News/Angels with Burning Hearts: Burning Rangers Prototype

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Burning Rangers (Dec 1, 1997 prototype)
Discuss this release on our Discord server!

Hello everyone! With the rest of Project Deluge still underway, we’ve been hit with quite a heat wave these past few weeks! Fortunately, we have a solution. We can think of no better way to extinguish a burning inferno than to call upon some experienced professionals. Presenting, a prototype of Burning Rangers for the Sega Saturn!

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After work on NiGHTs into Dreams was complete in 1996, Sonic Team decided to focus on two projects simultaneously - one was a much sought after 3D rendition of Sonic the Hedgehog which was in development under the Project Sonic banner (that would eventually become 1998’s Sonic Adventure for the Sega Dreamcast), and the other a completely new idea through the collaboration of the newest members of Sonic Team.

Thus, Burning Rangers was born. Yuji Naka served as the game’s producer with the game’s direction being handled by Naoto Oshima, who also served as director on Sonic the Hedgehog CD and NiGHTs into Dreams. The game had four designers - Takao Miyoshi (who served as the lead designers and planner, responsible for many of the game’s design decisions), Yasuhiko Nagamichi and Norihito Kato (Panzer Dragoon Orta and Gunvalkyrie, and the designer of the A-LIFE Chao system used in Sonic Adventure), and Shintaro Hata (Field Designer for Phantasy Star Online). The music was handled by Naofumi Hataya (best known for his work on Sonic CD), Fumie Kumatani, and Masaru Setsumaru (who also handled sound effects). It was Naofumi Hataya who composed all of the vocal theme songs for Burning Rangers, with the legendary Takenobu Mitsuyoshi providing the vocals on the Japanese version of the main theme. Fumie Kumatani would also ironically go on to work on Phantasy Star Online as the game’s main composer.

Most of Burning Ranger’s staff would go on to work on the Phantasy Star Online (PSO) series, with Takao Miyoshi serving as PSO’s main director. As such, you can see many of Burning Ranger’s influences in PSO, from the overall design and music. The network component that had to be scrapped from Burning Rangers had no doubt made its way back when PSO was in development.

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The game is set in a futuristic world with many people living in space colonies. Despite being an advanced society, fire hazards are still commonplace. A group of space firefighters known as the Burning Rangers are an advanced task force established to remedy these emergencies by rescuing civilians and by putting out the fires before they spread. You have a choice between two new recruits - Shou and Tillis, with a possibility of controlling other characters from time to time. The goal of the game is to get to the source of what’s causing the issues by getting to the end of each of the four levels unscathed while rescuing civilians and putting out fires as often as possible. While the game is relatively short, it can be replayed with a random level generation system after finishing the game once, while attempting to rescue as many civilians as you can in each playthrough.

At this time, Burning Rangers was Sonic Team’s most ambitious video game yet. The game originally started out as a network-compatible game with four players who go on a rescue mission. Due to technical limitations in implementing the networking features, the game was instead reworked as an offline game. However, the game initially carried some multiplayer elements that existed well just before the final product was meant to ship. Previews of the game mentioned the existence of the VS Battle Mode, with some previews hinting at the possibility of local cooperative play perhaps using the Taisen Cable (a link-cable accessory to link multiple Sega Saturns together). However, given memory limitations, performance issues, and lack of time - any multiplayer functionality had to be dropped entirely.

However, despite the multiplayer functionality being cut from the game, the game continued to push the envelope on what could be accomplished on the Sega Saturn as well as the resources of Sonic Team itself. Having been not only one of the very last commercially available Sega Saturn games sold in the United States but also a follow up to Sonic Team’s previous project NiGHTs into Dreams, the game’s designers knew that the game had to push both the company as well as the hardware into areas no one knew was possible. For instance, Burning Rangers was the first time Sonic Team implemented motion captured animation, voice acting, and more emphasis on story.

