To many, Sonic is not SEGA’s first mascot character. Instead, the sentient spaceship Opa-Opa comes to mind, from the 1985 game Fantasy Zone.
If you were outside of Japan, you probably wouldn’t be aware of Fantasy Zone until its international release a year later. Now available on Switch as part of the SEGA AGES range, the horizontally-scrolling shooter is perhaps best described to those who are unfamiliar with it as a retro Resogun. Players can move both forwards and backwards during its stages, and they eventually loop around. Your task is to destroy all the bases in each stage while avoiding enemies and their projectiles. Take down all the bases, and all that stands between you and the completion of the stage is a pesky boss.
At the time, two things stood out about Fantasy Zone: its aforementioned freedom of movement, and its cute visual style. They still stand out now, to be honest, and so too do its bosses, which are undoubtedly the highlight of the game. They’re inventive and challenging. You need to adopt a different strategy to overcome each one. Some are also particularly tricky to beat unless you have a power up or two active. While the typical gameplay of Fantasy Zone remains the same from stage to stage, its bosses provide some much-needed variety.
Unlike other shooters where power ups are acquired by flying into them, in Fantasy Zone they must be purchased with the coins you’ve picked up upon destroying bases and killing certain enemies. Once you have some coin, the shop that appears at numerous points in each stage becomes invaluable, especially if you’re having a hard time. There, you can buy engine upgrades that make you move quicker, powerful weapons that make short work of enemies, and bombs that are much more versatile than those your ship are equipped with as standard. Any power-ups you buy are only temporary, however, so you have to make the most of them while you can.
While weapon power-ups only last a short amount of time, upgrades to your engine speed only expire when you die. If you die quite often, then, you can find yourself having a much harder time as your coin balance steadily declines. You’ll notice that weapon power-ups get more expensive each time you buy them, too, so there’s an element of strategy as to which upgrades you buy and when. Needless to say, run out of coins, and the chances of the “Game Over” screen appearing increase tenfold.
Success in Fantasy Zone is all about coin management and pure skill – it’s not an easy game at all. In fact, many will find it infuriatingly hard. There are difficulty settings, you can even increase the number of lives you start with, and there’s even a stage select option, but even with all the odds stacked in your favour, you’ll be seeing the game over screen a lot. It hardly matters though; playing the game is so much fun that you’re likely not to care that you’re dying so much. You’ll just keep jumping in for another go.
Being an M2 port, you know the quality is there. The controls are responsive, there’s a range of screen size and filter options, and you can even switch between the original Japanese version of the game and the newer international version. There’s also the option to remap the buttons, and if you love the game’s music, you’ll appreciate the music player feature. Like all of the SEGA AGES games, a lot of care has been put into this port of Fantasy Zone.
In addition to the standard game mode, SEGA AGES Fantasy Zone also features an Upa-Upa mode in which you can switch between weapons and other upgrades at will. They drain your coins at set rates though, so you need to act fast and keep your coins topped up to maintain your powered-up stage. It adds an interesting twist to the gameplay.
A Time Attack mode is included, too, in which you have unlimited lives to complete the game. Because of that fact, it’s a good mode in which to practice and learn the game. If you get stuck on a boss you can keep retrying it without having to play through the whole level until you can do it with your eyes closed. Though good luck with the final level onslaught.
For fans, though, simply the inclusion of online leaderboards will be enough to make them want to pick up SEGA AGES: Fantasy Zone. It’s a unique game, and one that’s still a hell of a lot of fun to play despite its difficulty. The timeless, colourful visuals and stand-out gameplay means even those who aren’t familiar with it will have a blast, too. SEGA AGES gets yet another stellar addition to its range: whether you’ve played it before or not, SEGA AGES Fantasy Zone needs to be in any self-respecting shooter fan’s game library.