Friday, July 22, 2016

Rediscovered Classics: Zillion (Sega Master System)

Oh, I've been excited for this one!

Zillion has been the shiniest, most boldly outlined entry on my bucket list ever since I first read about it a little more than a year ago on, where Jeremy Parish gave it the retrospective treatment. The headline described Zillion as "Sega's answer to Metroid," which was all it needed to say to firmly grip me by the collar. "Could such a thing truly exist?" I wondered. I mean, I was well aware that old-school Sega had a reputation for replicating other companies' successful titles--for taking established formulas and putting its own spin on things--but I just couldn't visualize a history wherein one of its action-focused, arcade-groomed development teams sought to venture into this particular genre. Talk about multiple avenues of intrigue!

It's my nature to be fascinated by such things, I guess. For as long as I can remember, I've always had this weird obsession with direct analogs when it comes to my entertainment choices: If the younger me was heavy into, say, the Marvel and DC universes, it'd be likely that he'd waste the school hours making side-by-side lists of their corresponding heroes, their names and similarly conceived abilities neatly penciled into custom-made tables. The Marvel Universe was home to Submariner, Quicksilver and Mr. Fantastic, so I'd enthusiastically note that DC had the answer with Aquaman, Flash and Plastic Man.

I'd make these observations about every form of entertainment I consumed: The WWF promoted the overly tanned, charismatic musclehead Hulk Hogan--the original Orange Goblin, as he was affectionately known--whose prototypical persona was obviously adopted by Sting, WCW's equally oily headliner (and both were billed from Venice Beach, California, which further tickled my OCD sensibilities!). Abbot and Costello had Laurel and Hardy. Michael Myers had Jason Voorhees. Rambo had Commando. And The Legend of Zelda had Neutopia (which is borderline plagiarism, though I still want to play it!).

And now I've been introduced to the possibility that Metroid has its own alternate-universe counterpart in Zillion, whose challenge to the throne is allegedly a serious one. It's strange, though: Considering how much I love the exploration-based adventure genre, I'm shocked that it's taken me this long to discover what's purported to be one of its exemplars (I might have seen Zillion's name somewhere on my hosted Metroidvania site or any of those like it, but I wouldn't have had reason to regard it as anything other than another entry on a long list of clones), though I'm actually kind of glad that I'm finding out about it at this particular point in my life; since this blog's inception, my desire to rediscover classic games has been fueled by a hope of earning second chances--of finding a way to relive youthful experiences that I previously believed to be irreplicable. If Zillion is indeed indicative of its inspiration, then what I'm being presented here is a cherished opportunity to rekindle the flame--to allow my imagination to shape the cavernous halls of a lonely planet, become awash in conflicting emotions, and conjure up those same feelings of wonder.

Zillion just might be the game to provide me the authentic 8-bit Metroid experience I've been seeking since 1989!

Also, I'm interested in finding out how well I can immerse myself in a Metroid-like world as filtered through the Master System's smoother, more luminous aesthetic lens; that is, as I've grown to better appreciate the console's uniquely alluring visual characteristics, I've been eager to lose myself to its interpretive renderings of familiar 8-bit spaces. In that sense, Zillion represents the perfect intersection, where my zeal to discover overlooked Metroid-inspired games meets my desire to tunnel deeper into the largely unexplored world of the Sega Master System.

My personal history tells me that I should remain a bit skeptical of Parish' claims, since I've found that only a tiny number of Metroidvania games, including Rygar and Blaster Master, have measured up to Metroid in terms of entrancing world design and sheer scope, but, really, I can find no reason to temper my lofty expectations for Zillion. I choose to afford it nothing short of the most cynicism-free platform. It has a job to do, and I need it to succeed. Leave cynicism to the jaded.

Image credited to

I prefer to go into these blind, but in Zillion's case it doesn't feel right to do so. I can't if I'm treating it like an opportunity to travel through time and relive my first-ever Metroid experience, an important part of which was reading up on its backstory and pre-immersing myself in the world of Zebes.

So I look to Zillion's manual (or a scan of it, at least), whose cover for some reason depicts a microwave. Maybe in addition Sega's gonna teach me how to whip up some Jiffy Pop? If so, I look forward to sharing my funny stories about almost choking to death.

