Box Shot
Platform: NES
Publisher: FCI
Designer: Compile
Genre: Shoot-em-up
Players: 1
Published Date 1986
Reviewed by: Bryan Cord

As a self-admitted "unintellectual gamer", I've probably played more mindless shoot-'em-up-while-flying games than any five average people. Leave next-generation 3D graphics and plots that matter for the people who are impressed by them; from the genre's humble beginnings (River Raid, Defender, Xevious) to the incredible-looking shooters of today (Raystorm, Xevious 3D+G), the lightning-fast action of these and other games like them has captivated me. The point of all this self-effacing drivel? So that when I make the dangerously unequivocal declaration that Zanac is "one of the best, if not the best, shooters ever to exist on any platform, ever" in the near-future, the reader has a vague idea of how exhaustively "researched" such a seemingly lazy statement is. At any rate, here goes: Zanac is one of the best, if not the best, shooters ever to exist on any platform, ever! Developed by Compile (whose credits also include the not-quite-as-impressive Gun*Nac, Space Megaforce, and shooting segments of The Guardian Legend) and released by FCI over ten years ago, Zanac combines breathtaking speed, random enemy placement, a frightening AI (the "I" part of the acronym is justified for once), and large amounts of neat weapons to create a shooting experience that is truly mind-blowing.

No plot, not even the token kind given in most shooters, is provided in Zanac. Who cares? Who needs it? When faced with hordes of attacking aliens and a little spaceship to control, all but the slowest people will know what to do without an idiotic plot to justify all the killing. Zanac is divided into 12 "areas", all of which look suspiciously similar to planets. The various locales range from jungles to oceans to industrial zones, and all look fairly nice for a game released around 1986. Still though, the noninteractive portions of the graphics look a bit dull (they use the "desert" background way too much, and it's easy to lose enemy bullets on some of the more garish backgrounds) and washed-out when compared with those of Gun*Nac. The player's ship is surprisingly well-rendered (love those banking turns!), but the enemies, with a few exceptions, highlight and underline the age of the cartridge. There are maybe 15 or 20 total types of enemies, and the vast majority of them are colored a drab blue and are generally even smaller than the tiny spaceship protagonist. In stark contrast to the massive, graphically detailed boss characters of games like Life Force and Gun*Nac, Zanac's "bosses" are simply enemy bunkers consisting of any amount of gun turrets and a "core" of some kind. Despite showing their age a bit though, the visuals in Zanac are more than adequate and are very impressive considering Zanac's early appearance.

The audio, while similarly "low-tech", is not without its charm, featuring a bunch of extremely hummable little ditties (quite honestly though, the music will get "tuned out" by most players in favor of the split-second action pretty quickly) and some nice sound effects (the explosions, in particular, sound great for the time period).

The thing that really sets Zanac apart from other shooters (both past and future- why Compile didn't include something similar in Gun*Nac will always baffle me, unless it was space constraints) is the artificial intelligence-imbued enemies. Where every other shooter has enemies that appear at set locations and perform set actions, Zanac actually uses several player-controlled factors to determine what, where, and how many enemies appear at any given point in the game, as well as how those enemies behave (to an extent, anyway- this is a first-gen NES cart, remember?) Although the AI is supposed to function so that "the better you get, the better they get", a much more accurate description would be "the more you shoot, the more they shoot back". Although blasting indiscriminately and constantly is standard twitch-game practice, this sort of thing isn't always a good idea in Zanac. You see, the "level" of the AI increases a tiny bit with every shot, which means more and more enemies will continue to swamp the hapless player as the game progresses. Because of this, the "good" Zanac player is painfully conscious of making every shot count- although simply dodging the enemies will work to an extent, most people will eventually have to start shooting.

At its highest levels (usually only seen when weapon #2- the shield is picked up, an action which kicks the AI into overdrive and leads most players to avoid the shield like the plague) the AI is truly insane, filling the screen with dozens upon dozens of lethal sprites (without the slightest hint of slowdown; I'm impressed). Fortunately, there are glowing plasma-ball things hidden in underground bunkers (scattered liberally throughout the Zanac universe) which will reset the AI when picked up. Although some enemies will always appear at set places (ground-based gun emplacements, a few larger enemies, and obviously the bosses), the fact that the behavior of the game is governed to such a high extent by the behavior of the player guarantees that Zanac will never be even close to the same game twice; shooter fans in search of unlimited replay value need look no further.

Besides the impressive AI, Zanac has quite a few other nice features which, when combined with the AI, serve to easily set it a head and shoulders above any other shoot-em-up. For starters, the control is utterly perfect. Movement is accurate to the pixel, and the ship moves just fast enough to not seem sluggish, but just slow enough to not seem jerky. In keeping with this, Zanac scrolls along at a nice clip which, while nowhere near as fast as that in The Guardian Legend, gives the illusion of speed and makes the action seem all the more frenetic. And frenetic it is...although Zanac starts out a bit sluggish, the AI soon gets annoyed with all the shooting and launches a startling amount of ships at the player. Projectiles crowd the screen (slowdown-free, as previously stated) most of the time, and that perfect control is critical in staying alive (the player starts with three lives and can earn more, and there are unlimited continues. Still, the length of the areas makes dying, all told, not a great idea) long enough to encounter the "boss" bunkers, where the REAL action is. Sporting anywhere from eight to 30 gun turrets (all of which must be destroyed separately), most of the bosses will attack with a numbing onslaught of projectiles of every possible variety; thinking (as opposed to pure reflex) is completely out of the question if survival figures into your game plan. Luckily though, the ship is extremely well-equipped for the task at hand. In addition to the standard laser (which can be powered-up three times until it's a three-shot merchant of death), the "A" button can be used to fire any of eight special weapons, which can be found sprinkled liberally throughout the various levels. These weapons vary greatly (from #2, the force shield, to #3, the rotating fireball, to #7, the rapid-fire plasma shot) and can be powered-up about five times by grabbing several of the same numbered weapon sequentially. Since some of the weapon effects and behaviors change with powering-up (at its highest power level, weapon #6 simply turns all the on-screen enemies into 1-ups), the amount of weapons available in Zanac is truly staggering. Although all these factors are secondary to the AI, each one adds to the fun and makes Zanac a hell of a blast of a good time to play.

It truly baffles me that Zanac is as obscure as it is. In the years of evolution in the shooter genre since Zanac is released, nobody has quite managed to top it for sheer twitch value (Space Megaforce, Raiden II, Gun*Nac, and a few others came close, however). That, combined with the AI (an innovation that this reviewer would like to see more of), deep weapon system, and dead-on control make Zanac a true game for the ages. No red-blooded NES gamer should be without this one; if you are, go seek it out immediately. Kill if you must.