RELEASE DATE: 12/13/87 – (JP), 07/88 – (US), 03/88 – (EU)
The original Zillion was an outer-space cocktail of code-cracking, alien-shooting, and buddy-rescuing, polished with a slightly non-linear sheen. The game had exploding trashcans, white clinical hallways, and an abundance of screens where you entered in alien languages to disengage electric barriers. All that, and it’s based on a short-lived anime’. No, it’s not your typical Sega arcade slamma-jamma experience, but its distinctive style makes it one of the best games I’ve played for the Master System.
Zillion II – released a little over six months after the original – treads its own path. There are now two different styles of gameplay, neatly divided into even and odd-numbered stages. The odd stages (1, 3, 5, and 7) are close-quarter vehicular shoot-em-ups, where you control JJ – the shaggy ne’er-do-well leading man from the first game – atop the Tri Formation, a motorcycle that’s more than a little reminiscent of the bike from “Akira.” The even stages (2, 4, 6, and 8) are straightforward linear platforming with no exploration or code-cracking whatsoever.
In the vehicle shmup stages, the game pushes you along the pathway automatically. You slow down by pushing left on the D-pad or speed up by pushing right, but the game always moves the bike forwards. Both ground-based and airborne enemies emerge for you to destroy with Zillion, your trusty Light Phas- er, laser gun. Getting the upgrades to both the Zillion gun and the Tri-Formation bike is key to conquering these areas. Collect enough red Z upgrades throughout the level, and the laser gun’s firing width expands and grows stronger; perfect for when multiple ground-based and airborne enemies attack at once. Collect the red A upgrade and you’ll be able to transform the Tri-Formation into a robot called the Armorater. The Armorater is huge, and thus, is able to absorb lots of hits if you’re not careful. Transforming into him is optional at first, but by level 3, getting the A becomes mandatory. The ground beneath your motorcycle turns completely into spikes, and Zillion II transforms into a proper horizontal shoot-em-up.
The platforming stages are where Zillion II falls off the grid into the head-popping recesses of space. Outside of rescuing Apple and Champ, there’s little to do or see. The levels consist of traveling on elevators, hopping from platform to platform, and shooting the same three boring enemy designs: an Opa-Opa lookalike named Noza-Noza, a robot called the Norsa Warrior, and a hovering robot called the Norsa Jet Soldier. These three enemies pop out every other step. They know where you’re going to jump/move/be before you do, and they’re not afraid to prove it by shooting you in advance.
Thank goodness Sega provides the characters with large lifebars. Every inch of your life is needed to make it through these unreasonably tough sections. Once you’ve rescued Apple and Champ (in the second and fourth levels, respectively), you can switch between them as you did in the original Zillion. Not only do your comrades have movements specific to them – Apple is weak and quick, while Champ is slow and strong – but by switching to them, you gain an extra full lifebar. They function as extra lives, in other words. As in the first game, it’s pretty much mandatory to cycle through everybody if you want to survive past the boss.
Both the shoot-em-up and platforming areas in Zillion II present considerable challenge, but the shoot-em-up portions have more life to them. No surprise there, really. Even in 1987, Sega’s bread-and-butter was still arcade games; console development remained a side gig, at least for the moment. A couple years into the Master System’s lifespan, Sega still hadn’t figured out how to develop engaging platformers (outside of Alex Kidd: Miracle World). Shoot-em-ups were a different story.
Sega had been making thrilling vertical and horizontal shmups since the early ’80s (the port of Star Force remains one of the SG-1000’s best games). Because Sega was familiar with the genre’s trappings, they excelled at pushing the genre’s boundaries. Zillion II is no exception. Besides the typical weapon upgrades, transforming motorcycles and non-stop enemy waves, these levels are ground-based and air-based horizontal shoot-em-ups. This might have been done prior to Zillion II, but not that I’m aware of, and if so, not often. I was transfixed with these stages, but said transfixion ended quickly when I entered an even-numbered stage. The woefully generic platforming stages not only slow down the game’s momentum, they don’t even seem like they’re part of the same game. Shame on Sega for not making Zillion II a pure shoot-em-up for the ages.
I’ve concluded that, fun shmupping aside, Zillion II was a quickie sequel, nothing more. It’s pointless to even compare the quality of the two games. Zillion II is four fantastic shoot-em-up stages and four worthless (yet controller-bustingly difficult) platforming stages, period. Zillion, on the other hand, defies easy description (see: initial paragraph of this review). While I applaud Sega for not making a copy/paste sequel, experimenting with a successful style only works if the entire experiment is a success. Thus, your appreciation for Zillion II lies in your unmitigated enjoyment of the shoot-em-up genre and your ability to tune out the rest.