Oh, those irrelative Master System covers!

The game's plot reads similarly to Metroid's: I'm a member of the White Knights, "a peace-keeping force within the planetary system" (so a more-localized Galactic Federation), and my mission is to thwart the large-scale takeover plans of the evil Norsa Empire (Space Pirates!). It's up to me to infiltrate Norsa, whose innards are not surprisingly described to be "labyrinthine," and obtain five floppy disks that contain the Empire's plans; doing so will help me to emphatically end its sinister campaign. What's different is that I can enlist the help of three allies--Champ, Apple and Amy--whose abilities will somehow bolster my defenses. I'm not sure what that means.

My name is J.J., and my main weapon is the upgradable Zillion Laser. It's a bit curious that the game's namesake is a weapon and not an enemy menace of some sort. There looks to be a heavy focus on its operation.

The level design is said to be "confusing," and text beyond suggest that I may get lost. Good--I consider that to be an essential element in any Metroidvania game.

The rest of the manual speaks of "leveling up" (physical enhancements like the High Jump and Screw Attack?), memorizing symbols, procuring ID cards, and inputting complicated-sounding computer (microwave?) commands. There are also profiles for the ally helpers, but the descriptions are kind of vague-sounding (so how they function remains a mystery for now). Strangely, there are no enemy bios, nor is there anything to suggest that the main hero will gain new abilities.

Really, there's too much content to take in here at one time, and most of it is inscrutable on the surface, so all I can do is trust that the game's procedural design will do a good job of making it all palatable.

So it's finally time to head in! A whole new world of mystery is waiting for me, and I'm excited to begin unraveling it. Above all, as part of my exploration, I hope to unearth one of my new favorite Metroidvania games of all time! Can Zillion actually deliver to that level? Maybe. Maybe not. I can't wait to find out!

Let's rock.

I picked the perfect day to start my adventure: The skies are gray, light rumblings of thunder can be heard in the distance, and the raindrops of a calm downpour pelt off of the surrounding foliage, their persistent symphony helping to create the type of ambiance that can provide the most wonderful of external augmentation. While the atmosphere is perceptibly tranquil, it's hard to miss that its dampened veneer struggles to repress the eerie vibes that seek to seep through the cracks.

These, I say, are the conditions that make for an ideal "Metroid day."

Certainly the backdrop's influence invites me to listen to the title-screen music with trained ears--to absorb whatever messages Zillion might try to convey during our first encounter.

There's no dark opening here. Instead, we begin with a splash sequence wherein the hero's anime-style likeness fires his blaster toward the screen, after which the game's glowing title logo fades in. This is kind of jarring, actually, since I was expecting something much gloomier; there are no depressive vibes to be absorbed. Suddenly, however, I do sense a vibrational shift: Though I initially perceived the title-screen music to be decidedly energetic and high-spirited, listening closely to its successive loops has revealed to me some shades of subtle desolation. Breaking apart its composition uncloaks an emotional center; taken one by one, the separate strains are found to carry with them reflective tones that instead tell the story of a lonely adventure in an unwelcoming planet.

My feelings on the matter are reinforced as I watch the demo sequence, where this very same theme serves as accompaniment to a scene where the hero, J.J., hurries across Norsa's solemnly rendered surface while facing resistance from rifle-armed foes. The music does well to define this immediate setting, the canvas painted with a pale cyan skyline; lushly-colored-but-observably-spiritless vegetation and the mountainous formations it chokes; and a trailing moon whose constant oppression foretells of inescapable danger.

So far, nothing I've seen or heard evokes from me emotions as powerful as those aroused by Metroid's title sequence, no, but it's clear from watching the demo that Zillion is going to be more than the tonally-one-dimensional, sanguine adventure its opening screens portrayed.

I need to get out more. I know.

As I listen to it during the game's extended intro, I find that the game's main theme is much lengthier than originally advertised. All the same, it continues to drench the starting area with feelings of solemnity where Brinstar's rousing accompaniment instead sought to empower the newly arriving player and reinvigorate him or her upon return from the haunted caverns below. "Screw that," says Zillion, which is up front about its refusal to provide the player any kind of emotional safety net; its starting area offers no such sanctuary, it appears, and there's no stopping the enemies' full-frontal assault.

