NOTE: From time to time, I’m going to post write-ups for my 50 favorite games of all time, starting from the bottom. They’re almost all older games (only one is from this generation) so much of these discussions will be keeping with the theme of this blog. Enjoy.
Designed for: Sega Genesis
Developed by: Sonic Team
Published by: Sega
Year Released: 1995
What a charming platformer. Ristar came out very late in the life of the Sega Genesis and as such, not many people got to experience it. This late arrival, however, also meant that the game featured the Sonic Team at the very top of their game as far as presentation goes. The art and animation were of some of the highest quality seen on the system (all hand-drawn work here, of course, no pre-rendered crap) and they managed to squeeze as much out the Genesis’ sound chip as possible for some pretty impressive music. Controls were tight, gameplay was solid—truly a strong, well-rounded platforming experience.
Of course, none of this 16-bit mastery mattered. The gaming world’s collective gaze had been turned by the murky, janky world of early polygonal games with the Saturn and PlayStation in their infancies. Few had the time of day for a little heroic shooting star on an outdated system.
But I did, because I was awesome. Also because I was about 10 years old. I didn’t know shit about what systems were launching in Japan or how many bits were in a whatsit or whatever. I played Ristar at a friend’s house and had a blast, so I promptly borrowed it from them for a really long time and beat the hell out of it repeatedly.
It seems like Sonic Team’s goals with Ristar was accessibility and simplicity. The game’s difficulty is pretty friendly (up until the final boss, who’s a bitch), and the levels are not overwhelmingly dense with ideas, gimmicks or concepts, as some platformers tend to be. This is not to say, however, that they are straightforward or boring. Generally, Ristar does a good job of presenting the general thrust of its levels or worlds early, and then it expands upon these one or two features for the duration. The music-themed stages are a standout—if not only for the fact that among the tried (or tired) and true level designs that were practically mandatory for a game of this genre (forest, water, fire, ice, technology), they managed to eke out at least one truly original set. 
With regard to what I assume was their desire to make an easy-to-understand, easy-to-play platformer, I think Sonic Team had the most notable success with the game’s main gameplay element—Ristar’s ability to grab stuff. All of Ristar’s movement (aside from walking and jumping) and attacking comes from his unusual ability to stretch his arms out to about twice his height, allowing him to nab things from afar. To attack, he grabs an enemy and retracts his arms, crashing into them with a somersaulting headbutt. He can also swing from stationary objects, snag out of reach items or smack himself into a wall with his rubbery appendages, and the beauty of the mechanic is how simply it controls. All of these actions are handled with one button, the grab button. Ristar can stretch in any of the eight directions (while jumping, and only five on the ground, logically) and this allows the player to pull off some impressively acrobatic maneuvers in quick succession if you know what you’re doing. Flipping off a vertical pole, grabbing an enemy in midair, headbutting it to death and caroming off to a higher platform is pretty satisfying with such a simple control scheme. Something tells me that if Ristar came out for the Xbox 360 tomorrow, this would take more button presses than a Mortal Kombat Brutality to pull off.
The game is almost dangerously cute. Imagine a Sonic game with a ‘tude-ectomy and you’re most of the way there. Ristar himself is a smiley Little-Engine-That-Could who looks more determined than angry when he’s fighting and takes joy in simple things like jumping and carrying items. He is made even less badass by his cutesy digitized voice samples that urge you to “Come on!” and “Play with me?”…and yeah, that one’s a little weird.
The saccharine doesn’t stop with the diminutive hero, either. The basic enemy type is a goomba-esque little nub of a thing which toddles around and throws rocks at you as its most menacing attack. Ristar launches off of huge dandelion puffs lolling around the sky in one level. One of the mini-boss battles is a goddamn snowball fight for crap’s sake, pitting you against a little prankster who’s been following you around the first ice level, sabotaging your progress. After you bop him three times with fluffy-looking snowballs, he’ll give up and sheepishly wave at you as you leave, showing up later to help you defeat the ice world’s menacing boss…with what appears to be bowls of tomato soup.
Yes, it’s all very ‘kiddy’ and sweet (and apparently the Japanese version is even moreso), but I don’t really mind. Unlike most “gamers” these days, I don’t need to be photo-realistically slaughtering mythological figures (some seriously ironic design if you ask me, God of War) or “chainsodomizing” anything to have a good time, but that’s me, I guess. I have no doubt that even on the kid-friendly Wii, this game would be ridiculed if it came out today.
But the cutesiness serves a purpose in the overall narrative, it seems to me. Ristar is himself, a young child—younger even, it seems, than the usual teen protagonists of most games. His animation and voiceovers demonstrate an innocent and childlike nature, and I think that, if you wanted to really wanted to overanalyze it, you could make a good case for Ristar’s moveset of grabbing, holding and pulling being evokative of an embrace—perhaps that of a parent. This is supported by the story sequences bookending the game. In the Japanese version, Ristar is sent out in his seeming infancy by his star-goddess mother to grant the wishes of an endangered world, and at the completion of his quest, returns to her. The American version is slightly different, but ends on the same note. Ristar must save his father, a legendary hero, and when he finally defeats evil and wins the day they are reunited—and embrace with outstretched arms.
These things aside, Ristar remains a highly polished platformer that seems kind of like the swan song for the genre that saw so much success on the Genesis. Its simplicity and earnestness is an artifact of a time when the industry wasn’t focused on complicating things as much as possible or dialing up the gore to give 12-year old sociopaths-in-training chubbies on Xbox Live, but were more concerned with a cohesive, fun experience. Crazy, I know.
IF THEY MADE THIS GAME TODAY: Hard to say for this one; games like this literally have no place in this generation. If anything it’d be a largely-ignored 3D platformer on the Wii that may or may not use the motion controls effectively. Probably get straight 8.5s across the board and sell about 25,000 copies.
 My claim here is probably pretty questionable. I bet someone could come up with a music themed level/world from another platformer, but I certainly can’t think of any off the top of my head. And I bet they weren’t designed as well as Ristar’s anyway.