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Fantasy Zone (Master System, 1986)

Everything all of the time.

This is quite the fantastical zone you got here.
This wire-frame dimension, on the other hand, is quite mysterious.

PLAYERS:  1-2 alternating


GENRE:  Shoot-em-up

RELEASE DATE 06/15/86 – (JP), 09/86 – (US), 09/1987 – (EU)

If Lisa Frank and Salvador Dali were commissioned to design a shoot-em-up together, the visual result would be something like Fantasy Zone. Awash in carefree colors and intentionally crude, yet well-rounded art, the game is even more visually striking when you place it next to austere outer space shmups of the mid-80s. Coupled with an optimistic musical ditty that accompanies you through every stage, one might believe that Fantasy Zone was made for small children; especially since the game is credited with being one of the first “cute-em-ups.”                            

And yet, Fantasy Zone is a lot like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” in that, both bear the visual trappings of kid-friendly entertainment, though neither of them were made for children. “Roger Rabbit” has Jessica Rabbit’s abundant cleavage, lots of swearing, and Judge freakin’ Doom. Fantasy Zone has butt-puckering difficulty that not only distracts from the engaging landscapes, but also undermines the visual optimism the game surrounds you in. Not everything is going to be ok, kids, especially when life appears as though it’s all sunshine, lollipops, and video games.

The gaudy pink trappings and freewheeling jazz hands belie a meaninglessness.

In Fantasy Zone, you control a ship named “Opa-Opa” and your task is to save the eight realms of the Fantasy Zone from evil, not-so-fantastical invaders. Each realm has six stationary bases that spit out enemies. Destroy the bases, then the boss will appear for you to kill. Stay alive through eight rounds of pure pastel aggression – base, boss, repeat – and you’ll have restored peace to the Fantasy Zone.

Sounds like another ordinary shump at first, but the freethinking starts immediately: while most horizontal shooters force you to move to the right only, in Fantasy Zone, you’re able to move right or left at any time. This horizontal freedom served a purpose in the original arcade version, but not so much in the Master System port. While the stage design remains the same between both versions, the arcade stages are vaster and spacious, while the Master System’s stages are more cramped and contained. Given the arcade’s wide-open feel, the ability to move in either direction seems natural. In the Master System version, it’s easier to just keep moving to the right.

Round 4 gets a little blue in case you couldn’t tell.

Your ship has two initial attacks, a straightforward exodus of bullets called Twin Shot and bombs that drop slowly from your underside. Enemies and bases both drop coins after they’re destroyed that can be used to upgrade your weapons, bombs, and ship engine in shops. Shops are only accessed by a Shop balloon that appears on the screen at the beginning of the stage, or after you’ve lost a life. Bases will go down much quicker with an upgraded weapon, while bosses can usually be taken out by dropping a Heavy Bomb or two onto their weak points. Without taking advantage of the shops, you’ll have to rely on your standard weapons; those will barely last you past the second stage. But the Shops must be used wisely. Purchase the wrong upgrades and you’ll waste your precious coins.

Once you enter the shop, all the weapon, bomb, and engine upgrades are available to purchase at once, but you won’t have the coin to afford them all yet. The engine upgrades are really just more speed for Opa, and they range from Big Wings (the smallest speed upgrade) to Rocket Engine (the greatest speed). Eventually, you’ll want to purchase all four engines. Not because you’ll need them all, but by purchasing them all, whatever weapon upgrade you make your primary weapon will now receive infinite ammo.

Outside of your standard Twin Shot which has unlimited ammo, any weapon upgrade purchased has a limited life (one of Fantasy Zone‘s many quirks that I never grew to appreciate). The weapon upgrades range from Laser Beams to Wide Beams to 7-Way Shots, and bomb upgrades inclue Twin Bombs, Heavy Bombs, Fire Bombs, and Smart Bombs, respectively. Obviously, Sega wants you to experiment with all of these options, to find the best combination for you. I’m here to tell you experimentation sucks. If you equip the Big Wings, purchase all four engines, then equip the 7-Way Shot and buy a plethora of Heavy Bombs, you’ll be set for the game.

These corn nuts are no match for my, er, Twin Shot.

Unless, of course, you die. Then everything you had equipped disappears and you have to buy it all over again. Is this frustrating? Boy howdy. Especially when you just decked out Opa with the fattest gear in the game. And the more upgrades you buy, the higher the purchase price for the next time you buy them. Thankfully, bosses, once defeated, give a generous amount of coins; even if you’re low on funds at the end of a stage, a boss will usually give you enough to start the next stage right. Still, given how easy it is to die in this game, it doesn’t seem fair that every stinkin’ upgrade disappears after every death.

Crystal flowers, LSD showers.

It’s easy to die in Fantasy Zone. The enemies are bizarre colorful mutations, furthering the child-like acid trip facade, and they often blend into the equally colorful backgrounds, making for cheap deaths as sure as you’re born. Some of their movement patterns are relentless too, particularly the creatures that hover around you until you kill them. Once again, if you have the right weapons equipped, these enemies are rarely an issue – until you die and you have to start from scratch. And you have the standard three lives, no continues, the anarchic non-option that American and Japanese arcade games reveled in in the 80s. There are also floaty controls, which I attribute to the ability to move in either horizontal direction, but which nevertheless, will sometimes get you into trouble.

So that‘s what in a turtle’s shell. Precious gems!

I don’t know whether to praise Fantasy Zone for its playful surrealism, or to besmirch it for ruining otherwise decent ideas with questionable execution. On one hand, the otherworldly nature of the game feels very much ahead of its time, while the option to shop for upgrades is both groundbreaking and more preferable to finding the upgrades in the levels themselves.