J.J. doesn't move quite as fluidly as Samus; his jump, though equal to hers in versatility, feels stiff and clunky in execution. J.J. can enter into a crawling mode that functions similarly to Samus' morph ball but with an immediate benefit: He can always fire his weapon from this position without need for an upgrade. I'm sure that crawling will eventually be useful for slithering beneath low-hanging obstacles, but here, at the start, it's great for staying close to the ground and taking out the hapless, uniform enemy soldiers who can't seem to adapt.

I like that you can return to your ship at any time to replenish health; it creates a nice spiritual connection to Metroid II: Return of Samus, whose desingers might've aped the idea from Zillion.

Toward the latter end of Norsa's surface is an Adventure of Link-style elevator that carries me down into a mechanical-looking underground area whose musical theme isn't too much of a departure, tonally, from the main piece; though, as I bounce between the first two elevator rooms and listen to the music, I observe that its slightly slower tempo does much to heighten the feelings of loneliness and urgency, which makes sense considering that this is where the game introduces the first intersecting point of what could a maddening labyrinth. I hope that the soundtrack continues down this path, the composer confronting me with increasingly pensive themes as I tunnel deeper into the planet.

As the manual suggested in somewhat puzzling terms, I'm going to be spending a fair amount of time interacting with terminals and using special codes to manipulate room conditions. I head to the room immediately right of the first intersection and prompt a terminal, at which point I realize that this aspect of the game was clearly inspired by Epyx's Impossible Mission, which likewise had me interfacing with computers for the purpose of resetting elevators and disabling robot sentinels. I even recall the same feelings of confusion I had back then--of not knowing what I'm supposed to be doing; I can see already that I'm going to have to keep rechecking the manual until I can make full sense of this command-entry mechanic.

For whatever reason, an alarm goes off and enemies begin flooding in from the entry point when I travel to the room's upper-right portion (I'm guessing that I passed through a currently undetectable infrared laser). The entire scene reminds me of how in Bionic Commando enemies start swarming the computer rooms when a hacking attempt is intercepted. There are a lot of these fun little connections to other games.

The early going entails me moving back and forth through the base's initially traversalable corridors and blowing up all of the rooms' level-one cylinders, which so far contain code symbols, ID cards, and healing bread items (and it appears that I can only use healing items once--the ominous implication being that Zillion has limited health drops, which is never good news when we're dealing with a sprawling adventure game). The only thing that's clear to me about terminal interaction is that I can input four of a given symbol to manipulate certain conditions, like entering a string of "vials" (for lack of a provided name) to temporarily neutralize the electrical barriers that otherwise cause a crippling amount of damage if you pass through them when they're active.

Save for the need to occasionally leap over mines, there's no advantage to keeping J.J. at a vertical base, since his crawling speed is sufficient enough and the enemies have no ability to crouch or fire diagonally downward. I feel like I'm cheating when I do this, and I wonder if this is a bad oversight on some designer's part.

As I'm heading back to my ship to obtain a fresh ID card (as I've expended my current allotment neutralizing the same electrical barriers over and over), I discover that I can kill enemies by jumping on their heads, just as Mario can! That's a pretty cool addition--certainly something beyond the basic capabilities of Samus. The animation makes it look as though J.J. is delivering a flying knee, which is a another nice touch! While I'm a bit disappointed to find that Zillion has no desire to duplicate Metroid's more-foreboding aesthetic attributes, I appreciate its zestful push to incorporate all of these familiar mechanics, which has worked to make me feel more comfortable in this strange new land.

Though, I hope that both ID cards and bread are plentiful enough to where I don't have to continually travel back to the starting point every time I get in trouble. That could grow irritating when I'm really deep into the Norsa.

While messing around in an elevator shaft, I learn some new tricks: For one, I can throw what is essentially a pump fake by tapping the jump button, but I'm not sure how this would ever help me in practice (all it does is create the possibility for troublesome lag in the execution of any jump--particularly for shorter hops that might not register at all). More beneficially, I can quickly turn to face the opposite direction while firing the Zillion if I hold down the attack button; this allows me to maintain my current position whether I'm standing or crawling and competently engage enemies that are rushing in from either side.

