Metroid is one of the darkest, loneliest games ever to have been produced. You take a small, awkwardly colored figure and guide it through unending black corridors, a senile creation that would confuse and scare gamers for decades. Of course, everything that Nintendo did, Sega would try to mimic. Nintendo had Super Mario Bros., Sega had Alex Kidd. Nintendo had Zelda, Sega had Golvellius and Golden Axe Warrior. Nintendo had Castlevania, Sega had Kenseiden and Vampire: Master of Darkness. And so it continued. Zillion may or may not have been directly inspired by Gumpei Yokoi space-crawling masterpiece, but it was initially meant to be a product tie-in to a Japanese laser tag game. (Remember Captain Power? Like that.) The fact that the gun in Zillion looked just like the Light Phaser (Sega's answer to the Zapper) was no coincidence.
Zillion (prefaced with "Akai Koudan" in Japan - it means "Red Photon") opens with a large-eyed chap with a bowl haircut pointing a gun right in your face. It is only perhaps two, maybe three seconds since you powered on the Master System, and the game is already threatening your life. That stern yet polite anime fellow is the Hero, J.J, whom you'll be controlling through a good portion of the game. After a quick briefing by your omniscient commander, you're off to infiltrate some base of some evil bad guys who don't have faces. You begin on the surface of the bright green alien world. Charge forward and you'll find the entrance to the base. Turn around and you'll find the mother ship. Inside a cute little green haired girl who wishes you luck and recharges your energy.
Zillion defies the traditional button mapping conventions by reversing the "jump" and "shoot" buttons. Your characters jump with an awkward squat and a strange spring noise. Your Zillion gun fires a two-color projectile that travels approximately half of the length of the screen before dissipating. This is pretty standard procedure as far as video games go, but the power of your shots is amplified, seeing that your gun has one of the most incredibly awesome sound effects ever to be produced by the Master System's tinny PSG synth. Seriously, it's so powerful that it causes half of the instruments in the music track to just plain stop, a dramatic after-effect accidentally achieved due to technical limitations. When your laser beams connects, the tall, lanky Norsa soldiers explode in a fiery blaze, with an exaggerated sound that would suggest a minor apocalypse. You're destroying whole worlds every time you pull the trigger. It is pretty cool.
While Metroid begins with the triumphant "Brinstar" theme, it quickly switches gears into oppressive territory in each new stage. Zillion maintains the same upbeat tune throughout the entire game. This would be irritating, if it weren't one of the catchiest pieces of music to come from the 8-bit era. Like the pleasant graphics, its peppiness betrays the menace that the game subtly exudes.
Zillion displays itself screen by screen. The early stages are a friendly light blue, the type of color that brings to mind a clear summer day or a baby's bedroom. Except things are trying to kill you. Lots of them. Later levels are painted in a shade of red that is designed to both scare and anger. This was the same 8-bit hell as Norfair was, except with twice the color palette and bigger sprites. Hitting the pause button (annoyingly placed on the system itself, rather than on the control pad) will bring up the status menu, along with a shy portrait of J.J. As you explore, you'll eventually find your comrades Apple and Champ, whose yearbook pictures also show up on this screen. t almost feels a little too friendly. Highlight them, and they can be brought into action, each with their own statistics. Apple is fast but weak. Champ is slow but strong. Both can be upgraded by finding little Opa Opa symbols hidden throughout the base.
Unlike most fortresses in video gaming, where the hero can simply open the front door and waltz right through, each and every door in the Norsa HQ is locked. While it's apparent that they value security, they are also stupid enough to leave the codes lying around in what appear to be trash cans. Breaking a can will reveal one of the codes, which you are then expected to memorize. Each time you unveil a new code, you stick them on the queue in your brain, repeating them over and over to yourself. The game is only occasionally a war between JJ and pals versus robot soldiers - more often, it's a battle of short term memory (yeah, you could write them down, but that's the lazy way out.) The symbols initially look foreign, but nearly all of them are mirror images of numbers, stuck together like Siamese twins. Luckily, once you've cleared a room and opened the door, there's no need to remember anything else, until you're on to the next room. Each room has its unique structure, even though there are only a few tilesets. There is a map screen, but it's just a pointless grid that teases you with the prospect of organization. Ultimately, remembering your way around with landmarks isn't too obnoxiously difficult.
You see, Metroid scares you because it feels like there's no order to the level design, even though there is. Zillion, on the other hand, simply pressures you to move, and move quickly. There's no time limit - however, there isn't a password or save system either. The game must be played from start to finish every time you turn on the power, and that takes maybe two or three hours, depending on how well you know your way around. Dedicating an afternoon to this game is definitely suggested. Zillion is a race against the real world, and it loses a lot of its impact on emulators, where stopping the world is as easy as hitting the save state button. (For extra fun, grab a Master Gear and play it in a Game Gear - it becomes a race against six quickly draining AA batteries.)
