When people think of Genesis games that pushed the technical limits, most probably think of games like Gunstar Heroes, Dynamite Headdy, or Sonic 3D Blast. But many have probably not heard of Zyrinx, a game developer composed entirely of veterans from the Amiga demo scene from the late 80's. Given their expertise with the Amiga, they were able to harness the power of the Sega Genesis due to the similar hardware structure (especially the Motorola CPU). Although they never released any 32X games, they did create a very impressive demo that showed off what could've been done with Sega's add-on, had they not killed it so early. In addition to their technical prowess, they're also known for creating incredibly difficult games.
There are a number of notable figures within Zyrinx, including musician Jesper Kyd, who would later compose the soundtracks for all four Hitman games and win several awards. In fact, a number of Zyrinx's employees were later formed into IO Interactive, the creator of the Hitman series. Most of Zyrinx's games were published by a company called Scavenger, Inc. in Europe, which faded into nothingness around the same time that Zyrinx itself dissolved. Scavenger's name does still appear in the regional releases starting with Scorcher, and is also the only name seen in Amok. Zyrinx is often cited with the creation of the impressive Genesis first person shooter Zero Tolerance, although it was actually created by a studio called Technopop.
Sub-Terrania / Subterrania - Genesis (1993)
American Genesis Cover
A mining colony has been attacked by an unknown alien race, and humanity's last hope is a skilled pilot in a prototype attack craft. It's your task for fly through 10 missions and complete mission objectives for the good of mankind.
Sub-Terrania plays like a very advanced version of the classic computer game Thrust - maneuvering your ship involves rotating and pressing the B button to thrust forward. You can also thrust backward, if need be. The thing is, though, your ship has a very limited supply of fuel and can only thrust for a little under a minute before needing a refill. If you happen to run out of fuel, your ship loses control and plummets toward the ground. Gravity is your enemy, and you're also working against the very laws of physics here - your ship is constantly drifting downwards, and if you don't land in just the right way, your ship will bounce off the ground and take a little bit of damage. And shield recharges are hard to come by.
Your mission objectives typically include rescuing prisoners of war, Choplifter-style. There will usually be some enemies around, so you'll need to watch your fire as you battle them or else risk killing them. If too many POW's get killed by your careless bullet-spraying antics, you'll have to return to base to "re-establish" the mission (i.e. respawn the POW's). As far as I can tell, there's no real penalty for that, aside from wasting fuel by having to fly all the way back to base. In most of the levels, there is a Sub-Module that you'll need to collect as well. According to the game, you need at least six of them to be able to enter the underwater levels - this seems to just be a plot device, as the submodules are otherwise useless.
A neat concept in Sub-Terrania is that completing missions isn't always about blowing crap up. Mission 3, for example, requires you to destroy a commandeered mining laser, but it's contained behind a shield and is impervious to nearly all attacks. So you'll need to use an array of mirrors, carried by your ship's tow hook (which makes it much harder to fly), to use the laser against itself - by first destroying a wall leading to its shield generator, and then using one last mirror to reflect the laser's blast right back at itself. It's really tricky to pull off, and is probably one of the most fun missions in the game.
At the time of its release, many magazines that reviewed Sub-Terrania criticized it for its often punishing difficulty level. And they're mostly right - the game is quite difficult, requiring you to master the game's physics and memorize the best routes through the missions in order to optimize your fuel usage. But it's not quite as difficult as, say, a Contra game.
Technically speaking, the visuals aren't too advanced, but this is mostly due to the fact that Zyrinx did not actually possess an official Sega development kit when they created it. Rather, they hacked together their own - which worked well enough for them to have a mostly-polished product once the time came to submit their work to Sega for approval. Even in spite of this, the game looks fantastic by Genesis standards, especially the terrain. The collision detection is superb, and everything controls very tightly.
The best part of Sub-Terrania, though, is the soundtrack. Composed by Jesper Kyd, the musical score pounds out some impressive music from the Genesis' FM hardware. Pretty much every song in the game is in excess of five minutes long, and is great for listening to outside of the game if you're into stuff like Juno Reactor.
A country called Zyristan (ha ha, great pun, guys) has fallen victim to a military takeover lead by former colonel Ivan Retovitz, who as rumor has it, possesses huge nuclear weapons depots. The news agencies catch wind of this, and soon the UN gathers to discuss what should be done. Then, without warning, Zyristan invades a small country nearby, bombing villages without mercy and killing thousands of civilians. Retovitz issues a territorial claim on two more countries, giving his nuclear ultimatum to any country that dares to oppose him, allowing 24 hours to meet his demands or else meet nuclear terror. And so, the UN's best military commanders decide to send in a single helicopter with one of three skilled pilots on what is called Operation Red Zone - the objective: disable Zyristan's nuclear capabilities and lead a full-on infantry assault.
Red Zone is an insanely difficult game, but it's very impressive. Piloting your chopper is much like in Electronic Arts' popular Desert / Jungle / Urban Strike series, except instead of being an isometric perspective, the top-down camera actually rotates with your chopper, which not only looks insanely cool, but also makes it much easier to aim than in the Strike games. The intro even brags about all of the insane effects they're implemented, in addition to the scaling and rotation, which were previously only thought possible on the SNES. There's tons of pseudo-3D effects on things like trees, towers, and walls; and there's even a form of full-motion video in the introduction and game over screens, which features angry dictators and all kinds of vehicles of war like tanks, submarines, jets and missiles. All of this fanciness comes with some compromises, naturally - most of the game is very visually sparse and incredibly dark, and the full motion videos comprises of single color shadows over a red background. But damn, is it impressive.
