PUBLISHER: Wolf Team (JP), Renovation (US)
DEVELOPER: Wolf Team
RELEASE DATE: 10/12/90 – (JP), 12/90 – (US)
Just by looking at Final Zone‘s American cover, how many of you would think it’s a shoot-em-up where you pilot a mech? All of you? Well, you’re all wrong. Not that I blame your judgment, of course. The Genesis already has about ten thousand shoot-em-ups, with another five thousand to come before 1990’s over. What’s one more to the pile?
While shooting them up does happen in Final Zone, the game is more isometric action than dogfighting in space. You control a New Age Power mech around ugly, war-torn landscapes in order to kill a certain number of enemies. Once you’ve cleared the area, you’re transported to a boss fight in a different decimated zone. So far so good, until you realize there’s nothing more to the game. This banal back-and-forth repeats six times until the impossibly difficult final boss emerges, and you’re left wondering how Final Zone robbed you of precious life.
Your N.A.P. is powerful and pathetic in unequal measure. On one hand, the mech can crush lesser enemies just by bumping into them, which is as it should be. You can also fly quickly around the screen by pressing the D-pad twice in whatever direction you want. On the other hand, you can’t turn your mech in a different direction while firing your weapon. In order to turn, you have to stop firing, redirect your mech, then resume. This is insane, particularly for a game with an isometric viewpoint. Imagine if in Contra you had to stop firing your weapon in order to run or jump onto a platform. Madness! Admittedly, Final Zone isn’t as high-energy as Contra, but the inability to turn while firing still makes for some of the clunkiest combat I’ve ever experienced in an action game.
For your primary and secondary modes of attack, you can choose from between fourteen weapons, including bazookas, grenades, and particle cannons. Any weapon can be equipped in either primary or secondary slots, but primary is always less powerful than secondary and secondary has limited ammo. This might sound expansive, but most of the weapons aren’t worth using, due to their slow rate of fire and narrow hit radius. You could just as easily beat the game with Default weapons as anything else.
The six levels are designed to look and feel huge, but like the immortal Master System classic, Teddy Boy Blues, they’re composed of a handful of screens that wraparound in every direction. The wraparound produces a surreal “have I been here yet?” vibe, which only increases as you search for enemies to kill. While each level starts with a certain number of enemies on the field, once those are killed, the game often makes you hang around for up to a minute before it spawns more enemies. Presumably because, if you didn’t wait, each level would be over in a couple minutes.
The boss battles range from brief on-rails shooting portions to large one-screen environments similar to the levels themselves. The bosses are a nice diversion and initially more enjoyable than the levels – until you reach the last three battles, two of which are against mechs much faster and stronger than yours (the third is against an evil AI named Axis who never stops firing large projectiles). If your handicapped N.A.P. could turn and fire at the same time, the bosses’ speed and strength would be a challenge instead of an impossibility. Because it can not, I’m not entirely sure how you beat the game.
Final Zone/FZ Senki Axis is actually the third (and final) game in the Final Zone series. Developed by Wolf Team and published by Telenet, the original Final Zone was first released on Japanese PCs in 1986. It is, by all reports, an awful run-and-gun squad shooter. The second game, aptly named Final Zone II, was published/developed by Telenet and released on the PC Engine and TurboGrafx-16 in 1990. It’s also a top-down run-and-gun, though Telenet dropped the squad aspect and gave the game a more cinematic feel. Final Zone II is supposedly the best of the trilogy, though I’m not sure that’s saying much.
Dang if Final Zone‘s arcade gameplay – kill enemies, wait for more to respawn, kill those, repeat until the counter hits zero – doesn’t satisfy. Perhaps it would if the action was smooth, not stilted, and if your mech felt like a powerful juggernaut instead of a wounded beast. Even the game’s visual trappings fail to complement the ineffective action. The weapons system, the wraparound screens, the isometric viewpoint. They make Final Zone appear more complex than it actually is, when that’s all beside the point. When you take control of a mech suit in a video game, what do you want to achieve? Blow crap up. Feel like a badass. Final Zone barely allows for either, and the franchise is dead because of it.