1 Difficulty level
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega
Reprogrammed/published by Sunsoft in 1987
I've come a long way since I started dedicating myself to shmupping. Back then I had never played any Fantasy Zone, and I didn't even know it had come out for the NES, Sega Master System's sworn enemy. It was a Sega game after all, why would it be released for the competition? Sega was definitely a software/arcade-oriented company before its console history started, that's why. You couldn't see, for instance, any of Nintendo's most famous franchises in other consoles, but that's a long and polemic story not suited to the scope of this blog.
Two versions of Fantasy Zone exist for Nintendo's 8-bit console. The best and most sought after is the Japanese one, reprogrammed and released by Sunsoft in 1987. The other one is an unlicensed version released by Tengen for the NES two years later in the west. My aim was always to get my hands on the Sunsoft Famicom cartridge, and this is the one I played these last few days. For the sake of a basic comparison, I've only seen a bit of the North American version through emulation, and indeed it is the inferior one. Besides the different hud, the biggest letdown is the washed out color palette, followed by an overall slower pace and unnecessary minor changes. If you have the chance to choose between these ports, don't bother to try out that one.
On the Famicom, Fantasy Zone holds up surprisingly well. Gameplaywise it's on par with the Master System port, but it's also considerably more difficult. Opa-Opa still has to go through a set of increasingly harder stages shooting and dropping bombs against enemy generators and huge bosses. He can can go left and right and walk on the ground, halting screen scrolling while doing so. The basic idea in every stage is to kill all generators first and then go for the boss. In order to make the journey possible, get coins from defeated enemies to increase the money counter and buy items from the shop balloon that floats on screen from time to time. There are several levels of speed-ups, several main shot types, several bomb variations and even extra lives. Prices in the shop increase drastically as you keep buying more of the same items. Special weapons are all temporary, and dying strips you off of everything you have bought so far.
Everybody knows that one of the trademarks in this game is the multitude of colors, and it's good to see that the Famicom port preserves this even with its limited color specs (when compared to the SMS). I guess I could bitch a little about collision detection, especially when I remember the tentacles of that dreaded 4th boss, but it wouldn't be fair because the game is just plain tough. It doesn't have any autofire, so you have to tap that button hard in order to stand a chance against some of the trickiest bosses. Talking about bosses, they are all preserved from the arcade original, so this makes the Famicom version overall more faithful than the much loved Master System port (which replaces the 4th and 6th bosses for counterparts that are less demanding for the hardware). Another aspect that makes the Famicom port more faithful is the radar that tells the player the number/location of generators, which is absent in the SMS. In both versions, however, generator damage is not shown at all.
Stages Dolimicca, Polaria and Mockstar pulverized with the help of autofire
(courtesy of YouTube user GMIX6809)
I had a much harder time clearing the game on the Famicom than on the Master System. I have the feeling the game is slightly faster with more random enemy attacks, and the absence of a device to get permanent upgrades demanded some exquisite strategies to get past later bosses. For example, I had to rely on buying multiple shot upgrades and correctly time the appearance of the SEL balloon (it's just like the shop, but only to switch/select weapons) with the destruction of the last generator in order to succesfully beat the expanding boss (7th). As usual, there's a great end bonus waiting for the player once the game loops.
All in all, NES fans don't need to despair. Japanese Fantasy Zone is a great little game that besides a reduced number of colors isn't in any way inferior to the more famous Master System port (or the PC Engine's for that matter). And the music is as catchy as ever. If you're a fan of Opa-Opa, you can go after this blindfolded.
Here's my final score, reaching stage 2 of the 2nd loop while playing with no autofire/turbo at all: