Lost in darkness: the missing Burning Rangers item system
We know that Burning Rangers changed quite a bit during its development. Screenshots and videos of early versions of the game have a HUD with a shield meter and a compass, for example. Magazine previews talked about collecting weapon upgrades. Prerelease builds feature objects and items that are missing in the final game.
We're fortunate to have four prerelease versions of BR to study. The earliest of these, the 1997-12-01 prototype, has a significant amount of leftover code. By exploring it, I've managed to piece together how some of these cut features worked. Here are the basics:
Item cards: BR once had an item system. If you destroyed fuel tanks, robots, or hidden capsule objects, you would get an item card.
Weapon upgrades: One set of items gave you different weapons. Shou and Tillis were meant to have at least five different weapons.
Shield meter: Instead of crystals protecting you from fire, you could take a certain number of hits. Some items restored your shield level; others increased its maximum capacity.
Speed upgrades: Your character started a mission with a certain baseline running speed. One of the items would increase it.
Capsules with item cards
One of the alternate weapons
Playing with the shield system
Running speed upgrades
If you play the Dec 1 prototype for a while, you'll come across item "cards." These appear when you destroy a robot or a fuel tank. There are a few different types of cards, but they all seem to have the same effect: they lower the limit by 5 percentage points.
By manipulating the game's object list, you can get the Dec 1 prototype to place a number of capsules that contain item cards. Some of the cards match the ones from the robots and fuel tanks, but others are unique. There are 12 in total, and some of them look like Ideya from NiGHTS - an intentional reference? This video of BR at the Autumn 1997 Tokyo Game Show shows one of these capsules, so we know these were used at one point.
The cards are really interesting! They reveal multiple unused game mechanics, including the shield and weapon systems described below. There are 12 different capsule objects. From the game's code, I think they had these effects (in addition to reducing the limit):
Type 20 (1 card): increases your shield level by 2
Type 21 (5 card): increases your shield level to its maximum
Type 22 (green liquid card): increases your shield's maximum level
Type 23 (green crystal card): increases your running speed by about 3%
Type 24 (yellow crystal card): nothing
Type 25 (1 card): nothing
Type 26 (5 card): nothing
Type 27 (blue ball card): changes your weapon to type 1
Type 28 (purple ball card): changes your weapon to type 2
Type 29 (red ball card): changes your weapon to type 3
Type 2A (gray ball card): changes your weapon to type 4
Type 2B (green ball card): changes your weapon to... something?
The Dec 1 prototype's mission results screen grades you on how many items you collected. If you destroy a fuel tank, but fail to collect its card before it disappears, you won't get credit for that item.
TGS97 demo of BR showing an item capsule
Working item capsules in the 1997-12-01 prototype build
Items that increase the level and capacity of the player's shield
Early magazine coverage suggested that the game might include weapon upgrades, but of course there were none in its final release. The Dec 1 prototype has alternate weapons, though! They are accessible via memory editing (the address to change is is 0x06026DC4). The later builds of the game remove them entirely.
The weapons only have cosmetic effects in this build. However, there is code that suggests that each weapon would have a different effect when used: there's a table that uses the weapon type as an index. The table points to the same function for all five types, but by changing it to point to the neighboring unused functions, we can different attacks.
These alternate attacks feel pretty incomplete. One of them gives you multiple shots: if you tap the action button multiple times in quick succession, then press it again, you'll release that many pulses. Another one gives you the same multi-shot effect, but the pulse is yellow. The third one seems to issue a continuous yellow blast. All three can put out fires, but they can't harm robots or bosses.
Shou and Tillis each get a set of alternate weapons. One of Shou's looks like a shield; the rest look like pistols. One of Tillis's has blades that extend down her arms; the rest are colorful arm-mounted canons.
I suspect that the game was intended to let you switch between weapons with the A button. 1998-01-03 prototype has the A button marked as Item change on its Options screen, but it makes you jump instead. The A button does nothing in the 1997-12-01 prototype, and I haven't found any code that would change weapons in response to a button press.
The HUD shown in the earliest screenshots and videos of BR shows a "shield" meter. This video shows an explosion reducing it and an item replenishing it. The final game replaces this shield system with crystals that work like Sonic's rings.
The Dec 1 prototype has the replacement crystal system mostly in place, but there are remnants of the shield system. The game still has code for increasing and reducing the shield level, but it replaces the shield memory values with the current crystal count on every frame. If we get rid of those replacements, we can study the details of how the shields worked:
Each character starts with an initial "maximum" shield level (Shou, Tillis, and Lead got 6; Chris got 5; Big got 10; Iria got 2).
Minor injuries, like touching a fire, reduced the shield level by 1. Major injuries, like getting hit by a robot, reduced it by 2.
If your shield level is an odd number, you can recover up to the next even number by waiting (this is likely why the shield meter on the HUD blinks when you take one hit).
Items could increase either your current shield level (up to the character's maximum), or increase the character's maximum (up to 20 hits).
I've looked around the Dec 1 prototype to see whether the old HUD is still present, and have not been able to find it. However, I can hook up the shield level to the crystal display and play with the shield level showing at all times. Here is a video!
Did you know that each of the Rangers run at different speeds? I always thought that the characters only had different models and voices, but they actually play a bit differently. Tillis runs about 6% faster than Shou.
The item system seems to have included running speed upgrades. Each character started with a certain "running speed level," and items could increase it up to the maximum value, which was 5. In the Dec 1 prototype, each item increases running speed by about 3%.
The final game has the characters running much faster than they do in the prerelease builds. I suppose that the game was most fun when your speed was fully upgraded, so they just made that the default when they scrapped the item system.
Interestingly, you run at a different speed during the Mission 3 boss fight (this is the case in the final game also). I'm not sure why - did it feel too slow with the default setting?
The December 1, 1997 build is the only one we have that has functioning item capsules. The next available one, Flash Sega Saturn Vol. 25, still has the item capsule code in it, but it isn't referenced. You can patch it in to make the capsules show up, but even then the cards no longer work.
In the final build, all of the leftover item code is gone. However, some remnants of the shield and running speed systems remain.