Older games generally don’t revolve their mechanics around a story or narrative like modern games do. While it’s true that many did have one attached to their title screens or manuals, most built their mechanics around general themes instead. Contra built itself around an alien invasion, and the mechanics followed suit with a pair of commandos trying to stop the invaders using a large and varied stockpile of guns they find along the way. This theming often served as a mere graphical skin. But true creativity rose to the surface when a developer truly considered how a theme can affect gameplay.
In this regard, Comix Zone stands high above the rest thanks to its very literal comic book theme. Though many retro games clearly took cues from comic book universes, Comix Zone used the structure of the comic book itself to create its world. Action took place on panels with white border in between. The protagonist, comic book artist Sketch Turner, must fight his way through each of the pages of his own comic book to defeat the villain he created and save the girl (who also happens to be a post-apocalyptic general). The gameplay is standard retro beat-em-up fare with some puzzles thrown in, another all-too-familiar element in a game seemingly full of them.
Where Comix Zone transcends its contemporaries is in how it uses its literal comic book premise to its full potential. Text explaining location and context appear in boxes, and people speak with word bubbles. An omnipresent hand draws enemies as you progress. Sketch jumps around panel borders as if he can leap out of the book itself for a second. Knocking enemies into a border will rip it apart. You can even tear a piece out of the book itself and throw it at enemies as a paper airplane. The creativity on display is enhanced with ironclad internal logic that also makes sense in the context of real comic books.
This theme proved not only to be inventive and consistent with itself, it worked shockingly well with the beat-’em-up genre, a type of game on its way out by the time Comix Zone released. Instead of walking slowly and stiffly from left to right, levels consisted of bite-sized chunks in the form of the screen-sized panels, allowing for some very focused level design. And the fighting itself became enhanced by some impressive art and animations that mimicked action poses found in real comic books.
Games like Paper Mario and Epic Mickey take very similar approaches by placing players in a world of paper or ink and paint, but few are as committed to their central theme as Comix Zone. Developers often attach themselves to specific themes and then transposing whatever sort of gameplay they want on top without thinking about what actual implications the theme would have. Comix Zone, with gameplay and theme linked with consistent internal logic, presents us with a world we can buy into.
Article by Jeremy Signor
GameSpite Journal 12: Comix Zone