PLAYERS: 1-2 simultaneous
RELEASE DATE: 12/20/87 – (JP), 07/88 – (US), 05/88 – (EU)
Turns out, crossbreeding Opa-Opa with Pac-Man results in more than just confusion and shame. Fantasy Zone: The Maze is the ultimate “what the?” in a series built on florid exclamations and shrines erected to hyper pinks and blues. The first two games were compelling unorthodox shoot-em-ups where you traveled either right or left via a wraparound screen, shooting down enemies, collecting coins, and upgrading your speed and weapons. The Maze however, is, yes, a maze game where you travel in any direction, destroy enemies, collect lots of coins that look suspiciously like pellets, and, er, upgrade your speed and weapons. Fantasy Zone: The Maze isn’t much different from the other two games in terms of what it asks the player to do. But instead of taking a freedom-oriented approach where Opa-Opa is allowed to fly where he pleases, the game limits him to cramped quarters, reducing Fantasy Zone‘s expansive “shoot, collect, upgrade” gameplay to a minimum.
As with the gluttonous Pac-Man, the goal of The Maze is to eat all the coins in the playfield and move on to the next stage. While you’re doing this, previous enemies from the series – let’s call them “Ghost Ships” in keeping with the Pac analogy – will emerge from a hole in the center of the stage. The hole will continuously fill up with red and pop out Ghost Ships each time it’s full. If Opa flies over the hole while it’s filling up, however, an enemy won’t regenerate – but the hole will immediately start filling up with red again. This quick regenerative enemy system felt like a waste of time, a distraction to keep you from your goal of collecting coins. Enemies come quickly whether you fly over the ever filling hole or not. As such, I found it more worthwhile to avoid the enemies, then to try and stop them from appearing every five seconds.
Scattered around the playfield are weapons and speed upgrades that you fly across to purchase. These are items from previous games, like the Big Wing and the Wide Beam, but there are less of them in The Maze. Limited items makes sense, really. You don’t need big guns like the Twin Bombs or 3-Way Shot unless you’re taking on giant Tiki Heads and other such madness. Strangely, the weapons you are provided with aren’t very strong. It will take several hits from any weapon to destroy most of these jerks. Enemies taking numerous hits before death is nothing new to the series, but in the previous two games, you had more room to avoid them should they not perish right away. Here, if you’re shooting an enemy and expecting it to die while you fly towards it, you’ll likely perish yourself. The best (and most expensive) weapon is Top Power, which transforms Opa into a fireball and allows him to fly through enemies with ease for a limited time. Get it as often as you can.
The previous two Fantasy Zone games were acid-trip shoot-em-ups that stood alone in their surreal sensibilities. Even today, the series (sans Maze) really has no equal in the shoot-em-up genre, though plenty have borrowed from its cheerful disposition and upgrade system. The Maze has to deal with that storied legacy, even though the game was clearly intended as nothing more than an offshoot. As a side project, a series of mazes for Opa to fly around in his spare time, Fantasy Zone: The Maze is fun enough. The abundance of content – seven worlds, twenty-eight levels – means there’s plenty of game here for you to explore, particularly if you enjoy the underappreciated maze genre. As a Fantasy Zone game, however, I can’t help but wish The Maze tried a little harder to engage the player.