Review: Zero Wing (Turbo CD) – A Very Good Shmup, even without CATS

This is a new review of a game I just beat yesterday.  It’s a great game that doesn’t get enough respect for its high-quality classic shmup gameplay.

Game Data

  • Title: Zero Wing
  • Developer/Publisher: Naxat Soft (licensed from Toaplan, the developer of the original arcade game)
  • Released: 9/18/1992
  • Platform: TurboGrafx-16 CD (PC Engine CD; this is a regular CD-ROM2 game, no Super/Arcade Card needed)

Box cover(Note: See the video and links sections at the bottom for screenshots and footage of the game.)

REVIEW

Zero Wing is an infamous game thanks to how amazingly entertaining the badly translated introduction to the European Sega Genesis (Megadrive) version of the game is. The game isn’t just “All Your Base”, though, it is also a horizontal-scrolling shmup from Toaplan, one of the masters of the genre, the company which Cave would descend from after its collapse in the mid ’90s. I did not buy the European Megadrive version of Zero Wing, though. Instead, a few months ago I got a good deal on the Japanese Turbo CD (PC Engine CD) version, if a bit under $40 is a good deal (it seems to be!). The infamous European MD version costs a bit more. I like shmups, particularly horizontal ones, so I was hoping that the game would be as good as it seemed to be from my playing bits of the Genesis version here and there. It did not disappoint; as a shmup, Zero Wing is somewhat under-rated. It’s actually a good to great game, no question. This is a good version of the game, too. CATS is missing, but it does have two added levels, one a full stage and one a new final bossfight, and a fantastic CD audio soundtrack as well. They are nice additions.

STORY

So, what is Zero Wing? First of course, it’s a cutscene, the intro to that Genesis version of the game. There are three versions of Zero Wing, though, each with a somewhat different story. There’s the original arcade version by Toaplan, released in 1989, where you fight the evil CATS in your Zig fighter; Toaplan’s Genesis (MD) version, released in 1991, of the infamous intro where CATS, now seen in person on screen (unlike the arcade game, as far as I know, where I think it’s just text), threatens and destroys your base just as the Zig launches; and this version, Naxat Soft’s 1992 Turbo CD version of the game. Brace yourselves, CATS fans — CATS is not in this game. Naxat Soft replaced the original story with a new one. The levels are the same (with some additions); you still pilot a Zig fighter, which looks the same as before; but the story and characters are different. There’s a big more story now. It’s a bit like what was done to the Turbo CD version of Hellfire, Hellfire S, except without as disastrously, insultingly bad a story as the Turbo CD version of that game has, but I’ll discuss that another time.

You play as a guy, off to save the day in your Zig fighter. The villain is a bishounen-looking blond guy. I dxon’t know his motivations, I can’t understand much Japanese. His name seems to be Ludavig-sama or something like that, though that’s probably wrong; the name is Luda-something, anyway. In the intro, he talks with some cohorts of his while a woman who is spying for your side listens in. She appears in most of the cutscenes, and is either the hero’s relative or love interest, I’m not sure. Near the end of the game, naturally, because she’s female in a game with a male hero, she gets found out and you have to rescue her. In the end you save her, this game has a happy ending (unlike stupid Hellfire S). You don’t kill the main villain in the end, but he is clearly defeated. After learning the mission, the hero is off in his Zig with a nice classic launch animation. No attack is shown, but as in the other versions of the game your base ship is exploding as the Zig launches from it; maybe this is explained in the script somewhere, though the attack wasn’t shown on screen? That was a bit weird.

In addition to the intro and ending, there are also short scenes between most levels. They are thankfully short, so they won’t interrupt the action for long at all. Shmups should be about the shooting, not the story; I find the cutscenes in Macross 2036 for Turbo CD too long, for example. Overall, the game has a very cliche but okay story. I wish it had CATS from the Genesis version, but this new story is fine. It is unfortunate that they added in a girl to rescue, but at least she has an active role in the story through most of the game, before getting captured late. That’s a little better than just a basic “rescue the kidnapped girl” plot. I would like to see a translation of the game to know the details of what they’re saying; the basics are easy to understand, but I’m sure there are things I’m missing.

GRAPHICS

Graphically this is a fairly nice-looking game. When comparing this version to the Genesis version, each one has some plusses and minuses, but I might prefer this game despite its drawbacks. The more colorful art on the Turbografx looks a bit better than the somewhat drab Genesis visuals. It would have been nice to see Turbo versions of Toaplan’s three Genesis-only shmups that generation, Slap Fight MD, Grind Stormer, and Fire Shark; I think the Turbo or Turbo CD versions of most of their other five shmups, the five that are on both platforms (Hellfire, Zero Wing, Kyuukyoku Tiger/Twin Cobra, Truxton/Tatsujin, Daisenpuu) look better. More CD versions of the games would have been nice too, the three there are all have great CD audio soundtracks! Ah well. Anyway, Zero Wing is a good but not great-looking game. Interestingly, for a 1992 game, this game does not use the Super System Card for additional RAM: instead, it only uses the usual basic 64KB of RAM built in to the Turbo CD. For a regular-CD title, this game looks nice. It’s not the best looking regular-CD title, but does have good visuals and a good amount of graphical variety. The sprite work is good, better than Genesis as I said.

