Throughout its history Sega has always envied the classic games the NES was home to and would often try to mimic said classics on the SMS, whether it be Mario (with Alex Kidd), Zelda (Golden Axe Warrior and Golvellius) or Castlevania (Kenseiden and Master of Darkness). Not surprisingly this title takes aim at Nintendo’s adventure classic Metroid and, despite what the lame box art doesn’t suggest, is based on a long-running anime and toy line which supposedly inspired the design for the Light Phaser gun. However instead of simply following the free-form exploration of the afrementioned NES title, Sega instead decided to mix in a little bit of the computer classic Impossible Mission but the combination doesn’t quite go smoothly.
The series centers around the White Knights, a squad of intergalatic freedom fighters waging an ongoing battle with the malevolent Norsa empire, and it especially features one of their members, J.J., the typical anime teenager. This cart finds our heroes looking to bring the Norsas down by landing on their home planet and infiltrating their underground base to discover their plans for domination. Two of the members, Apple and Champ, entered the base first but ended up captured, so you take the role of J.J. and embark on a mission to find your comrades as well as obtain the five floppy disks containing the desired information before destroying the base.
The object is to make your way through the Norsa underground base, searching for your two allies as well as the five disks before locating the central compter to activate the base’s self-destruct. After leaving your ship you reach the first elevator and descend into the base which is a series of interconnected rooms that are linked by elevators and tunnels. The base is crawling with Norsa cyber-soldiers and you’re armed with the Zillion laser gun to blast them. Each one-screen room has a computer terminal and a number of metallic canisters lying around as well as soldiers and other obstacles such as moving floors, electric barriers, gun turrests, invisible sensor beams that will summon more guards and others. Trouble is the entrance to the next room is locked and the only way to open it is to input the four-digit password into the computer, which requires an ID card to operate. So you have to blast open the containers to find an ID card as well as obtain each digit of the password, and the symbols initially look foreign but all of them are mirror images of numbers stuck together. Once you have all four digits you use your ID card to access to computer terminal and input the symbols, which will then open the door or elevator. You then head into the next room where you repeat this procedure, and that’s almost the whole game in a nutshell, just going from room to room looking for numbers to open the doors. There are also a number of other special codes you can input in the terminals to help you out, such as disabling the barriers and gun turrets as well as warping back to your ship when your health gets low, and these are helpfully detailed during the intro as well as in the manual. However using theses codes causes you to lose an ID card, but there are plenty more cards that can be found in the canisters.
As mentioned above your friends Apple and Champ are being held somewhere in the base and once you rescue them you can play as them, with Apple fast but weak while Champ is slow but strong. You can switch between your three characters at any time by accessing the subscreen and thankfully Sega allows this by pushing both buttons on controller 2, which is much easier than solely relying on the PAUSE button on the console. Plus some of the canisters also power-ups such as bread to restore your health, the scope to reveal invisible alarm beams, Zillion icons to increase your weapon’s firepower and even Opa-Opa from Fantasy Zone makes a cameo appearence as his symbols will increase your characters’ level, giving you more health and jumping power. When you do finally find the five floppy disks as well as the red ID card you must locate the main computer and input the self-destruct command. Then you have 300 seconds to escape from the base but first you have to fight an endboss, a robot dragon-type monster that’s blocking the exit, fortunately it’s not too difficult to defeat. After which you have to race back through the base to your ship (you can’t just use the warp code, unfortunately) and take off before the base explodes.
This game is enjoyable but also proves to be very repetitive since you mainly do the same thing over and over, just searching rooms for codes, with none of the exciting exploration found in Metroid to back it up. Also once you’re powered-up you have to do quite a bit of backtracking to open the containers you couldn’t before, and unless you make a really good map of the game you might find your getting lost quite easily. Plus the difficulty is on the high side due to some unnecessary frustrations. Sega once again flips the standard platform controller layout, meaning you’re again using button 1 to jump and button 2 to shoot instead of the “normal” way. Not only that jumping is sluggish as your character has to squat down for a second before leaping for some reason, and that slight delay can leave you vunerable to hits. Other annoyances include the inabaility to fire upward or diagonally, and getting hit pushes you backward, often off the screen or into an obstacle. You can return to your ship to heal up using the handy warp command but there’s warp back to your previous location; you have to take the long way back, suffering damage once again. In addition you have to complete the entire game in one sitting as there’s no game save feature, so you better have a few hours of free time available to play from start to end. Not to mention you only have three continues, after which the game ends with a taunting message from the Norsa leader.
At least the presentation is pretty nice, especially with the visuals and audio. Plenty of bright colors are used throughout the game, the characters are large and well detailed and animated, plus the backgrounds are cool, especially the menacing red walls midway through the game. The portraits during the brief cutscenes and the subscreen are also nicely illustrated. There’s only a few background tunes and you’ll hear the same main theme throughout the game, which would get irritating except that it’s pretty catchy and fun to listen to. The sound effects range from nice, such as the laser fire and explosions, to weak blips when you take damage.
So the bottom line is Zillion isn’t a bad title, but it’s not the classic some make it out to be. The tedious gameplay and control issues will drive many gamers insane, but the game still has its positives as well, and those willing to put up with the frustration will find a nice way to occupy their time. Zillion may entertain but still falls well short of being the Metroid-killer Sega was hoping for.