My detour back to 1987 continues. I’ve completely failed to be chronological in this series, because I keep expanding the scope and adding more games to my list, but the nominal timeline should be in late 1988, following on from Sega’s SpellCaster. But then I decided to go back and play a few of the early metroidvania games that I’d missed, starting with The Goonies II, then Rygar, and now Zillion, developed by Sega for their Master System console. I’d never heard of Zillion before, but my research turned up someone describing it as “Sega’s answer to Metroid“. Given that Phantasy Star could be described as “Sega’s answer to Dragon Quest“, and I was hugely impressed with Phantasy Star when I played it for this series, I found myself quite excited to play Zillion.
Zillion released in May 1987 in Japan, just about a month after Rygar, but it took longer for the American release to appear (December 1987 to Rygar’s July). Americans got Rygar first, then The Goonies II, and then Zillion about a month after that. Zillion is actually a tie-in to an anime series of the same name, a few episodes of which were localized in English and released on VHS, although it never got more than a cult following. Sega seem to have had some involvement with the series, since it features Opa-Opa, the star of Sega’s 1986 arcade game Fantasy Zone, who became something of a Sega mascot. Also, the “light phaser” light gun peripheral for their Master System was modeled after the “Zillion Weapon System” laser pistols used by the main characters of the anime. So I guess it makes sense that Sega were the ones to make a video game based on the show too.
In the game, players must help the White Knights, an interplanetary peacekeeping force, as they infiltrate a secret base belonging to the evil Norsa Empire on Planet X. This premise immediately recalls Metroid, which stars the intergalactic bounty hunter Samus Aran as she infiltrates a space pirate facility. But the corridors and passageways of planet Zebes in Metroid feel more like natural caves and jungles, full of wildlife rather than pirates with advanced technology. Sometimes, it even felt like the planet itself was a giant organism, and Samus was battling its natural defenses. The enemy base in Zillion, however, is definitely a base. Defended by armed troopers, its many rooms feature security systems including laser barriers, land mines, infrared beams that trip alarms, and auto-cannons. The White Knights must evade all of this security and locate the five floppy disks containing the Norsa Empire’s nefarious plans, then locate the main computer and input the self-destruct code to destroy the base. And then escape, of course.
Don’t get me wrong: the base doesn’t actually feel like a real base. It’s a labyrinth, its rooms serving no function beyond making it difficult for intruders to pass. It’s not the kind of place where people would actually live or work; it’s clearly a videogame environment designed to create platforming challenges. But the high-tech trappings make the action in Zillion feel so much more like operatives sneaking into a hostile facility. When protagonist J.J. finds the scope that lets him see infrared beams, and then crawls underneath one to avoid triggering the alarm that would summon a squad of soldiers, it feels awesome. Most rooms feature a computer too, and there’s a lot of hacking in the game. Rooms are full of canisters that can be blasted open and then looted for items, four of which will be the symbols that must be entered into the computer (in any order) to open the room’s sealed exit doors.
When I wrote about Phantasy Star, I discussed how many aspects of it reminded me of PC games, rather than console games. The same is true of Zillion. While Zillion has scrolling areas, they’re limited to corridors and elevator shafts. Most of the action takes place in single-screen rooms, with multiple “storeys” of platforms to clamber around. PC platformers tended to feature similar single-screen areas with a high density of things to interact with; The Adventures of Elena Temple, which appeared in my Scratching That Itch series, celebrates this type of game. Zillion’s rooms feel similar, offering more puzzle-like challenges along with the action. Sometimes reaching all the canisters — or even just passing through to the exit safely — requires entering other codes into the computer to disable certain defenses. These special codes are always four of the same symbol, and do things like temporarily deactivate laser barriers or auto-guns. But players can’t just spam all of these codes in every room. Accessing the computer requires an ID card, but only the “door open” code will return the card. Other codes consume it. Players can find more ID cards in canisters, or return to the spaceship on the planet surface to get one if they’re completely out (annoyingly, J.J. starts the game outside the ship without any ID cards, so he must immediately turn around and enter the ship to get one), but canisters can only ever be looted once. So players must be careful about how they spend their ID cards.
In fact, they must be careful about every resource. The only way to restore health, other than returning to the ship, is to find bread from canisters, but there’s a finite number of those in the game. Canisters with bread show an icon as soon as they’re blasted, so players can strategically leave them for later if needed. The same is true for other key items or power-ups. One of the coolest features of Zillion is that J.J. is not alone in his quest. His squad mates Apple and Champ have already tried to infiltrate the base, but they were captured. Once J.J. rescues them, they join him in his quest, and players can switch between the characters at any time from the pause menu. Each character has their own set of stats and other buffs, so finding a rare powerup for the Zillion pistol (there are three power levels) means choosing which character should get it. Is it worth boosting J.J.’s pistol to level 3, while leaving Apple’s at level 1? (Hint: yes.) The same is true with leveling up characters. This happens not by battling enemies, but by blasting certain canisters which are then marked with an Opa-Opa icon that grants a level up when collected. Leveling up fully restores health and increases statistics like maximum health, damage resistance, and (sometimes) jump height or movement speed, but players must choose which character will get these bonuses.
