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Fantasy Zone II Review

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Not too long ago I finally managed to snatch up a gem. It’s probably no surprise that this is a gem. In fact, if you have a means to play this one, you should probably stop reading, and go buy this right now. It really is all of the good things you’ve heard. It will please Golden Age fans. It will please shmup fans. It will please hardcore SEGA fans. If you dig video games at all, period. You’ll probably dig this game.

PROS: Colorful graphics. Great characters. Wonderful music. Pure joy.

CONS: Very difficult. But don’t let that stop you.

CONTROL STICK: You’ll want to use this (Or a Genesis Arcade Stick) over the stock pad.

Fantasy Zone II is the sequel to Fantasy Zone, a game I have yet to acquire on the mighty Sega Master System. It’s regarded as one of the earliest examples of a cute ’em up. A shoot ’em up where everything is bright, cheery, colorful, and cartoonish in aesthetics. You’ll notice this the second you see the title screen. Your ship, the Opa-Opa is a cute little pod with bird wings on it. Enemies are everything from flowers to flying turtles.

The game is a mixture of both Golden Age arcade shooter conventions, and the side scrolling shooter arcade games that followed. Every level sees you going along a backdrop that continually circles around itself. Basically, you’ll spend a ton of time blasting enemies with your lasers, and bombs. One button shoots the laser guns, the other drops the bombs. So you’ll cycle along the play field killing enemies, and then collecting the money they drop upon their deaths. Before long, you’ll discover some of the larger stationary enemies will open warp doors. These doors will take you to new sub-levels that basically work the same way. Every level has a store hidden within it too. Here you can upgrade your ship with new weapons, and abilities with the money you’ve collected.

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Once you’ve defeated every stationary enemy in the level, the door to the boss room opens up to you. Ideally, you’ll want to enter these encounters fully beefed up with extra power ups, and weapons. Because the boss encounters are where the game gets very challenging, very quickly. That isn’t to say the levels themselves don’t get difficult. They do. In a lot of ways they feel like an even harder version of Defender. Defender is a notoriously difficult arcade game. As every board just throws more, and more at you as you play. Fantasy Zone II, also does this. But on top of that, every enemy has its own attack pattern, and often times you’ll find yourself going after three or four enemy types at the exact same time.

The other major element of difficulty is in the power up system. Many of the upgraded lasers, and other items are timed, or give you a limited number of shots. So if you don’t hurry up, or you waste them on low-level grunts, you won’t have the extra might for the boss encounter. Moreover, if you lose a life, you’ll also lose any powers you purchased from the shop. Which means you’d better spend another ten minutes grinding money out of grunts so you can re-buy those power ups before fighting the boss.

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Here’s the crazy thing though. While all of this sounds like the kind of thing that would make you rip your hair out, and smash your Master System, it won’t. This game is quite honestly one of the hardest games you’ll ever play. Well unless you happen to eat, sleep, and breathe shmups. Then it may not crack your top ten. But for the rest of us, this game can be downright brutal. But it’s also downright compelling. Just like Defender did for so many of us growing up, Fantasy Zone II can be very addicting. Quite frankly, it is one of the most fun games ever. True, you’ll die, over, and over again. But you’ll probably play it fifteen times before giving up, and playing something else. Considering you’ll get better the more you play, that can add up to a couple of hours a session.

And as you improve, you’ll get to see more of the aforementioned boss encounters. Which just seem to add more craziness to the stew with every reveal. You’ll fight a killer space log in the first stage. Later in the game you’ll see the dragon boss from Space Harrier. There’s also a Mega Man styled boss rush for you to contend with at the end.

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As tough as this all sounds, things can be mitigated if you have the right tools for the job. Namely, a better option than the Master System’s stock game pad. I recommend using either a Genesis game pad, the Sega Control stick, or one of the arcade stick controllers that came out for the Genesis. It makes things much easier to play, as the stock pad’s D-pad just doesn’t have the precision required. Beyond control issues with the stock controller, I really don’t have much to complain about. Again, there is a high difficulty on display, but it’s also fair. When you die, you’ll know it was a lack of talent on your part nine times out of ten. It’s very rare, I’ve felt a death was cheap, or a fluke. I don’t think I ever ran into severe slowdown the way I have in some other games on the console either.

One of the other really great things about Fantasy Zone II is the soundtrack. These are some of the addictive chip tunes ever played back on the Sega Master System. If you have a modified console with the FM Sound Unit, or the Japanese Mark III with the FM Sound Unit accessory the soundtrack is even better.

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Fantasy Zone II isn’t the cheapest game you can find for your Master System these days, but it’s worth tracking down a copy. It isn’t anywhere near the cost of something like Power Strike (Aleste). But it’s going to cost you more than something common like Out Run, or After Burner will. If you don’t own a Master System, or a Mark III, or a Power Base Converter for your Genesis, there are alternatives. The game was ported to the Famicom, MSX Computer, and was also re-released on the Wii Virtual Console. If you have a PlayStation 2, there was a remake as part of the Sega Ages line. Sega also updated the game, and released it to the Arcades. Subsequently there is a version based loosely on that version for the 3DS. Fantasy Zone II comes highly recommended.  If you’re building a vintage Sega collection, or you just love old school arcade games this should be on your radar.

Final Score: 9 out of 10.

