The middle months of 1988 can be described as the summer of the Sega sequel as the top (pre-Sonic) franchises all received new entries, each of which we’ll cover in the next few posts. However none of them are direct follow-ups to the originals as you’d might expect as Sega decided to change things up with each of their top names for whatever reason. Case in point is this cartridge which supposedly continues the adventures of our favorite heroic spaceship Opa-Opa. Many Sega gamers enjoyed Fantasy Zones 1 & 2 and were probably hoping for more of the fun psychedelic shooting action of the previous two games, only to discover this next entry is instead a Pac-Man style maze game set in the FZ universe. While The Maze certainly tries it’s hardest to blend two normally unrelated gameplay styles together and appease fans of both sides, the combination doesn’t quite work out they way Sega hoped.
Anyway The Maze consists of seven worlds each consisting of several single-screen mazes, and you can pick which world to start at. You take control of Opa-Opa (while a second player can play as Upa-Upa, his palette-swap brother or something) as he flies through the twisting corridors and open spaces of each maze trying to scoop up all the coins scattered about. However some of Opa-Opa’s familiar foes will constantly emerge from a generator in the center of the screen to harass you so you need to try and avoid them, especially since Opa-Opa starts off unarmed. Fortunately the coins you collect can be used the purchase the weapons and other upgrades that are displayed around each level to give you some much-needed firepower. In addition the generator will slowly build up energy as indicated by a red meter, and once it fully charges more enemies will be spawned for you to deal with unless you periodically fly over the generator to reset its energy. Collect all the dots and it’s off to the next stage for more of the same thing. You do get a short bonus stage after every three levels but nothing really to change things up, not even any of FZ’s famed boss battles.
The game starts off fun, and the simultaneous two-player mode is nice, but some problems quickly drag the game down. For one thing each stage is collecting dots and avoiding/fighting enemies over and over which may be fine for Pac-Man fans but doesn’t jive with the FZ brood. In addition to it’s repetitiveness the game also gets frustrating with a steep difficulty curve as the game starts out hard and gets harder quickly. You can only take one hit before dying and Opa-Opa moves too slowly across the screen (unless you get the big wing upgrade) while the enemies are much faster and can easily overtake you, giving you little hope of evading them especially in the cramped confines of the maze. The weapons do give you a fighting chance but as usual they’re only temporary and even seem pretty weak as multiple hits are needed to blast most creepies. This can be a problem when you’re flying right at an enemy hoping to dust it before you collide, but often times you end up hitting it anyway. The graphics consist mostly of the maze covering up the backgrounds used from the first Fantasy Zone game, and the sprites are decent but nothing eye-popping. The music also tries to sound like the classic Fantasy Zone background tunes but doesn’t quite succeed and sound effects are just there as always.
So FZ: The Maze isn’t a real terrible game and it might entertain fans of old-school 1980s maze games for a time. But this is supposed to be a Fantasy Zone sequel and Pac-Man style action just isn’t what the series is known for. It’s as if Sega really wanted a Pac-Man game for their system but couldn’t get the actual license so they crafted this cart as the next best thing with the FZ characters shoehorned in as an afterthought to try and sell it. FZ fans will be craving for a real sequel, one with the trippy shooting action they live, but even if you ignore FZ’s legacy, the unpolished, repetitive and often frustrating gameplay won’t keep you engaged for very long. Sadly a proper FZ sequel wouldn’t appear until 1992’s Super Fantasy Zone on the Genesis, making this entry a disappointing last chapter in the 8-bit series. It also wouldn’t be the last time Sega dropped their characters into games they don’t belong in for marketing purposes.