The game does have one graphical downside, though, and that is, as usual for TG16 games, lacking parallax scrolling. As with the Genesis and colors or the SNES and CPU speed, the Turbo has a design problem, no hardware parallax scrolling support. It’s very noticeable when you compare the Genesis and TCD versions of this game, the Genesis version has at least one more scrolling layer at pretty much all times than this one does. All foreground parallax objects from the arcade and Genesis versions, which they have some of, are also entirely gone on the Turbo CD. However, Naxat Soft did put in parallax where they could. They managed a nice scrolling starfield effect that appears on several levels, and there is some use of horizontal-strip parallax as well. Most levels have at least a bit of parallax, which is more than you can say for plenty of shmups on this system. It’s great to see. Still, seeing the ground you can hit and first background layer always scrolling together is unfortunate, I wish Hudson had realized parallax was needed in their system.

MUSIC

As expected from a CD game, Zero Wing for Turbo CD has a great CD-audio soundtrack. The soundtrack is better than the soundtracks of either the arcade or Genesis versions for sure. All three versions have great soundtracks, but the CD quality makes this one a bit better than the other two. I love the sound of early CD system music, it’s a distinctive style you don’t hear anymore. This game is a great example of good early game CD music. Each level has a unique music track, which is good. I don’t know if any of the songs are truly memorable, though, and they might get old if you get stuck on a level for a few hours as I was in one level in this game. I never wanted to mute the audio though, so the music held up well enough. Zero Wing has very good music, and I will definitely be listening to it more in the future.

GAMEPLAY SYSTEM

Finally, we get to the most important thing about any game, the gameplay! Zero Wing is often accused of being a very, or perhaps overly, average shooter, but that’s unfair; it’s a good, above-average game with some unique design elements. It is quite hard, but it’s a doable hard, if you are willing to learn the game. It isn’t the most original game, but it is better than most. In the game, you control the stubby Zig fighter. The controls are good, and ship movement is precise and accurate. When you die, it’s usually because you missed a bullet, not because of the controls. The only issue is your ship’s hitbox (where you can get hit to die), it seems like it might be slightly bigger than the ship, but you do get used to it; just stay away from bullets! Certain ship types drop powerups; all powerups will come from these ships. The first powerup will give you two invincible helper drones above and below your ship, then after that the other powerups will appear in order, as you destroy the powerup ships. The helper drones are a bit smaller than you, though, so expect them to regularly fail to protect you from bullets you’re counting on them to protect you from; I died many times because of this, and when you die in this game you go back to the last checkpoint, or the beginning of the level if it was a game over. Also, they can damage some enemy types by bumping into them, but not others. Generally enemies attached to the ground, such as turrets or such, seem to take damage, but not most flying ships. I really wish they could hurt everyone, it’d be a huge help. The other items are a quite useful speed-up item, and a very powerful single-use bomb that can attach to the front of your ship.

On that note, the most unique thing about Zero Wing is the tractor beam. One button shoots in this game, and the other uses the tractor beam. This beam will grab smaller enemies and hold them in front of your ship as a shield. By hitting the button again, you can throw the enemy at other enemies, to do more damage than basic shots. A bomb works similarly, if you have one — hit the button to toss it at the enemies and watch the explosion unfold. The grapple beam is nice, but not as central to the game as the enemy-takeover mechanics in BlaZeon (Arcade/SNES) or Zaxxon’s Motherbase 2000 (Sega 32X), for example, and you can only have one enemy at a time, unlike the later PC/Wii title Tumiki Fighters (aka Blast Works: Build & Destroy, on Wii). Still, for its time this might have been a new idea, those other games are newer than this one. It is a good idea which works to give you a bit more protection. You’ll need the help!

You have three weapons in this game, with three power levels each. There is a spread shot, a straight laser, and a homing shot. It’s a serviceable arsenal, but feels a bit under-powered without enough powerups. Later levels have enemies and obstacles that are nearly impossible to get past without a certain level of firepower, so particularly in level 9 I found myself almost always having to suicide multiple times to get game over just so I could get another chance at the game, because progress from the checkpoint was completely impossible without powerups the game doesn’t give you. Yeah, it’s cruelly designed. Fortunately, you have infinite continues, which is great! I much prefer games to allow infinite continues and saving, it makes games better.  Zero Wing doesn’t save, but at least you can keep trying until you either win or give up.  There are no difficulty level settings, though, typically for the Turbografx, and unlike the Genesis version. There also are also no additional loops, unlike the arcade and Genesis versions — finish it once and it’s over. Having at least one additional loop would have been nice, but it’s not really needed; this is a plenty hard game as it is.  The Genesis version has three difficulty levels, three loops per difficulty, and varies the continues based on difficulty.  You get infinite continues only on Easy difficulty, 10 continues on Normal, and 15 on Hard.  The odd ‘more continues on higher settings’ setup is similar to that in the Genesis version of Toaplan’s Twin Cobra (Kyuukyoku Tiger).  But anyway, for Zero Wing, overall I wouldn’t say either version (Genesis or TCD) is better in terms of difficulty or continues, they’re just different.  Both versions are a serious challenge, but on TCD you get two more levels, while on Genesis you get multiple loops and difficulty levels, though you also get frustration from limited continues on that version if you play above Easy.

