Zanac
System: NES Publisher: FCI Developer: Compile
Genre: Action Type: Space Shooter Circa: 1987
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If there's something that I may not have thought possible, it would be to completely master Zanac to the point where I could beat it consistently without continuing. I've owned the game almost as long as I've owned my NES, but could never really get into it. I don't even think I'd ever once been past Level 4 until I recently saw my boyfriend conquer the entire game, and I decided to take up the challenge, too. I struggled with it for quite awhile, but I had an advantage in knowing some of the game's "secrets". After numerous "Game Overs", and multiple uses of a continue code for Areas 11 and 12, I had finally reached the last boss and beaten it. About a week later, I finished the game without continuing, and I've been consistently duplicating that feat each time I've played it since. It's a game that took some time to grow on me.

Zanac may be the single most impressive game ever made for the NES in terms of how well it's programmed. It is basically a vertically-scrolling space shooter, but it features a special AI system that continually affects the game's current difficulty depending on how you play. The more you fire your normal weapon, the higher the AI goes up, which could make Area 1 as difficult as any later level of the game. The AI can be brought back down by defeating bosses, mini-bosses, and certain enemies. Although there are preset enemy patterns in each level, the alterations of the AI can make the experience slightly different each time you play. In this alone, Zanac is a wondrous achievement, but it doesn't end there. The game often scrolls at incredible speeds while the screen fills up with enemies and bullets, and there is absolutely no slowdown and very little flickering of sprites. This is very efficient programming, and it's mind-blowing because, not counting play testers, only three people made this game.


GRAPHICS: 8/10
When thinking about what Zanac looks like, the main thing that comes to mind is how fast it scrolls in some areas. Sometimes the scrolling, coupled with the bright palette choices, is almost headache-inducing for me, but insanely impressive at the same time. The backgrounds consist of unique, single-minded schemes: Crater-pocked planets, trees so dense you can't see through them, bright blue asteroid fields, and alien space stations (most levels alternate the scenery a few times). And even though Zanac predates Tetris by at least a year, it even has a level that appears to be made out of Tetris-style blocks!

Enemies consist mostly of small ships, but even at their miniscule size, they have intricate and often unique designs that fit their behavior. I especially like the small pods that break apart into two shells, releasing three missiles from their inner cavity, and the Metroid-like pulsating jellyfish that block your shots. The mini-bosses, which are large slow-moving ships, that appear in the middle of most stages, have designs that are both functional (an aster-shaped cannon that shoots in all directions) and bizarre (large winged or shielded eyeballs). Stage bosses are all adhered to the ground (much like the very first boss of The Guardian Legend), and consist of tiled cannons and eyeballs. Yes, eyeballs, and lots of them. The first boss, which is more of a teaser than a boss, is just a singular eyeball, but by the time you reach level 4, you'll have seen bosses with more eyeballs than a swarm of bees.


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SOUND: 9/10
Of all of Compile's games that I've played or seen played, I have to say that Zanac's music is the best. Yes, I even like it more than the Guardian Legend's excellent score, although the style is very similar. It lies somewhere between "techno" and "epic", but my favorite piece is the solemn and melodic theme first heard in Area 5. Boss music is menacing, and the final boss's music, composed of strums and electronic beeps, is very interesting. For those who can find the game's Sound Test, there is even an unused theme; perhaps because it's not one of the better songs in the game. But everything that is used is very well-done.
CONTROL: 10/10
Zanac's control is about as perfect as I've ever seen in a shooter. There are no speed-ups involved, but the ship is quick enough to keep up with your reflexes, making it easy to dodge around enemies and between bullets. Like in most shooters, your ship starts out very weak, but can be powered-up by collecting chips that spruce up your main laser weapon.

One advantage you have in Zanac is that you begin with and always have a secondary special weapon. It starts out as an all-range beam that fires in the direction you're moving. It is almost essential to master using this weapon to make it very far in the game, because you're attacked from all sides. However, you can also change this weapon by picking up numbered capsules (a Compile shooter tradition). Some of these weapons are utterly worthless, and some are limited-use only, but others can be very helpful. You can even power these weapons up even further by collecting multiple capsules of the same number. But all weapons have advantages and disadvantages. A fully-powered Number 7 weapon allows you to wipe out almost everything in front of you with ease, but it does no good against enemies that attack from the sides or behind, so you'll still have to be dodging. Zanac's control is simple to learn, but true mastery involves getting the feel for each weapon and figuring out which are the best to use.


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STORY/ATMOSPHERE: 8/10
I'm not one who cares too much about story in space shooters. Looking back over my earlier reviews of shooters, I realize that I said almost the same thing for every one, which, in retrospect, was not the smartest thing to do. But I do care about atmosphere. I've seen and played shooters with boring background and enemy designs. I've seen and played shooters that didn't want to go "over the top" with their ideas. Zanac is not one of them. The alien terrain that you cross is interesting, as are the enemies.

