Sunday, September 4, 2011

Super Air Zonk

RED/Hudson Soft - 1993 - U.S.A.
Super CD-ROM

When Super Air Zonk was originally released and for years following, I had been under the impression it was simply a "Super" enhanced CD version of the cartridge-based game Air Zonk. It's a shame, really, as had I known it was an actual sequel I would've picked it up back then instead of years later after it had doubled in price.

Even once I learned it was a true sequel, I wasn't exactly chomping at the bit to pick it up as by then all accounts had it pegged as a poor excuse for a followup. To be perfectly honest, and I'm a little embarrassed to admit this, my first exposure to SAZ was via the Wii's Virtual Console. To be blunt, I wasn't exactly thrilled with the five minutes I spent with it and decided everything I'd heard had been more or less accurate.

A year or so later I managed to pick up an actual copy of the game for my Duo at a halfway decent price and decided to give it another chance. A real chance. To my surprise, the game wasn't quite as bad as first impressions had led me to believe.

A few plays later and I found myself actually starting to dig the game. See, the main problem with this second episode is that it's such a different experience than its predecessor. The original Air Zonk was the epitome of the perfect chip shooter. The boss face-offs were fast-paced and epic and Zonk was often bombarded with veritable floods of enemies to contend with all while a brilliant chiptune soundtrack pounded away behind the action, heightening the sense of excitement.

Super Air Zonk, on the default difficulty especially, starts off at a seemingly lackadaisical pace by comparison. The odd "rockabilly" soundtrack only serves to augment the "laid-back" atmosphere, at least initially. SAZ never achieves the intensity of the original; boss battles are fought at a virtual stand-still while your opponent lumbers leisurely about the screen. This is the aspect of Super that hurts the game the most, in my opinion, the sense of urgency that pervaded Air Zonk is nowhere to be found here.

For no good reason that I can determine, you are allowed to choose the order in which you play the first four (of seven) stages.

This time around, you'll need to rescue your friends from the clutches of evil before they can join you.

Friends all have unique attack techniques when separated from Zonk.

The choice of a rockabilly soundtrack for an Air Zonk game was a strange one to be sure, and probably a poor one at that. It took numerous playthroughs, but many of the tracks have grown on me, and I can appreciate how some of them actually accent the wackiness of the action. Still, there are a number of tracks that just seem ill-fit for this sort of game.

One major area of contention involves Super Air Zonk's visuals. It's hard not to compare Super to part 1, which featured many layers of parallax scrolling in each and every level. On the other hand, multiple layers are far less common in part 2 and indeed seems to be the exception rather than the rule. This doesn't bother me nearly as much as it seems to bother other people, since on the whole the backgrounds mostly look great regardless and those that don't feature any parallax work just fine without it.

One area has you exploring a TV set in a studio...

...while another has you facing off against the aquatic ranks of Sandrovitch's army.

One glaring exception being the flat, poorly designed "Doublehead Stage." A bit of parallax would've done wonders for poor ol' Doublehead.

It's easy to see why the game gets a bad rap based on first impression comparisons to Air Zonk. Despite this, there are certain elements of Super that are unquestionable improvements over the original. There is no delay when you lose a life, for example, waiting for Zonk to fall off the screen and respawn. Your life supply is simply decreased by one. While you don't get to hand-pick your "buddy" for each level in this episode, once you rescue him he sees the battle through to the end with you. More importantly, you have the ability to combine and separate with him at will. Last, but certainly not least, I find the "charge attack" works much better here than in part 1. After holding the fire button for a specific duration, Zonk will automatically charge up and emit a ring of destruction upon release of the button, obliterating anything within a certain radius.

Many of the boss designs live up to the Air Zonk standard...

While others leave you wondering, "What the fuck?"

Don't be surprised if you fly right through the game on your first or second run with it on the default difficulty. I've found boosting the difficulty level up to "Hard" makes for a better game and intensifies things just a bit.

Super will undoubtedly be a little jarring initially for players familiar with the excellent Air Zonk, but given time, I think even the most loyal AZ fan will find something of merit here. Players coming in fresh with no past Zonk experience will find a decent shooter, one that competently prepares them for the ultimately superior part 1. It's a shame what has happened to the U.S. TurboGrafx market, and unfortunately Super Air Zonk is one of the biggest casualties. It's now not uncommon to see the game selling for hundreds of dollars, and for no good reason. The good news is that the JP version, which I understand is virtually identical, is still affordable.

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