Revisiting an old friend...
I suppose in this case, it would be appropriate to have a look back, seeing
as the original Zanac was released on the NES. During the days of the Famicon, Mega Drive and PC-Engine, Compile were a force to be reckoned with when it came to
shmups... Gunhed (aka Blazing Lasers), MUSHA Aleste, Dennin Aleste and Spriggan
all come to mind as points of this company's brilliance. Unfortunately, after the
over-abundance of shmups toward the late 16-bit era, Compile moved into
the realm of puzzle games and created Puyo Puyo (which seems to have about as
many reiterations, ports, and sequels as Mega Man). Thusly, when Compile
announced that they were releasing a new Zanac game, just about the whole shmup
community took notice. Thing is, because of the length of time since the
original and this new sequel, Compile decided to put the original game (emulated 3
different ways) on the same disc.
Two games for the price of one.
Let it be said that Compile does care about their shmupping roots, as
well as their fanbase for the genre. The original Zanac comes in a form that just wasn't
really possible before on the older hardware, as the flicker and slowdown have
pretty much been completely removed. The new Zanac, aptly titled 'Zanac Neo',
is a testament to 2D graphics, keeping in line with its predecessor. In
fact, it feels more like an update than a full blown sequel.
The original Zanac, as stated above, has three selectable variations:
ROM, DISK, and SPECIAL. ROM and DISK are practically identical while SPECIAL features some 'enhanced' (its still an 8-bit game, folks) graphics and effects, such as more
detailed sprites and nicer explosions. Zanac Neo features high-end 16-bit quality graphics with the occasional polygonal element thrown in from time to time to spice things up. Another welcome addition is the 2-player simultaneous feature as well as the totally remixed soundtrack.
A first step into a larger world...
Zanac's play mechanics were rather revolutionary for their time: you
had both a main weapon which could be powered up plus a secondary weapon that fired at the same time which could also be powered-up independently. The powerups ran from 0 to 7, giving you eight different choices; such as a shield, a bouncing ball of energy, a flame shot, a destructive shot that once it hit something eliminated everything
on-screen, a series of spinning shots, a direction-based shot, a straight laser and a shot
that once fired, would move up the screen and then quickly move back and forth. Each of these secondary weapons could be powered up several times each, although how many times depended on the particular weapon.
Zanac Neo takes this format one step further by giving the player(s) a
choice of three (well, actually four after you earn the ship from the classic Zanac)
different craft whose weapon powerups are unique to each one, although they all share a
common theme. Again, 0 to 7 are the different weapons, but they come more often than
in the original, plus they appear in chronological order (not to mention there are
cycling powerups as well now, which slowly change as they drop down the screen).
Stepping back, the original featured incredibly long levels (as does
the sequel). Each was vertical scrolling and featured some massive ground target as the
boss (something else to mention is that this game threw tons of mini-bosses at you).
You were timed at each boss, and if you didn't beat him, you moved on, but your progress through the game on the whole would change, so to reach the end you had to destroy everything. To a lesser extent, this same destroy-every-boss mechanic is employed in Zanac Neo.
One addition milestone was the enemy patterns, which all seemed to attack
uniquely (Zanac was the first to feature ship-halves that flew down each side of the
screen until they came in line with your ship and then would merge, trying to crush you
between them before jetting off as one complete fighter), some swooping in fast while other would shake back and forth. Not to mention there were some enemies that were impervious to your fire and you had to physically ram them with your ship to kill them! All of these elements have been incorporated into Zanac Neo too.
What Zanac Neo adds to this format is a combo meter. Much like
Dodonpachi, simply killing enemies, blowing up boxes or hitting powerup carriers will tack one more link onto your chain, but should you miss something (such as an enemy flies off screen or an item carrier isn't shot and leaves) the combo resets and you must start over. Building your combo and maintaining it leads to higher scores, as the combo works as a score multiplier.
So how does the 8-bit Zanac look, sound and feel?
Well, by today's graphical standards, very blocky and pixilated. What
did you expect? This IS a NES game. Let me say though that time has not made this game any easier, and it is still very difficult and unforgiving. The classic large hitbox coupled with enemy fire that possesses deadly accuracy is quite a lethal combination to those who have grown accustomed to today's bullet-hell shmups. To counter this, the game gives you 1-ups as if they were water…and trust me, you'll need them!
Likewise, the audio is decent, for what it is... and for the anal out
there, the emulation is damn near perfect. It really does sound exactly like a NES.
The play control is fairly standard and doesn't feel at all awkward with
a PSX pad.
In all honesty, I don't think a grade is requisite for each segment,
seeing as how old this game is. Instead, I'll give it an '8' for "transplantation accuracy".
And what about the sequel?
The graphics in Zanac Neo are very SNES/SFC-esque, featuring a bright
colour palette. The backgrounds you traverse have up to three layers of parallax and the
occasional scaling sequence. All of the bosses are either the afore-mentioned bases or
are multi-jointed ships or aliens (there is one though, a giant cube, that is polygonal).
Its nothing you haven't seen before, but it does work very well.
In the audio department, Compile took all of the classic tunes and
spruced them up. So what you get is some high caliber stuff that's very repetitive... which is a fair trade off I suppose.
In the control department, things are nice and tight, just like the
original. The ships are very responsive and easy to maneuver.
Thing is, this game is nowhere near as hard as its predecessor, plus it
heaps 1-ups on you even more! I've beaten Normal difficulty with 58 extra men, which I
I am impressed with what Compile have accomplished and am grateful that
they chose to revisit such a time-honoured title. I can only hope that they'll bring back
some of their other shooting masterpieces as well. For now though, this will satiate me
until they take a break from Arle again.
Final grade: 7.0 Not a "Must Own", but certainly a fine deal, plus each game is quite
enjoyable to play.
Suffice to say, my being a PC Engine fan, any shooter which can evoke those old feelings of frenetic yet deliberate fast action is going to quickly win me over. It’s difficult for me to quantify exactly appeal of a game like this. It doesn’t have the beauty and formal elegance of what Charles calls the ‘Bullet-hell’ shooters. It doesn’t have the environmental response of Xevious 3D/g+ or Darius Gaiden. Yet Zanac is a kind of brute force reflection of what we often complain is missing from today’s shooter; it’s an engaging experience which marriages the old with the new. At the same time, this is decidedly the product of a bygone era. Shooters have moved on from the place of gaming in which Zanac Neo resides. This title might not have received much attention if positioned within the glut of shooters during the 16-bit console era. But the very fact that this kind of game is made now is what makes it matter as it were in the grand scheme of contemporary shooters.
I view Zanac X Zanac not as a step forward for the genre but as a reminder from Compile that they’re still here. They’re still willing to make shooters in the old way, and can make them fun and vibrant enough to be relevant today. My sincere hope is that after the next rendition of Puyo Puyo (to which I look forward with great anticipation), Compile will return to make a shooter which reminds us why they set some of the most important industry standards all those years past. Until the time when they see fit to give the genre their own type of facelift, Zanac X Zanac will do nicely. For my tastes, the whole package warrants an 8.
For movies of Zanac, click here. For movies of Zanac Neo click here.
Charles Mugg / Brandon Sheffield