal if you’re also the kind of pervert who plays Virtua Racer in chase view, and you can change the button mapping for auto- or regular shot, then there’s a more helpful option for auto-neutral, which centres your ship when you take your finger away from a direction button. I’m pretty neutral on auto-neutral myself – it’s welcome in the more “open” stages but where you need to avoid obstacles (think the trench run in Atari’s Star Wars arcade game) you’re generally better off with a couple of delicate taps rather than more binary quick automatic movements that will still end up with you in the middle of the screen but just when you don’t want to be there! You can also change the background music here from original to arrange mode, which I think is exclusive to this Mega-CD version.

Starting the game gives us another, more animated take on the story that I think might have been more suited to the attract mode than the actual attract mode is, especially with the isometric 3D view of your sci-fi car / plane / boat combo as it zooms into action! We switch to a more regular 3D race view after that though, behind the vehicle in a much less offensive way than in Virtua Racer, as we hurtle down the tunnel system that’s going to connect the six rounds of twenty-one stages, which in turn are made up of nine different scenes… Round 1 begins in the City, described by the manual as being bustling streets surrounded by buildings and illuminated signs as far as the eye can see, and this is a good point to go on a tangent or rant or whatever you want to call it about how this version of Night Striker looks! Specifically, I’m talking Mean Machines Sega’s 9% “Pile of Shoot” review where they describe the graphics as “stupendously bad” and sort of Cubist, with totally unrecognisable sprites, before going on to call it the worst game on the Mega-CD! Actually, I don’t really care what they think – I’ve had hours of fun with it regardless, and as I alluded to earlier, I think the sight of this beautifully lit City stage emerging from the tunnel is absolutely wonderful. And not the arcade original or the Saturn or PlayStation port, but this one. So there! Anyway, back to the city, you’re transforming between driving when you’re down low or flying when you’re elsewhere on the screen along the path of the highway, negotiating a horde of helicopters and armoured cars before reaching the end of stage boss, which is a meaner, shielded helicopter called Gyrohound. Good old manual! And when I mentioned Thunder Blade earlier, this is what I’m talking about! For Space Harrier, you’ll want the next level…

Actually, the game overall feels more like Space Harrier to play than probably anything else, with you moving at a constant speed either in the air or “driving” along the ground, which often resembles a road even when it isn’t, hence the Out Run reference too, although that’s more so down to the left or right branching paths you have to decide upon once you’re back in the tunnel after completing a stage, where you’ll also be awarded bonus points and maybe some extra shields on top of your starting five depending on how well you’ve done so far. And it probably goes without saying that if you take a hit from an enemy or an obstacle once all the shields are gone it’s game over! Back to the remaining eight of our scenes, after the City you’ve got a choice of Factory, which is where the terrorists are making their weapons, or the Canal, where the flying car becomes the flying boat and you’ll be avoiding some particularly vicious protruding pipes as well as regular enemies; and you’ll also meet that very Space Harrier Dragon Head boss leaping about out of the water if you get there too! These routes will then each branch into two more levels, so you can see this inverted pyramid route map emerging before you get to the sixth stage, where there’ll now be a choice of two routes from a total of six different options by that point depending on how you got there. By the way, beat any of those and it’s final boss time, Transformer-style! I’m not spoiling it like Mean Machines we’re also happy to do though! On the way, you’ll be crossing the sea, going high speed through a narrow tunnel, flying over the city, fighting through the less dense suburbs or the mysterious Temple Precinct, then finally “Street” where they seem to have run out of ideas and repurposed the original City level! There’s some nice variety overall even if you are mostly holding down fire and frantically trying to avoid enemy fire and badly located pipework! There is visual variety in the bosses too, even if there’s less variety in how you approach them. Some great names though! There’s Night Jackal, the “animal-based weapon that can be controlled by performing cyborg surgery on biotech mutants,” whatever that means! There’s Powered Jacket too, and Big Floater, the remodelled tourist airship that now serves as the terrorist’s mobile HQ, not to mention Big Horn and Rolling Stone as well!

Unless you’ve chosen the Arrange soundtrack, there’s absolutely nothing sophisticated about playing Night Striker – it’s like watching Rambo, and that’s precisely why I love it so much! Once you’re set on what I think overall is the more fluid auto-neutral control scheme or the more precise one with it off, the action feels good and collision detection is fair whether you’re playing inverted or you’re some kind of weirdo. All I would possibly have liked on top are some sensitivity settings to tweak movement a bit further for some of the more complex (or downright mean-spirited) obstacle patterns, which is there if you’re playing with an analog controller, but not for the regular Mega Drive Mini 2 six-button jobbie I’m using. As fast-paced and frantic as things usually are, there’s also a fairness to where the difficulty is set – Mean Machines seemed to think it’s a walkover, but not from where I’m sitting, particularly if you ramp up the selectable difficulty then try and negotiate some of the more confined stages! Yes, the enemies are mindlessly following their pre-defined attack patterns and blindly shooting their load, but since when was that a problem? Didn’t do Space Invaders any harm! And whatever anyone else says, I just find this a joy to play!

