Prior to being absorbed by Namco and becoming the "Tales of..." machine, when it was still part of Telenet's entourage, Wolf Team was quite the phenomenon. While none of their games were really all that great, they all retain a very distinct Japanese home computer flair from the team's early years. Although they all are well-grounded, if often unpolished genre pieces, many carry a breeze of fresh air with them, a scent of - sometimes misguided - innovation. Which could be better suited to exemplify this than their very first work: Final Zone: Wolf.
Final Zone is an overhead run-'n-gun action game like Capcom's Commando, but it's not just that. The program contains an extensive story with lots and lots of dialog between each map. The game tells the story of the special forces team Black Cobra, successor to the legendary Team Wolf (yes, they just did that) on a mission to prevent a devastating missile attack from being launched. Unfortunately, it's not quite yet to the standard of Wolf Team's next game Valis with its animated cutscenes, instead all you get to see are the character's cut-out anime heads, while Japanese text scrolls below. The character introductions are (mostly) in Engrish though, appended with liner notes that give intriguing insight into the development process.
While the squad consists of five characters, the player is always in control of the leader, Harward Bowie. Before each stage, however, two of the others can be picked as sidekicks. This is when things get interesting - and then fall apart immediately. Telenet later became synonymous with "decent but not great and somewhat flawed games," but Final Zone is different. It's absolutely horrible. The plan was to offer the player a never before seen depth of tactical play, by allowing to determine the formation of the squadmates. Complex-looking schematics to the right show the current movement pattern, which can be cycled through by the press of a key. The only problem is: It doesn't work. Mass Effect players who ended up shooting their companions in the back more than the enemies in the face know that squadmate AI still was a troubled issue twenty years later. In Final Zone, their movement is always related to the player's position, but it's near impossible to coordinate their positioning at the rapid pace, and they just end up getting killed quickly - if you're lucky. The just as often get stuck in the scenery, making it impossible to go on.
Another unique but badly executed feature is putting consequences to your failure: If your right-hand man dies (yes, always the one on the right) during the mission, he stays gone until the end of the game. The first one that's selected goes to the left, so you can never lose all of them, but the easiest way to get through the stages is without any of them, anyway. Just go into the battle alone and run past as many enemy soldiers as possible.
That's another big problem of the game: There's no point in fighting, because enemies keep respawning and attacking you from all sides, while Bowie and his companions can only shoot straight up. The endless stream of enemies only turns into a finite one at the end of each map, which like in Commando the year before serves as the stage's "boss." The amount of enemies on screen is quite impressive for an 8-bit computer game, but this is bought dearly with a terribly choppy game and ridiculously unresponsive controls.
If you don't keep moving at all times, you'll be assaulted from behind, with no way of defending yourself other than trying to laboriously maneuver around them. All the while, five new enemies will be spawning to block your way, so why even try? It's nothing but a waste of ammunition, which is a limited resource. Bowie has a life bar (and his allies can take several hits as well), but invincibility time is short and the enemy forces are relentless, so it goes down fast, and losing only just once results in instant Game Over. New weapons, health and additional grenades can be picked up around the stages, but they're all invisible. Whether it's an intentional "feature" to make the game more difficult, or Wolf Team simply forgot to put in the icons for the pickups. The weapon effects are not too distinctive, anyway. The only way to tell apart a machinegun from a bazooka is the tiny explosion the latter causes upon impact. Machinegun and throwing knife, though? That might just as well be the same. There's also a gas mask, but it's unclear what it does, if anything at all.
The X1 version that arrived five months later, in November 1986, finally brought some relief in form of icons for the upgrades. The ally formations have also been simplified, most valuable are those that keep the companions close and actually make it possible for the player to keep them alive. There have been some slight changes to the stage layouts, although it doesn't seem to make that much difference. Unfortunately, the only available disk image of this version was hacked for invincibility and apparently dumped without taking into acount the copy protection, so after the first stage you're kindly asked to not pirate the software. Who in 1986 Japan would have thought of a time and place where purchasing the original would actually be harder than beating the game?
That leaves the MSX version. This port looks and sounds terrible, with crazy sprite flickering and a Game Boy grade musical arrangement, but is actually somewhat playable. Formations are taken from the X1 update, whereas the stages have once again been slightly retouched. Companions don't die permanently, anymore, ironically in the version where they are most likely to survive, anyway. Supplies are invisible again, which cannot mean anything but Telenet telling their customers how much they hate them.
The biggest change is the addition of proper boss fights - at the end of each stage awaits a turret, a tank, or a gun boat. All of them are supported by more minions, and the later few use entirely bastardly shooting patterns. In one stage you can't walk up straight up to the boss, which severely limits your maneuverability, as you're stuck inside a canyon as the tank rains bullets upon you. One would assume that grenades would be the best way to put out these war machines, but they actually don't do any more damage than the standard guns while being much harder to handle.
