Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Section Z (NES)

Checkpoints OFF / ON
1 Difficulty level
3 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Capcom
Published by Capcom in 1987

One of the best impressions I ever had when playing an old video game for the first time was with arcade Section Z. Such a simple yet cool little game with a great sense of adventure and plenty of shooting action. Unfortunately a sequel was never made, instead Capcom decided to release a port for the Famicom Disk System and later the NES. I was really surprised when I finally got the chance to play the 8-bit version though. Except for a few basic concepts, the game doesn’t play like the arcade original at all.

Section Z on the NES looks and feels ordinary, but it’s far from being your regular type of shmup. Playing it as you’d play a normal shooter is more likely to drive you mad than to provide the amount of fun expected from even the most rudimentary 8-bit offering. Blame it on the non linear maze-like structure that makes getting through all 60 stage sections a living hell of trial and error. Definitely not my idea of fun, and up front I’ll admit I just printed out and used one of the stage guides you can easily find online. Props to those who were patient enough to pave the way for all of us peevish ones!

There’s absolutely no information on where you’re supposed to go in order to finish three huge stages comprised by 20 sections each, all of them labeled with numbers from 0 to 59 (0~19 is stage 1, 20-39 is stage 2 and 40-59 is stage 3). Players take control of Captain Commando (yes, that one) in a mission to fight an underground battle against an alien race called Balangool. He’s equipped with a spacesuit and fires right (button A) and left (button B) as the screen scrolls at different speeds through level sections of varying lengths. At the end of each section there are normally two teleport beams that lead to the next areas, but in certain cases you’ll just get through a single straight shaft to move on. 

The problem with Section Z is that you can’t tell where you’re going when entering the beams. You might skip a few sections, repeat the previous one or just go several steps backwards. Since the backgrounds are so repetitive, relying on the enemy types is a better way to memorize things, yet you can still get totally lost after a while.

Shed your earthly identity to become the one remaining astronaut in space!
(courtesy of YouTube user retrogameguidecom)

Survival depends on the energy level shown in the E indicator. You start with 20 energy points, which are deducted by 1 (when you get hit by a regular projectile), by 4 (when using one of the special weapons) or by 5 (when you die). Dying happens by losing all energy, touching an enemy or when you get crushed by a scrolling obstacle, whereas walking on surfaces or leaning against walls is safe. An extra punishment for losing all energy points is that you get sent back to the very start of the current stage (sections 0, 20 or 40). Note that life count is only shown when starting the game or when you’re spawned right after dying, and if all lives are lost the game is over regardless of your current energy stock. 

Recovering 3 points of lost energy is achieved by taking the appropriate icon left behind by enemies or by small brown containers glued to walls called “metal eaters”. Besides this item you can also come across speed-ups (S) and upgrades denoted by letters that show up to the right of the energy gauge. These can be F (flash buster, a short range 3-way spread), M (mega smasher, a powerful V-shaped straight shot) or B (barrier shield, which can withstand 32 frontal bullets). To activate any of them just move right or left and press SELECT when the desired letter is below the arrow marker. Be careful not to do it over the L, thus reverting back to the default laser shot. Finally, if you have an M activated and you collect another M you immediately get the mega buster, which is basically a 3-way megasmasher with reduced firing rate.

When you die the weapon you’re using is lost (except for the default laser of course), but the inventory will still be available to use in the next life. Important note: there’s no autofire at all in Section Z, so unless you don’t want to hurt your wrists by button mashing I definitely recommend using a turbo controller.

There are also special weapons the game calls “shells”. The megamissile is a slow moving missile, the flash bomb is a screen clearer and the crush ball creates a rotating barrier around Captain Commando. Summon and cycle through them by pressing A + B simultaneously, then pick them up and press either A or B to fire. You start the game with the megamissile, but the other two must be found in specific secret chambers/warps uncovered by shooting at certain spots in predefined sections. As pointed above, the cost of using a shell is 4 energy points. In my opinion they’re just not worth it, and I never used them in any of my attempts to beat the game.

Meet the first enemy generator

Even though Section Z isn’t essentially a hard game, it still has its share of traps and tricky parts. As a rule of thumb, you can never stand too close to the borders or you’ll risk getting killed instantly by an incoming enemy. If you see a red beam don’t go into it or you’ll die. In order to clear it and get through you have to find and destroy a generator mid-boss (two per stage). Generators are mostly very easy to beat and the first main boss is a joke, but the remaining bosses put up tougher fights. The good news is that you can regularly expand the energy bank by taking the capsules left behind by generators and bosses, which add 8 new energy points each. A reserve of almost 100 energy points will be in effect by the end of the game.

Due to the many possible paths allowed by the stage design, most but not all sections need to be played in order to beat Section Z. However, unless you’re stuck with the game for a long time or you have an elephant’s memory you’d better have a map or a well devised plan. That said, note that a few secret warps like the ones described above to collect shells can also lead you to new sections. And since it’s possible to replay levels forever there’s absolutely no point in talking about scoring here. On the other hand, scoring at least helps in the long run because you earn an extra life at every 100.000 points (a generous bonus of 3.000 points for each remaining energy point is given when you complete a full stage).

I paused the game and took the picture below as soon as the final boss went down. Then I saw the cool ending sequence and said goodbye to Section Z. Mission accomplished. Once again I thank those who mapped the whole game and made it public, for as long as I knew where I was going it was mildly fun. On a final note, the music – one BGM per stage – is certainly amusing.


  1. I really liked this game back in the day, and appreciated the inclusion of mapmaking/exploration elements. When I replayed it a few years ago I was slightly less enthused, mainly because of the hidden warps (which annoyed me), but I still enjoyed the mapmaking aspect. It's not too taxing and doesn't have any "gotchas", especially since the sections are numbered for you.

    Still, I notice a lot of people don't like the mechanic, which is interesting. I tend to hold a grudge against non-automapped RPGs (unless they're on a strict grid or avoid maze-like structures), but here the mapmaking was part of the fun for me.

    1. I arrived very late to the party, so I can't help but feel a little jaded. Blame it on my old age and evergrowing grumpy stance on games like this.

      However I'm quit sure this would be a game I would've enjoyed mapping. Heck, I drew complete maps to James Pond on the Mega Drive, why not this one? Hahahaha
      We kids had all the time in the world.