Everyone’s heard of Sonic, but many may not have heard of one of Sonic Team’s other creations for the Mega Drive / Genesis, Ristar. This year has seen the 20th anniversary of the anthropomorphic star, and yet many won’t even know of the character’s troubled development, alongside all the countless connections Ristar has to the gaming icon that is Sonic the Hedgehog. Connections that go way past the fact that they share the console.
Ristar’s development began as a happy accident during the course of Sonic’s creation. As part of their quest to create a new mascot, right from the start SEGA focused on the idea of an anthropomorphic animal in a cartoon style. However, Sonic was not the first idea that came to mind.
Originally, Yuji Naka and Sonic Team’s concept for SEGA’s mascot was a rabbit character that could utilise its long floppy ears for combat, picking up items, and in order to assist in traversing the platforming environment. This concept was eventually put to one-side in favour of the faster than light hedgehog we all know and love, something Sonic creator Yuji Naka recalled in 1992:
At first we used a character that looked like a rabbit with ears that could extend and pick up objects. As the game got faster and faster, we needed to come up with a special characteristic to give our character some power over his enemies. I remembered a character I had thought about years ago who could roll himself into a ball and slam into enemies. Hedgehogs can roll themselves into a ball, so we decided to go from a rabbit to a hedgehog.
Nevertheless, Ristar’s concept would return to the ideas table a couple of years later, long after Sonic has established himself as not only SEGA’s mascot, but the early 90s king of cool too. This was ironic, given that another idea for Ristar was to market the shooting star as a successor to Sonic.
Returning to the original idea of a rabbit that could utilise its ears, SEGA set about adapting this in order to create a brand new IP. After some work this IP eventually became a prototype called Feel. Within this, the rabbit character had already begun to resemble something other than a rabbit, and now utilised stretching arms rather than ears. Eventually this character was finally altered to become a shooting star, but the alterations didn’t stop there.
Thanks to Sonic the Hedgehog’s phenomenal reception around the world, SEGA were well aware that the character’s name was just as important as its look. SEGA also went through many ideas when it came to the name, especially with regard to the western release. From Feel, to Ristar the Shooting Star, then to Dexstar, and finally back to simply Ristar, SEGA certainly touted a variety of ideas for the name as well. Despite all of these ideas, they couldn’t agree on a name that would be used in both Japan and Western markets, with Ristar the Shooting Star remaining the game’s title in Japan.
This wasn’t the only aspect though that was altered as a part of localisation for the western markets, with a variety of alterations made to the story and characters too. In both versions the villainous space pirate Kaiser Greedy has utilised his mind controls in order to take control of the Valdi system of planets. However, this is where the similarities in the story end. In the original Japanese version, the Star Goddess Oruto requests the assistance of Ristar in order to grant the wishes of the inhabitants of the planet Neer, and save the Valdi star system.
On the other hand SEGA felt a different motivation for Ristar’s quest was needed. This resulted in Oruto being removed altogether, and a father figure being introduced for Ristar instead. This father figure acts as the original legendary hero who is meant to protect the Valdi system, but has been kidnapped by Kaiser Greedy. As such in the Western release Ristar is challenged with saving not only the Valdi system, but his father too. The ending of each version differs too, but I won’t spoil these, just in case you intend to play the game and find out for yourself.
Ristar is a game that seeps and oozes the feel of Sonic the Hedgehog, something indicative of the development process for the game. It’s troubled and long development may have seen many changes, but nonetheless despite this it still retained the feel of a Sonic Team game. However, the game was released right at the tale end of the 16-bit generation in 1995, and as such was overshadowed by the release of the SEGA Saturn.
All in all, this condemned the shooting star to bit part cameo appearances in SEGA games over the years, rather than a fully fledged franchise. This is a shame as all of the work that went into Ristar as a character really payed off. The game was also well received at the time, despite being overshadowed by the generational shift, and I’ll be looking into whether one of the 16-bit era’s last platforming titles is still worth your time in my upcoming review.