In all its versions, however, Final Zone: Wolf is still a bad, bad game. It clearly shows its status as the first game of a yet inexperienced young studio. It may pride itself on being the world's very first squad-based shooting game, although actually trying to play it that way reveals an utterly failed experiment, an Earnest Evans grade trainwreck that's worth looking at as a piece of history, but certainly not worth suffering through. The only redeeming factor are the great chiptunes by Nobuhito Koise, which already show the musical qualities Wolf Team games would become known for later. The soundtrack has been included on the Telenet Game Music Collection Vol. 1 CD, as well as the Telenet Music Box for PC-88 and X68000 (which sounds quite differently), so no need to play the game to listen to it.
Even though Final Zone was a failure, it still passed on its legacy to two sequels. Final Zone II appeared as a PC Engine CD in March 1990. Apparently Telenet had taken away the franchise from Wolf Team, and relegated it to the internal team Reno, as there are no references to the original studio to be found (nor any credits at all, for that matter). For Final Zone II, the corporate meddling actually seems to have panned out, because the game is actually quite decent. That's Telenet-decent, mind you, so it's still no timeless classic and has its fair share of problems
Like many early CD based Japanese games, Final Zone II makes heavy use of animated pixel art cutscenes, including voice acting through all the sequences. In theory that would be a good thing, but the English localized version is no doubt among the top ten worst video game dubs of all time. It's painfully obvious that no single one of the voice "actors" even gave a damn about their job, so emotionless and devoid of any sense of natural timing are the lines. But one couldn't really blame them for not caring about a script that is as hamfisted and stupid as the one they had to work with, with its nonsensical lines and phrasings that are cornier than the love story in the Star Wars prequels. It is so ridiculously bad that it adds comedy value to the whole thing. It really has to be heard to be believed how craptacular it all is. Stop whatever you're currently listen to before starting the below sample; the effect of the scene can only fully play out to the awkward silence in the background.
Rendered down to the fictional facts, the plot isn't actually that stupid as far as early '90s anime-style action games go, although the way it's told leaves more than a few holes, and especially the connections to the first game seem a bit forced (and incomprehensible to those not familiar with it) at times. In the intro, captain (although he's sometimes referred to as "colonel") Bowie and his new squad get ready to launch an attack to a remote island from outer space, where they have been ordered to put an end to a rebellion. But the spaceship gets attacked, tearing a huge hole in its hull and sucking all crewmen into empty space. (Why the attack had to be launched from space, by the way, goes completely unexplained, as other characters easily reach the island by more conventional means later.) Good thing they already had their power armor on, so the survivors manage to land on the planet. After fighting against Dakota Bomber, his old pal reveals to Bowie that he was told that they were the rebels. (This is the dialog sampled above.) This leads Bowie to an investigation into a truly wicked conspiracy...
Telenet gave up on the whole squad tactics idea, and instead you only get to choose the character that you're controlling directly for each mission. For the first three stages the player character is fixed, but as the heroes team up to fight the big bad, the selection grows bigger and bigger.
While the sci-fi elements in Final Zone: Wolf were downplayed for the most part, and the characters fought by foot, they now get to wear special power armor, the New Age Power Suits. (N.A.P. in short. Where the "S" went, no one knows.) Each N.A.P. got a primary and a secondary weapon. The former's use is unlimited and usually is some rapid firearm, the secondary consumes ammunition and is more devastating but slower.
The hero from the first game is back, but this time, the mission gets personal, as the enemy is after his own hide. His N.A.P. is equipped with a Vulcan machinegun, which has the advantage of enabling him to change shooting directions while standing still. A bazooka is his secondary weapon.
Momoko and Bowie married, it seems. She has settled down and is first seen trying to prevent Bowie from going on his latest mission, but when her husband(?) goes missing, she follows him to the island. While her weapons of choice used to be "knife and her sextial body," she now traded them for a grenade launcher and a rifle that's more powerful than the automatic weapons, but needs the button pressed again for every shot.
The only other survivor from the spaceship, Hanna wears a pink N.A.P. (as does the only other girl in the game, of course!) which carries the same Vulcan as Bowie's, in addition to a laser with unlimited range. She has no function in the game's plot whatsoever.
Randy shows up to provide Momoko with the information and power armor to go after Bowie, and also not-quite-so shockingly reveals to her that her brother is alive. His spread shot is the single most effective weapon in the entire game, even though its range is a bit on the short side. This is made up for by his secondary weapon, a missile launcher that works similar to the bazooka wielded by Bowie, but shoots almost over the whole screen.
Izak Velder is Momoko's brother, who appeared to have been killed towards the end of the first game. Turns out he just had to make everyone believe he was dead to join a super secret special investigation unit. His V.A.T. is equipped with the same laser as Hanna's, and a light saber made of blue balls, which looks cool in motion and does the fastest damage, but its short range makes its use dangerous.
This mad scientist seeks out revenge against Bowie, who once put him to shame by single-handedly taking out his super weapon during its public final testing run. Ever since, he wanted to see the captain dead, and now he's driven an entire island to war to pursue this agenda.
Final Zone II is a very typical overhead run-'n-gun. Other than the first game, enemies have fixed starting positions and numbers, and you can now shoot in 8 directions. There even are different sprites for facing left or right instead of cheaply mirroring them, but as a side effect, almost all weapons are fired off-center, which takes some getting used to. In the third stage Velder takes to a helicopter to reach the island from the main land, a journey that takes the form of a forced scrolling vertical shoot-em-up stage. Like the rest of the game, it's nothing too special, but a welcome distraction from the main routine.