However, I can only mess around so much before I have to stop and admit to myself that I'm stuck. Two rooms--one in the northeast and another in the southwest--have exit points blocked by steel barriers, and I have no idea how to remove them. I'm still not getting much help from the manual, which reads as if it were written by your class' most skilled bloviator (you know--the guy who managed to write a 5,000-word essay without having any obvious grasp on the assignment). Though, I think I understand what the game is going for. I was assuming that I'd have to decipher some master code for that would work with all rooms in a given area, but it's much more simple than that--we're instead dealing with code-entry on a room-by-room basis (destroy a room's cylinders, uncover and memorize its four disparate symbols, and then input them into the terminal in any order).

Yeah--that's it. That works.

Opening the northeast barrier leads me to a nonthreatening room that contains three ID cards and in following a corridor guarded by enemies ... who can now crouch and fire. Welp--there goes my strategy. And now that I actually have to put effort into countering them, I'm finding that combat in Zillion is more a matter of acting reflexively, since enemy behavior gives me little time to react. Seriously--they suddenly spawn from the edges of the screen and fire off shots before I can even identify their presence (luckily, my years of playing quick-reflex Mega Man games have prepared me for situations like this, so I'm not too turned off by this questionable design choice).

There doesn't seem to be much enemy variety up to this point. There are no wall-crawlers or anything non-humanoid. I'll determine later whether or not this is worrying.

Heading through the southwest barrier yields more of the same: Room after room of memorizing four-symbol codes in order to gain further access. For the purpose of better memorization, I've continued to give the symbols cute little names like "heart," "apple," "glasses" and "hanger." Just like old times, man. 

Still, I wish they'd store this information on the mission-status screen so that I didn't have to retread the entire room every time I misidentified a single symbol.

I have to say, though, that the novelty of this code-entry mechanic is quickly wearing thin, the process growing kind of tedious after about the dozenth time I've endured it. I hope that Zillion has other tricks up its sleeve.

Finally my terminal-cracking leads to real progress, as I discover a hidden elevator that carries me down to a new set of rooms and an ever-more-labyrinthine portion of the game. Not realizing that the enemies can now fire their guns upward (their shots, too, able to penetrate solid objects), I carelessly wander into a blast and suffer my first death. To confirm the implications of J.J.'s demise, the game offers up a cut-scene in which the ship operator, Amy, laments her friend's death, after which the main villain (apparently Maleficient from Sleeping Beauty) celebrates the occasion with laughter and a parting insult.

Choosing the "Continue" option starts me right back where I was, but this doesn't do much to allay my worry that three continues just might not be enough. This could be daunting.

Traveling to this area's most eastern room, I come to a new obstacle in the form of a platform I can't reach with my current jumping ability. I guess I'm missing a certain enhancement (maybe Zillion has a High Jump Boots equivalent?). The Opa-Opa power-ups seem to have boosted my jumping height somewhat, but not enough to where I believe that there are enough power-ups to make that big a difference.

The rooms on the west side introduce a new enemy type: Mounted turrets that slide along their respective surfaces and fire lasers at timed intervals. A room featuring one or two of them isn't so threatening, but those with six-plus turrets are obnoxious to navigate--especially when the soldier enemies are also present. Health items aren't abundant enough to justify reckless platforming, so I have to go at it meticulously.

The pressure begins to mount as my health reaches alarmingly low levels. I mean, I really don't want to have to do all of this over again! Compounding the problem is that I'm without real direction, yet I'm hesitant to waste my precious ID cards accessing the map; I opt instead to let Zillion take me where it may--an allowance I afford every Metroidvania game.

I suddenly procure the infrared-detecting Scope visor, which will help me to avoid tripping lasers and triggering those enemy ambushes. These types of group attacks have only grown more troublesome as the enemies have gained increased offensive abilities--pairs of them often firing from their separate stances, creating undodgeable walls of projectiles.