It’s very obvious that Sega was trying to make a singular entry into the (at the time) limited shoot-em-up genre, and for the most part, I feel they succeeded on their own terms. But many of Sega’s design choices are confounding, particularly in regards to the upgrades. Why not make the upgrades cost more and have them be permanent additions to your arsenal, instead of having to purchase them time and time again? And as much as I like seeing a whimsical drug-addled vision play out on the Master System, the backgrounds can’t be appreciated when you’re trying to focus on the action at hand.

So Fantasy Zone: sometimes I’m captivated by your nonsensical stylings, other times I want to Smart Bomb every copy of the game out of existence. The conflict remains.

B+ or D+, depending on my mood.

24 replies on “Fantasy Zone (Master System, 1986)”

Love the emotion-dependant grading mate. Thing I remember most about this is that it seemed to be the game that was for sale everywhere wthey sold Master System stuff and seemed to bare the brunt of the marketing campaign here in the UK. Haven’t played it myself though.

Are you sure its fun or simply sadistic pleasure that you have defeated another nemesis – that’s how I feel with some games. Recently got a hold of Wolfchild for my next review and profits in the swear jar have gone up.

As far as Fantast Zone, the SMS port is not as good as the arcade from what I hear. I’ve always heard Fantasy Zone 2 is much better on the SMS. Better game , better port. So I’ll split your B and your D and call it a C. It seems passable. I have played this years ago. I didn’t care for it . Didn’t hate it.

As far as Saturns, with a Japanese or US Saturn, it’s easy to play an region game on. Eigther use a pro action replay cartridge, it you can install a simple switch with a minor solder in a jumper to make it region selectable with a switch.

The arcade Fantasy Zone is slightly better, but only just. I’m intrigued by the later Fantasy Zone games, for sure.

And thanks for the protip on the Saturns. I’m sure that will save me some money down the road.

Wow I didn’t know about the infinite upgrade ammo with the 4 engines – thanks Dylan!
Similar to you at times I love this game and others I just want to smash the controller. The remade PS2 port on the Sega Classics Collection is brilliant by the way, it keeps the originals charm but gives you continues and a level select, which make one hell of a difference.

I’ve played the NES port which pretty much has the same problems you mentioned: upgrades only being limited and vanishing when you die, having to buy them at constantly upping prices, and jerk programmer level difficulty. Plus the graphics are a step down from the Master System version. Boo-urns!

Dylan, save the money and buy an Action Replay 4M Plus for your Saturn. It deals with saves in a bit of a wonky way, but it’ll allow you to play all but one or two games (which required special carts and were Japan-only) for the system’s library regardless of region. (And trust me, you’ll need to save some cash when it comes to the Saturn, because some of the games are beyond expensive.)

Fantasy Zone is one of my all-time favorite shoot-em-up series, and the first game is probably my favorite just because that’s the one I’ve played the most. I will say, I’ve never actually played the original SMS version proper, only via emulation, because I’ve not found a copy. I do, however, own Fantasy Zone 2 for SMS, and have played it via the Genesis’ Power Base Converter. If you find the first game hard, FZ2 will frustrate you perhaps even more. It’s tough as nails! But I played a TON of the original Fantasy Zone on the NES, via the unlicensed Tengen port. It’s a solid port of an already great game, and while it’s not as colorful as the SMS game (or the arcade original), it’s loads of fun to play. Yes, it’s frustrating, because the enemy ship movement can be really unpredictable and erratic at times, but if you can get past that, it’s a fun game. I’ll chime in and agree that the PS2 collection is a great way to experience Fantasy Zone as well.

Man, I absolutely love this game. Got my SMS about two years ago at the PDX Retro Game Expo and haven’t turned back. I’ve been so excited about these reviews you’re doing and this is the first I’d like to chime in on just to fondle it’s lower specials. I mean heck, it’s the same world as space harrier and it slams like no one’s business? That’s my stuff right there. I wished you’d have liked it more but who am I to demand something out of an opinion. Fair review to say the least. All of your reviews I’m enjoying. (really want to read about Black Onyx). Opa Opa is hanging out on the sound test for either Quartet or Space Harrier doing his cute little foot shuffle (which you didn’t mention the overly abundant cuteness of his tiny little feet scampering on the ground) but I digress.

Too bad they never made Space Fantasy Zone..

Thank you for the kind comments, silly names! I hope the reviews continue to enlighten and entertain.

Can I borrow the phrase “slams like no one’s business” for a future review? I genuinely love it.

I bought this version of the game for the Wii Virtual Console and have beaten it. I had no idea you could get unlimited ammo for special weapons, though. I never upgraded my engine too much because the faster pace would result in me running into an enemy. I only purchased the Jet Engine and then the Wide Beam to take out the enemy stations. I also purchased extra lives whenever I could just in case. The final boss gave me quite a bit of trouble until I tried the Heavy Bomb.

Also, the music in this game is fantastic. Can’t decide if I prefer the music in the Master System or arcade version.

I’ve got a real love/fear relationship with this game. It was one of my first SMS games, received for my 12th birthday in ’91 alongside two copies (!) of To The Extreme by Vanilla Ice.

I was hopeless at it for about a year, dying on stage 3 without fail, but then it just clicked and I could reliably get to stage 6 or 7 every time. I don’t think I ever beat that turtle boss though. I still love playing it, but sometimes I’m too intimidated to fire it up.

For reference, I still haven’t even reached the first boss in Life Force/Salamander…

Cheers Dylan. I’ve played a little of FZ2 and Super FZ via emulation, and I’m a fan of both. I’m planning to get FZ2 on 3DS so that I can give it a proper crack.

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