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Sin & Punishment Review

Treasure. A developer long known for cult favorites, was one of the kings of shmups. Unsung kings. By the time the Super NES, and Genesis came around, everyone knew of heavy hitters. Gradius. R-Type. Raiden. Contra. But Treasure put out many great games that were under the radar at release, but became sought after later. Nowhere was this more true than on the Genesis. Gunstar Heroes, Dynamite Headdy, and Alien Soldier went on to be cult classics. Even today they’re popular enough that a loose copy of Gunstar Heroes goes for as much as a newly shrink wrapped release. After the Genesis, Treasure would make games for Saturn, Dreamcast, and even Sega’s rival Nintendo. Sin & Punishment is not only one of the best rail shooters on the Nintendo 64, it’s one of the best you will ever play.

PROS: Fast, smooth game play. High, rewarding challenge.

CONS: Difficulty may turn off some.

MOD: It was a Japanese only release. But it is on the US Wii Shop Channel.

Sin & Punishment never made it outside of Japan. It was released in 2000 at the very end of the Nintendo 64’s lifespan. Though acclaimed, Nintendo never brought it to North America. It was intended to be released here, but due to the Nintendo 64’s decline by that point it wasn’t. If you’re really worried you won’t be able to navigate the game, you shouldn’t fret. You don’t have to know a single word of Japanese. Though you may have to experiment with the main menus to get into the game. Something that takes all of five minutes. Similar to the Super NES, The Nintendo 64 also had different tab placements in the system to prevent games being inserted from other regions. If you don’t mind tinkering with some pliers, you can remove them. This will make your N64 capable of running imported cartridges.

For those unwilling, or unable to mod their console, you can also use a Game shark as a pass through device. Or if you don’t want to go through those steps, and you own a Wii, there’s another option. As of this writing Nintendo’s Wii Shop Channel is still around. While you may not be able to play Wii games online, you can still buy them. The Virtual Console section is no exception. So you can skip all of the importing, and modifying should you desire.Be aware though, if you choose to play the game on the Wii (or Wii U in Wii mode), you will need to invest in a classic controller attachment if you haven’t already.

With the lengthy introduction out of the way, I’ll talk about the game. Sin & Punishment takes place in a dystopian future. There is widespread famine, and so new creatures are cultivated for food in Japan. But the creatures mutate into deadlier beings before turning on the populace. A military group called the Armed Volunteers steps in to fight the creatures, as well as another one called the Saviors. The Saviors oppose both the creatures, and the Armed Volunteers. The setup starts out like a standard action movie, but things become more, and more bizarre as you play through the campaign. The three main characters are Aichi, Airan, and Saki. Throughout the game there are in-game cut scenes that give a bit of back story for the characters, and why they’re fighting the Armed Volunteers. Without giving anything away, there is an ulterior plot that is uncovered later. Things do get pretty strange. It isn’t a deep story, but it is an entertaining one for an entertaining game.

As for the game itself, it is an on rails shooter like Star Fox. Through most of the game you’ll be dodging obstacles, and a lot of projectiles while you fire a seemingly endless barrage of fire. There are a wide variety of enemies too. Giant monsters, hundreds of soldiers, ships, tanks, and other vehicles. The best part of all of this is just how brisk, and smooth the game runs. There are only a few moments of any slowdown during a play through. The Bosses are the main attraction in these kinds of games, and Sin & Punishment’s are definitely a big deal. Nearly every stage has a couple of boss fights. Just when you think you’ve conquered a level, you’ll find out you haven’t. Best of all,the game does this without it feeling like padding. In the end it feels like just about the right amount of time. Throughout the game you get to use three main attacks. There is a gun, that has two modes. A free aim mode that does higher damage, and a lock on mode. Locking on is almost like auto-aim in a first person shooter. It makes the game a little bit easier, but it also does a lot less damage to targets. The third attack is a melee attack. If an enemy gets too close, you can double tap the trigger to stab at them.

Environments look pretty nice too when compared to most other games on the Nintendo 64. Textures seem a little bit better quality than in a number of other games, and there are a wider variety of settings. Each stage has its own particular settings, and themes. When you start the game you’re in wheat fields, with tree trunks. Soon you’re in a city. Then under the ocean, a military installation, and even space. While these are almost action game tropes, They’re all done with a unique flair. Some of the special effects are really cool too. There are great uses of colors, and translucent effects.  The main drawback here though is that the models are fairly rudimentary. This was probably to keep the frame rate up to the speed the game play requires. Fortunately the wonderful texture work compensates a lot. It is definitely not an ugly game. Sin & Punishment also has some of the best sound on the console. Voice samples come in pretty clear, explosions, lasers, and pretty much every other sound are great. The music even complements the action very well. It all blends together to make for a great experience.

It isn’t a very long game either. If you’re really good you can beat it in a couple of hours. But rail shooters don’t generally lend themselves to long experiences either. They hearken back to the glory days of arcades, where shorter but more exhilarating experiences prevailed. They are also very difficult which this game certainly is. You can expect to die, and continue many, many times. Even on the easiest setting, you can find yourself running out of continues, and starting all over again. But again, such is the nature of this type of game. The high challenge will make the determined want to keep playing, and the really good trying to beat their time. If the thought of frustration turns you off it might not sound like your cup of tea. But most of the time the game is fair. Most importantly, the game is fun.

Sin & Punishment can certainly sound like an exclusive experience, intended only for fans of the genre. But don’t let that stop you from giving it a try. The strange story, characters, and dialogue are worth seeing, and they’re built upon a really good arcade shooter. Save for a couple of minor nitpicks over models, and a couple of cheap deaths it’s one of the best games in the Nintendo 64 library.

Final Score: 9 out of 10