Sunday, 6 June 2010

Space Fantasy Zone

Because everyone likes the TurboGrafx-CD... right?

Here's a strange period of Sega's history. So strange in fact that it doesn't even feature Sega, it features NEC Avenue and two of Sega's franchises. During 1990/1991 NEC thought it would be fun to combine the gameplay of the arcade hit Space Harrier with the other arcade hit Fantasy Zone, creating the TurboGrafx-CD hit... Space Fantasy Zone. How clever.

But as fine as the idea was, it never made it onto the market. A prototype did make it onto the internet though, so let us indulge in this hybrid and see if we can save the planet.

During the early 1990s CD technology was the best thing since sliced bread, but as the current generation of consoles had been developed before this period, they had to rely on traditional forms of storage such as cartridges (or in the Turbografx-16's case, "HuCards"). Not wanting to fall behind, NEC developed a CD-based add on to their Turbografx-16 (PC Engine in Japan) called the Turbografx-CD (or PC Engine CD in Japan). The advantages included high quality audio and more space to work with, but at a downside of longer loading times and the fact that users would have to invest a hefty fee for this add-on. They later combined it with the TG16 in one unit called the TurboDuo.

In the west, nothing video games related that NEC made was a huge success because of Nintendo and Sega, but it was fairly popular in Japan as the Sega Mega Drive had very little ground in that region. Sega quickly retaliated with their Sega Mega CD, add-on, but as time has shown, neither CD add-on was great, and neither were the "enhanced graphics" updates in the form of the Supergrafx and Sega 32X which appeared later.

But anyway, the reasons for cancellation of Space Fantasy Zone aren't known, but I think it's fairly safe to say Sega wouldn't have been amused. For a Sega game to appear on a NEC console (especially in the west) would have damaged their entire marketing strategy, and although several Sega games had made it to the Turbografx-16 and its CD add-on in the past, these were arcade ports, nothing "new". Nobody knows the real story though, and the second most popular opinion is that it was because the game was lacking in quality, which is just as legitimate.

But as said, a prototype showed up on the internet. It's unfinished so it doesn't give us the full picture, but it does highlight some very important concerns. Namely about how the console actually copes with Space Harrier clones (spoilers: not very well). The Turbografx-CD can't scale sprites natively unlike the arcade hardware powering Space Harrier, and so it makes a very choppy effort which, to be quite frank, looks ugly in this game.

Choppy scaling isn't a huge problem in some games, but Space Fantasy Zone isn't one of them. Unlike Space Harrier there's no attempt to make the graphics appear 3D, and because many of the obstacles are massive, the game is a bit more tedious than its arcade bretherin. Despite neither Fantasy Zone nor Space Harrier having a health meter, one was added in Space Fantasy Zone, presumably because it's too difficult without one. The lives system was dropped though.

If you haven't already guessed by looking at the screenshots, the star of the Fantasy Zone games, Opa Opa is under the player's control in Space Fantasy Zone. This is because the world is biased more towards Fantasy Zone than Space Harrier - though the enemies and music overlap, the stages are based on those found in Fantasy Zone as are the bosses and the shop system. Opa Opa was a bigger name in Japan thanks to his cameo in the anime Zillion, which is probably why the focus was put on him... and because the harrier from Space Harrier has no backstory, personality or raw sex appeal like the ship with legs.

What's missing from the prototype is a full set of music tracks (even though the download was 118MB), which unfortunately leads to every level sounding the same and some music missing altogether (though there does seem to be a few variations of the standard track). You're also able to skip levels by accessing the shop... something that presumably was only due to show at the end of a stage. If you're just that sort of guy you can provoke a response from the woman working at "Weaponalds" by touching her breasts. Couldn't sell that to the west.

Gameplay is mostly the same as Space Harrier, though because of the way Opa Opa is designed it feels slightly different. The only major problem as I've said is the large obstacles that spring up and get in your way, and though yes, this does happen on some stages of Space Harrier, it doesn't occur in every stage and those objects still aren't as big. Like the TG16 port of Space Harrier, the game is unable to render the checkered floor, instead going for simpler horizontal lines... which is a tad boring I think (especially when even the NES port managed fancier flooring!), but I can't really fault it because it may not have been NEC's intention to copy Space Harrier to that level of accuracy.

There are nine stages, and an ending rendered entirely in Japanese. But even if this were translated, Space Fantasy Zone would need a lot of localisation for it to appeal to a western audience... I mean I'm surprised normal entries to the series sold. I suspect this plus the legal costs plus the fact the gameplay isn't exactly brilliant led to the game's demise, but you'll have to make your own judgements. I don't think it beats either Fantasy Zone or Space Harrier, but it certainly hits the "average" target.

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