High Context Burning Rangers
Burning Rangers was a video game that came out for the Sega Saturn in 1998. It's about a futuristic team of firefighters who jet around the planet (and space) saving people from catastrophic fires.
Not many people played it.
Not many people remember it.
But I do! In these pages I'm going to give this underrated game a very close reading, and in doing so try to convince you that it's worth remembering.
1998 was a difficult year for Sega. Its Saturn console was not an international success, and the company was already preparing its successor (the Dreamcast, which would come out later in the year). Only a handful of titles were set to be released for the system outside of Japan, and even those were only produced in limited quantities. One of the final Saturn titles was Burning Rangers.
Burning Rangers was developed by Sonic Team, the group within Sega responsible for the Sonic the Hedgehog series. You would think Sega would have tasked them with developing a mainline Sonic game for the Saturn. That would have sold some consoles! But for some reason they... didn't. Instead, Sonic Team produced NiGHTS Into Dreams, a weird and wonderful game about a flying purple jester.
"Well, they got that out of their systems," I can imagine a beleaguered Sega executive thinking. "Surely now they'll do a new Sonic game for us, right?" Haha, no. Sonic Team put together a compilation of old games for the Saturn (Sonic Jam) and then turned their attention to this very ambitious firefighting game with hundreds of characters and extreme technical demands.
Early 1990s games are well preserved. People remember that era fondly, and it's easy to revisit: there are multiple high-quality emulators for the NES, SNES, and Genesis. And games that came out after roughly 2003 are also easy to revisit. By that time the Internet was mainstream, and every new title generated some number of previews, reviews, and articles with commentary. Not every site is still around, but many are, and lots of others are available through archive sites.
The 32-bit era is a little bit harder to return to. There are emulators for the major systems - the Playstation, Nintendo 64, and Sega Saturn - but they're not quite as solid as their 16-bit counterparts. Those consoles had quirky graphics and sound capabilities that require more effort to recreate. And even though we had the Internet in 1998, it was more of a niche thing - people still mostly got their news about games from magazines.
In this era of remakes and reboots and franchises, you might expect Sega to do something with the Burning Rangers IP. Even NiGHTS got a sequel - 2007's Journey of Dreams. But alas, no: Sega has inserted some references to BR into a few games, but the otherwise the property is dormant.
Request for immediate rescue
Why did (and do) I love Burning Rangers so much?
I could tell you about the graphics. They look rough today, but I promise that at the time they were impressive - especially the flames. The Sega Saturn was notoriously difficult to develop for, but Sonic Team really pushed its limits.
Or I could tell you about the voice acting. It's standard now for games to have lots of voice acting, but it was a novelty in 1998. The story unfolds over the in-game intercom, which is also used for navigation. That's still cool!
The gameplay is pretty good, too. You're racing against the clock - the building you're in will go up in flames if you take too long. But you want to take your time and explore, too - there are people to rescue if you look around. This tension makes for a compelling experience, and there's plenty of replay value.
But the thing that really gets me about BR is the fact that they made 108 extra characters with portraits and 3D models and personalities. After you rescue them, they send you e-mail. Many of the messages just say something like "Thanks for saving me," but some provide more information about the story. Others are goofy little jokes. Several give you special codes for unlocking extra features.
If you just played through once, you'd miss this whole gotta-catch-em-all part of the game. Each time you replay a stage, different parts of it will be open to explore. So you always get a new set of people to rescue. There are supposedly 3,125 variants of the stages, and I doubt any individual has played more than a fraction of them.
They didn't have to do all that! Their care and attention to detail is impressive, and what makes me want to keep the Internet from forgetting about BR.
Just do it, just Burning Rangers
Here is what I'm doing for the BR cause:
The complete survivor guide - all of the passwords you need to rescue the 108 survivors, plus copies of their 183 English e-mails.
The Cutting Room Floor - I've added several bits of information to the Burning Rangers article, including information on how to access Versus mode.
The survivor mosaic - Andreas Scholl and I made this from the illustrations of the survivors on the game disc.
High Context Burning Rangers — a series of articles that examine various aspects of BR:
The case of the missing elephants - a joke in BR that got lost in translation
Into dreams - The various connections between BR and NiGHTS Into Dreams
She escaped into cyberspace - the Ami Shibata rescue, explained
The lost found - How the survivor characters changed during BR's development
Visions displayed on the monitors - A look at what was cut from the final version of BR
Burning questions - what we still don't know about BR
Burning Rangers prototypes and hacking — what I've learned from reverse engineering different versions of BR:
Dreams kept in a secret place - Unraveling mystery of the password system
Glow of the past - I helped a late prototype of BR (with multiplayer!) come to light in 2023
The matrix of data - The trial version of BR includes a lot more than you might think
The flow of time - Comparing the four known BR prereleases to the final version
Driving you into cyber dive - The BR hacking and reverse engineering guide
Lost in darkness - The lost BR item system
Low Context Burning Rangers — a Twitter account where I post things about BR:
Hidden artwork from the trial disc.
A mostly-instrumental version of the Burning Ship song that you probably haven't heard.
Anemoth in Shadow The Hedgehog.
The many names of Chris Partn
Sonic's head on Lead's weapon
The FREE NAKA mod - every survivor is named Yuji Naka
The VERSUS mod - making multiplayer mode accessible from the menu again
Here are some links to other BR things of interest:
Burning Rescue: In 2008 Sega published a Minesweeper clone with BR graphics for Japanese mobile phones. This 2020 video shows the entire game.
Hidden Palace: In 2021 the site published a prototype of the game from 1997. The writeup has a list of differences.
Archive.org: The strategy guide for BR never got released outside of Japan, but you can look at scans of its pages online. Do check out the concept art toward the end of the book.
The GHZ Podcast: Grant, Lee, David, Jared, Michael, and I got together for a 90 minute discussion of the game and the Saturn era.
I'd also like to commend these other people for their efforts in keeping the BR flame alive:
Michael Stearns: artist and game maker who drew a fantastic tribute to BR in his series of drawings inspired by Saturn games.