Thursday, January 7, 2016

Super Fantasy Zone (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
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Developed by Sega / Sunsoft
Published by Sega in 1992

With the exception of the makeover made on Fantasy Zone II, which was released in one of those Sega Ages discs on the Playstation 2, Super Fantasy Zone was the last real entry in one of the most original and endearing series created by Sega. However, probably due to its waning popularity in the West and the involvement of Sunsoft as a developer, the cartridge saw the light of day only in Japan and Europe. That’s a real shame considering the game brings more of that frantic action to the Mega Drive in a new adventure that feels quite fresh yet plays very much in the same way of the first chapter rather than the second (never mind those boring maze/medal variants).

In order to keep the same colorful nature of its arcade counterparts, Super Fantasy Zone extracts the most from the alleged limited color palette of the Mega Drive. As a result that familiar fluffy atmosphere remains intact, as well as the deceiving idea that this fluffiness naturally relates to a child’s game. Of course Super Fantasy Zone isn’t as hard as, let’s say, the original Fantasy Zone, but the difficulty slope implemented in subsequent loops brings the original challenge back and turns stages into dangerous mine fields that require very careful navigation. So sit back, relax and prepare to listen to that awesome boss theme once again while enjoying a new set of exclusive upgrades to Opa-Opa’s arsenal.

There is a story going on here, complete with an animated intro and an equally crafted ending. Of it I know nothing, nor do I care. But it's nice to see another huge variation of Opa-Opa as the final boss, even if it's soon replaced by a cranky little bouncing ball that's rather disappointing.

Dangers of the Le-Picker level

All three basic buttons of the Mega Drive controller are used in Super Fantasy Zone. By default you have A for special weapon, B for shot and C for bombs. Completely new to the classic gameplay here is this "special weapon", which corresponds to items bought in the shop for single use and are lost upon death. By the way, what's classic about the gameplay? Opa-Opa, that rounded ship with tiny wings, must destroy 10 evil enemy generators in each stage so that he can fight the boss (check their locations on the radar). There's freedom of movement both to the left and to the right, and it's also possible to speed up scrolling (by moving closer to the sides) or halting it completely (by "landing", to which Opa-Opa creates legs and walks on the ground). The 8th and last stage is a boss rush comprised of all previous bosses prior to the very final boss.

Enemies release gold coins for immediate collection so you can purchase items in the SHOP balloon that approaches from the top of the screen every time a stage starts or after you die (except on bosses). Some of the items are effective permanently provided you don't die, such as the speed-ups and the regular bomb enhancements. Others will only last the amount of time defined by the gauge that appears beside the item icon. Mandatory purchases are at least one choice of speed-up and the quartet missiles, which definitely surpass the old twin bombs because they home on enemies (not generators). If you buy more than one item with the same function you can choose which one you'll be using before leaving the shop, and if the multiple items purchased are special weapons or of the temporary kind an extra balloon labeled SEL will then appear and allow you to choose a different type after the current one has been depleted.

In the world of Super Fantasy Zone there's always the danger of running into a spawning enemy if you get too hasteful. On the other hand, the faster you destroy generators and the quicker you collect the gold released by bosses the more money you'll eventually have. The risk-reward ratio tends to reach a critical point because of inflation: every time an item is purchased its price increases. Therefore, that precious temporary laser beam upgrade and those useful lightning and smart bomb special weapons will eventually become too expensive. Extra lives start with a $ 5.000 price tag and max out at $ 100.000. Nabbing all the extra lives you can and not dying is the secret to higher scores, simply because each life in stock is worth one million points when beating the game. Remaining gold is then converted into points, but not to the same extent.

Intro and attract mode of Super Fantasy Zone
(courtesy of YouTube user Gee Tee)

Toying with all the items available in the shop is half the fun when you're learning how to properly approach all levels and bosses in Super Fantasy Zone. My advice is that players should try them all. Don't let any item pass by or you might be missing very helpful aids for the most difficult levels. Some of them, like the shield, are downright too expensive and of course should be avoided in a credit aimed at high scoring. Note that two special items must be purchased in order to make navigation easier: the first one is the "super lights" that increase your viewing abilities inside the dark caves of stage 4, the second is the "rubber boots" so you can land safely on the electrified floor of stage 6. These are permanent, so as long as you don't die you don't need to buy them again upon reaching the same levels in further loops.

Throwbacks to the first game appear in several places, from the way certain enemies attack to the original bosses frozen in the background of the last stage. A connection between this franchise and Space Harrier can also be seen in the checkerboard borders of the last level. Starting a loop with no lives in stock is definitely a cruel mechanic, but if you want to play the loop you gotta live with that. At least the rise in difficulty is steady, marked by increasingly more enemies and faster bullets – which have their sprites continuously changed the further you advance. Strangely enough, bosses don’t follow this pattern and remain pretty much the same except for the 4th boss and his faster bullets.

Either cartridge, European or Japanese, will play in Western consoles normally, and the Japanese text will even be automatically translated into English. Even though the music in Super Fantasy Zone is quite catchy, it’s possible to switch the entire soundtrack to that of the original arcade game by pressing A+B+C and START at the start screen. My overall strategy relied on playing the whole game with the first speed-up (big wings), quartet missiles and the occasional laser upgrade in stages with lots of gold (5th) or annoying enemies/design (6th). Thunder volts were the only special weapons I used, as well as an additional speed-up for the whole last level in order to better deal with the second form of the final boss. In the high score below I reached stage 3-6 on Normal.