Wednesday 2 June 2010

Fantasy Zone (NES)

What am I doing

I'm a big fan of Fantasy Zone. I learned about it too late of course, but nevertheless it's a happy little shoot 'em up with a great soundtrack. It first showed up on Sega System 16 arcade hardware in 1985, got itself a few sequels on the Sega Master System and Sega Mega Drive, dropped off the face of the earth and re-appeared in Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing earlier this year. It's popular among Sega fans... so what's it doing on a Nintendo system... twice? Guess we'll have to find out.

Remember a couple of years ago when I wrote this article about Tengen's Tetris on tORP? Of course you do, and if you don't here's the jist of it: Atari (under the name of Tengen) released a game without Nintendo's permission, and got sued for it. But it didn't stop there, no. Tengen decided to port a large section of Sega's arcade library to the NES illegally too. Those crazy kids!

But first to clean up a big misconception about Tengen. It's not a ruthless pirate developer out to make money like I've been asked about in the last few months, it's a ruthless division of Atari out to make money. Following the video game crash Atari weren't too confident putting their name next to products, so they came up with a work-around in the form of Tengen. Tengen's role was simply to produce video games for home consoles - other divisions of Atari still existed and were working on arcade games as well as their own consoles.

But they screwed up by choosing to fight with Nintendo. After they released some dodgy titles for Nintendo's system, they moved onto Sega consoles instead (though they did it legally this time). They had some hits, and some misses, but Tengen would ultimately be re-absorbed into Atari... before the company would be bought out by Hasbro and then Infogrames. It's a crazy history but outside of the NES it was all perfectly legal and legitimate.

But during the NES days one of the many games they released was Fantasy Zone. Whether Sega agreed to it is a matter for debate, but Nintendo weren't happy and hence it was distributed on custom-made carts in small numbers. It's quite a collector's item these days, as are other games in the "series".

But the difference with Fantasy Zone is that in Japan, there was a licensed NES port (or Famicom port in this case) done by Sunsoft. So there's actually two copies of Sega's game for what is essentially the same system. God knows exactly what Sega point of view on the matter was. "Here's a game, released five years late for our rival console in small numbers... should we even care?". Chances are Sega of Japan which wasn't seeing successes with their consoles were quite happy to lend Nintendo a hand, while Sega of America were engaged in a fierce marketing war. It's amazing to think that the greatest video game rivalry of all time was a friendship at some point.

The purists will say that Sunsoft's game is the better title, and I suppose it probably is. It's more accurate and was produced legally. However, I feel that Tengen's work is a tiny bit more enjoyable. For one, Tengen's sprites don't blend into the backgrounds as the backgrounds are a shade lighter. Secondly, the camera isn't quite as manic, so enemies are less likely to sneak up on you from behind. The music is also slightly better than what Sunsoft has to offer, even if the NES couldn't benefit from that extra channel of sound. That's quite impressive.

Tengen's game isn't perfect though. The bosses are far simpler than they should be as you can dodge individual bullets for a change. The HUD is always changing colour because it doesn't have a constant palette assigned to it, and there is a fair share of flickering going on. Of course, if you're running an emulator such as Nestopia, the option to turn the sprite limit off is available which can address some concerns, but on real hardware this would have looked very tacky in comparison to other shooters. Also missing is a pause button and a fancy title screen present in the Sunsoft port.

Neither score well compared to the Master System version of course, but the Master System port isn't perfect either - the bases you need to destroy don't animate, and the arcade game's HUD wasn't retained. Both NES ports manage to put those features in, so it's not a clean victory for Sega's system. Neither really compare to the might of the Sega System 16 board that powers the original, but they're still better than some games from that era.

Sunsoft managed to port Fantasy Zone II: The Tears of Opa Opa to the NES as well. Tengen didn't bother, but they did give the NES its fair share of broken ports, including Alien Syndrome, After Burner, OutRun, Shinobi and Space Harrier, all of which were outdated and had been released on the Master System already.

Just a bit of trivia for you I guess. Even though both versions are irrelevant they still trump the MSX ports, and the history's a bit more fun.

1 comment:

  1. I should have stated this months ago, but Tengen's version was apparently featured in an episode of the Muppet Babies called "It's Only a Pretendo" or something like that.