The intensity kicks into high gear once you find all five floppy disks and reach the central computer, and are expected to escape through the entire complex before it explodes. Hopefully you've become intimately familiar with the layout by now - you'll need it to trace a path all of the back to the entrance. Continues are preciously limited - fail here, and that's it. Ninja Gaiden thought it was being sneaky by launching you back to the beginning of the final stage if you were killed at the final boss. Screw up more than a few times, and the Norsa leader (whom you never actually get to fight) simply taunts you, and it's back to the title screen. All of your progress is wiped forever from the meager RAM of the Sega Master System. Naturally, this kind of finality isn't likely to win it many fans in this day and age. But then again, its sluggish jumping controls or repetitive trash-can scavenging won't appeal to many people either. It's a throwback, and the challenges do feel a little artificial. But it's the sort of game that makes you glad that Nintendo exists, if only so Sega could show up and try to do them one better.
Even though Zillion was the closest Sega ever came to creating a Metroid clone, it's not quite the same game. It actually draws a lot from Epyx's computer classic Impossible Mission. The color scheme and the elevator shafts of Zillion bear more than a passing resemblance, and both games feature computer terminals that can used to deactivate traps in each room. Sega obviously took the concept and elaborated on it, but its method of progression is more closely similar to Metroid, since Impossible Mission is fairly non-linear. You also couldn't attack in Impossible Mission, while you can in Zillion - this obviously makes a huge difference.
Zillion II (simply called Tri-Formation in Japan) begins, much like most video games, with a title screen. Unfortunately it's about here that everything goes downhill. The first problem is the screen that says "Round 1".
What? Zillion isn't supposed to have rounds? It's an adventure game, right? right?
Once the game begins, you can tell things are immediately wrong by looking at the status bar. First off, your life is now represented by an energy bar. The original Zillion displayed hit points in numerical form. Why? It makes you feel smarter. It's saying, you're smart enough to comprehend mathematics without the need for a visual representation. It's saying, we're a fancy-pants RPG, because we have statistics. Pretentious, perhaps.
And then there's the score meter. (What for? Those would only matter in arcade-style games.) And the remaining lives left. (Huh? Once you were dead in Zillion, you were dead, not counting the scant number of continues.) What does this all mean? Essentially, Zillion II is a completely different game than its predecessor. What was once a terrifying venture in the cold, steel heart of evil became a mere romp in gunplay and platforming. And not a particularly notable one at that.
The first stage, and all odd-number stages thereafter, feature J.J. riding on the Tri-Formation, a futuristic motorcycle/robot thing. These levels are auto-scrolling, so they kind of feel like a combination between a shooter and platformer, as you're constantly jumping over pits and laser spikes and whatnot. There are power-ups to pick up that regenerate health (marked "L") and strengthen your gun (marked "Z".) Grab the one that says "A" and you'll turn into the robot. This thing is called the "Armorator". I swear to God I am not making this up.
The even numbered levels are side-scrolling endeavors that might resemble the original game, but are relegated to straight walking, jumping, and shooting. There are some pits to jump over and that's about it. The graphic designers picked some of the worst colors in existence, because what evil overlord would pick green as the interior of its base? Like, pea green. It's really quite nauseous.
The game goes out of its way to taunt you. Apple and Champ have once again been kidnapped, but upon rescuing them, do they say anything? Do they help? Well, no, they just kinda disappear when you touch them, and only barely appear thereafter. They can be called to take your place momentarily in the vehicle levels, but that's the extent of it.
Zillion II, from the point of view of someone who loved the original, is a disaster. From someone else's eyes, the best you can say is that it's probably inoffensive. One could only guess how this happened. Zillion was a toy, with a tie-in cartoon designed to sell more toys. Its first game was one of the best games the Sega Master System had, but it was far too complicated to kids to really appreciate, and it certainly wouldn't sell any transforming motorcycles. Maybe the honest fact was that the brilliance of the original game was a mere fluke, and this was the game the suits over at Tatsunoko Animation really wanted Sega to make.
Zillion had well over thirty episodes in Japan, but only five of them (plus a extra-long special called Burning Night) were translated into English by Streamline Pictures. Some of the music used in the games is actually from the anime, complete with cheesy 80s synth and wailing Japanese vocals. The biggest disappointment is that J.J., one of many gamer's childhood heroes, is a moronic goofball, a failure who only runs with the White Knights so he could provide comic relief. In addition to fighting the Norsa empire, they also play in a band called The White Nuts, a particularly large bit of Japanese/English mangling. Seeing all of these characters animated makes for some decent fun, and Opa Opa from Fantasy Zone makes more than a few appearances. The tapes are kinda hard to find, but they show up on eBay every once in awhile, and can also be found on Youtube.