The story in Zanac's manual is rather intriguing as well, and it has the extra benefit of being unintentionally funny, due to poor translation. A long time ago, a super-intelligent alien race created an icon containing a "system" that would give wisdom to those who opened it "properly" (whatever that means.) But someone opened it improperly, and it began attacking and spreading across the entire galaxy. The manual then, unnecessarily, tells us that someone did open it properly afterwards, but the system still continued to grow and attack. The system was designed for fighting large amounts of enemies, but it is theorized that it may not know how to deal with a single ship. (There always has to be an explanation as to why just one ship is used, and this one makes about as much sense as any to me.) Although that dialogue is all relegated to the manual, it's interesting to see how it's implemented in the game. With the way the bosses get more and more elaborate per stage, you get a sense of the system spreading; it's weird to see how it's even growing on an asteroid.


CHALLENGE: 9/10
Stages of Zanac do not have actual "level design". The game is composed entirely of enemy patterns. A level may begin with a fleet of ships that zoom in and out of the background, sporadically releasing bullets. While you're busy trying to handle this problem, shell-like enemies will begin to line the sides of the screen. When you cross their path, the shells will come together in an attempt to turn you into a space sandwich. There are enemies that swoop down the sides of the screen and then unmercifully zoom sideways at you giving you little time to react. Compile is not afraid to throw multiple patterns such as these at you at once. They are not afraid to make you fight a tough mini-boss while other enemies continue to swarm around you. There is at least one area where enemies move down the screen in a zig-zagging motion while spitting a blizzard of bullets, which literally makes the screen look as though someone is dumping Rice Krispies on it. Let's not forget that while all of the preset enemies are doing their job, appearances of enemies affected by the current AI level will be a hazard, too. Fire your main weapon too much, and it could cause bug-headed alien ships that fire a straight line of missiles down the screen to appear. Acquiring the Number 7 weapon seems to increase the occurances of red balls that act as homing devices. And don't even think of picking up weapon Number 2 unless you want half the system's army immediately on your ass.

The bosses of Zanac are ground targets consisting of multiple sections that must be destroyed piece-by-piece. Each piece lobs out either bullets or circling balls, the latter of which is more dangerous. You might think that by destroying each segment, the boss would become easier and easier to fight, but that isn't necessarily what happens. Each time you waste one, it only increases the firepower of the others. Leave the ball-spitting cannons for last just to see how many sprites the NES can really push. Most bosses do "time out" if you don't beat them within a time limit. Zanac pushes its ideas to sadistic levels, particularly in the last two levels of the game. If you lose all your lives in Areas 11 or 12, or time out on the end boss of Area 11, you can't continue without using a code, and must start from the beginning of Area 10, again. This means you're going to have to be real good to survive these levels and confront the final boss, which has to be seen to be believed. If you can last to its final form (and see the awesome metamorphosis it goes through), you'll be witness to the most football-shaped objects you'll probably ever see on one game screen: they are bullets not merely content to fly in a straight line, but move unpredictably left and right and, yes, even back up, too!


FUN: 9/10
Zanac is intense, mesmerizing, nerve-wracking, but is it fun? I will admit that it took me a very long time to be able to get into this game. When I wasn't very good at it, the game was almost a bit too much for me. I probably have not sworn at a game as much as I have at Zanac in a long time. There are times when the screen fills up with so many bullets and enemies, that it literally makes me feel ill to play it. But it is that intensity, that knowledge that you're getting a little further each time you play it, that makes you want to keep coming back to it. The super-smooth control lends itself so well to the pace of the gameplay; it is just so fun to fly at breakneck speeds, dodging in and out of bullets and facing enemies nose-to-nose.

While the game is difficult, there are things that can be done to make it easier. The catch is that you'll actually have to be good to accomplish this. For example, having a fully powered-up special weapon, especially Number 0 or Number 7, can easily allow you to sit back and fry most enemies that appear from the top and sides of the screen. But it's difficult to get a weapon up to that level and keep it, since you lose it if you die. There are other secrets to discover, such as ways to kill certain bosses immediately, how to power up your normal laser beyond its usual limit, and ways of earning extra lives. In fact, it's rather easy to earn extra lives in Zanac, but it's also easy to lose them. But having enough lives could allow you to "cheese" through some levels, since you instantly respawn.

Even though Zanac's levels are all similar to each other, they are different enough to keep the game fresh and interesting. Some levels feature several tough boss fights in a row (Area 10), while others focus more on fast flight and enemy dodging (Area 7). Area 8 is unique in that it features a host of enemies that block your weapons, forcing you to find some other way of dealing with them, while still trying to shoot down and avoid the normal enemies. Area 11 stands out as one of the most cleverly designed stages, especially the last part: If you know how tough dealing with the bosses is, imagine flying over an entire area made out of a boss. Even after Zanac has been mastered, the game is still exciting on replays, primarily because of the random AI.


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Zanac may not be the most difficult shooter ever. I even hesitate to say it's the most difficult on the NES (crappy games like Alpha Mission notwithstanding). But it is very challenging, engaging, and exhausting. I have seen many gamers talk about how difficult Zanac is, but it's certainly not impossible to master. Although I tend to have a love-hate relationship with it, I can't deny that it's a masterpiece on both a technical and artistic level.
OVERALL SCORE (not an average): 9/10

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