I'm taking a beating here. Most of the damage is coming from enemies that shoot me as I'm the entering a room, when my input is locked (well, that's certainly a Metroid "convention"). It's one of the game's biggest flaws, though it wouldn't be as irritating if true health drops existed.

And now I've rescued Apple, who according to the manual is both more agile and more resilient than J.J. Indeed, as I hypothesized while reading through the ally profiles earlier, I can now switch between the two (in much the same way you can switch between them Turtle boys in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles)! Apple is most definitely a superior jumper, but her starting health-total is kind of low. But even then, considering that I've already dropped two continues, having a pair of health meters to burn through is quite a luxury at this point.

Apple's advanced jumping skill comes in handy for fully negotiating that previously inaccessible room to the east, but for now it seems best to relegate her to jumping duties only, since her Zillion laser is still basic-level and her health is too low. What I like about this aspect of Zillion's design, though, is how it encourages me to combine the characters' abilities: Jump up to the remote platform with Apple, switch to J.J. to destroy the fortified cylinders. I wonder what Champ, the third ally, will add to the mix.

Still, the game's challenge-level is considerable. The narrow nature of its corridors makes it incredibly difficult to consistently work around enemy hordes, mines, and turret lasers without hemorrhaging health. My only hope is that I read incorrectly--that you have three continues "per area" and not "per game." Zillion certainly replicates Metroid's survivability factor, but its tightly knit design simply isn't conducive for the type of close-quarters combat it wishes to pull off.

Aaaaaaand I finally succumb. After the game hits me with some rather nasty tricks--like that one instance where it guided me along a rather lengthy northwestern route that turned out to be nothing more than an elaborately constructed dead end--it finishes me off with its worst: A room in which I'm required to run through four crippling electrical barriers if I hope to reach the terminal. You get that? I have to run through the barriers to deactivate the barriers. "You need the key to get the key," as it were--one of my favorite things in games.

For where my characters were health-wise at that point, I had no chance of getting by the barriers. And it's as I feared: There are only three continues for the entire game. Looks like I'm going to have to start from scratch--go through all of that code-finding all over again.

I don't know how to feel about all of this. I mean, I've been buying a lot of what Zillion is selling, but I just can't hide my overall disappointment with it. The controls work fine when there's space to maneuver around, but traveling through narrow spaces only serves to highlight the unpolished nature of the jumping controls and the hit-detection. Take mines, for example: It's almost impossible to leap over a series of them without accidentally landing on one; the very appearance of multiple mines almost guarantees that you're going to be taking damage. There's a thoughtful nuance applied to the jumping controls (hold the button to gain greater vertical hang-time or tap the button for shorter, more horizontally oriented jumps), yes, but they prove to be unreliable in practice.

I was hoping that the game would open up--introduce new concepts beyond inputting codes into terminals--but it hasn't happened, and it doesn't look like it's going to.

Zillion functions like a Metroid game in that you acquire new abilities and use them in previous areas to conquer obstacles that were originally impenetrable (in this case, destroying reinforced cylinders), but it offers no great reward for doing so--no true feeling of player empowerment; you retreat to the starting areas, grab a floppy disk, and then simply return to where you were. There's no beyond-the-walls sense of adventure. No invitation to experiment. I had hoped that shooting and hugging the surfaces of its elevator shafts and dead-end corridors would reveal secret passages or hidden upgrades, but Zillion just doesn't care to adhere to those rules. (To be fair, I did discover a secret or two during my second play-through.)

I'd like to comment more on Zillion's environments and visual themes, but, really, there are so few of them; I've seen only gray-colored corridors and computer rooms with plainly tiled background--the only difference being their shade of florescence. And the game hasn't introduced a single new music track since I infiltrated the planet a few hours ago, which is such a letdown. Also, enemy variety continues to be limited to three negligibly differentiated soldier types--those who can fire at eye-level, at knee-height, and upward (the higher-ranked troops are tougher and possess a dash ability, but these attributes alone don't do much to alleviate the feeling of sameness).

I think I've reached a point where it makes sense to stop measuring Zillion against the existing Metroid template and treat it strictly as its own animal. It just isn't a true analog, as I've been led to believe.

