In last week’s installment of SMS Saturdays, view I waxed nostalgic about Zillion, a action/adventure title that was one of the better titles in the underforming console’s library. Zillion may not have been a great game, but it was certainly a good one — and most importantly, its anime-inspired aesthetics captivated young Andrew at a time when such things were hard to come by.
You can imagine, then, my level of excitement when word came though the (pre-internet) videogame grapevine that Sega and Tatsunoko Productions had scheduled a sequel to Zillion for American release. Details were few, apart from the title of the game, Zillion II: The Tri-Formation, and some tantalizing screenshots that showed a massive visual upgrade from the original game….
…but that was more than enough to put a 800-pound want-monkey on my fifteen year old back.
Modern consumers need only do an quick Amazon search to determine the street date of a given game. Back in the late 1980s, however, they were a nebulous affair, and even the most conscientious developers rarely committed to anything other than a vague, likely to be broken, promise of a “fall” or “March” or “coming soon” release date. In almost all cases, you discovered a game was available was when you saw it on the stands or got the word from a friend who saw it on the stands.
As a consequence, the months and weeks leading up to the release of Zillion 2 saw my friend Damian and I making many pilgrimages, individually and together, to the Toys ‘R’ Us in Horn Pond (pronounced “Hahn Pahn”) Plaza on the far southwest edge of town. There was a spirit of friendly competition in our quest — bragging rights for the winner and envy for the loser, short-lived in both ends but no less important.
I’m pretty sure Damian won the race for Zillion 2, as he did in most of these contests. (His decisive advantage was having a mother who was easily browbeaten into driving him around while I had to rely on my trusty ten-speed.) In any case, I soon made the trek over Horn Pond Mountain to acquire my own copy, the anticipation building with each spin of the pedals on the long trip back to Hammond Square.
The problem with a lot of sequels is that the creators of the works in question settle into a rut of diminishing returns. KOEI, for example, has been profitable milking cosmetic and licensing upgrades to the Dynasty Warriors franchise for nearly a decade, selling the same game, with minor tweaks, to the same audience over and over again. Zillion 2 sidestepped that pitfall by following up a pretty good action-adventure title with a decidedly mediocre hybrid of side scrolling shooter and platformer games.
Gone are the exploration, puzzle-solving, and rudimentary RPG elements; all which were jettisoned in favor of levels that alternate between navigating a mecha-bike through enemies and obstacles and Castlevania-Lite on-foot sequences where you jump, shoot, and curse slow-moving floating enemies until you reach a boss…or, more likely, burn through your stock of lives from pit-related fatalities.
In hindsight, the radical switch in gameplay between the two Zillon titles isn’t so remarkable. The licensed game scene tends to be a catch-as-catch-can affair, where marketability of the brand identity matters more than the actual product. It’s not remarkable the Zillion sequel was a mess, but that the original game was as good as it was. (See also: nearly every James Bond game ever made and Goldeneye.)
Knowing that sad truth now, however, doesn’t lessen the crushing disappointment felt by my younger self upon discovering that the feverishly anticipated follow-up to my favorite SMS game was, in fact, pretty damn lousy.