Monday 18 July 2011

FZ 2006 II

I thought the MAME project was in a bit of a mess.

But nope, they're still adding things. Like FZ 2006 II, something fairly important which slipped under my radar. It's a Korean bootleg, and I'll let you guess what it's a bootleg of. Answer after the jump.

Once upon a time Sega of Japan thought it would be fun to deprive the west of thirty-three PlayStation 2 titles. Spread across the discs, close to a hundred Sega classics from the last thirty years, and no, we're not talking about half-assed ports of Fatal Labyrinth or Gain Ground - proper arcade stuff. Some parts of the "Sega Ages 2500" series made it here in the form of Sega Classics Collection (also for the PlayStation 2), but Fantasy Zone II DX wasn't one of them.

"Dedication" is a good way to describe Fantasy Zone II DX. It's an arcade game, built for Sega's System 16 arcade board. Even though that platform had gone out of fashion by the early 1990s, Fantasy Zone II DX kept it alive for a bit by showing up in 2008. Sound unusual? Well there's a story behind it.

Fantasy Zone II DX started off life in the thirty-third volume of the Sega Ages 2500 series, sharing a disc with emulated versions of the rest of the Fantasy Zone franchise, complete with various bonus features such as concept art and the like. Fantasy Zone II as a concept is not new, and in fact, some of you may own a copy for your Sega Master Systems (or MSX computers, or Famicoms), but a good version of the game was certainly unheard of until M2 released this beast.

In Fantasy Zone (II) you pilot the good ship Opa-Opa, destroying various "bases" dotted around a two dimensional plane. Gameplay is similar to Defender, in that it's a side-scrolling shooter which lets you go left as well as right. One button fires foward, another drops bombs. Destroy all the bases and you'll be presented with a boss, destroy the boss and you'll be presented with a new level to explore. Simple stuff.

The original Fantasy Zone is often regarded as the first "cute-'em-up" ever produced. You're killing things, but you're killing them with a happy smile on your face. Enemies drop coins which can be used to upgrade your firepower and flying ability, and basically it's a fun yet challenging arcade experience. Fantasy Zone saw a few sequels before being retired in the mid-1990s, and since then all we've ever seen are Opa-Opa cameos.

Now the original Master System Fantasy Zone II, released in 1987, was far from being the high point of the series. Sprite flicker, uglier graphics, forgettable music - it's very much in the shadow of its predecessor, even if gameplay is essentially the same. It only made one notable change to the formula - deciding to split the levels into bits, but a lack of an on-screen radar in the home ports means things are just more awkward. It's not the worst Master System game in the world, but like most of the series, hardly one to get out of bed for. If only there was a nicer alternative...

...and here it is. Fantasy Zone II DX does not adhere to Master System rules. It takes the idea dreamt up for the SMS game, adds a bit of spice and presents you with an top-class 1987 arcade experience... in 2008. Better late than never I suppose, but perhaps if ports of these games were shipped to the Mega Drive instead of struggling with the likes of Galaxy Force II and Thunder Blade, this wouldn't have been an issue for so long.

Admittedly, it's not a game that will appeal to all, and it takes a special sort of person to realise "Sega System 16C" doesn't really exist, but it's what the die-hard fans wanted... I assume. It's also worth noting that it originally came packaged with six other Fantasy Zone games - a deal that still works out better than buying the games individually through the Wii's Virtual Console for example. And if you want the lesser experience, the Master System version is available in that compilation too.

Fantasy Zone II DX is not a straight port of the original Fantasy Zone II. Though it's mostly the same game, everything's been tweaked to make it that little bit better, from the graphics to the music to even the core gameplay. It still splits the levels into sections, but rather than opting for three, four or five parts, there's are simply "bright" and "dark" versions of each stage, "bright" being the easy option and "dark" being the more challenging choice. Depending on your path this will also lead to one of three different endings, including some bizarre one about Opa-Opa turning evil and the Space Harrier being forced to save the day. It's all blatant fan service really.

Usually something tends to be left behind or perhaps even worsened during the upgrading process, but this honestly doesn't seem to be the case with Fantasy Zone II DX (unless you're desperate for pointlessly bigger stages). What makes this even more impressive is that as far as Master System shooters go, Fantasy Zone II was still one of your better options, despite its many flaws. We're dramatically improving an already pretty good game. What a shame there's no Sonic Chaos DX.

I'd by lying if I said Fantasy Zone II DX was better than the original arcade Fantasy Zone, but it's a significant improvement over its Master System cousin. It's a worthy sequel, and it still looks as fresh today as it might have looked twenty four years ago.

As said, FZ 2006 II is a bootleg, as MAME doesn't yet emulate the real thing (though I suspect it'll arrive eventually). It comnes attached to several other games and listed in MAME as a Shinobi title, so things can get a bit confusing if you want to play it today. It also requires the IGS Selection Master BIOS and some dip switch tweaking in order to get it to boot. A bit inconvenient, but ultimately worth it.

Regardless I think Fantasy Zone II DX is a game worth tracking down and playing, especially if you found the original entertaining. It's twenty four years late but this sort of thing should be applauded, if not just to inspire Sega to fix up the rest of their back-catalogue.

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