As I might have mentioned already, I think it looks great too! It’s certainly a unique look, and is obviously directed by the machine’s capabilities to pull-off the arcade original’s vibe, but I reckon that’s where it succeeds above all else – it takes that “vibe” and turns it up to eleven in its own way! The colours in this game are outrageous, and none more so than in that glorious opening City vista! The sky is simply on fire, with a bold colour gradient from purple to orange to yellow and back again as a thin line of darkness emerges high above the equally vibrant cityscape that is this shimmering neon skyline in the distance while brilliantly illuminated buildings fly by on either side. Admittedly it’s always the same brilliantly illuminated building, but the effect is the same, and at full speed with a screen full of enemies you’ve got other things to worry about!p anyway! The tunnel that follows each stage isn’t quite so inspiring, but I suppose its greyness does give your poor eyes a rest for a second, and it is a good opportunity to notice that now you’ve got a chance to put your vehicle back down onto the ground there’s a cool motion effect on the tyres too. Similarly, if you choose the Canal route next, the smoke from the tyres is replaced by an impressive spray as you hit the water, but while the buildings either side aren’t quite so well lit now, the pipes criss-crossing the canal that are emerging full-tilt out of darkness are a bright yellow nightmare, and that skyline in the background is now way closer and even more impressive!

There is a price to pay for all this speed and ridiculous colour in both that lack of variety we just mentioned and also a significant lack of detail – turn your focus on anything beyond yourself and incoming danger and it’s blocky and pixellated. Your sprite is a bit generic and indistinct too, especially in the air, while enemies are equally generic but a bit more interesting and animated. And a bit more so again for the bosses, although they never get close to Space Harrier levels of epic, even at their most blatant when the dragon from the canals level becomes a double-dragon in the sea, and we’re hardly talking Darkstalkers levels of character motion either! While I’m briefly being hard on Night Striker, not all the levels are to be gushed about – the Factory and Tunnel levels are a bit mundane and I usually try and avoid those routes for that reason alone. Which must say something for how good the others look! Okay, it’s never going to win any best-looking game ever award, and it’s not even anywhere near as impressive as Ecco the Dolphin or Silpheed, for example, also included on the Mega Drive Mini 2, but all the same, it’s way better than some of that FMV crap the Mega-CD was full of! And I think it works great, with sheer pace and vibrancy more than making up for a lack of resolution and definition, which still appeal to me whatever the professionals say. And none of that other stuff sounds anywhere near as good as this does!

Sound effects are beefy and exactly what you’d expect, and there’s some decent speech too, but as is usually the case, Zuntata have come up with something special for the soundtrack, and especially the Arrange version! The base tracks are straight from the arcade version as far as I’m aware, and wouldn’t be out of place in something like Beverly Hills Cop – lots of energy and very eighties! It’s all big synth melodies built on pre-acid house techno rhythms and high-tempo electro-bass, and while there are occasional attempts at moodiness, for example to introduce a boss fight, it’s never long before you could close your eyes and be behind the wheel of some futuristic Out-Run sequel. But not Out Run 2019! The Arrange soundtrack is another level though! Pick that in the options menu and Beverley Hills Cop is getting a transfer to Miami Vice, with more exotic instrumentation, more reflective beats and a helping slap-bass on the side – a kind of tropical funk remix!

I’m as aware that I’m now making it sound like the definitive version as I am that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so let’s head back to 1989 and see how the original stacks up! Obviously, it’s missing any tropical funk, but apart from that it’s also missing all that up-close pixelation, and while that makes being way better-looking the main difference here, I’d still argue that the Mega-CD version is more atmospheric and has more personality from using its colour palette to compensate – those pesky pipes in the canal area here are just bland in comparison! There is way more going on though, from the detail in the enemies to the mass of cool explosions all over the place, and actually just the amount of stuff happening on the screen at any giving time, which also allows for a bit more nuance to the enemy’s attacks. Speaking of nuance, you’re using what was a flight stick on the original cabinet, and as said earlier, that auto-neutral option feels way more suited to analog controls. It’s really excellent!

The Saturn port, Night Striker S, of course, arrived in 1996 and brought with it six extra stages and a very fancy introductory CG movie. Elsewhere it sits somewhere between the original and its Mega-CD predecessor, with a slightly chunkier take on the arcade graphics (as well as a flicker problem) and a bit less going on in general, leaving it feeling a bit empty at times where I never got that on the Mega-CD. And that makes it a bit redundant when you’ve got access to both the arcade and Mega-CD versions, legitimately or otherwise. I’ve only seen the PlayStation version from 1995 in videos, and while it seems to play a lot like the original, there’s some really distracting pop-in of roadside buildings and the like, and it makes life even more difficult when you have to avoid obstacles as they appear out of nowhere in front of you! You can play the proper original on PS2 in the Taito Memories II Gekan compilation though, if you can get hold of it. The soundtrack is on Apple Music too, and I know that because it’s playing in the background on there as I write!

It’s easy to have no regard for anyone else’s opinion about a game when it’s one of sixty baked-in to a mini console thirty years after the fact! I love discovering new old games, so more than anything it was an attraction to see stuff like Night Striker I’d never even heard of on the list of games that came with the Mega Drive Mini 2. But the real treat is when you strike gold with these things, and it becomes a real favourite, which is exactly what Night Striker has done for me. The graphics might not be to everyone’s (or even anyone’s!) taste, but to me they had a personality that appealed, just like what could be considered shallow gameplay. As I said at the start, it was love at first sight. Especially the sight of that opening City stage! If, indeed, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then this eye for one beholds beauty in Night Striker. Or something like that!!!