I actually felt that this leveling system is at odds with the concept of different characters with different abilities. At low level, Apple can jump higher and move faster than J.J., making her the only one who can pass certain areas and giving her big advantages in others. At max level, however, J.J. and Apple are identical except for Apple’s slightly lower max health. I would have liked more character switching, since it’s an imaginative way to incorporate the new abilities that are so fundamental to Metroidvania design. Instead of one hero collecting all these new capabilities, they’re actually different people who are good at different things! But in practice it’s best to give everything to one character to get them powered up and increase their survivability, and then get the others caught up afterwards.
Like Metroid, Zillion is a game that requires players to make some sort of map. That task is made easier by a page in the manual with a few corridors already drawn, and then rest a blank grid for players to fill in. I was able to print this page (I had a PDF copy of the manual) and use it to draw my map, but I found out the hard way that it’s missing a row. Pro tip: add one more row at the bottom! Map-making is fun, and the base has a nice set of tangled paths to unravel. Rooms often have exit doors leading left or right, but also sometimes have harder-to-spot lifts that lead to the room above or below. Then there are corridors and larger elevator shafts which cross many squares on the grid in one go, linking sub-sections of the base to one another. It’s not as complex as the dungeon from Dragon Slayer IV: Drasle Family, which would release two months later, but the facility in Zillion is fun to explore. Cataloguing new rooms is always satisfying, and lessens the sting of failure a bit. In a callback to arcade game design, players can only continue after defeat a few times, before they have to start the entire game over. There’s no password system or other save feature to resume playing either, so it all must be done in a single sitting. Except when playing via emulation as I did, of course (using the Retroarch frontend and Genesis Plus GX emulator core), which let me use save states to continue my game. I didn’t use them when I ran out of continues, however. Starting over was never too bad, because I always kept my map.
I did lose a few times though, because things can get tough early on. When J.J. hasn’t rescued anyone yet, he can’t tag someone else in to handle a tricky section, and at low level he takes more damage and has less health. The lowest level soldiers are easy to deal with because J.J. and his teammates can just drop to a crawling position to blast them while ducking their shots, but soon enough soldiers start kneeling for low shots which are much harder to evade. Some rooms are strewn with moving auto-guns to make navigation treacherous, and others require walking through damaging laser barriers without any opportunity to disable them. I remember one room in particular that must be passed to reach the lower levels of the facility, which requires J.J. to descend through a zig-zagging path strewn with land mines (with low ceilings making it hard to jump over them) while soldiers at the bottom fire up at him. I always took a ton of damage running that gauntlet, but fortunately a higher-powered Zillion pistol can destroy the mines, making it much easier later in the game.
Starting over from scratch isn’t so bad when one already knows where to go, but the codes to open doors are randomized each time, so players must collect them again and can’t just refer to their old notes or a walkthrough. There are ten different symbols, which means a lot of possibilities. At first I wrote them down as I found them, but soon this became too tedious, so I came up with nicknames for the symbols and spoke them out loud as I found them. This let me remember them as I entered them into the computer, and, fortunately, opened doors stay open forever unless players lose their lives and have to start over. With my code-collecting strategy and my ever-growing map, it wasn’t too hard to make progress, and things get easier with higher level characters and more team members. The mid- and late-game are really fun, with challenging rooms and snaking passages to contend with. There are even some specific rooms where entering a special code grants a hint (the manual tells players which ones), including hints about where to get more hints. There isn’t as much explicit backtracking as there is in Metroid, but sometimes a strategic teleport code entered into a computer (either back to the ship, or back to the nearest elevator) is in order. I only got properly stuck twice, both times because I’d neglected to note a detail on my map, and one of those I figured out myself. I looked up the other one, but I would have found it eventually if I’d searched the base again (or, more likely, started over after losing).
Zillion ultimately feels quite different than Metroid, but it’s pretty cool. There are a lot of things going on that would probably have confused me as a kid, but it’s wonderfully evocative of a sci-fi infiltration mission. Blast a few guards, disable some laser barriers, enter codes, crawl through a bunch of infrared beams, and rescue your teammates. The nonlinear design is somewhere between a maze-like role-playing game like Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei and what would become traditional Metroidvania design, where new abilities and tools open up new paths in the world. Zillion doesn’t have that many examples of the latter, although there are some, like certain types of canisters that can only be blasted open with higher level Zillion pistols. But mostly it’s about exploring different paths through the facility in order to find the captured White Knights and the five floppy disks, with players able to tackle these paths whenever they like as long as they think they have enough resources and levels to handle it. This is a compelling formula, and an interesting contrast to the designs that Nintendo was making at the time. The distinctive sound of the Master System sound chip in the musical score only adds to this feeling, and was immediately evocative of Phantasy Star (which wouldn’t release for another seven months).
Zillion wasn’t a huge hit, but it was popular enough to spawn a sequel, Zillion II, in December 1987. But the sequel ditched the nonlinear design in favor of a more traditional action platformer, so I may skip over it for this series. I’m really glad I went back to play Zillion though. It’s an interesting game, with a lot of cool ideas that didn’t end up enshrined in the Metroidvania genre, making it feel like something new even though it’s 35 years old. I recommend checking it out if you’re interested in an example of nonlinear action game design, although it isn’t sold anywhere anymore to my knowledge, so emulation may be the only way to play it today. You may enjoy exploring and mastering its labyrinthine base as much as I did.
Next time, we won’t quite catch up to our nominal timeline but we will at least take a leap forward, passing several other games I’ve already written about. Stay tuned!