I'm keeping that in mind as I restart Zillion for the third time. Maybe the new outlook will help me to apply a tighter focus and make progress the way Zillion intended me to.

This time I've managed to obtain the Scope visor in an earlier location (in the first section's top-right corner, which up until now I've failed to fully explore), and already I can recognize that there's a facet to the game I wasn't able to appreciate during my previous campaigns. That is, capturing the full effect of the infrared-trip-laser mechanic has opened up a previously unnoticed stealth element that has me tactically maneuvering around beams and crawling beneath them Metal Gear-style (add another connection to the list). I wouldn't mind if there were more of this going forward.

It doesn't look like there will be, however. From what I've observed, the game instead seems more comfortable with the idea of continuing to reach into its bag of cheap tricks. There is, for example, a room whose terminal is placed over a conveyor belt at a camouflaged junction point; I didn't even notice that the left section was moving in the opposite direction, and so I was sent unexpectedly hurtling into a nearby electrical barrier (and I'd keep colliding with it no matter how cautiously I'd inch toward the junction point). There are still more rooms that require passing through damaging electrical barriers. And then there's this one particular >power-up-rich room that lays forth a potential game-ending trap: If you accidentally screw up a jump and fall down to its bottom portion, you're virtually stuck! Oh, sure--you can access the nearby terminal and escape via a warp or suicide code, but not if you're out of ID cards, at which point your only option is to reach for the reset button. (I hope it's that I'm simply missing something here.)

Really, there's so much activity happening in some of these rooms that it registers in my mind as merely clutter. I'm just now reaching the three-quarters point of where I last game-overed, and already I'm out of continues. It looks as though I might have to consider abusing Warp Code A, which returns J.J. to the main elevator back at the game's start (this is the only way to fully replenish my characters' health, though I fear doing so because it requires retreading all of the same ground).

And oh great--I return to my ship to find that you can't revive dead allies! I don't remember the manual mentioning anything of the sort. How am I going to finish the game under these conditions? Is it even possible now?!

After working out the odds in my head, I say "Screw it!" I decide to finish myself off with a suicide code and start over for the fourth time.

Liberal use of warp codes is actually helping me to better ease my through the game, though I still worry about my supply of ID cards. It'd suck to continuously run out of them when exploring the map's southernmost portion and have to keep returning to my ship. It'd be nice if there were, say, one or two energy-refill stations conveniently placed about Norsa's innards, but I can see why the designers might have thought otherwise (having three heroes with 800-plus units of health might allow for one to bull-rush his or her way through large swaths of the map).

For now, I'll stick to my strategy of keeping the offensively challenged Apple in reserve for as long as possible and continue using J.J. as a damage-sponge.

After a lot of cycling around, I've finally acquired my second floppy disk. I'd say that I'm about two-thirds of the way through Zillion (if the number of uncovered map squares is to be believed), so it seems strange to me that I'm getting only my second floppy disk at this late juncture; I'm betting that at least one of them is hidden in a reinforced cylinder near the starting area. I'm OK with that, actually, since I've already made up my mind that I'm eventually going to warp back to the main elevator and thoroughly search the game's every room.

And why is it that I'm just now learning that you can destroy mines from a crawling position using a Level-3 Zillion? Knowing this is a huge boost to my morale; suddenly one of the most menacing obstacles has become trivialized! In fact, for a number of reasons, the game has become much easier in general, and I've reached a point where I'm not even sweating my lack of continues. This is a 180-degree turn from a few hours ago, when logic looked to be taking me to a much different place; I'm honestly shocked by how things have turned. It looks like we're finally ready to roll!

At the moment, the action is all about activating hidden elevators, locating cordoned-off terminals, and circling around the labyrinthine passages to access whichever entrance points have been revealed as a result. In a short period I obtain two more floppy disks and the red ID card.

The closer I get to the end, the more I worry that Zillion might be bereft of boss battles. If the limited number of enemy types I've encountered is indicative of anything, it may be that the game's engine is too inflexible to render larger, more-complexly-animated creatures.

