Saturday 7 August 2010

Zool (Master System)


Why the Master Sytem version? Why not? Who else is ever going to give a damn about a watered down port from 1993? If you wanted to play Zool properly you'd pick up the Amiga version, or the SNES one, or the Mega Drive version (which I tried to pick up a few years ago but apparently the store only sold second hand boxes).

I do own the Game Boy version though, and that wasn't too shabby considering the console's limitations. Let's see how the Master System fares.

Amiga games from this era tend to be good for more reasons than you might expect. The Amiga is a very powerful computer, but the initial versions of the machine couldn't really render backgrounds in sidescrollers. You'd have really colourful and detailed foregrounds, but the backgrounds would often be cheap and nasty. Like a series of gradients, or one solid colour. AGA-branded machines would later fix this slightly, but for earlier Amiga titles things were often bland.

Which is great news for other systems. Because the Master System can't render backgrounds properly either and also has to rely on solid colours. This means more of the available palette can be put into the foreground and the result looks like this:

I don't know about you, but I somehow expected a lot worse. Sure if you compare side-by-side with Amiga screenshots it'll look terrible, but if you haven't played Zool in a while or don't have the graphics ingrained into your head, you might be forgiven for thinking this looks the same as the 16-bit versions.

In Zool you run about jumping and shooting while collecting various sweets (or various other objects, depending on the level) before being allowed to leave. Unfortunately in this age of political correctness it's not a game that could be marketed today... unless you swapped the sugar-filled environments with FRUIT AND VEGETABLES. You need 99 sweets to pass, and you'll need to avoid a variety of enemies along the way. It's standard platforming stuff with a wall climbing move.

Zool was huge back in the day, but if you stop going with the flow for a few seconds it doesn't take long to notice its problems. The game is notoriously slippery. When games started taking a page from the book of Sonic the Hedgehog platformers started to get faster. This, coupled with the fact sprites now needed to be bigger to match those of Sonic, means there's plenty of opportunities to get hurt. In Sonic it wasn't a problem - when Sonic jumps or rolls, he just needs to slam into enemies to have them killed. In other games, such as Zool, you're required to push a different button in mid-flight, and that isn't always a nice option.

Though you're given three hit points, Zool's fast speed and lack of deceleration means he'll often run into enemies and spikes. The game can be quite lenient in that most enemies give you the opportunity to reclaim a hitpoint after they're destroyed, but it's still a bit of a challenge not to get killed.

Other issues that all versions of Zool share are that enemies respawn while off-screen (though it's not as bad in the SMS version). I have always disliked games that do this, but Zool is notoriously bad because again, the game is fast, and screens are always changing. The Master System version seems to forget moving platforms exist if they go off-screen also. Not good. Though it can sometimes forget enemies are there too.

Though the Master System version is generally very good for the hardware, there are some minor kinks that should have been ironed out. Firstly, due to cartridge and VRAM space, all the enemies are smaller than usual. Because they're small, Zool's attack button becomes redundant. Usually Zool is able to fire a projectile while on solid ground, but in the SMS version the projectile often doesn't hit anything unless you stop and duck because the enemies are too short. I found that some enemies, such as the spiky crawling jelly things are often impossible to see when travelling at speed. Test the game next time.

But by far the worst part of the Master System game is the platforming element of Zool. Because it's running on weaker hardware, platforms tend to be smaller, but Zool's code almost seems to be acting as if everything was the regular size. Constantly you'll be falling off ledges, and as Zool jumps so high it's difficult to aim your landings. There's actually powerups that make you jump higher too!

But even though the game felt the need to a time limit as well, it isn't littered with flying bees, unlike other ports. The music does get recycled quite a bit though.

I don't know Zool like the back of my hand but every time I seem to play it, the level design is slightly different. In the Master System game, you need to back-track in order to complete the first couple of levels. In other versions, the sweet counter goes by unnoticed, because chances are you'll fill it up on a normal run-through. This can be a problem since you've got to exploit secrets in order to complete levels, and as it's timed there can be cheap deaths purely on the basis that the user doesn't know the level as well as the programmer.

But despite the Master System's flaws, Zool on the SMS is a generally good version of the game. The issues surrounding Zool's gameplay aren't all exclusive to the SMS, and the Game Gear version will always feel worse because it's identical to the SMS version, just with a smaller resolution. I mean don't get me wrong, you would never buy the Master System version of this game if you could run a superior copy, but it's good to know that things wouldn't be so bad if you couldn't.

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