Sunday, April 5, 2009

Looking At My Gucci...'s about that time. What time? Time for a new Chronsega! Having reached mid-1987 on the Famicom, we need to do some quick catch up on the Sega Master System. Of course, since less than 40 titles were released that year, catching up will be pretty easy.

Chronsega Episode 3 will be posted in the very near future. While you're waiting, how about a preview? One title in particular caused me no end of heartache and disappointment. I speak, of course, of Akai Koudan Zillion (or just Zillion in the West), whose promise of sci-fi themed exploration and combat gave way to a blisteringly monotonous exercise in memorization of four digit codes.

Zillion: A Case Study

Yes, Zillion was the Master System's next "big" game after Alex Kidd in Miracle World, but whereas Alex Kidd was Sega's attempt at a Mario-killer, Zillion set Metroid in its sights. The premise is virtually identical to Metroid's: infiltrate an underground base; explore a complex maze of interconnected halls and corridors; find items to power up your weapons and lengthen your lifebar; once powered-up, backtrack to reach previously inaccessible areas. Yet, in Zillion's case, it all goes horribly wrong.

Are you familiar with the cocktail known as a Black Velvet? Beer mixed with champagne? Zillion is like adulterating Metroid's Veuve Cliquot with Impossible Mission's Molson Ice: a travesty. In place of Metroid's fascinating alien landscapes, Zillion offers a series of interconnected, identical looking, one-screen rooms. Aside from the boss, there is only one enemy, a typical mindless security guard (though, later in the game, he at least learns to crouch while firing his laser gun). Weapon powerups simply give you a more powerful laser. And the backtracking is necessary only to open up a few previously sealed containers.

Yet, Zillion would not have crossed the threshold from the humdrum to the truly hateful without its password system. Every room requires you to shoot four containers and obtain the keyword inside. These four keywords must then be typed into the room's computer terminal in order for the door leading to the next room to be opened. This procedure in then repeated in the next room, and the next, and the next....

Zillion's series of rooms reminds you of something found in most puzzlers such as the Lolo games, but with simple memorization of four digit codes replacing any actual puzzles. I suppose this repetitive style of game play might be acceptable if broken down into small chunks. But, in a move which displayed their sneering contempt for Master System owners, Sega did not allow any sort of password or save mechanism in Zillion; it must be played in one sitting. Were it not for emulator save states, I would have never finished this game (though, in an attempt to replicate the original experience, I played it in sessions as long as I could tolerate).

Typing these words now, I feels as if I'm being too hard on Zillion. In all fairness, the game does have its fans, and even I felt a certain sense of accomplishment once I cleared the final room and headed down the final stretch towards the base's main computer. And Sega didn't intend to make such a taxing game. It's simply that by 1987, Sega had mastered the arcade game; great console games still eluded them. Maybe I'm expecting too much of Sega. After all, the Master System had been on the market less than two years when Zillion was released. Super Mario Bros, Nintendo's first great console game, hit the shelves two years and two months after the Famicom's debut.

Of course, we all know what lies in store for Sega. They would eventually come to fully grasp the concept of the console game. By the end of the year, Sega would release a title that became an undisputed classic of the 8-bit era. All the while, Sega was already working on a new, improved gaming system that would eventually challenge Nintendo's supremacy in the console market. So while I know Sega will eventually pull it together, I find myself getting impatient waiting for them to get there.


Lynxara said...

Zillion was meant to be one of the pillars of a much-hyped Zillion multimedia franchise in Japan. Most Zillion fans I've run across were actually converted by the anime, which was shockingly good, and then played the game later. I think there were also some anime sequels, memorabilia related to that, and maybe a manga?

To be honest Zillion seems to have had more impact as an anime than as a video game. The Zillion anime was popular enough that it was one of the first attempts to domestically distribute an anime TV series on VHS in the US. It flopped, but mostly due to the price point issues that picked off just about every other attempt at distributing long-form anime on VHS.

Doctor Sparkle said...

Wait... there are actual Zillion fans? OK, just kidding. It seems every anime series has some sort of fanbase. I've never seen the Zillion series myself, nor am I really clear how much input Sega had in its creation (other than Opa Opa appearing).

A Zillion manga is not something I've heard about, but it sure sounds possible. The other main piece of Zillion merch seems to be the Zillion toy gun so lovingly depicted on the game's title screen. Supposedly, the gun was based on the SMS Light Gun, which it somewhat resembles.

QM said...

For some reason I remember enjoying this game back when I owned an SMS. I'll have to load it up on an emulator to try it again.