Much is made of this game, all things considered. And it’s funny, because there’s not a whole lot to it.
Zero Wing is a side-scrolling shooter, of the deliberate, R-Type variety, not the frenetic Thunder Force variety. That in itself may seem strange coming from Toaplan, the makers of the prototypically hectic Batsugun and its ilk. But that’s not the draw of this mostly mediocre shooter. The draw is the story.
Shooter stories are never draws. They’re negligible, hackneyed excuses for the player to engage in combat. It’s like those kung fu movies where the hero’s father gets killed early on and prompts the protagonist to go off on an avenging crusade of high kicks and high volume blood splashing. There are the companies that try to do something special with their shooter stories, as was the case with Square’s Einhander, but in the end, all the depth in the world in this genre seems to come off ultimately as a stilted platform for action. (Sort of like Matrix: Reloaded.)
But Zero Wing is different! There’s no depth at all going on with its pretense. It’s the same simple clichÈd one-ship against an Evil Empire idea, but the dialogue is anything but clichÈd. There are FAQs and websites dedicated to the kitsch value that permeates the short cut scene sequence that begins the game.
All your base are belong to us. we are told by CATS, the leader of the Evil Empire in this case, who will be miffed at bollixing up his speech. Still, while he may not be articulate, his bravery shines! Where Darth Vader and Klingons fear to tread, CATS will walk – even in the valley of the shadow of death – paws padding, pacing confidently, purring even, through dangerous ground. But we refuse to be intimidated by CATS, though his indomitable forces seem to be scratching at victory’s door!
Because we’ve got Zig.
Zig is to be our vessel, and it represents our last vestige of hope. CATS may balk, but he has yet to taste the power of a vanguard fueled by righteousness! For great justice! we cry, heedless of our hopeless grammar.
And after this kitsch-soaked introduction, we begin our mission that is, from level one onward, much like any other shooter. We can gain two units to protect the top and bottom of the Zig, like the Bits in R-Type. We gain speed-ups, we choose one of three available weapons (Vulcan, Homing, Laser) and power it up three times over. The music is mostly forgettable, and the graphics are below par for the Genesis. You’ve got your checkpoints, so that when you die, you don’t start from the beginning of the levels, and you’ve got mid-bosses, and end-of-level bosses, as per the very basic shooter blueprint.
Zero Wing’s levels are often odd, though rarely very exciting. There are the expected alien base interiors and alien outer space frontlines to cut a swath through, but there are also a few singular environs that give you the impression that you’re shooting it out in the heat of an otherworldly rainforest. Most bosses are either boring, or rip-offs from other games, but there are a few standouts. There’s the hopping blue mech bearing a massive fireball cannon, and there’s the organic sphere with its snake guardian that surges and retracts at you from the guts of its host.
Other good bits include the seemingly out-of-place goodness of level three’s music, and brilliant tractor beam function, whereby you can reel in enemies of the small and weak variety to sit in front of your nose, captured and rotating, acting as a one-hit shield. This is an unforgettable innovation wasted in a very forgettable game. Thankfully, Taito saw fit to lift this gameplay function and incorporate it into their much better horizontal shooter, G-Darius. It just goes to show: theft is good for us all.
Luckily, despite claims of Zero Wing being criminally hard, it really isn’t. The learning curve is actually quite fair: when you die, you start a reasonable distance back, usually with the opportunity to regain your lost twin units immediately. Thus, aside from a ridiculously difficult final boss, the game is never unbalanced, and perfect play – which is possible inside a week of going at it – makes clearing Zero Wing on one ship on the easy level a very real and feasible goal (try that in Toaplan’s vertical shooters!). You’ll be able to practice without severe penalty on the easy level because it offers unlimited continues. This is recommended before moving up to the normal and hard levels.
And so, these slight ingredients of the tractor beam, good balance, and few standout sequences, help elevate Zero Wing from “poor” to “fair.” In my experience, “fair” games are rarely memorable, though the laughably bad translations in the game’s cut scenes allow Zero Wing to incise for itself a shallow notch in your mind. But, I meanÖ funny cut scenes? When it comes down to it, you’ve got to actually play the game. And that part isn’t so funny.
Because there’s really not a whole lot to it.