Today’s fans of manga and anime are spoiled for choice, healthful with a wide variety of classic and contemporary titles available from retailers (or more dubious channels), urticaria but this wasn’t always the case.
Back in the mid-to-late 1980s, fans had to make do with what was offered (at extortionate prices) by the neckbearded vendors on the local comic convention circuit or, if you were geographically lucky, stocked at one of the better comic book shops. The selection was generally limited, and centered upon a cluster of better-known properties (Gundam, Robotech, Star Blazers) — a hodgepodge of import soundtrack LPs, “Roman Album” books, older issues of Animage, toys, models….and from some of the shadier sources, bootleg videocassettes.
The fansubbing scene hadn’t gotten off the ground yet. Apart from the handful of official English manga translations or American-produced adaptations, all the material was presented for sale, as is, in the original Japanese…and yet that did little to dampen fan enthusiasm. The plot summaries published in American fanzines helped, but even when those weren’t available it wasn’t that difficult to follow the goings-on in most cases.
It was a perfect example of fan-based gnosticism; not in the trendy pseudo-mystic way the term tends to bandied about, but in the sense of an insular form of devotion where scarce fragments of gleaned knowledge take on a mythic significance outside of any objective judgements of value, where the divine logos is revealed through superficially profound strings of cross-lingual nonsense like Super Dimensional Cavalry Southern Cross or Aura Battler Dunbine.
This was the mindset I was locked into when I came across a mention of Zillion in the “coming soon” section of a pack-in flyer of SMS games sometime in 1987. Unlike the other featured titles, which were illustrated some crude monochome sketch art, the listing for Zillion featured a small full-color anime cel…which I promptly cut out and saved in my wallet as I marked down the long weeks until the game’s release.
The game was based on the anime series Akai Koudan Zillion (English: Red Photon Zillion or Red Optical Bullet Zillion, depending on the translator). A co-production between Tatsunoko and Sega, Zillion’s story centered around a group of teens, “The White Nights” (often mistranslated as “White Nuts”) — rookie J.J., tough-but-girly Apple, and overconfident ladies’ man Champ — who use special Laser Tag pistols (upon which the Sega Master System’s light gun peripheral was modeled) to fight of the faceless Noza invaders and their equally faceless leader, Baron Ricks.
The general consensus from anime enthusiasts is that the series was pretty lousy, and based on the few dubbed/fansubbed episodes I’ve been able to see, I have to grudgingly agree…though it isn’t that much worse than most anime series from that era.
I knew nothing about the anime or its development history at the time, but I did know I had to own a copy of the game. As it turned out, Zillion ended up being one of the better titles in the Master System’s library. The game is considered to be the system’s equivalent to the NES Metroid, though that’s a broad comparion at best. Both games involve sidescrolling exploration of an underground complexes, but where Metroid is an incredibly deep action game with a vast labyrinth, Zillion is a much more compact and methodical affair in which mine-and-enemy-filled corridors separate single-screen rooms containing simple environmental and memorization puzzles.
Enter a room, negotiate the hazards (turrets, enemies, sensors, barriers) or use a terminal to shut them down, retrieve the four-symbol key code from containers, unlock the door, repeat. The ultimate goal is to locate the five floppy discs (because the Noza’s advancements in deathtrap technology are offset by their pitiful advances in data storage) hidden in the maze so that the player can enter the self-destruct sequence on the base’s master mainframe.
There are cumulative power-ups that will increase the character’s agility, endurance, and firepower, as well as allow them to spot hidden sensor beams. The player begins the game in control of J.J., but both the lithe Apple and resilient Champ can be freed from captivity and used (through the pause menu) as playable characters. Besides functioning as “extra lives,” for the player, the other team members bring their own individual strengths and weaknesses, though these effectively level out after nabbing a couple power-ups.
Zillion can still be an entertaining experience, as long as one has the right amounts of patience and nostalgia. The repetitive nature of the gameplay and in-game environments — not to mention the lack of any form of password or save system — can make for a rather tedious slog. It’s not a problem unique to Zillion, but something part and parcel of retrogaming in general. In an industry driven by technological stardust, rare indeed are the games that endure outside the cozy bubble of nostalgia.
Then again, sometimes nostalgia is enough, and a host of glaring faults can be salved over by the bittersweet recollections of a time when a hobby felt mysterious and exotic…and I would frantically scribble away in my sketchbook, trying to copy character portraits before the cutscene ended.
One of the advantages of that new-fangled 8-bit technology was that it became possible to generate background music more sophisticated than the 2600 era’s harsh beeps and boops. The Zillion SMS game featured several very respectable digitized renditions of songs from the anime series’ j-pop soundtrack.
Here’s the original version of Yuhki Risa’s “Push,” Akai Koudan Zillion‘s end theme:
…and here’s the in-game version, redone by Sega’s resident Master system maestro, “Bo.”