The Laser Guide to Video Games - Review - Tempest Elite (Atari 800 & co.)









In Memory
Sean Pettibone


The Laser Guide to Video Games

Zero Wing (PC Engine - Toaplan, 1989 - Naxat Soft, 1992)

Despite its unfairly summoned one-note reputation, Zero Wing is actually a fairly interesting shoot-'em-up for its time. Its more interesting than a single line of misbegotten text and delivers solid, if unsurprising action for the console gamer. On the surface, its a straightfotward vertically scrolling action game with the usual enemies, power-ups and unexpectedly resilient bosses. Structurally, the game is fairly decent. Your objective is to defeat the assemblages of standard foes, progress through each stage until you reach the boss character at the end. There are a few twists that keep things interesting. The power-up system is fairly simple. Running over a power-up automatically enables it. Several types are available, including standard fire but you can upgrade to more effective ones such as lasers, that slice through foes and vulcans that automatically aim at onscreen opponents. You collect these relatively quickly and the distance between you and lost power-ups isn't dramatic so you aren't penalized excessively when you lose a ship. The system is relatively straightforward but you have a secondary fire system to work with. You can aim you tracor beam at certain objects and add them onto you ship for added firepower. This allows you to 'throw' the object back at the level and it usually destoys everything within its path. Using this is somehwat limited to the smaller and less dangerous objects, but it can be quite effective if you reach a tight spot.

Zero Wing's intial levels shouldn't pose too much of a problem, its enemy patterns and waves offer challenge and engagement, with frustration only occuring at the later stages. You should be able to plow right though with little effort or energy which helps to build up you confidence. Anticipating enemy movements takes some memorization and reflexes, but this become intuitive quickly and since the power-ups build rapidly, you won't need to make up too much effort if you lose a ship. The power-ups are fairly standard. The most effective of these are the wingmen with appear above and beneath your ship. These effectively tripke your firepower and give the added advamtage of absorbing shots from enemies to a limited degree.

In addition, you can use certain objects as weapons if you're smart and master the timing. Its not as simple as it sounds. You have to aim your shots perfectly which isn't easy to do when you're simultaneously fighting off attacking foes. Zero Wing's innovative catch-and-release tractor beam mechanic makes an interesting diversion from the norm, its implementation is a bit clunky on two fronts. Its hard to use effectively and aiming the shots isn't intuitive which marks it as an interesting gimmick, not the main course of action. Using Zero Wing's standard shots to simply destroy the enemies is a more effective and less time consuming strategy, that allows for much better gameplay flow. Another strategy comes with memorization and power-up mangement. Instead of heedlessly picking up everything you see along the way, the better course of action might be to hold back a bit. Somethimes, it helps to know which power-ups are represented by specific types of pods. You can plan ahead somehwat and skip some of the less-effective power-ups by avoiding them and keeping hold of the more powerful or useful ones. This somewhat elaborate approach makes Zero Wing a deeper and more engaging title.

Its gameplay mechanics are not surprisingly, given the developers solid and challenging. There's a good balance between shooting enemies and avoiding them. Good placement means you have some recharge though these are balanced with busier sections that are trickier to navigate. Enemy patterns are somewhar predictable at certain points, which can be a bit challenging if you haven't memorized that particular section. Most of the boss encounters are difficult to defeat and require patience and good reflexes to get through. Each one has a vulnerablitity but you need to attack its weak-spot relentlessly in order to defeat it. This might take several attempts to accomplish, which can be a little bit frustrating but is something that adds a layer of satisfaction to the gameplay. There are a generous amount of lives to use and numerous extra-continues that should give you plenty of chances to defeat the opposition forces.

Zero Wing's presentation does a good job in using the CD-Rom format effectively to enhance the Mega-Drive experience. The changes are interesting but don't overwhelm the experience. While the famous 'Base' meme is nowhere to be found, at least in english, the presentation remains solid. Elebarate cut-scenes help to flesh out the action between levels and make a good change of pace from the expected usual confinements. Its a fairly-standard anime-style space opera with some interesting back-stories unfolding on its setting. The lush environments and elaborate storyline highlight its presentation. which is above average, especially for its era. Characterization is minimal during the cinemetics, but they remain interesting and propel the plot forward in a quick and satisfying manner. One underwhelming aspect of the game comes in its CD soundtrack, while it does an effective job in comolimenting the action, the end result falls on the bland side of things, which is disappointing. It could have been better, but doesn't really match the potential or promise of the format.

During the in-game sequences, things improve markedly. Zero Wing's overall aesthetics are above average and succeed in placing you in the action to a large extend. There's a consistent quality in appearance with the mainline visuals showcasing a solid engine. The characters are detailed and engaging with nicely detailed sprites and artwork highlighting above-average ship and enemy design. Stages look fairly decent with multi-layered parallax scrolling allowing for some interesting layers of depth. Some ot the sprites seem a little bit small, but this is outweighed by a higher-than-average level of detail. Most importantly, Zero Wing flows at a consitent and satisfying frame-rate throughout, making it a joy to play. There's none of the slowdown or jerkiness that plagues some of its contemporaries, surpassing the design even many cartrige games. Its controls and interface are fluid, responsive and straightforward which allows you to focus on the action without getting distracted by halting movements or obtrusive controls.

While there are many familar elements, this is a suprising game in some unexpected aspects. All of the standard elements are present but implemented solildly in a way thats consistent with other shoot-'em-ups for the most part. There are some innovative features such as the catch-and-release system, but the implementation is poor, making it feel more like a gimmick than it could have been. Its also somewhat extraneous since you don't actually need it to progress through the game. Some sections are more difficult to beat than others, fortunately abundant power-ups and continues make progression easier than it needs to be. Its an enjoyable experience that delivers some solid, occaisionally challenging shoot-'em-up action in terms that are somewhat predictable while remaining enjoyable. Zero Wing brings a standard style of play to the table but offers enough twists along the way to keep things interesting.

- Michael Palisano