All fancy effects aside, your chopper is equipped with a minigun, Stinger missiles for airborne targets, Hellfire missiles for other targets, and Rockets for rapid-fire at pretty much anything. All of your ammo is limited, but you can land at specific points to repair and refit the chopper. The chopper's damage level is represented as a graph in the lower right portion of the screen, but it's not just to remind you that you're a hit away from blowing up. Specific parts of your chopper will become damaged, so that weapons become unusable, and your chopper becomes more difficult to pilot - sometimes the rear rotor will be damaged, causing your chopper to spin in circles if left unchecked. Like Sub-Terrania, the missions are varied and interesting, but in this case, each mission takes place in the same general area, and where you land in one mission is exactly where you'll start in the next.
In addition to chopper combat, Red Zone also has a series of overhead on-foot stages. These are a little bit more straightforward, involving running through bunkers and killing soldiers, while being careful to prevent alarms. These portions of the game generally take a back-seat to the helicopter action, but they're a welcome diversion.
One thing about Red Zone, though, is that the difficulty level is absolutely lethal. You only get one life for your chopper (with no continues), and once it's destroyed, nuclear winter takes place in a very chilling game over sequence. For the on-foot sequences, you can choose between three different soldiers with unique weapon loadouts, but if one dies, they're gone for good and you'll have to make do with the others. Thankfully, unlike Sub-Terrania, there is a password system that can be used to skip to specific missions. And then there's the Jesper Kyd soundtrack, which is similar in style to his previous Sub-Terrania soundtrack, and is every bit as awesome. So while this is a monumentally impressive game from a technical standpoint, the difficulty will likely put off all but the most devoted players.
Zyrinx's first Saturn game is a futuristic racing game in the vein of Wipeout or F-Zero. Here, you control one of four hovercraft in an effort to obtain victory. Things seem to work a bit differently from other racing games. Your hovercraft is equipped with a booster and a jumper, each having a limited capacity. You can boost to incredible speeds, but only if you have enough booster fuel, which can be increased by picking up the green pyramids on the tracks. The jumper allows your hovercraft to hop small gaps and potholes, or ascend to higher roads to obtain bonuses or shortcuts, but you can only jump so many times before needing to replenish your jumper fuel, by collecting the blue pyramids. Thankfully, none of the computer racers can pick up these pyramids.
There are also hidden booster strips on the tracks, but you can't see or use them without first rolling over its enabler switch (a silver triangle on top of a green square). Then the boost arrows appear, and if you can drive over all of them, you're going to go very, very, very fast. Just be careful not to fall off the track, or you'll respawn in fourth place.
The hovercraft controls are not especially responsive, with rather poor acceleration - if you're not going fast enough up a hill (i.e. if you respawned), you're going to roll backwards a bit before your throttle picks up enough to carry you up. This can be alleviated with booster, but only if you already have some (thankfully the game seems to give you just a small portion whenever you fall off the track). Turning controls are also have a strange curve to them, in that you're either not turning hard enough (with just the D-pad) or turning too hard (with the shoulder buttons). It takes finesse to be able to control well, but it's not impossible.
The graphics are quite impressive for a Saturn game, being rendered in full 3D at a solid framerate. The game is rather dark, though, as if every race takes place in a pitch-black void and everybody has their headlights on. This is probably done to mask the low draw distance. Jesper Kyd once again provides the soundtrack, and the result isn't really as impressive as his previous works. Some tracks actually get downright annoying, but again, if you're into Juno Reactor then this should be no problem for you.
Scorcher was available for the PC first, containing two seperate versions of the game, for DOS and Windows respectively. Mere months later, the Saturn version was released, and was more or less identical to the PC versions, although the PC version was capable of running in high resolutions that the Saturn was obviously not capable of.
Two corporations engaged in a bitter war agree to engage in an uneasy truce. A mercenary company doesn't like this, though, so they send you - a pilot named Gert Staun - to do whatever is needed to start the war again.
Amok is technically made by Lemon, another development team of Scavenger, but it shares some commonalities with Zyrinx's work. It's is a third-person mech game in which the task is, essentially, to blow crap up. But you have to blow crap up in a specific fashion, because as with Zyrinx's first two games, there are mission objectives that must be completed. Your mech can also transform into a submarine for a few levels, but most of the game is spent as a mech, firing your lasers and missiles at enemy soldiers and buildings.
The gameplay style of Amok more closely resembles that of Red Zone, but the game does have its own little touches. Instead of needing to switch weapons, you merely have to press a different button to fire either your default laser cannon (which can be upgraded to fire faster for a certain number of shots), missiles, throw bombs, or launch heavy missiles. Annoyingly, though, you have to hold the C button to run faster, which makes it difficult to circle-strafe enemies effectively while also firing at them. The game has two different control schemes, but the only difference between the two is that the left and right directions are switched with the shoulder buttons, Mega Man Legends style, so that the D-pad is used to strafe and the shoulder buttons are used to turn.
The developers once again show their demoscene experience. The terrain is comprised of voxels, similar to PC games like Comanche: Maximum Overkill. What this means to the end user: the terrain is nice and smooth with nary an impact on the Saturn's performance. The ground looks a little blocky sometimes, but there are some mighty awesome craters and other things in the ground that just wouldn't be possible on a Saturn if they were made with polygons. And, yet again, Jesper Kyd makes an appearance, with a soundtrack more reminiscent of Sub-Terrania than Scorcher's. It fits fairly well, though the tunes don't feel as memorable as Sub-Terrania's.
Amok saw release on the Saturn, and was later ported to the PC. The usual porting symptoms are here - no joystick or mouse support, clunky menu system, and since the game wasn't originally designed for high-resolution displays, running the game at high resolution results in a scan-lined display with no real benefits. So in essence, if you have to get Amok, get the Saturn version.