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On a technical level, the game also pushed the Sega Saturn to its absolute limit by doing things that were considered to be “atypical” for the hardware - such as true transparencies on the flame effects, advanced gouraud shading, and dynamically animated palette based lighting (a precursor to the LANTERN lighting engine that would eventually be used in the original Dreamcast version of Sonic Adventure). Burning Rangers, like most Sega Saturn games that took the most advantage of the hardware, was written predominately in assembler. The environments themselves are densely populated with many quadrilateral polygons making up most of the scenery and utilize many palette lighting ‘sources’ to add variety and detail onto the map. The game also took wonderful advantage of the 3D Control Pad, which was made popular by the release of NiGHTs into Dreams.

Burning Rangers was also one of the very first games to ever use ADX, an ADPCM like lossy audio storage format developed by CRI Middleware that is still being used to this day! The game utilizes this and the Cinepak video compression format to create extremely crisp MPEG-like full motion video sequences without the need of dedicated video processing chips. This was accomplished with clever usage of both of the Saturn’s SH2 processors, VDP2’s Full Screen NBG0 24-bit bitmap modes, and SCU-DSP + SCPS-DSP to decode the ADX sound format in real time.

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Source: Matt Greer

The Sega Saturn is infamous for its inability to display “true” transparencies. In most consoles made before the first generation of 3D accelerated video game consoles, transparent effects were done by utilizing alternating pixel patterns in combination with clever use of common analog video signals like composite video to “blend” the pixels together to give the illusion of true transparency. This is called “half transparency”. The benefit of this method is that you can create transparent effects without having to utilize costly hardware functions that would otherwise tax the hardware, creating performance issues. While not much of a problem in the 90s, this effect comes with the added disadvantage of being very apparent when the video signal isn’t composite (like VGA, or a lossless digital video signal), where each individual pixel that makes up the pattern can be seen with no obfuscation, breaking the illusion. The Sega Saturn’s ability to output transparencies is complicated, which is what led to this misconception for many years. The Saturn CAN output transparencies, but in a traditional Sega Saturn game, most true transparent-like effects are done across VDP2 layers. The Saturn is not capable of doing these effects between sprites. Sega provided a means to get around this limitation by using a mesh flag, which only draws every other pixel in a sprite creating the pixel pattern in the sprite that looks transparent when coupled with an analog video signal.

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Source: Sonic the Hedgeblog

However, Burning Rangers takes the preconceived notion of the Sega Saturn’s transparency capabilities and blows it out of the water. In short, Burning Rangers uses a combination of software and hardware rendering to achieve this effect. According to David Gamiz Jimenez’s excellent series of articles detailing the use cases that utilized the Sega Saturn to its limit, Burning Rangers creates an extra layer for the 176x112 point transparencies in VDP2’s NBG2 layer by possibly using a direct DMA SCU plus HRAM to serve as the in between to VDP2’s VRAM. The “transparent” layer that gets created runs asynchronously next to opaque data. Burning Rangers will typically display around 1300 polygons total, with 300 of those polygons on the transparent layer (half of the 300 are for the “transparent” parts, with the other half for trim/mask parts). In other words, Burning Rangers dedicates around 25% of its polygon budget to just the transparent effects alone. There are limitations with this method of course, but the fact that this game (as well as many other late Saturn titles) were able to pull off certain effects otherwise thought to be impossible led many to wonder just what exactly the Sega Saturn was capable of.

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Source: Edge Magazine Issue 51 Page 11

Burning Rangers was first announced at the Tokyo Game Show, which ran from September 5-7, 1997 and was open to the general public. Yuji Naka was present at the show and was the one to introduce the game formally for the first time. The game was present in a playable format at the show with multiple kiosks that could be photographed. From the media that was captured at the event, it appears the demo featured one stage that could be played by both Shou and Tillis. Given what is shown in the prototype we have today, it appears that this prototype is very rudimentary and reflects an early stage in development.