Power-ups are now visible drops from enemies. The more common ones flip between the letter "B" and "H," where the former is an ammunition refill for the secondary weapon and the latter replenishes some health. There is also a more rare variant, where the letters are "P" for full recovery and "S" for extending the current character's health bar for the remainder of the game. Needless to say, the latter has more long time benefits, although "P" might save you in particularly desperate situations. A fully developed health bar is quite big, but there are still ways to die quickly. Normal bullets all cost only one point, but explosives and lasers deal damage for as long as they overlap with the player sprite. In the final level Ruman unleashes his bio mutations, of course, who spit acid that's even more dangerous. The huge monster at the end is also the most impressive boss fight - otherwise, they range from the usual tanks and airplanes to just extraordinarily persistent foot soldiers.
The music could only be a disappointment for Wolf Team fans. The CD medium allowed the inclusion of two '90s J-pop vocal songs, which are even redubbed in the English version, of course with lyrics as corny as the rest of the script. Much of the other music sounds more like a traditional video game soundtrack, but not coming directly from the chip they synthesizer sound is rather mushy. There are some neat elements, like a surf rock inspired tune, but most of it is pretty bland. Interestingly, there are no stage specific songs, but rather individual themes for the chosen characters.
While certainly better than the first game, sheer mediocrity would have commited Final Zone II to oblivion, if it weren't for the hilariously terrible English dub. The game remained a PC Engine exclusive and is nowhere to be seen on Nintendo's Virtual Console. Only the Japanese digital download service Project Egg carries the game as an emulated package for Windows PCs.
While Telenet released its official sequel to Final Zone, the by now independent Wolf Team was working on this spin-off. While it appears to have been self-published in Japan, the American release still went through Telenet's American label Renovation Games. Since the US version was simply titled Final Zone, many took it as the first game in the series and Final Zone II as its sequel. The player once again jumps into Bowie's N.A.P., but the mechanics are very different from the other two games, and there are no dialog scenes this time. There is a story in the manual, but it is little more than a verbose way of saying "here's a mecha, now go blow shit up!"
The most obvious change is the shift to an isometric perspective, but the stages in general are very different. The player gets to roam around them freely, but they wrap around after four or five screens in each directions. The goal each time is to destroy a certain amount of targets, which appear randomly over the map, with no point of orientation and no apparent pattern. Sometimes it takes minutes for any new targets to show up at all. That doesn't mean the stages are empty, though. Small drone-like enemies keep spawning constantly to keep you on your toes.
The N.A.P. is much bigger in this game and more of a proper mecha than just a suit of power armor. It's stuffed with different weapon systems from lasers and bazookas to flame throwers and a hookshot. Each weapon can be equipped as primary or secondary, resulting in much different firing modes. The primary ("Hand") mode has usually just a straightforward attack, while the secondary ("Option") is more destructive and covers wider angles, but its ammunition is limited. As the mecha gets damaged, more and more weapons are destroyed, but sometimes drones show up to drop off recharges. Much of the selection is filler, though. A lot of the weapons feel very similar, while some others are just plain worthless.
Each of the game's seven stages is followed by a boss fight, which takes place in confined quarters. Most of them are just similar mechas with different patterns, but there are some exceptions: The first stage has you attack a military train and take out all its guns in an auto-scrolling shoot-em-up stage, of which there are three in the entire game. Another one is just a huge immobile cannon guarded by smaller turrets.
Unfortunately, the controls just don't work well enough for the fast-paced action game this wants to be. When moving while shooting, the mecha strafes instead of turning, so you have to release the fire button to turn around, but it's all really unresponsive and most of the time you just find yourself running backwards into enemies instead of aiming at them. The game is relentless in throwing more enemies at you, anyway. The mecha's health bar is pretty long, but it doesn't get recharged after a stage, and the supply packages only ever restore one measly unit. This means you basically run on one health bar for the entire game. It's possible to continue after losing, but this restarts the level, resets the score and is limited to five times on the easy difficulty level, three on normal and only one on hard.
The action soon starts to feel repetitive, and the closely zoomed-in view is a bit too claustrophobic, aside from the fact that because of it you often see enemies almost too late to react. All in all, FZ Senki Axis is not as terrible as the first game in the series, but also not as solid as the second.
FZ Senki Axis was first made for X68000 computers, but of course that version remained exclusive to Japan, leaving Western audiences with the Genesis port. It is essentially the same game, although a few boss fights are changed, some of the stages swapped around, and the stage 6 boss and stage 7 simply cut from the game (the original boss for stage 7 now appears at the end of stage 6). Also gone are the intro and ending sequences, which went without any dialog or narration to begin with, so no "story" per se is lost. It's still a bit unfortunate, as they did look quite good and helped to build up atmosphere, a task that's now left to the music alone. The soundtrack is once again quite excellent, although its constantly frenetic rhythms that seem to scream "CRISIS!" all the time can get a bit tiresome - relaxation is only allowed after beating the game, which probably most players never did.