When I was ten I moved to the Cambridgeshire fens from a better place. My new school sucked, the students all seemed dull and stupid and as a result of my accelerated education at my previous school all I was left with was sitting in the book corner. This turned me into a bit of a scallywag. Eventually my behaviour resulted in me being ‘banished’ from the playground, but it was the best thing in the world. I had to stay inside and I was put in a room above some offices, which was a storage room for old school equipment and stuff.
I was given a BBC Micro to play ‘educational’ games and I was allowed two friends to join me each day. Suffice to say, this became a den of legendary proportions, with EVERYONE wanting in. I ran this exclusive club for 6 months, before I uncovered a stash of issues of The Beano from the 70’s and early 80’s. This was paper gold and I spent the following month reading EVERY issue. Sadly just a few weeks later someone set fire to that area of the school and they were lost forever, but my transformation into ‘The Comic-book Kid’ was complete. Ever since that time I have been on a quest to find comic book gaming perfection, and since 1995 one game in particular has ruled them all. Comix Zone.
Featuring a non-licensed set of characters the developers were free to take full control of the world and concentrate on the presentation of the game. Every level is made up of a series of comic panels, which the hero bursts through, tears apart and manipulates into paper airplanes. Monsters are ‘drawn’ into the scene by the lead villain, and we as the player only find out the plot development through the heroes eyes. A genuinely creative game it still stands as the best representation of the world of comics on any gaming platform.
Graphics in a comic book game should look like a comic book. FACT.
So many games tried to take the characters out of the page, and put them into the game afresh, but this loses the charm and visual flair that a series of panels on a page can convey, so massive kudos to the game for sticking with the panels, and making them their own. We are not simply in frames, we move through them. The tear effects are decent, the monsters suitably comic book and the hand drawn aspect gives it all life. The world of the comic is presented in such a convincing way that many players are surprised when a new creature appears, almost expecting a static shot throughout. A minor niggle comes from the fact that the foreground obscures items from time to time, but this is more than acceptable when you consider the fact that a flat 2D comic is given depth of field. Overall you can keep your ‘cel-shaded’ Spider-man, Comix Zone is far more convincing.
Opening with a soft-rock Elvis tribute, then featuring a synth-electro pop soundtrack throughout this game does not disappoint on the music front. With the dialogue presented in speech bubbles there is no need for digitised sound, but our hero is not part of the comic world, so he lets out select bursts of well digitised grunts and cries when relevant, while the monsters he faces are given a few sounds, just to add to their presence. It would have been nice to have more speech, but the ominous laughter of the evil drawing and explosions from time to time make sure that the sound on this title is suited to the game.
As I mentioned before, I have played a lot of comic book games in my quest for comic game perfection, and I am often upset by the liberties taken by some companies, claiming that cel-shaded graphics make a game have a ‘comic book feel’, which they don’t, they just looked cel-shaded; try telling a Frank Miller fan that Sin City would have looked better cel-shaded, makes my blood boil. This game was blessed by graphical limitation. Sprites are already pretty much 2D comic creations. Save time, don’t create dynamic lighting and gun flares and you are left with a comic book game’s skeleton. Add a few panels and replace crappy speech with speech bubbles and you are set. This game is pure comic book. You see a screenshot and you pretty much know what the game is all about. Back in the days when we had to franticly rely on Mr. Rignall and friends for all our videogame news, a shot from Comix Zone allowed us to see so much more than ‘just another beat-em-up’. The music is perfectly chosen, the world is familiar, yet suitably different, and the lead character doesn’t quite understand it all.
Comix Zone plays like a dream, despite the obvious limitations of Sega’s slack buttons. With basic controls and a mini inventory the player is free to concentrate on playing the game, trying to find secret short cuts and generally kicking ass. Taking influence from a range of comics and not being limited to a license, the game is more non-geek friendly, not relying on a background. Instead we see the artist captured by one of his creations and dumped in the world he created. That’s all we know, all he knows, and all anyone has any right to know at the beginning of a game. Too many games have a tendency to have too much reliance on a five minute long intro sequence to tell a massive story. I want to play, not have to watch details and this game works perfectly. As the game progresses we are given the information as the hero does. No cut scenes, no cut away to villains sat in a hollowed out volcano torturing a girl in a silver bikini, just a full on immersive gaming experience. When classing this game I class it as a free roaming comic book beat ’em up, and that’s exactly what it is. There is no need to confuse games with overly complex controls or pretentious story lines, and Comix Zone is exactly what it says on the tin. You pick it up, you play, and you go back to the mundane real world again. That’s it.
When looking back on a game, it is often either a misty-eyed nostalgic experience or a bit of a let down, but in the case of Comix Zone I found I was playing a very solid, well made game. Many years after release and it still looks great, mostly due to the fact that a comic book game, that looks like a comic is not going to date too quickly. Try saying the same thing about Captain America and the Avengers or even Superman 64. The game is tough in places, fun to watch someone else play, and ultimately a real gem of a game. Sadly coming towards the end of the reign of the Mega Drive the game was overlooked by a lot of players who were concerned with the impending arrival of the new CD based machines (grrrrr) but for those brave few who kept soldiering on, the game came to represent everything the Mega Drive did well. I would still class this as the best comic book game I have ever played, and I would count it as one of my top ten all time favourites today.
If you are interested in trying the game out – without resorting to downloading emulators and ROMS, and let’s be honest you really should be going for the more authentic cartridge experience – you can grab the original version on eBay or on sites like Console Passion, you can unlock it in Sonic Mega Collection Plus, is available on numerous Sega Mega Drive/Genesis collections or on XBLA/PSN/Wii Virtual Console, so really no excuse to go and download a ROM now is there?