In 1995, hand-drawn animation in videogames was on the way out. Sony’s PlayStation would release in September of ‘95, bringing with it an industry-wide fervor for all things polygonal. Games like Tekken and Battle Arena Toshinden offered visually stunning three-dimensional arenas and combatants, proving that a home console could run near-flawless arcade ports. Beloved sprite-based series’ such as Metroid and The Legend of Zelda would step graciously out of the limelight, only to be reborn to explosive critical and popular acclaim years later on more 3D-capable hardware.
It was in this industry climate that Sega decided to release their comic book-inspired (and completely sprite-based) action game, Comix Zone. Supposedly offering up “the first truly interactive comic book” (as touted on the game’s reverse box art), Sega was clearly confident that the game’s unique theme would allow it to rise above the towering vortex of hype surrounding polygonal gaming. Perhaps the decision makers at Sega were right, or at least would have been if the game had actually delivered “all of the action and adventure of your favorite comics” (again as indicated on the back of the box). Comix Zone was a good idea on paper, but much was lost in the transition from drawing board to final product; so much so that the game never really had a chance to shine as one of the last great sprite-based titles of the 16-bit era.
Even though Comix Zone did end up being heavily flawed, it’s hard to find much wrong with the game’s visual presentation; Sega clearly wanted the game to look like a comic book in motion, and for the most part they succeeded. From the detailed animations of the game’s protagonist, Sketch, to the vibrant backgrounds, enemies and boss characters, Comix Zone stands resolutely as a visual powerhouse and testament to the Genesis’s ability to run beautiful games, despite the system’s inability to display more than 512 colors.
The old mantra of gameplay over graphics rings true again here, however, and the developers of Comix Zone clearly spent most of their time perfecting the latter to the detriment of the former. To an observer, Sketch’s movements on-screen are quite fluid and eye-catching, but to the person holding the controller, frustration reigns supreme, as the supposedly agile protagonist lumbers around with all of the maneuverability and grace of a riding lawnmower. From a gameplay perspective, the extra animations get in the way of adequate responsiveness, and simple moves like Sketch’s somersault roll are overly difficult to pull off and even tougher to position effectively. Though billed as a beat-em-up, sluggish control and cramped fighting environments (Sketch moves from panel to panel in a comic book) undercut most of the fun and keep the game from achieving even a glimmer of the greatness earned by Sega’s own legendary Streets of Rage series.
Comix Zone’s lethargic responsiveness is exasperated by questionable hit detection, poor level structure, and several flawed game design choices. Why is it that the player can actually get stuck (as in, completely unable to progress) at several points in the game if they failed to uncover a certain power-up (namely, Sketch’s pet rat – Roadkill)? Why is it that attacking objects in the environment deals damage to you? And why is it that the power-up that turns Sketch into a superhero is so rare that it might as well not be in the game? There are a few inspired moments worth experiencing, such as punching through panels to get to enemies in adjacent areas, but most of the game is repetitive, tedious and overly frustrating due to poor responsiveness, shoddy game mechanics and a relentlessly diminishing health bar that limits the way the player can tackle the various areas.
And that’s just it – playing as a hero in a comic book should be fun. Comix Zone is not. Perhaps if Sega would have shelled out the money required to nab a Marvel or DC Comics license (any character would do – Sketch’s story is not terribly interesting) and squelched the bad design choices early on – perhaps then Comix Zone would have earned a spot in history as one of the late, great, games of the 16-bit era. In the end, though, the game’s eventual commercial failure would foreshadow the near complete abandonment of sprite-based console gaming over the next decade, as well as Sega’s fall from its lofty position as one of the top two game development companies in the world. For collectors, Comix Zone is worth picking up for its unique graphical style, but those looking for an enjoyable experience on the Sega Genesis should cast their eyes towards one of the many other, better action games on the system.