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CONSOLE: Turbo-Grafx 16 DEVELOPER: Bits Laboratory PUBLISHER: NEC
// review by SoyBomb

This is not a sweet, sweet fantasy, baby...

In the time period when shmups were finally reaching mainstream gamers as a viable video game genre, things began to become overpopulated. Do you KNOW how many shmups there are? Plenty. Do you KNOW how many shmups there are in the arcades alone? Plenty! There are horizontal shooters and vertical shooters (and a combination of both), some set over oceanic air space between two opposing armies, some set in outer space against extraterrestrial spacecraft, some even taking the mentality-defying route of having an octopus fight a pirate ship with a giant kitten head. Okay, that last one doesn't happen quite as often, but believe me: it DOES happen. In an age when shmups were coming from all publishers left and right, you really had to differentiate yourself to make a footprint in the proverbial mud that is the genre.

That's what Fantasy Zone tried to do, and although I will give it "props" (whatever that means) for putting a little spin on a typical concept, I'm going to tell you right now that I'm not a Fantasy Zone fan. That's right: the beloved Sega classic didn't cut the mustard for me! Alright, let me "break it down" for you (what the heck am I on?). Fantasy Zone is kind of a horizontal/vertical shmup simultaneously. You're more or less in a free-float; that is, you're actually placed in an area that loops. You can move upward to a higher part of the stage or downward to the lower edge. You can fly left or right and you'll just keep on going indefinitely, though you'll pass the same scenery over and over again because, like I said, the stage loops. Your goal isn't simply to fly through obstacles and take down expertly timed ship patterns, followed by a boss. That would be far too cliché, would it not? Instead, before you can progress, you have to fly around each stage and shoot down eight little... mmmm, I'm going to call them "terminals"... that release little enemies every once in a while. They take quite a few shots to dismantle, so patience is a virtue. Of course, it wouldn't be a shmup without a ton of additional ships just randomly appearing and causing you harm. Things can get hectic at times, so get your agile mind ready! Only after you survive the ordeal of the eight terminals does the stage boss appear. And THOSE things take a fair amount of hits to destroy as well. Your thumb will pound, but shmup enthusiasts seem to love that numb feeling.

Whose twisted fantasy involves so much wild activity filling the skies?

Many enemies will drop coinage, and you can use this in little shops (whose entryways are conveniently found in each stage, courtesy of floating bulbs with the word "SHOP" written on them). You can purchase additional weaponry and engines beyond the meager pea shooter you start with to improve your offense and speed respectively. You then also get to select what weapon/engine you want to use out of everything you've purchased before heading back to the action. That sounds like a lovely idea... in theory. In practice, I'm not loving it. For starters, some of the most powerful weapons you buy have a time limit! Seriously, I don't want to pay serious money to only to have it run out in 30 seconds. Second, the most powerful engine... wh-what the... You know, I like being able to move faster than a snail's pace, but this is Speedy-Gonzalez-on-steroids fast. There's the blast processing we were looking for. You move so quickly, you're more likely to run INTO an obstacle than avoid it. At least this helped me to determine I could buy the much cheaper engine. But most annoyingly, though, when you get killed, you lose everything you bought, forcing you to earn all that money again. And this is a shooter, not an RPG. You don't really have the freedom to just wander the overworld and kill more enemies to snag cash; you're libel to get yourself killed that way! Countless swarms of enemies will try to take you down (and they likely will), and with no continues at your disposal, you have to live. No, no... you HAVE to LIVE.

But to counter the appearance of being difficult, this game is cute. Maybe not just cute, but MEGA-cute. But we can't let that fool us -- this game is truly for the hardcore! The backgrounds are wacky and futuristic, easily compared with the leakage of the brain of Dr. Seuss. Even the bosses aren't your standard fare: tree stumps, suns, snowmen... these are not the type of evil beings we normally would expect from a shmup, but when you're in the pretty world of Fantasy Zone, anything is possible. The music is also pretty uplifting in a saccharine fashion; it does, however, complement the notable visual style rather well, so I guess I can accept the overly cheerful atmosphere.

I found Fantasy Zone to be more of a chore than its pleasant appearance lets on. Its difficulty is steep (but what shmup doesn't give players a rough time?), but it seems that such difficulty is not due to my poor skills but rather the craziness that the player has to endure (and I didn't even mention having to fight the bosses all over again in one run near the end...). Fantasy Zone, you tried so hard to impress me, but you were just too rough with me, and that was quite the turn-off.

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