The glow of the past
While Googling "burning rangers" for the thousandth time, I stumbled across this 2005 blog post. Its author, iGREKKESS, describes visiting his friend for a weekend of video games. The list of what they played includes this item: Burning Rangers Beta (Saturn).
I was intrigued by this. An alpha version of the game surfaced in 2021, but what could they have had in 2005? I reached out to iGREKKESS and was pleased to learn that he still had the relevant disc. But what was it?
Here's a quick summary:
Dates: The game's files are dated 1998-01-03, a few weeks before the release version was finalized.
Completion: The game is mostly complete, but definitely still unfinished. Although they're missing some bits and somewhat buggy, the missions are all playable. There are still some debugging features enabled.
Provenance: iGREKKESS thinks he probably got this from IRC in the early 2000s. My guess is that this is a preview copy that matches the one sent to Sega Saturn Magazine UK for issue 29.
Versus mode: We finally have it! It's very buggy, and in line with what Sega Saturn Magazine UK described in issue 30.
Cooperative multiplayer: A broken version of this is still playable! It's associated with versus mode.
I couldn't believe that Versus mode actually loaded when I selected it. This might not be the holy grail of Burning Rangers, but it's something that we (well, I) have wondered about for almost 25 years. See it in action here!
Sega Saturn Magazine UK #30 wrote this of the two player mode:
As we speculated a couple of months previously, the two-player mode takes the form of a Virtual-On style battle, with the two protagonists engaging in aerial combat in a vast metallic arena... Quite how this will work in practice we're not quite yet sure, as the bugs in our pre-production version prohibit any prolonged gameplay.
It's basically as the magazine described it. You choose either Shou or Tillis, and then you're dropped into a room that looks like the training space. Angels With Burning Hearts is the background music. A second player can control the other character, and the two of you can run around shooting each other.
The whole thing is pretty barebones and glitchy. The camera has trouble tracking the second player. The characters cry out when they're hit, but no real damage is dealt. There's a countdown timer, but it doesn't seem to do anything when it runs out. You can see why they cut it!
There are actually three rooms; you can access the other two with the debug features. Andreas Scholl, the patron saint of Burning Rangers, examined the game data and produced the overhead view shown here. Files for this space exist on the final release as well (e.g., TAISEN1.ENV). In the past, people have reported being able to access corrupt versions of it using those files. Andreas was able to reconstruct the first room with that data back in 2020; see his video here.
Two player co-op is present was accessible via the hidden debug menu in the December 1 alpha (video). It's in this version too, but you can only get at it via Versus mode. If you press the navigation button while paused, you'll be taken to Mission 2 with two players.
The second player's character is Shou by default, so you can have two of him on screen at once. But if the section of the mission you're playing has another ranger in it normally, that ranger will be the second player's. Two examples:
Mission 2: Shou and Tillis encounter each other in Walkway Area 03. So if you're Shou, Tillis will always be the second player in that section, and vice versa.
Mission 3: Big appears to talk to the foreman, so he'll always be the second player in that section.
I haven't been able to get into Missions 1 or 4 yet, but it's probably possible to do with hacking.
Aspects of Versus mode are present while playing: there's background music, the camera is buggy, and the players can injure each other. You can see why they cut it!
Level of completion
This iGREKKESS beta is mostly complete. You can play all four missions with both characters. Lots of things are missing or unpolished, but you can pretty much play the game from start to finish.
There are some debug features still enabled, which let you know this is a prerelease version:
A debug menu can be enabled on the title screen: hold Z and D-pad up, then press Left. This one has more items than the December 1 alpha.
The sound test is available from the title screen, like the December 1 alpha.
There is positioning information on the screen while you play: RD, MAP, X, Y, and Z.
When you press the navigation button, you go into a sort of placement mode. You can use the D-pad to move the character wherever you want (including through walls) and then resume by pressing the navigation button again.
You can skip to the next round (sub-section of a mission) by pausing and pressing the navigation button
The training space is pretty much finished. A few things got polished in the final release, but you have to look closely to notice many differences. The charge shot doesn't properly destroy crystals, and they use a less realistic dummy for the simulated rescue (see the comparison below).
Mission 1 is also close to complete. There are minor differences, but it's more or less what you get in the final game. Here are a few things I noticed...
There aren't any crystals in front of the mandatory rescue for the doctor's assistant, Peter Smith (you can still rescue him even if you don't have 5 crystals, though). Some of the other spots with survivors in the final are empty in this version.
After the second "lights out" sequence, you don't get the cutscene with Lead; you just hear his dialogue. You can also use the placement mode to skip the light switch and play in darkness, ha.
For a section-by-section breakdown of what's different, see this video.
