"He he he. You fool!"
Excuse me? Dying was irritating, but then the game’s villain mocked me for it! That may not sound earth-shattering to an experienced adult, but to an impressionable ten-year-old mind, that’s downright mean. Damn your black heart, Baron Ricks!
Even if that simple taunt sounds tame by today’s profane standards, your friend Amy’s lamentations won’t. "Snnff... oh, no. How can I go on now that you're gone? The sadness is unbearable." Poor thing; her pain’s unbearable. Whenever any of the three presumably Christian heroes perish, a cross-shaped tombstone replaces their in-game portrait. Some heartbroken soul’s even hung a little wreath on top — perhaps it was Amy! This silly touch is so goofily morbid — that’s why I love it. I love it all! The idea of three heroes on a secret mission to mow down mindless alien soldiers with their geeky light guns is the stuff of video game fantasy.
Don’t be tricked! Even though Zillion’s based on Japan’s version of Lazer Tag, THIS IS NOT A LIGHT GUN GAME. It’s something far more stimulating: a multi-character stealth action puzzle shooting game. If that isn’t clear enough, put on your Crazy Comparison Hat and imagine a cross between Metal Gear, Zelda, Valis III, and Concentration. For the most part, Zillion involves entering a room, deciphering a secret password, and entering that password into a computer terminal to advance to the next room. To make the secret codes more memorable, they’re represented by shapes: hearts, cylinders, butts, and other body parts that ten-year-olds probably shouldn’t be thinking about.
The puzzle aspect gives shape to the adventure, but the Shooting Master action makes it exciting. In Zillion, your Photon pistol is called . . . Zillion! It’s a sporty piece powered by the mysterious Zillium Crystal, which is a refined form of pure Zillonium. These Zillium crystals conveniently showed up just as the evil and annoyingly bulletproof Noza Empire invaded the human colony “Maris”. Fortunately, THE WHITE KNIGHTS (or if you’re playing the Japanese version, THE WHITE NUTS) can use their nerdy Zapper clones to disintegrate the otherwise invulnerable Noza, which makes the Zillion gun about twenty times cooler than Nintendo’s duck-popping pistol.
The three critical members of the White Knights (Nuts) team are Champ, Apple, and J.J. Masculine Champ is the charismatic super-sniper who gets wounded in every episode. In the game, he can take a lot more damage than anyone else, so use him carelessly! Apple is the token busty female. Even though the instruction manual mistakenly calls her a “him”, Sega’s best efforts can’t hide the fact that Apple’s a determined and capable young woman with a sexy butt (anime episode 25: mmmm). Third wheel J.J.’s got . . . nothing! According to the cartoon, his selection to join the team was a computer glitch. Fortunately, by discovering hidden power-ups (in the form of Fantasy Zone mascot OPA-OPA), J.J. earns skill and stamina bonuses that help him jump higher or endure multiple laser blasts TO THE FACE.
Since the White Knights’ Chief Director “Gord” isn’t a dumbass, he only deployed his competent agents (Apple and Champ) to eliminate the Noza’s secret base at the ominously-named Planet X, which was an awfully obvious place for Baron Ricks to establish a sinister hideout. Unfortunately, Apple and Champ were both captured. They’re both captured in the sequel, too.
This just leaves talentless J.J. to get things done. Fear not! You can rescue the other Knights and control them (which is great if you want to admire Apple’s swan-like leaps). But that won’t be a simple task. Despite wielding a nifty pistol, Rush-n-Attacking the Noza soldiers quickly ends in goofy insults and weepy lamentations. Stealth is required to rescue Champ and Apple, locate the five secret 5 1/4″ floppy disks (the Noza are behind the times), and activate the planet’s self-destruct sequence. Hooray for xenocide!
The White Knights’ pilot Dave unfortunately parked their bright red spacecraft in the middle of a grassy field, so J.J. first has to run through the wide plains of Planet X to even reach the subterranean base. Damn you, Dave!
When not busy slaughtering faceless villains, the White Knights like to get together with their friends to play 80s era rock music. These tunes kick, even if there are only four of them in the entire game. The cartoon’s opening theme “Pure Stone” powers J.J. through the above-ground gauntlet of merciless soldiers who are too stupid to crouch. You’ll soon become an expert at crawling and shooting enemies in their shins. Stand up! Once J.J. breaks into the enemy HQ, crawling around like a wompa rat won’t get you anywhere! Powered by an awesome rendition of “Saizensen” (the song’s got a Japanese name so you know it rules), the REAL game is a room-by-room flush of the Noza’s underground citadel of chaos. At this point, the Noza soldiers learn how to crouch.
If you don’t believe me about the chaos, then just try to make sense of the maze-like structure. When you’re not entering obscenely-shaped passwords, you’re blowing holes through solid walls, dashing across conveyor belts, and de-activating alarm sensors. Should you carelessly trip one of the infrared beams, alarms blare and an entire squad of Noza goons hustle into the room (or magically fall from the ceiling). Fortunately, super-secret passcodes can be used to temporarily deactivate the sensors or any other obstacle. Be warned! Using one of these “cheat” codes eats up an ID card, and you can’t open doors without ID cards.
So basically, if a particular room is causing you grief, stop by the computer terminal and use passwords to make it easier . . . as long as you’ve explored and scrounged up some spare ID cards. Zillion makes exploration worthwhile and accommodates gamers of all skill levels. That’s good game design.
My personal favorite cheat code is the ominous “suicide” sequence. While most codes do useful things, like turn off auto-guns or warp you back to the planet’s surface, the suicide code kills you! How apropos. The diabolical designers at Sega made sure that some secrets can only be discovered by inputting the suicide code in special rooms. When you find one of these secrets, you’ll feel like a genius. When you enter the suicide code in the wrong room and DIE INSTANTLY . . . well, you’ll feel like the world’s biggest idiot, and Baron Ricks’ insults won’t make you feel any better. Rock on!
Zillion’s crazy charm gives it instant appeal, but its design gives it lasting relevance. Discover and memorize the obscene passcodes needed to advance from one room to the next while leaping over mines, dodging lasers, uncovering secret passageways, acquiring new abilities, shooting faceless minions, rescuing prisoners, deactivating electrical barriers, fighting giant dragons, and crawling underneath soldier-summoning infrared sensors. Whew! The interplay among all its elements molds Zillion into something that’s not easily defined . . . but it’s refreshing, fun, and mentally engaging. I’ll probably still be playing Zillion ten years from now, and I’ll still feel unbearably sad whenever Amy cries.