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Source: Scanned by Sazpaimon

The prototype that we were able to preserve today was compiled almost two months before the final game was meant to go gold. In the process of getting Project Deluge prepared, we’ve played through many prototypes from various stages of completion. The majority of prototypes that are dated to at most two months before the completion of the first retail release generally don’t have game changing differences. While they might be unfinished to a certain degree, a game would technically be “Beta” if the final release were just two months around the corner. Beta is usually used to describe build milestones where the actual software itself is feature complete, but some parts contain bugs or that certain parts are unrefined/unfinished. However, what’s interesting is that the game in this prototype is considered an Alpha, which indicates that the game is currently in a much more dire state. An alpha build of the game would be missing features, levels that are unimplemented, most likely has a debugger enabled, and the majority of the later segments are rudimentary at best. After playing the prototype, we can definitely see that it most certainly is in an alpha state.

For instance, despite only having four levels to implement - only the first level is entirely playable from start to finish. Despite being the first level, the first level is implemented in a way that is drastically unlike the final. In the final, sections of the first stage are broken down into segments that are loaded in RAM. This gave the developers more memory to use to load more objects, or add more detail to the maps. In the prototype, however, the entirety of the first half of stage one is one segment. That means the game loads the entire first stage into RAM, from start to finish. As a result, the stage is a bit more simplified where most rooms lack the detail that would be eventually added in the final release. However, these differences go far beyond just the aesthetics of the game, but also to the gameplay itself. For example, at one point crystals were collected using “cards” that sometimes spawn from flames when you put them out. This was removed sometime within two months before the game’s completion. The game’s overall difficulty is different as well, with heat levels rising much faster in this build in comparison to the final. The training area is another map that hadn’t even been implemented yet.

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Source: Scanned by Sazpaimon

The most notable game design choice that was altered for the final was the removal of multiplayer. At this point during development, the developers were still experimenting with implementing some form of multiplayer into the game. As mentioned before, the game was initially designed to have multiplayer from the get go. It started with having network coop capabilities, which was scrapped sometime before the unveiling at TGS 97, before having some form of two player co-op that could work locally instead. How this would’ve worked in the final game is uncertain, but it’s possible it would have utilized the Taisen Cable to some degree. However, this was possibly removed again and reworked as a two player versus mode which ran on one console without split screen. This feature did get implemented to a certain degree in a prototype much later than our build, but was removed for being too buggy. Despite being available on the main menu in this build, the “battle” map (called “taisen” in one of the later builds of the game) hasn’t even been implemented yet. Given the circumstances surrounding all the differences presented in this build and what would make it for the final game, it’s very likely that this game was rushed.

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At least Sega of America had the time to make this t-shirt. Thanks for the support, Bernie...
Source: Barry Harmon’s Flickr. Original photo came from an eBay auction from a former Sega of America employee.

Despite not making it in time for a holiday season anyway, it’s unclear why the game had to be rushed. The final Japanese release, which would become the first release to hit retail, was completed on January 27th, 1998 with the retail release date just a month later on February 26th, 1998. Despite Bernie Stolar’s insistence of ending support for the Sega Saturn, the game was released on May 31st, 1998 in the United States with a European release half a month later. The game would even make an appearance at E3 that year, which would be the last time the Sega Saturn would ever see any resemblance of acknowledgement in the West. In just a few short months time, the Sega Dreamcast would hit store shelves in Japan.

Despite all of its shortcomings, the game was generally well received. The most common complaint about the game was its poor collision detection and graphics rendering. Even in the final release, the game suffers from poor polygon stability and draw distance. However the majority of games journalists at the time praised the game’s use of the Sega Saturn hardware, particularly its use of lighting effects. The game’s use of ambient sound with emphasis on voice guidance and sound cues were admired by some, however the voice acting in general wasn’t as well received (however appropriate for the time period it might have been). The game was often criticized for being “too short for its own good” while not being particularly difficult either, as game IGN journalist Levi Buchanan has stated.

