Argh, Sega, you buried the wrong game! As the story goes, Sonic and Ristar are two divergent paths of development that arose from the same initial game, which was apparently to be about a rabbit who would grab things and slam into them. They wanted the character to roll into a ball, so it was changed to a hedgehog, and then somebody got it into their heads to emphasize the speed aspect of the game and we wound up with Sonic and "Blast Processing". The ideas from that initial game that were abandoned sat around gathering dust for a while, until near the end of the Genesis' life cycle in 1995 they were revived as Ristar.
Since Ristar came out so late in the system's development cycle, not a whole lot of attention was paid to it by the general gaming public. It's a shame, because it had the advantage of coming out after a number of Sonic games and Sega clearly learned a few lessons from those about what worked and what didn't, and implemented them here.
The Sonic influence is apparent almost immediately by the level introductions that look almost exactly like those from Sonic 3. The game looks even better than any of Sega's other platformers for the Genesis, however, with colorful graphics, lots of background detail and layers of scrolling. This game looks so good it stands up well next to a lot of Super NES platformers. The music is by NiGHTS composer Tomoko Sasaki and has that same unique techno/jazz style, and is a pleasure to listen to and suits the environments well.
Ristar doesn't run very fast and can't jump too well either, but he can grab stuff, giving the game an almost Bionic Commando-like vibe. You grab enemies and slam yourself into them to dispatch them, grab ledges to pull yourself up, grab and swing around poles, and so on. The game is composed of six worlds, each with two levels and a boss fight, then one final level with two boss fights to wind things up. Each world has a fairly standard "theme" like those employed in the Sonic games - there's the jungle world, fire world, ice world, techno dystopia world, etc. Each one is fairly large, and some have branching paths through. There's a good variety of gameplay - the game uses a lot of ideas from the Sonic series, but cleans them up and makes them more fun, like in the case of the underwater sections of the second world where you don't have to worry about oxygen and air bubbles, and the play control is much smoother. The boss fights are all graphically impressive and creative.
The game has a sort of old-school sense of design and difficulty. After the second level it becomes fairly challenging, and there are some frustrating spots, but it's never really cheap and certainly not impossible. When you complete the game, you unlock passwords that allow you to do time attack and boss attack runs, as well as a level select and a mode that warps the background music.
A game deserving of more appreciation than it initially got, this is a fine example of the now mostly dead art of 2D platformer design. Most definetly worth a look, I think it's one of the best platformers of the 16-bit era and the excellent presentation will not dissappoint.
* Gameplay Video