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RELEASE DATE (JP): September 1, 1995 GENRE: Platformer
// review by FlagrantWeeaboo


The great thing about the Game Gear is that when a game stands out, it really stands out. Kishin Douji Zenki - or, Demon Child God Zenki - is possibly one of the nicest looking, playing and sounding Game Gear titles out there. Developed by SEGA themselves and released really late in the Game Gear's lifetime, Zenki is the culmination of every trick and method pioneered by SEGA. This is an 8-bit handheld game from 1995 with digitized voice samples, bright colours, detailed sprite work, animated cutscenes, and branching path platforming goodness. Pocket Monsters Red and Green, released in Japan in the same year, had none of these things.

The game begins with a lengthy introduction, where the main character Chiaki summons Zenki, a demon god who was sealed in a pillar a long time ago, to defeat a monster that is terrorizing the world. The demon god Zenki is a towering, beastly creature with immense power, but after the fight, he is shrunk down into the form of a child. Zenki may regain his powers, but only after the eyeball shaped "Seeds of Evil" are all collected. These are obtained by defeating powerful monsters like the one in the introduction.

Once the intro is out of the way, the game immediately switches to its bread and butter, the platforming sections. These play a little bit like the Shinobi games, but unlike the Game Gear versions of Shinobi, this is actually incredibly comfy to control. Before starting a stage, you're given the choice between playing as Chiaki or the child form of Zenki. They play differently, with each stage accompanying both styles of play within their design.

Chiaki is the more platforming focused character, and can only attack a small distance ahead with fire magic. She cannot attack in any other direction, but her increased mobility makes navigating stages easier. Zenki, on the other hand, is like an overweight Sonic the Hedgehog. He is slow, but attacks by spinning. You can spin while jumping to attack enemies, or perform a rolling move similar to the blue hedgehog's Spin Dash. For the added combat ability, you might believe Zenki to be the best choice, but there are also spirit stones in the stages that Zenki cannot destroy, but Chiaki's fire magic can.

The Legend of Zenki: Pint-sized Bodhisattva

There are branching paths and alternate exits in some of the levels, which uncover new areas to visit on the map. For example, in the second stage of the game, rolling through a secret passageway with Zenki will unlock a completely new area to visit on the map.

Each of the boss battles within the game is played as the powered-up form of Zenki, accompanied by a slick transformation scene that is quite visually impressive for the Game Gear, with voice samples. Zenki has a handful of different moves, which work differently against each boss. You might die a few times figuring out what works, but generally speaking, most bosses go down pretty easy when you know how to damage them. It's a game that forces you to think, which I really appreciate given the lackluster quality of the Game Gear's library as a whole.

This is a lengthy game with a great deal of backtracking, including being made to play stages in reverse order to collect specific items. This is however tied into the story, and not just simply a method of arbitrarily increasing the game length (though I'm certain that's at least part of it).

Kishin Douji Zenki is my first experience with the Zenki franchise and has been eye-opening for me. This is a series I've never seen discussed online or fondly remembered in quite the same way as its other 1990s peers. Even among Studio Deen's other works, Zenki is forgotten amongst the bigger names like Ranma ½, Urusei Yatsura and You're Under Arrest. I am definitely going to consider looking into the other four games based on this franchise, as well as the animated series, in the near future.

This just in: While working on the finishing touches for this review, I found out that an English-language fan translation for this game was released on in 2018. Also, I discovered that the '90s anime received an English dub which I shall certainly be checking out soon.

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