People often refer to Zillion as Sega’s answer to Metroid—I’m pretty sure I’m guilty of doing it myself—and that’s probably true enough to a certain degree. But while the sci-fi milieu of the game and its emphasis on exploration and item collection may remind one of Nintendo’s Zebesian masterpiece of one year prior, Zillion’s structure is more reminiscent of the 8-bit personal computer games of the era.
Unlike Metroid’s vast, interlinked map and persistent sense of world and progress, Zillion’s world is considerably more linear and much less about making gradual progress over the long term. The action isn’t broken into stages in the traditional sense, but its areas are considerably more discrete than Metroid’s. Progress is doled out via key cards and codes rather than hinging organically on the characters’ personal evolution and empowerment. And it’s a hell of a lot less forgiving: Where Metroid allowed a certain degree of carry-over upon death, giving gamers a clement touch in retaining the powers and equipment they’d acquired up until the instant of Samus’ demise and starting them back at the entrance to the current zone, Zillion rewards players with a chance to start the game from the beginning when they run out of crew members.
Zillion, it has to be said, is also a lot less fun than Metroid. True enough, the original 8-bit Metroid hasn’t aged with perfect grace; its backgrounds are dull, its hidden secrets tend to be unfairly obscured, and death is its own punishment as each newly continued session begins the players with 30 health points (out of several hundred maximum) that have to be refilled with slow, tedious grinding.
But Zillion is worse. It features sticky controls that hinder the player in tough situations, made all the worse by the Master System’s square D-pad (which tends to cause your characters to lay prone at the most inopportune times if your thumb strays from those all-important cardinal directions). Its codes and secrets can feel maddeningly arbitrary, with little room for forgiveness. And its rooms are unfair deathtraps full of unexpected hair-trigger devices that tear through your team’s health. Toilsome as farming health drops in Metroid can be, at least you have the option. There’s no such luck in Zillion.
And yet, Zillion isn’t terrible. On the contrary, if you’re up for a challenge and don’t need to be even remotely pampered by your games, it can be pretty fun. The secret is to approach it not as Sega’s take on Metroid—Alien Syndrome holds up better to that flavor of scrutiny—but rather as a fairly amazing licensed game. See, Zillion was actually created as part of a multimedia blitz around a toy light gun, a tie-in with an anime. Compare it to terrible competing shows like Lazer Tag Academy and awful toy gun companion games like Gotcha! and what you have is nothing short of a masterpiece by the sketchy standards of early game licensing. Zillion is a cool, ambitious game, especially when Sega could have slapped together a crummy arcade shooter for the Light Phazer and called it a day. This is good stuff!
Now, the sequel, on the other hand… well, let’s just pretend that one never happened.
Article by Jeremy Parish
GameSpite Journal 12: Zillion