Many of the staff who worked on Burning Rangers remained with Sonic Team, with some of them even working on Sonic Adventure. When Sonic Adventure was complete, many of the original crew that worked on Burning Rangers began development on Phantasy Star Online which incorporated many of the original ideas they had for the game back when the concept was focused on multiplayer co-op play. In essence, Burning Rangers lived on through Phantasy Star Online which would eventually become one of the most successful games on the Sega Dreamcast

Unfortunately, the war was lost before the battle even began. With Sega of America pulling support for the Sega Saturn in favor of the upcoming Sega Dreamcast, this game never stood a chance at success. Keep in mind, Bernie Stolar’s famous last words that ended the life of the Sega Saturn occurred around E3 1997, a few months before the initial unveiling of Burning Rangers at the Tokyo Game Show. At this point many game and toy stores had stopped stocking Sega Saturn hardware and games, and Sega practically ceased all marketing campaigns and deals that could have helped give the console a dying chance at some success. Despite being released in the United States anyway, there were very few copies of the game manufactured as you could only really buy the game from Sega or an online third party vendor directly at this point. Because of this there were hardly any copies of the game available, and since the game was already released well into the Sega Saturn’s death rattle in the West, this meant that reprints were out of the question too. Even to this day, finding a copy of the original US release complete in its jewel case can be difficult in comparison to most other high profile Sega Saturn titles, especially for a decent price.

Unfortunately, time hasn’t been exactly kind to Burning Rangers either. Out of all of Sonic Team’s games that have been developed internally, Burning Rangers remains the one game that has never seen a re-release or a port on any other platform (aside from Sonic Jam of course). Given what went into getting the game to run on the Sega Saturn, it’s very unlikely that a straight port would even be possible. Since the game took advantage of most of the Sega Saturn’s hardware and feature sets, porting a game onto modern hardware would be extraordinarily difficult and time consuming. If one were to port Burning Rangers, you would essentially have to emulate the intricacies of the hardware anyway. Remaking the game might also be out of the question, considering it wasn’t one of Sonic Team’s most successful titles either. Aside from the occasional drive-by references to the game in other Sonic Team/Sega games such as Phantasy Star Online, this game remains one of the least acknowledged out of Sonic Team’s portfolio.

With copies hard to find and re-releases nonexistent, your options for playing Burning Rangers were limited to buying original hardware and a copy of the game (if you’re lucky), or through emulation. For a time however, even emulation wasn’t always a choice either. Up until recently, the game was very difficult to emulate given all the individual components that make up the original hardware, and how the game utilized that hardware to pull off its special effects. Even when the game was initially emulatable, it required relatively powerful hardware to emulate it accurately. It wasn’t until Sega Saturn emulation as well as computer hardware matured enough that allowed the game to finally be accessible.

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Source: Andreas Scholl’s Twitter Feed

Thankfully, the efforts of the fans will always come through! Andreas Scholl has faithfully recreated the gameplay of Burning Rangers in Unity3D by using the original assets (models, animations, textures) in a newer engine to give the game an uplift. Aside from the improved aesthetics brought on by the improved frame rate and resolution, recreating the game in a modern engine using the original assets offers a good blend between faithfully keeping the design of the original game but with a subtle modern take to make the game more playable. This is somewhat similar to the modern NiGHTS into Dreams ports, which offered both a “Sega Saturn” mode as well as an arranged mode with new graphics. If Sega were to do something similar to this, it would most likely be more preferable overall than just doing a straight port or emulation.

As time marches forward, we are losing more of the past each and every day. To keep something from disappearing or to keep it relevant at the very least, it takes the effort of someone to care enough to see to it that things like this don’t vanish. Whether it be a remake, reimagining, a spiritual successor, or an emulated version of the original - Burning Rangers remains a historically significant game especially in regards to the story of the Sega Saturn, Sonic Team, and Sega. Like most of what has been created over the course of history, everything has a risk of being lost to the passage of time. In spite of all of its shortcomings and unfortunate past, Burning Rangers is certainly a title that is worth being remembered for the years to come.

We’d like to take this opportunity to thank site admin Sazpaimon for acquiring and generously allow us the opportunity to preserve this one of a kind prototype. We’d also like to thank ndiddy and Andreas Scholl for going through and researching this prototype in the effort to find all the hidden goodies that could be still be in this build. Be sure to check out Andreas’ progress on recreating Burning Rangers in Unity on his YouTube channel here!

But don’t fret! There’s still plenty more to come in the not so distant future (we promise).

Until next time!