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Flashback: The Zillion Series

Ever wondered where the design for the Sega Master System Light Phaser came from? You might be surprised to find out that it came from a Sega produced laser tag toy which itself spawned a niche Anime series and two very different Master System games.

In 1988 there were three  games that never out of my Master System: Double Dragon, Space Harrier and Zillion 2. All three games were packed full of replay value. Beating seven bells out of Abobo never got frustrating with the aid of unlimited continues. The conversion of Space Harrier had music and gameplay that ranks up there with some of Sega’s best, all the more impressive considering the 8-bit limitations of the Master System.

Zillion might be a less obvious choice compared to some of the titles that were up there with some of the consoles best, but that didn’t stop me thrashing the bejeebus out of my Zillion carts, especially Zillion 2. The anime series that spawned the game is set on the planet Maris, which is under attack from the genocidal Noza race. Three mysterious guns called the “Zillion Weapon System” appear and three teens (JJ, Champ, and Apple) are chosen to use them to defeat the invaders.

The first Zillion was seen as Sega’s answer to Nintendo’s Metroid and had similar gameplay to Epyx’s Impossible Mission. It’s a punishing platformer that relies heavily on exploration and wasn’t for the feint of heart. JJ from the anime is the main character in the game and is tasked with rescuing his colleagues Champ and Apple, who have been kidnapped by the Noza. JJ’s mission is to destoy the Noza’s base by finding and uploading the contents of several floppy disks to the base’s mainframe computer. The game features room to room exploration, with shooting elements and a series of traps to deactivate and navigate. The game’s complexity and requirement to explore, find disks and progress through problem solving were key elements that fans of the title enjoyed and kept them coming back for more.

What is less known about Zillion is that it started out life not as an anime title or video game, but as a laser tag toy. A picture of the Zillion laser tag toy that started it all is shown below, taken from this Sega8bit page. It’s well worth a read if you want more detail on the guns, games and series. The toy was hugely popular in Japan and it was on the back of this success that Tatsunoko Productions (yes, the same Tatsunoko that made Gatchaman, adapted as Battle of the Planets) were commissioned to produce the anime series. Sega sponsored the series, which ran to 31 episodes in Japan, with five episodes dubbed into English and released in North America.

In what may be the first example of a toy and anime title inspiring video game hardware (rather than a software title), the “Zillion Weapon System” design was copied almost verbatim to produce the Sega Master System Light Phaser, in an attempt to cash in on the significant commercial success of both the laser tag toy and the resulting Anime series. The design of the original toy is nearly identical to the Master System peripheral (image below is attributed to Wikipedia user Knife-thrower).

My reasons for playing Zillion 2: The Tri Formation to death were less obvious. Its prequel is widely regarded as better game by fans. Due to its puzzle solving and non-linear progression through levels it had a depth that it’s sequel did not.The game features alternating sections with JJ infiltrating the Norza fortress on foot and then sections where you ride a bike that could also turn into a flying robot suit, the Armorater to progress and shoot your way through the game’s myraid of bad guys, with boss section seeing you face off against a number of special enemies in the confines of a one screen room. In a move that baffled some, Tatsanoko Productions followed up Zillion with a very linear,  jump and shoot platformer that some felt lacked the appeal of the original.

So, reduced to a simple shooter, it’s no wonder that Zillion 2 was seen by some as a poor relation to its predecessor. However there is a very large portion of the Sega community that remember Zillion 2 as a top tier 2D shooter that you could easily lose hours in, trying to reach the end. You see the game was hard. Really hard. Clever enemy placement and firing patterns meant the level of skill and memory required to get through the levels was immense. It was this tough-as-nails core gameplay that kept the cartridge in the machine for me.

When I finally did beat the game (by using the three-continue cheat during the Game Over screen) I felt a massive sense of achievement, after surviving wave after wave of bullet hell in the later levels. Youtube user talbot1939 makes the game look easy in the playthrough footage below. In reality this level of play requires dexterity that most Master System owners could only dream of.

So to sum up, the Zillion series is a big part of the Master System’s history. Without it we wouldn’t have had the Light Phaser and it spawned two distinctly different platformers that were well worth the £20 asking price at the time. It’s reasonably priced on eBay at the moment as well, so if you have a few spare quid kicking around why not give one of the games a try?

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2 comments on “Flashback: The Zillion Series

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