Mission 2 feels less finished than the others. Indeed, the last few rooms are totally empty. Some sections feel really buggy, and the boss is barely playable. There are lots of differences with the final game; here are a few highlights...
The swimming sections are a lot harder to navigate because the water controls aren't finalized yet. You can't ascend by pressing jump, so you have to float, which is tedious (this is also the case in the December 1 alpha). You can swim with the dolphin and orcas by using placement mode, though.
Claris and Elliot look like bizarro world knockoffs! In the final version you get their actual models from NiGHTS. Here you get.... well, see the screenshots below.
In one section there are fuel cylinders that roll back and forth aggressively. You're meant to explode them from a distance (video). It's weird!
Mission 3 is missing the section where you carry Neal Belmondo, and doesn't have survivors in their expected locations. But it's more or less done, aside from the boss, which is buggy.
In the last part of the level, Ami Shibata's room is unlocked; you don't need ID cards. She's not there, though. Yuji Naka's area is open, but he's not there either. Neal is just standing there when you encounter him. Hilariously, you don't pick him up, and instead proceed to the rescue pod alone.
Placement mode lets you do fun things like stand next to Big while he's talking to the foreman. You can also check behind each of the four doors in the room before you encounter Neal. There are some surprises here:
Behind one door is a hallway with a switch that inverts the gravity! The character walks on the ceiling until you toggle the switch again (video). In the final version this is just a boring hallway.
Behind another door is a spinning fan. You can ride its air currents up to find a switch (video). In the final version you drop below the fan grate to find the switch.
The boss needs to have all its armor knocked off before you can inflict damage, making it much harder.
Mission 4 is semi-complete. You don't get to play the Burning Ship part. The later sections aren't finished, and are missing various objects.
On the disc is an extra video file associated with Mission 4 that shows images of Iria, her father, and scenes from other animations. It's got the demo version of We Are Burning Rangers playing for some reason. Watch it here. It's also in the December 1 alpha.
You also don't team up with Lead or Big in the area with Iria's stasis chamber. in fact, that chamber is missing from its room.
Some of the level gimmicks are a little weird. The "burning sun" enemies (that sometimes appears in Mission 1 in the final) are much more aggressive, as in the December 1 alpha. And there is a weird red fuel tank that acts as an elevator into the final boss area.
The bosses are all incomplete. The first time I played the floating crystal boss, I couldn't seem to damage it, but on later attempts it fell after several charge shots. The final one only has a single attack pattern. Its damage meter doesn't change with hits, but you can still beat it.
Lots of other things are different. Here's a sample of things I noticed:
There's a 99 crystal limit. Blue flames give out fewer crystals than normal; pink flames give out more. Crystals are red when idle, pink when being acquired.
Under Option > Control, one of the buttons is listed ITEM CHANGE.
You can't save your game yet. There is a spot for game data in the Options menu, but it doesn't work.
You can select the Burning Ship sub game from the Mode screen. It's really broken, with text scattered across the screen (including RINGCOUNT), but you can sort of play it. Here is a video.
The Mail system isn't implemented yet. The messages that were in MAIL.BIN in the December 1 alpha aren't there anymore. If you open a message in the Rescue List, the graphics are corrupt.
The survivor names are the ones from the December 1 alpha. Their models and animations are definitely improved in the final version.
There are no passwords on the results screens. And if you try to put one in from the mission select screen, you just start Mission 1.
Ami Shibata doesn't appear in the credits. In the final version she is given "greatest gratitude."
Establishing a timeline
Here are the dates we have for a couple different Japanese versions of the game, based on the latest game files on the disc.
I think this is probably the version Sega Saturn Magazine UK had for their issue #29 feature on Burning Rangers. The magazine screenshots in that issue show the same positioning information on the right side of the screen as this beta.
Issue 29's cover date is March 1998, so SSM would have been writing a couple of months before. We can tell they have something that came after the December 1 version: the charge shot meter doesn't match that build's. So the timing is plausible.
One problem with this theory: The magazine's screenshots of Versus mode don't appear until issue 30. We know they have access to a later build for that issue, since Lead and Shou appear together in Mission 4. So was there a later build that still had Versus mode in it?
From the development data accidentally included on the US disc (ref), we know bug reports were being filed against Versus mode until January 12, 1998. So it's possible that there was a later build, but it couldn't have been much later.
This build of BR is much more complete than the December 1 prototype. The team got a lot done in a month!
In the next article, we'll look at Burning Rangers Taikenban. This is a trial disc that lets you play part of Mission 1. But some reverse engineering allows us to explore it like another prototype build. Since it's from around December 30, it gives us a glimpse into what was going on between our two known prototypes.