Tuesday, July 14, 2009

VC Look: Super Air Zonk

Sometimes you have to wonder. Just how hard is it to mess up a 2D shooter? Really all you need is a ship, some powerups, lots of enemies to destroy, and some bosses at the end of each stage. Thankfully there's far more to it than that and it's pretty easy to tell the difference between a good shooter and a bad one. It seems odd that Red Company(or Red Entertainment as they are now known) would put out a bad one like Zonk when they're more than capable of doing otherwise. I mean c'mon these guys made Lords of Thunder, how could they go wrong here?

The first time I heard of Zonk was way back when I used to read these Turbografx adverts. There was this new character who was like a cross between Bonk and Cyberpunk. There was a contest where whoever decided the best name for this new guy would win a Turboduo and a couple games. Yeah well I didn't win. While I think Zonk is a dumb name my idea was probably a lot worse(something like Super Lightning Bonk or whatever). Anyway instead of a platformer that involves much hopping around and bonking Zonk became a 2D side-scrolling shooter. 

The game itself is broken up into five stages with both a mid-boss and an end-boss. The fifth stage however mixes it up with three mid-bosses. The stages are fairly basic and feature little in the way of unique level-designs. Most of the variety in each stage comes from the new enemies that inhabit them. While they put up a fight sometimes the enemy is more concerned about doing a cute animation than trying to kill you, which can be rather annoying at times as it throws off the pace.

Zonk is really weak. He starts off with a pea shooter and his only other method of attack is the jump-jets that automatically fire when an enemy or destroyable object gets behind him. The jump-jets are very useful as enemies tend to come from all sides and a number of bosses do more than sit in the same spot and fill the screen with bullets. The pea shooter on the other hand(it even fires green pea-shaped bullets) is absolutely worthless and using it for any extended period of time will get you killed.

Thankfully as expected of the genre there are power-ups that increase Zonk's firepower. There are a rather large number of weapons to pick up but unfortunately they don't gain in strength if Zonk picks up more of the same. It's also very unfortunate that a lot of these weapons kind of suck. The biggest problem with most of them is that they're either weak, have no reach, or have no range. Sure you can't expect to pick up a weapon that does all three but many of these are just sad. One rare item to keep an eye out for is a giant smiley face with shades. Grabbing this summons a friend to assist Zonk(you can either choose your friend before each stage, have one automatically picked, or fly solo). At first all this guy will do is stick close and fire missiles straight ahead(they can also catch bullets and do damage on contact which is very handy). Unfortunately after a certain amount of damage they'll run away. Grabbing another big smiley will cause Zonk to combine powers with his current friend to turn into ship with great firepower and gain several seconds of invincibility to boot. Needless to say triggering this little number will make boss fights a breeze. Word of warning though, some friends are really poor.

Yeah I'm not exactly sure why it works like that but while fighting bosses power-ups continue to spawn. On one hand it's nice to have them but on the other hand they really shouldn't be there. Unfortunately with Zonk I guess it has to be that way because if you die you're back to using the pea shooter. Unless you're able to grab another powerup you'll be spending a long time on the boss and probably dying a couple more times. A lot of these guys fire lots of destructible projectiles. This is fine if you have a weapon to deal with them but with a pea shooter you can either destroy the bullets to keep yourself alive or aim for the boss to try to kill him, you can't do both. That's not even factoring in you still have to dodge the bullets that can't be destroyed.

I don't typically bring up technical issues in games because most of the time they don't actually affect the gameplay. While Zonk suffers from slowdown it's not something I'd make a big deal out of since slowdown makes it easier to dodge things. The bigger problem here is flicker. If you've never heard of flicker you should consider yourself lucky because it plagued a lot of early games. Essentially when too much is happening for the system to handle things tend to disappear. Things like bullets, enemies, and so on could suddenly disappear out of sight. Where this becomes a major issue is that these things don't actually disappear and you can still be killed by them. It's one thing if you know how these bullets and enemies work and can predict where they'll go to but there are usually a number of important things to deal with aside from focusing on invisible stuff(like not getting killed by the stuff you can see). 

The problems with Zonk come to a head at the final stage. While the game is only five stages long the developers really dragged this one out. Not only do you have to deal with two rival Zonks who you face independently before they decide to team up but you also have to face all four prior bosses again and eventually take on the final dude. Even if there was nothing else to the stage it would be overly long but the developers threw in segments of regular foes to contend with as well. 

Where it gets just plain ridiculous is that despite all of the deaths you're likely to get the bosses dole out so many bonus points you tend to get a lot of extra lives. Heck beating the first form of the final boss will probably leave you with 9 lives. Should be more than enough to finish the game right? Wrong. The problem with the final boss is two-fold. For one you can't get any powerups and two(this is the clincher) the boss fires these projectiles that don't harm you but catch about 90% of the bullets from your pea shooter. This means that despite the final guy being relatively easy he can still wear you down and eventually take all of your lives away. Most of his attacks are fairly easy to dodge except for his homing missiles. They're destructable projectiles but since your pea-shooter is getting blocked that means you can't destroy them, but of course they'll destroy you. I actually went through an entire stock of 9 lives against the final boss, that's just how bad it is.

Zonk offers I assume unlimited continues but they don't make any sense. I got a game over and continued on the first stage(don't ask) and I restarted with the initial stock of three lives. Well I got a game over on the fifth stage and somehow I ended up with six lives. I guess they tack on an extra one after each stage? Maybe the developers realized at the last second that the final stage is far too long(and why the 1ups are so generous). In any case it's obvious they goofed up pretty badly here.

So while Red Entertainment has a pretty good track record as a developer -- they've covered an impressive variety of genres from platformers to action to RPGs -- Zonk is for the most part a rather large mis-step. I won't fault it for its art direction or music as both are really good but the competent gameplay is marred by some insufferable design decisions and the weapon system really needed some kind of overhaul. I can't recommend this one at all.

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