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 first original shooter released by the legendary Compile. The initial 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 catalog 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 MUSHA’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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Phantom Fighter (NES)

Qing of the hill, baby!

Phantom Fighter is a 1988 title from obscure developer Marionette and publishers Pony Canyon and FCI. It’s a side-scrolling beat-’em-up action game based on the 1985 Hong Kong horror-comedy film Mr. Vampire. The movie, about a Taoist priest named Master Kau and his bumbling assistants battling a type of Chinese “hopping vampire” known as jiangshi or kyonchi, was a huge hit and touched off a bit of a hopping vampire craze throughout East Asia. Think of it as the Ghostbusters of its milieu. The game was retitled and Master Kau was renamed Kenchi for the North American release in 1990.

In Phantom Fighter, you guide Kenchi and his trusty assistant through eight stages, each representing a different town under siege by kyonshi. Each town contains a variety of buildings, parks, graveyards, and caves where you’ll battle the undead and be rewarded with scrolls (currency used to purchase new kung fu moves at training halls), special weapons such as a magic sword and mirror, and the three jade spheres that you must gather in order to open the way to each town’s final boss.

Fights against kyonshi are always one-on-one, reminiscent of those in games like Street Fighter, although Phantom Fighter is strictly a single player experience, so perhaps Konami’s Yie Ar Kung Fu is a better comparison. You and your foe each have a health bar on the side of the screen and whoever runs out of health first loses. Dying will result in the loss of all special weapons acquired and half of your total scrolls, but continues are unlimited and you’re given passwords whenever you run out of health or complete a level, so there’s no need to worry about losing your progress. Kenchi starts the game with only the most basic control options: Punch, kick, walk, jump, and crouch. All of these capabilities can be upgraded multiple times at the training halls, however, and it’s satisfying to see Kenchi’s feeble starting punch grow to take the form of a lightning-fast flurry of blows that can drain a kyonshi’s health bar in an instant by the game’s end.

Each building you enter will contain one or two kyonshi to defeat at the start of the game, but that increases to a maximum of five by the time you reach the final stage. You’ll need all the attack upgrades you can get because you can only restore lost health by leaving the building you’re in and visiting a temple. This means that you’ll need to defeat all of each building’s kyonshi occupants in one go to reach the end and claim your reward, since destroyed ones will respawn each time you exit and return.

Those are the basics but Phantom Fighter does have a couple very odd gameplay quirks. The strangest is the fact that you have to successfully answer a trivia question each and every time you want to enter one of the training halls to learn new moves. That’s right: This is a fighting game with quiz show elements. That’s got to be a first. Even the questions themselves are weird. Half of them are related to the game’s premise and involve the various strengths and weaknesses of kyonshi as derived from Chinese folklore. This makes some sense at least, but then the game starts asking you things like “What’s the name of George Bush’s dog?” All the questions are multiple choice and there’s no penalty for getting them wrong, so if you pick the incorrect answer you’ll just have to try again until you get a question right and are allowed into the training hall. This element of the game is just baffling to me. I honestly have no idea what it was intended to add to the experience. It’s not challenging, interesting, or even funny. What were the designers thinking? Is it just pure padding? I suppose I’ll never know.

There’s also the matter of “Conshi the baby kyonshi.” This diminutive vampire is non-hostile and you can recruit him to join your fight by using a special item, the bell. Once you recruit him, Conshi will replace Kenchi as your playable character in the fighting scenes for as long as you can keep him alive. This sounds pretty promising until you realize that Conshi really, really sucks. Like every other kyonchi in the game, he can only hop around slowly and jab with his outstretched claws for very little damage. It’s awkward and ineffectual and seems more like a bad joke than anything else. I suppose if you find the game to be too easy and want an extreme challenge, you might appreciate the chance to try to win with Conshi. In any other circumstance, you should avoid this little dope. It’s just not worth the effort to get him on your side.

Phantom Fighter is a true mixed bag in terms of graphics and sound. Kenchi and his foes are large and animate very smoothly for an 8-bit game. The character sprites do suffer a bit from a lack of color and detail, however. This is likely due to the backgrounds, which are highly detailed and clearly where most of the NES’s limited on-screen colors were utilized. The music has a very stereotypically Chinese vibe and is decent while it lasts. That is to say that the tracks are short and there aren’t very many of them. You might enjoy them for a bit at first, but they’ll probably wear on you over time.

Control is mostly functional, but has some serious problems. Attacks seem to have a slight delay to them. Though can be adapted to, it remains consistently obnoxious throughout. Jumping and jump attacks in general are also poorly implemented. It’s tough to get off the ground when you want to and to get your air attacks to execute on cue. Thankfully, there are only two airborne enemies in the entire game, both bosses, so I suppose it makes sense that polishing the aerial combat wasn’t a big priority.

While had a little bit of fun with Phantom Fighter, I can’t recommend it very highly due to its one fatal flaw: The overwhelming monotony. When you get right down to it, there’s only one enemy in the entire game that you’ll be fighting over and over and over again. Although there are different flavors of kyonshi with varying degrees of speed, health, and damage output, they all fight the same way: They hop forward at you with their arms outstretched comically. That’s it. All you have to do is avoid their claws (the only parts that will damage you) and employ some basic hit and run tactics to take them down. Either anticipate the arc of their hop and let them jump right into your punches and kicks or run up to them as they land, smack them, and run back. Then do it a couple hundred more times. That’s the entire game right there. I understand that fighting kyonshi is game’s main draw, but surely the designers had no shortage of other creatures from Chinese myth that they could have used as inspiration to spice up the gameplay. Unfortunately, they didn’t make that effort and no amount of trivia questions or grinding for scrolls can disguise the sad fact that this title plays more like a proof of concept or a demo for a full game than a finished project. It’s also overly long given its lack of real content. Eight levels is far too many when you’re tasked with fighting the same foe the same way the entire time.

Much like mediocre Chinese takeout, Phantom Fighter will hold you over for a short while, but you’ll likely find yourself craving something more substantial very quickly.