A fabulous gem of a game on an otherwise-dying system.
Let's get a rundown:
The story is actually pretty basic, but it still serves well as a backdrop for the hero and the task he must complete.
An evil tyrant named Greedy (really creative with that one, but we'll let it slide this time) is going around with his minions to different planets, enslaving the populace and forcing them to do his will. He brainwashes the planet leaders and his reign of terror spreads like wildfire across the galaxy.
Even the "legendary hero" was unable to stop Greedy and was captured as well.
The people not yet enslaved make one last desperate plea for help...The message carries far across the heavens...and awakes young Ristar, son of the legendary hero. Ristar promptly takes off, hoping to stop the evil there and eventually defeat Greedy and rescue his father.
Wow. This game spared no expense here. This game could easily have been the prettiest game out there at the time with the kind of graphics we see here. The enemies are bright and colorful, and the backgrounds are lively and even interactive at times. Even Ristar's "waiting" animation differs based on what level he's in. For example, he sits down and fans himself with his hand to cool off in the lava world, where as in the snow world he makes little snowmen while he waits for the player to make a move.
The whole package is really well put together and shows a lot of time and effort on Sega's time. I never imagined that a game that looks this good could have been released on the Genesis. When I was a kid, I paid it no mind, but now, I can see this game as an example of just how good 16-bit graphics can look...they rival and in some cases outdo graphics on later systems.
The music in this game is also quite good. Each level has its own distinct tune, which usually fits quite well with the current situation. For example, the underwater levels have more serene music as you swim along, while the mechanized level has more of a robotic feel, incorporating the whirrs and beeps of machinery. One level actually has you collecting metronomes to put together the parts of the level's music, which is kinda cool. The tracks are neither amazingly epic nor completely lame. They just...fit. Though I do especially like the music that plays when you beat a level. I find it inspiring :)
Controls are simple, yet take a while to completely master. By default, the A and C buttons jump, and the B button is the "grab" button, which you'll be using to attack, climb, swing, and other various actions. The controls are pretty fluid and the movements feel natural once you get the hang of how Ristar's arms work. Not much more to say here.
Even with good graphics, music, and controls, a game is no good if it's not FUN, right? Luckily, Ristar steps up and makes itself extremely playable (and re-playable, for that matter).
Ristar makes his way across 7 distinct worlds, most of which have themes that you find pretty commonly among platformers. There's the forest world which you start on, the underwater planet Undertow, the lava world Scorch, the "musical" planet Sonata, the snowy world of Freon, the mechanical planet Automaton, and finally, the final showdown on Greedy's home turf. Each offer their own quirks and new enemies to defeat. Each planet consists of two levels and a boss fight at the end of each. Upon defeating the boss, Ristar slings himself to the next planet.
Ristar attacks and, quite frequently, maneuvers using his elastic-like arms to either pull enemies and objects towards him to headbutt them (in the case of objects, he just picks them up), or to pull himself towards a wall, pole, or other grabbable object. He can also grab onto stars with handles on them and swing around and around until the button is released, at which point he "flies off the handle" and shoots off in the direction he was facing (though you can control him somewhat in mid-air), rendering him invincible temporarily and allowing him to reach new heights or make his way through dangerous territory. As was mentioned earlier, the controls are pretty intuitive, but it takes a while to master the movements necessary to make your way through a level without dying. And, as a side-note, there is not ONE bottomless pit to be found in the whole game. So you can't blame those for your lack of skills. XD
Ristar has 4 hit points, which can be drained fast if you're not careful. He can replenish his life by picking up stars, either the yellow ones that restore 1 point, or the blue ones which completely refill his life. Extra lives are to be found in several places, as well as gaining extra lives at certain scores.
The levels are all quite distinct and fun to play. Most are pretty straightforward, but some are a little more maze-like and complex. There's often little sub-bosses placed throughout the regular levels, and only by defeating them can you progress.
There's also a bonus handle to be found in each level (except for boss levels, of course), which is distinctly different than the normal star handles. I always thought it looked like a bunch of bananas with a handle sticking out of it, but maybe that's just me. Anyway, upon grabbing one, Ristar slings himself off to a bonus stage where you must make your way to a treasure chest, break it open, and grab the treasure. The early ones are easy to finish, but later on they become more and more difficult to complete successfully within the given time limit of 60 seconds. The handles are usually placed in hard-to-reach spots, but once you know where they are, it's not hard to find them again. However, once you enter a bonus stage, you cannot play that stage again for the duration of that game. If you failed, tough luck. Try again next game. These treasures are collected at the end of the game and based on how many you got, you are given secret passwords that have various effects, such as a stage select or a boss rush mode (and yes, the password system is exclusive for this sort of thing. No level passwords here; you gotta finish the game in one run).
The game takes around 1-2 hours to finish once you know what you're doing. It's just the right length for this sort of game.
So, in closing, Ristar is a great game that holds up even today. The graphics are great, the music is good, and the gameplay is unique. It is a game worth searching for if you still own your Genesis or Mega Drive. You can also find it in the Sonic Mega Collection released for the Xbox, GC, and PS2 as the final unlockable game. Either way, it's definitely worth the trouble of searching it out. You won't regret it.