Genre: Shmup Developer: Toaplan Publisher: Sega Enterprises Players: 1 Released: 1991
A few months ago, I was visiting my half-brother who lives in a municipality north of Gothenburg. His mother wanted to buy a Mega Drive so she could play Fire Shark (another game by Toaplan), like she did before they sold their “Sega” in favour of a PlayStation a few years ago. So I went into a local store that sold books, movies and video games and asked them if they had a Mega Drive. The shop owner said he had one. Then I looked at their Sega games, which could be counted on both hands. One of them was Zero Wing, for only 100 Swedish Kronor. I asked the guy if he had heard of anything called “All your base are belong to us” and got a negative response. Of course – if he had heard of that, the game would have cost at least twice the price.
If YOU haven’t heard of the famous “All your base are belong to us,” stop reading immediately and go to Google, Wikipedia, or YouTube to find out what it is. Thanks to Toaplan’s low budget not allowing them to get a proper translator, I don’t have to explain the oh-so-deep story of this cult game! So, let’s get right into the gameplay.
As soon as you start your flight, you will see a ship similar to a zeppelin. These contains power ups, red, blue, and green. The red weapon is always your starting weapon, a standard pea shooter. When you take the new red weapon, two options will be firing above and below you, giving a total of three blasting pea shooters. When you have received your options, the next power up will be the blue weapon. It’s a laser that always shoots straight, and it is also stronger than the red weapon. Last up is the green weapon, which shoots homing bullets at the enemy. It may not be as accurate as I’d like, but it’s still the best weapon, in my opinion. When you have your two options and pick up another icon for your current weapon, you reach level two (the red weapon becomes a spread here), and after that level three. At extremely rare moments, you may reach level four, but you will die and loose it soon, believe me. When you die, you are back to level one pea shooter again.
There is also a power up that gives your ship more speed. This one is extremely useful, because without it, your ship is slower than a PAL SNES. However, if you pick up too many of these, the blast processing becomes too powerful, so the slightest tap up or down may mean a giant crash into a wall! Two or three of these are enough. Last among the power ups is the shield, which is the stupidest one I’ve ever seen in a shoot-’em-up. Instead of being around the ship, it is a ball in front of it. This means it won’t protect you in the back or against incoming fire between it and your options. It can take three hits and also be used as a bomb if you press button B.
Pressing B in other cases is an interesting feature of this game. It unleashes the tractor beam, which sucks in power ups and enemies. When an enemy is sucked in, it can be used as the shield and bomb I just mentioned. This is actually more useful than the regular shield, because you can use it on so many enemies (they may not be too big) all the time. I once saw a video were a game site gave their opinion of the ten best game weapons of all time. The winner was a weapon exactly like this, in a FPS game, with the difference being that the tractor beam isn’t really powerful.
Zero Wing is a very hard game. There are many enemies, and the bosses always shoot many bullets. As in Thunder Force IV, I have to thank slowdown many times. When (not if) you die, you start over from a point where a power up is close. This can be frustrating in certain stages. Sometimes I die again, again, and again at the same spot, because there are so many enemies and bullets there. It makes me want to throw my official non-Majesco six- button pad onto the carpet. Instead, I come to my senses and smack my footstool REALLY hard. Sometimes I even just turn off the game. The thing is, much of the difficulty in Zero Wing comes from playing the same stages over and over, just to meet the boss and learn from a new mistake there and then start over from the same place way back. It is also irritating that most difficulty comes from avoiding the same bullets again and again. Your reflexes will never see the same variation as in the godly Thunder Force series or the mighty Space Harrier.
For a game released in 1991, the graphics aren’t really that good. The biggest disappointment comes in the lack of parallax scrolling backgrounds. There is just one background and the “playground,” which doesn’t give the deepest graphical feeling I tell you. I miss more colours and cyber mechanics here. The enemies are better though, and there are quite a few, both big and small and both mechanical and biological. The bosses are the best. They are big, well-drawn, animated, and colourful.
The music is probably the best part of the game (except the intro), which really shouldn’t surprise anyone because it was almost a standard for old school shooters back in the golden gaming era. In Zero Wing‘s case, it doesn’t really mean much because the tunes here are just above average. I do like the sound of the bass guitar – just listen to it when it kicks in during the intro. Also the drums put the sound engineers of Technosoft to shame with their “umpf… umpf” drums. Thankfully, we don’t hear as much guitar in this game as in Fire Shark, where it sounded horrible. Instead, the melodies sound like a keyboard. Quite memorable sometimes, but the melodies don’t bring up your adrenaline or enthusiasm in this game as they should.
By now you should know that this game isn’t as good as it is infamous. Zero Wing will rest on my shelf as a cult game, remembered for its hilarious intro, not for its memorable gameplay. If you aren’t a collector who wants games not only because they are good, but also because of their history, don’t buy this game. It isn’t worth the money, even though it really isn’t that bad. You have some nice ideas and average graphics and sound, but the mediocrity and frustration brings it down from being a title worthy of your collection. Zero Wing can entertain you for a moment, but if you seek a great shooter for the Mega Drive, there are plenty of other games to get before this one. If you do feel you have to have it because of the legendary intro, remember this: it is only in the European Mega Drive version and Zero Wing was never released for the Genesis in the U.S.
SCORE: 5 out of 10
Want another opinion on this game? Read our Double Take article!