Zero Wing is one of Toaplan’s most well known games, at least in English speaking territories, mostly because of the “All Your Base Are Belong To Us” internet meme that spread around in 2001. Although routinely mocked for its incredibly bad English, it’s actually a pretty decent title. It’s also Toaplan’s only other side-scrolling shooter besides Hellfire.
Zero Wing‘s story revolves around the United Nations siding with an alien dictator that goes by the name of CATS. CATS completely annihilates all of Japan’s space colonies, stopping by to taunt their leader before killing him. One ship survives this massacre – the ZIG. It is ZIG’s mission to destroy CATS and his forces and possibly show the UN the error of their ways.
The ZIG is a fairly unique ship. It’s equipped with two indestructible satellites that hover above and below it, and fires whatever weapon the ship equipped with at the time, much like in R-Type Leo. It also has a tractor beam, which can be used to suck up certain enemies, which are then helpless positioned in front, acting as a shield. Additionally, you can reverse the tractor beam and spit enemies out at other enemies. Not every enemy is vulnerable to being captured, as some are simply too big for your ship to handle. Others are large, but weigh your ship down, hindering its speed and causing it to slowly sink to the bottom of the screen until released. You can also pick up a bomb that can be attached to the front of it, which can be thrown back at enemies or it can simply be used to block enemy fire until it blows up.
There are three different types of weapons, typical of Toaplan shooters. They are red spread shot, blue laser, and green homing. Each weapon has three arms levels that can be raised by picking up the same power up twice. The Mega Drive version has a secret fourth weapon level that makes your firepower even stronger and your satellites even bigger.
Many of the enemy designs are inspired by Gradius or R-Type, featuring similar mechanical and biologically themed enemies. Like in Hellfire, one of the bosses closely resembles Big Core, for that matter. Fortunately, Zero Wing has plenty of original ideas that set it apart from the series it often copies. The bullets spin in a strange, three-dimensional way that has them alternating between being circles and lines. Some of the level designs are very ingenious, especially the Barricade Zone. It really is one of the coolest levels in the game and shows a bit more creativity than most games when they try to make an R-Type inspired level. The overseas arcade version allows two player simultaneous play and resurrects players where they die, rather than sending back to a checkpoint. There are eight levels altogether.
In addition to the original arcade release, Zero Wing was ported to the Mega Drive and PC Engine CD. Toaplan developed both of these versions, though the PC Engine version was published by Naxat. The home versions are quite a bit easier, and while they only grant limited credits, you probably won’t need most of them. Graphically they’re all pretty similar, though the PC Engine version adds some extra layers of scrolling and occasionally changes some background graphics. The arcade version annoyingly flashes red whenever ever enemies are killed, which is distracting, to say the least. The Mega Drive soundtrack is very close to the arcade version, using similar FM synth. The PC Engine version uses redbook audio remixes, which don’t quite pack the same punch. The music in general is quite catchy all around, though.
The Mega Drive version is the only one to have the legendary opening cinema featuring CATS. The English version never came out in North America and was only released in Europe, but every single line of its intro is mangled beyond belief, and any sense of drama immediately becomes hilarious. The PC Engine CD version uses its own anime-style cutscenes, and they’re much more boring, sadly, especially considering they don’t feature CATS at all, and instead has its own roster of generic shooter characters.
The other major change to the Mega Drive version lies with the final boss. In the arcade version, you never actually get to beat him, as he always gets away in an escape pod. The game tells you to keeping going after him while the game loops, but it’s never actually possible to defeat him. In the Sega home port, though, he’ll never escape and you can actually get him.
There are also a ton of endings added to this version. There are three variations depending on the difficulty level, all featuring Pipiru, a little purple creature that appears as an easter egg in several of the company’s later games. But if you continue to beat the game, there are additional scenes as CATS delivers various jokes and non-sequiturs (some of which seem to be pop culture references). It’s unlikely that the developers actually expected people to beat the game 30+ times in a row to see all of these, so thankfully you can view them with a cheat code. These are only in the Japanese version, and were removed from the European release, though the original has been fan translated.
Anyway, Zero Wing is a decent shooter with some cool gimmicks, though nothing that quite lives up to the level of other arcade shoot-em-ups. Ultimately Toaplan’s strengths still lied primarily in vertical shooters.