It appears that I've stumbled upon the game's endpoint--the main-computer room--while engaged in simple map-filling mode. I'm not ready for this yet. I mean, I haven't even gotten around to rescuing Champ, the second ally character! I'd feel guilty about leaving him to die, so I'm going to head back into the maze and discover the path that leads to his holding chamber; I remember seeing the specially marked door in this section's upper-right corner, but I continued to be carried farther and farther away from it by an endless series of twisting, branching corridors.

It turns out that I'd already successfully hacked all of the area's terminals, so infiltrating the holding chamber was a simple matter of riding up correct northward-moving elevator. And now I've rescued Champ, who is by far the slowest-moving of the three; also, he's at base-level in most categories outside of Zillion power. Thankfully there are a few power-ups stocked in the cylinders located in both this room and the one adjoining. I'm not going to be able to fully power him up, though, because I foolishly decided to continue procuring Opa-Opas for J.J. when his levels were already maxed out (they also function as full-health restores, I learned, and my being dangerously low on health at times made it too tempting to resist picking them up). At the very least, I'm able to get Champ to Level 3 in Zillion power, and that's all I need from him.

So here I am again at the main computer. According the manual, I need to insert the red ID card and input a special code (00,00,00,00) to trigger a self-destruct mechanism and a final escape sequence--Zillion's most appropriate homage to its inspiration. I stop for a moment to consider acting upon my previous urge to warp back to the starting area and meticulously explore the entire map in search of power-ups, but I ultimately dismiss the notion, since I doubt there are enough left to make any kind of difference. So let's finish this thing!

And, um... I, uh... I can't. The computer won't let me input the self-destruct code, because I forgot to search for the last friggin' floppy disk. Well, then--I guess I'm warping back to the start to meticulously explore the entire map in search of power-ups!

As I expected, the last floppy disk is hidden away in a cylinder way back in the first section. Further exploration of these parts reveals nothing else of value, so all that's left on the itinerary is to return to the main-computer room. It's going to take a few minutes to get back there, but that's only a minor inconvenience at this point. The game's overcasting stress cloud has long since dissipated; the enemies and obstacles no longer pose a considerable threat to me.

So after I access the main computer and input the self-destruct code, I look to the upper-right corner to see a readout that informs me that I have five minutes to get out of here. Yikes--this is going to be cutting it close! Putting aside my trepidation, I exit the room, move one screen over, and suddenly I find myself face to face with a genuine boss! It's a large rotting alien that drags its mangled frame halfway across the screen and back. It spews blue fireballs at regular intervals, though things are currently too hectic for me to perceive a pattern to these blasts. I'm limited to damaging it only every so often--when its mouth is open--which adds another layer of anxiety to this already-concerning time-drain predicament.

Though I took a bit of a beating in the early moments, wherein my heroes took several fireballs to the face, I wind up killing the alien pretty easily with Champ. Still, the encounter managed to drain 30 precious seconds.

Thankfully, this final sequence has seen the removal of all minor enemies and obstacles, so the escape is purely a matter of focusing on landmarks and remembering the routes I took to get here. I notice that some hidden pathways have opened up, too, allowing me access to room sections that were previously barricaded by solid walls (though, why the game wants me to go item-hunting now is a mystery). Oh, it turns out that one such pathway is actually a shortcut to the area's elevator shaft, but I discover this too late--after taking a slight detour and peeking in through the transitioning room's exit point. I'm not sure how I was supposed to know that the game would suddenly carve out these access tunnels, so I'll consider it information intentioned to be useful in a second play-through.

Save for a few minor hiccups--an unproductive elevator-ride or two--the escape goes pretty smoothly. I make it back to my ship with 30 seconds to spare. That's not to understate the sequence's intensity, of course. I mean, mine was a fairly direct path, and yet it was still uncomfortably close. The game is obviously not kind to dawdlers.

I'm met with no great fanfare. In fact, the respective parties are surprisingly short on words: Amy greets me an enthusiastic one-liner "Oh! Great!!!" while the enemy leader, who never appeared in-game, can't be bothered to muster anything beyond a blank expression and an empty ellipsis, her demeanor basically carrying the tone of "Yeah--whatever." Sandwiched in between is a quick-and-dirty epilogue. In following some character profiles are displayed, including for some reason one for Opa-Opa, and then the credits roll. Well, all right. I was expecting a bit more from the ending, but what can you do? It's an 8-bit game from 1987, after all.

