Friday, 6 August 2010

Fantasy Zone: The Maze

Or in this case, the significantly worse title of "Opa Opa".

"Y'know what would make Fantasy Zone better?", said one of the many figureheads at Sega of Japan's board meetings in 1987, "PAC MAN". And so Fantasy Zone: The Maze was born, the runt of the litter (though kids today didn't even know Sega used to keep spaceship-shaped pigs). People either don't like this game or don't know about it, so I guess who better than myself to bring it to the light?

Though I just said I was going to cover Master System games... that's half a lie, because this is actually the Sega System E arcade version, running in MAME. The differences are minor but the System E version has more on-screen coins and is a little nicer on the eye. Otherwise, they're identical. Same (ish) underlying hardware so it still counts.

In Japan this game was called "Opa Opa", because Sega of Japan were going through this stupid phase of bad naming schemes (see: Wonder Boy). It's also affectionately called "Fantasy Zone III", which though isn't "official", could be considered a slightly better name. Sure it plays completely differently from 1 and 2 and actually recycles concepts from the first game, but... I dunno... I sort of prefer it for some reason.

The Maze is a complicated game, because it continues to mix in the Fantasy Zone elements from the shoot 'em ups, meaning every dot on the screen is a coin and those coins are used to buy weapons dotted around the map. Enemies respawn from the centre of the board, though you can delay the process by passing over the tile that produces them. It's not quite as straight forward as Pac-Man because there is no reliance on power pellets - you have to find guns which have a limited amount of ammo and as there's more enemies on screen, things get very hard, very fast.

The main rule is the same - collect all the coins (or dots), but there's less freedom to move about and more dead ends. Novice players might not be able to tell the difference between the powerups as they're all squashed into 16 pixel diameter circles. Opa Opa is also noticeably slower than pretty much all the enemies on screen, which puts him at a disadvantage.

As well as the standard stages, there are bonus stages in between zones that are set in the dark, where you're forced to collect as many coins as possible before the time runs out. This is about the only thing not inspired by the original Fantasy Zone game, all other levels, music and enemies are inspired by the System 16 classic.

Though I do like the Master System (to some degree), the low-ish resolution takes its toll on The Maze. Everything is squashed together and the limited palette sometimes makes things hard to see. In Pac-Man, all important objects were bright and obvious and there was never a chance of things blending into the background. Though in reality Fantasy Zone: The Maze isn't that much smaller resolution wise than Pac-Man, the fact there's no space makes it look a bit worse.

I'd seen some still screenshots of Fantasy Zone: The Maze and had assumed the dots grew and shrank for visual effect. That's not the case, and it's surprising how much older the game looks as a result. Though perfectly acceptable in the world of Master System, I can't for the life of me understand why Sega thought making a System E version was profitable. I mean the hardware is hardly cutting edge for 1987. They must have been giving away these units.

If you look past that though, you've got yourself a nice game here. Of course, a nice game like this could have been nicer if it had been released on System 16 hardware like its predecessor, but hey, it's practically a Master System original and a fairly good one at that.

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