Zanac (NES)

He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!

And to think I didn’t even know I was playing a Christmas game this whole time. This Yuletide miracle is Zanac, the very first shooter designed by the legendary Compile. The original versions of Zanac were published by Pony Canyon for the MSX computer and Nintendo’s Famicom Disk System in 1986, with this NES edition from FCI hitting shelves the following year.

Like almost all of Compile’s shooters, Zanac’s gameplay is of the vertically scrolling (overhead) variety. If you’ve played any of their later efforts in the same vein, like The Guardian Legend or the Aleste series, you know exactly what to expect: Lengthy, super fast scrolling stages packed with a non-stop stream of enemy ships and a wide variety of upgradable weaponry to blow them all away with. It’s actually quite remarkable how much of the Compile shooter formula that would remain recognizable right up until the company’s dissolution in 2002 was in place here from the very beginning.

You play as the unnamed pilot of the AFX-6502 Zanac fighter on a mission to save Earth from a rampaging techno-organic supercomputer called the System. According to the terribly translated instruction manual, the human race apparent got itself into this mess by improperly operating a mysterious alien artifact, the Icon, which was designed to bestow wisdom to the worthy and “punishment of ruin” to the unworthy. Whoops.

Penetrating the System’s defenses to take out its core requires you to fight your way through twelve stages, each of which contains between one and four bosses to fight. These take the form of massive ground-based fortresses bristling with hatches and ports that open and close to disgorge a constant stream of bullets and missiles. These encounters are very similar to the first boss battle from The Guardian Legend, except here you’ll also be harassed by swarms of standard enemies swooping in to add to the already considerable chaos. Strangely, if you fail to destroy all the weapon ports comprising the enemy base before a timer at the top of the screen runs down, you’ll actually be allowed to continue on your way. You’ll forfeit a rather large point bonus in this case, but I can’t think of any other shooter where beating most of the bosses is technically optional.

Between boss fortresses, you’ll naturally have to reckon with waves of standard enemies. This is where Zanac really sets itself apart from other shooters with its trademark feature: Dynamic artificial intelligence programming that reacts to how you play and changes up enemy types, numbers, and placement on the fly. Called the ALC (Automatic Level of Difficulty Control) in the manual, this is supposed to represent the System’s machine intelligence analyzing your ship’s threat level and reacting accordingly. Factors that can affect difficulty include, but are not limited to: The frequency with which you fire your weapons, the particular special weapon you have equipped, how frequently you lose lives, and how many of the blue enemy reconnaissance drones you’re able to shoot down.

This organically shifting difficulty makes a Zanac session a very intense experience. Even as you’re getting better at the game, the game is getting better at you. The more successful you are, the more the System throws at you, until the screen is so awash with enemy ships and projectiles that safely maneuvering your craft feels like trying to thread a needle in a windstorm. It also foils the strategies based on pure rote level memorization that work in so many other games. Since it’s nearly impossible to be certain which enemies will appear at a given place and time, there’s no substitute for fast, accurate reactions.

Thankfully, you are given the tools needed to succeed. The controls are flawless. The Zanac fighter itself is zippy enough to weave between enemy bullets as needed, but not so fast that it ever feels twitchy. You’ll need all that maneuverability, since one hit will destroy your ship, stripping away all your special weapons and upgrades in the process.

Speaking of those, you also have a whole catalogue of offensive and defensive options to choose from. In addition to your standard shot, which can be enhanced up to six times by collecting “power chips” found in destructable boxes, there are also eight different special weapons to find and use, represented by icons numbered 0 through 7. Special weapons include lasers, a versatile eight-way shot, defensive shields, screen clearing bombs, and more. These can also be upgraded multiple times by collecting the same numbered icon repeatedly. It’s a staggering arsenal for a 1986 shooter, dwarfing even its contemporary Gradius, itself no slouch in this department. Some weapons are clearly more useful than others, but they’re all viable in the right hands. Even the standard shot is a beast once fully powered up.

One final factor that really works in the player’s favor is the nearly superhuman programming chops that Compile was so revered for. Even with ludicrously fast scrolling and dozens of enemies and bullets filling the screen, the smoothness of the action in Zanac never, ever falters. No matter how crazy the situation, I never noted any instances of lag, slowdown, dropped frames, or the like. Sprite flicker was also kept to an absolute minimum. It really is a tremendous technical accomplishment. If you ever want to experience what a difference programming proficiency can make, just put Zanac side-by-side with the atrocious port of Capcom’s 1942 that Micronics cranked out for the system the year prior.

It shouldn’t shock anyone at this point when I say that I found Zanac to be very impressive indeed. The action is smooth, frantic, and surprisingly deep due to the numerous weapon options and the unpredictability of the enemy A.I. This latter feature would go on to inspire many similar “rank” mechanics in later generations of shooters. The primary flaw to be found, if you can call it that, would be the graphics. While colorful, they’re very much on the plain side. Everything you encounter looks like a generic tiny spaceship or sci-fi building. Given that you’re fighting a computer, this makes sense, but don’t expect the sort of personality you get from The Guardian Legend’s freaky giant eyeball monsters or M.U.S.H.A.’s capital ships wearing creepy Noh masks. Zanac’s music, at least, is much more memorable, packed with heroic crescendos perfectly suited to the white-knuckle action.

A final potentially irksome thing to be aware of going in is that while you are given unlimited continues with which to finish the game, continuing in stages eleven or twelve will send you back to the start of stage ten. These final two stages are pretty manageable if you’ve built up a large stock of extra lives and power-ups over the course of the game. If you do find yourself having to start over in level ten with just three lives, however, it can be a bit of an uphill climb to make it all the way to the end. It’s possible, just a right pain in the ass.

These are really very minor gripes, though. In the end, Zanac is downright incredible for a 1986 vintage title and its unique take on an adaptive difficulty system makes it a must play for fans of the genre even today. If you like overhead shooters, and particularly if you’ve enjoyed other ones by Compile, it’s a must play.

Until next year, Merry Christmas to one and all! If you’re in a giving mood, this Messiah is currently accepting gifts of gold, frankincense, and fully upgraded High Speed blasters.

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