We’ve finally returned to the cartridge titles and I’ve decided to take a look at one of Sega’s iconic titles. In the mid-1980 there were no shortage of arcade shoot-em-ups, and with a sea of shmups to choose from it’s hard for any one title to stand out without some sort of gimmick. Sega probably knew that when they released this title in the arcades, which borrows heavily from William’s classic Defender but presents a cute, cartoonish twist on the genre. It also introduces us to Opa-Opa, a sentient egg-shaped ship with wings who served as one of Sega’s earliest mascots (and you and probably tell how that worked out). After its run in the arcades Fantasy Zone made its way to the Master System, but also appeared on the TurboGrafx-16 and an unlicensed cartridge for the NES. But this post will see how the SMS version plays out.
As mention above you control Opa-Opa who’s out to stop an alien force from invading his fantasy world by beating them back through 8 psychedelic stages. The action is mostly your standard shooter stuff as you fly to the left or the right (the levels wrap around) blasting the strange creatures that come your way and Opa-Opa is armed with standard twin guns and an unlimited supply of bombs that do more damage but are harder to use. Each baddie you zap earns you points and also drops money that you can collect. Every so often a STORE icon will appear, allowing you to use your money to purchase upgrades such as better engines and wings for faster maneuverability, more powerful bombs and cool special weapons including lasers and 7-way shots. Once you leave the store you have the option to choose which of your upgrades to equip, however many of the special weapons have time limits which begin as you leave the screen, not giving you very long to enjoy your more potent offense. As you’re clearing out the foes, your main targets are the large enemy generators scattered throughout the level that you must eliminate and they take several shots before biting it. Once you destroy enough of the generators you must face off against a gigantic boss creature and defeat it before you can proceed to the next stage. In the last stage you have to fight all the bosses again before taking on the final challenge and learning who the true leader of the invaders are.
This cart does a good-enough job of emulating the arcade original, even with a few expected shortcomings and omissions compared to the original hardware. The graphics don’t quite match the coin-op visuals but are still vibrant and coloful with some nicely-designed far-out stages and good details and animation for the characters. The large bosses are especially well done, though the game switches to a plain single-colored background for the boss battles possibly due to memory restrictions. Likewise the music isn’t quite as good as the cool background tunes from the arcade version but they still work for each setting and are pretty catchy as well.
The somewhat-ironic thing is this game’s cute atmosphere belies the fact that difficulty level is quite brutal. The first few levels aren’t too bad but then the challenege level spikes as enemies and projectiles start coming at you fast and furious requiring some fast dodging and fancy shooting. Fortunately the controls are simple enough and work well after some practice, though they can be tricky at times, especially if you change direction and have to deal with the shifting scrolling. Also the arcade version had a radar to point out where the generators are, and they in turn had damage indicators to show how close you were to blasting them, but neither item is found here making it hard to tell how close you are to fulfilling your goal in each level.
But there are a number of issues that can really make this game an exercise in frustration. Once you buy your upgrades at the shop you can only equip them there, and with the shop usually only appearing at the beginning of each level odds are you’ll burn through your special weapon long before you reach the boss where you really need them, especially the infamous snowman boss. Your only real chance is to buy mutiple weapons then somehow find the rare SEL(ect) icon which lets you switch out your shooters. The only other option is to save up enough money to buy all four engines/wings to give you unlimited weapon time for that life only. Speaking of which you die after just one hit from anything, not to mention you lose all the upgrades you’ve stockpled, even the ones you haven’t used yet. Not only that there’s no continues once you lose your last life, forcing you to start from scratch once you get the big game over.
But even with the extreme difficulty, Fantasy Zone still manages to be a worthwhile experience for the Master System. There’s plenty of fun shooting action and while the frustration can be overwhelming, it’s addictive enough to keep you coming back for more and its charm and uniqueness also manages to hook you. Granted the sequel does fix a number of issues, but this first entry is still a very good choice for Sega shooter fans, and proves to be the best game of the 1986 catalog.