Considering how nasty Zillion was getting toward its midway point, it was my fear that its difficulty was going to skyrocket from there; instead, the extreme challenge I was expecting never materialized, and I was able to coast through the game's latter half. I might have missed a secret or two (including an Opa-Opa stashed beyond a set of barriers in a room with no code symbols), sure, but I was as diligent as the game allowed to be at this time. Besides--I'm going to run through it a second time for the purpose of capturing screenshots, so I'll get more than enough opportunity to apply all of my new knowledge.

In the end, I'm left feeling conflicted. My initial reaction is disappointment over the fact that Zillion didn't turn out to be the orthodox Metroid analog I was seeking. Its perpetually closed-off structure was designed to be conducive for intense puzzle-solving rather than wondrous exploration, the latter of which I consider paramount to crafting the ideal Metroid experience; Zillion is strongly lacking in this area. That said, I find it fascinating that Zillion builds it brand on the back of legends--a mishmash of their best ideas--yet it manages to come out feeling like no game I've never played before. I began to appreciate it more when I decided to stop constantly comparing it to Metroid and instead focus on what was unique about it. As a result, I got more into Zillion in the game's second half.

Much of Zillion's design is rough and unpolished, which hampered my overall enjoyment of the game (it's never fun to get stuck on the side of an elevator and shot four or five times before you can dislodge yourself), but I'm not prepared to rail against it for that fact, no. As strange as this might sound to you, I consider the flaws in an old game to be one of its defining aspects--a window into an era in which young artisans were still learning their craft. We can examine their games and see where their minds were at the time--what they knew to be true and what they had yet to understand. Zillion is one of our best case studies.

Zillion tests rather well. It falls short in many respects, true, but it really is a damn good first effort for Sega in this particular genre.

But I can't fully agree with the sentiment that Zillion is Sega's "answer to Metroid." I can recognize where inspiration saturates certain parts of its being, yes, but Zillion truly is a creature of its own design, and it makes sense that I should give it credit for striving to be as much rather than deride it for not matching up to the image I built up in my head. It's not an alternate-reality version of Metroid. It's something else. And there's nothing wrong with that.

So Zillion didn't turn out to be my new favorite Metroidvania game. That's OK. At least for a while, it gave something to think about--something to look forward to. Spending a couple of overly humid summer days with it wasn't such a bad use of my time.

Will I look to play Zillion again in the future (well, following my mandatory second play-through)? It's likely that I won't; Zillion just doesn't capture my imagination in a way that compels me to want to explore its world again and again. Its environments, though memorably vibrant, are too blandly homogeneous, and its music tells an unchanging story. I'd feel more inclined to return to it were its gameplay more varied--were it not so heavy on the tedious, scope-limiting code-entry element. But alas. If anything, I see myself instead deriving enjoyment from it in other ways, be it watching Let's Plays, reading retrospectives, or thinking and writing about what it means to video-game history.

For certain, Zillion will hold a place in my memory as a game that illustrated for me the potential of the Sega Master System and its creators. It stands alongside Alex Kidd in Miracle World in terms of its ability to strongly showcase why the console's aesthetic values are unmistakably its own, which to me is an important distinction.

My journey into the Master System's world is still in its earliest phase, yes, but saying as much isn't meant to detract from the fact that Zillion is the best game I've played on the system so far. It falls short of providing Metroid a true rival, certainly, yet it succeeds in predicting a future in which something of that caliber just might exist. For sure, I can't wait to find out how Sega's design philosophies evolved from here!

May Zillion be but a tiny square on a much larger, more detailed map.


  1. Did you know that this was based on an Anime of the same name?

    1. I knew vaguely of its anime roots going in, but I didn't want to dedicate space to discussing the connection, since I was lacking for knowledge about the subject. Anime isn't really my scene, after all, and my trying to sound educated on the matter would have come off as disingenuous. So the best solution, I felt, was to treat the game as its own thing.

      If I ever decide to write about its sequel, I'll probably throw in a paragraph or two about the series' anime roots--mainly for the sake of painting a complete picture.