THE LEVELS

As in most horizontal shmups, Zero Wing has both enemies and walls to contend with. If you touch anything, you die instantly. Your two helper bits are invulnerable, but you need to be careful or bullets will slip past them. Most areas are fairly open, but you will have to navigate some narrower spaces here and there, and contend with waves of bullets to attempt to avoid as well. Some bullets home in on you, others fly straight. I love horizontal shmups, so I think this game plays great! It’s a bit like Gradius or R-Type but not quite as good and with a more conventional powerup system. Even if it doesn’t match those all-time classics, though, this is still a great, and very well-designed, game. Each level looks and plays quite differently, and has unique enemies to face as well. The variety is a strength of the game. Zero Wing has a great difficulty curve; almost every level is harder than the one before it, which is how things should be but not always are.  The game often challenges during the first eight levels, but it’s a fun challenge through to that point.  The more constrained levels, like level 6, are particularly cool; that stage reminds me of something out of R-Type, but not as hard.

There is a big difficulty cliff in level 9, though — it is significantly more difficult than any other stage in the game, appropriately for the last full level. I made steady progress up to level 9, but that level is HARD and took me hours of frustrating replay to finally get past. It was very satisfying when I finally got through the level, though! It would have been nice had the checkpoint locations not been impossible to progress past more often than not in level 9, as I said earlier, but the level isn’t so long that getting through is impossible; it just requires a lot of practice. This is a hard, hard game, but the infinite continues really help take the sting off of it. I hate having to replay parts of games I’ve beaten repeatedly, and you don’t have to do that here. It’s too bad more Toaplan 4th-gen shmups don’t have this option. Even without the continues this game isn’t as hard as Truxton or Twin Cobra, either. It’s a tough game, with challenging levels to learn and tough bosses, but not one of Toaplan’s hardest games. In those encounters, a lot of classically Toaplan enemy patterns appear. Anyone who has played Truxton will definitely recognize some of the ways enemies attack you, but it’s slightly easier here than there. Each level has a miniboss and a full boss, and they are all huge and threatening. The final level, level 10, is just a bossfight, but it’s a hard one! Fortunately it dies fairly quickly, but it shoots a lot of fast bullets. It’s a good addition to the game, the ending feels more complete with it than on the arcade or Genesis version where it ends with the last boss of what here is level 9 (there 8). The new level is good too. It’s not the games’ best, but it does have weird, creepy graphics and solid design.

For flaws, other than the difficulty for those who dislike hard games, there aren’t many. Most notably, this game has some weird bugs, if that’s what they are, about progression in bossfights. Sometimes, if you die in a bossfight, you will go to the next level, instead of being sent back to where you should be! I read about this happening in the Genesis version in a GameFAQs review, and the same thing happened to me in the Turbo CD version. So, I’m not sure if it’s some bug with the arcade game they intentionally kept or what, but it is real. In one of the later stages (7 or 8), I died after killing 2 of the 3 big enemies that made up the final boss that level… and I was sent to the next level, not back! That was odd. Then in the final stage, level 10, I died moments after killing the final boss, but it counted as a win anyway, something most games would not do. I don’t know if these two issues are bugs or features, but they do happen. I also wish the game saved your scores and a level select. That’s about it for flaws, though. This is a great game, I like it a lot!

OVERALL

In conclusion, Zero Wing for the Turbo CD is a very good shmup. One of only two horizontal shmups from Toaplan, it shows that they could do a great job with this type of shooter. Zero Wing is a nice-looking game with good, interesting art design and a great soundtrack. It’s not the best-looking regular-CD shmup on the Turbo CD, but it definitely is an above-average game visually, and well above average in terms of gameplay. This is a really fun game to play, with highly polished controls and level designs. Sure, it was tough and took some time to beat, but it was a fun experience beginning to end. I definitely recommend Zero Wing to anyone who has an interest in horizontal shmups. This Turbo CD version of the game may be obscure and may not have CATS or hilarious Engrish in it, and it’s not cheap either (though the EU MD version costs at least as much or more), but it’s very well worth searching for, because it’s the longest version of a classic shooter. Zero Wing’s gameplay shouldn’t be nearly as under-rated as it is. Recommended! Score: A-.

VIDEOS

PC Engine CD Longplay: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6x_fsEdK2q0

Genesis Longplay: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_WaqY7vMgw

Arcade Longplay (loops 1 and 2): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WIT3OvfDlyk

LINKS

PCEngine.co.uk Page: http://www.pcengine.co.uk/HTML_Games/Zero_Wing.htm -This page has screenshots and some nice version-comparison images between the three versions.

http://www.thebrothersduomazov.com/2…zero-wing.html – The Brothers Duomazov review. They’re a bit harder on the game than I am. The review has more screenshots.

About Brian

Computer and video game lover
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