An unstable economy might not sound like it would make the setup for a compelling video game, but Fantasy Zone is here to prove you wrong!
To be fair, the premise is little more than a justification for the fact that all the enemies in the game drop coins that you can use to upgrade your ship; Fantasy Zone is instead much better known for being one of the progenitors of what came to be known as the “cute ’em up” subgenre, alongside Konami’s Twinbee.
First released to arcades in 1986 and subsequently ported to a variety of different platforms, Fantasy Zone has been a beloved part of Sega’s back catalogue for many years now. And, at the time of writing, the recent Sega Ages version for Nintendo Switch promises to bring it to a whole new audience. So let’s take a closer look at that particular incarnation of this colourful blastathon!
For those unfamiliar with Fantasy Zone, here’s the gist. You are Opa-Opa, a “valiant fighter in an expendable spaceship”, and you are tasked with sorting out the Menon menace, alien invaders who are using misappropriated foreign currency to fund their war effort. In order to do this, you must travel through the eight planets of the Fantasy Zone (which is actually a solar system), destroy all the Menon bases and overcome the formidable guardians protecting them. Easy, right?
Fantasy Zone eschews the usual futuristic sci-fi presentation of many of its shoot ’em up peers in favour of pastel-coloured backdrops and vivid sprites atop them. Each level is accompanied by some obnoxiously, delightfully cheerful music, too; each and every track is an absolute earworm, and I defy you not to have at least one stuck in your head after just five or ten minutes with the game.
Opa-Opa’s ship — which the Switch version manual confirms is not Opa-Opa himself, as some have previously suggested — is a little pod thing, propelled by flapping wings and able to sprout legs to run along the floor. Its basic equipment consists of a twin cannon that fires straight ahead — and which can be fired rapidly by simply holding a button in the Switch version, unlike some older ports — and a seemingly limitless supply of bombs.
The ship is modular and upgradeable; successfully retrieve some of that misappropriated currency and you’re free to spend it on various new bits and bobs, including bigger wings, jet engines, laser beams, wide-ranging cannons, bombs and even extra lives. There are a few catches, however: firstly, each time you purchase an item, it becomes more expensive; secondly, you lose all your upgrades if you lose a life; thirdly, some upgrades are limited either in the amount of time they can be used, or the number of times you’re able to use them.
The game is fairly unusual among the broader landscape of shoot ’em ups in that it is a side-on free scroller — that is to say, the game doesn’t move at a set, scripted pace in a single direction; instead, you’re free to move either left or right as you see fit. Each level wraps around on itself endlessly, so regardless of which direction you go, you’ll eventually end up back where you started.
The bases you’re tasked with destroying are scattered throughout the level as a whole, usually at various different altitudes, and they gradually spew out enemies. Various formations of enemies unique to each level also spawn randomly from the sides of the screen, and the red balloon that allows you to access the shop and spend your re-appropriated currency is also a random spawn, usually (though not always!) appearing at the start of a new stage.
The original game featured a simple “radar” display at the base of the screen that split the stage into “squares”, highlighting a square in red if a base was present. The Switch version also adds an optional, more detailed map of the stage as part of the overall user interface, as well as a helpful counter showing how many bases there are in total and how many you’ve destroyed so far.
The gameplay is simple and straightforward but enjoyable; the simplicity actually makes it rather accessible, but the game still has some teeth. You’re encouraged to take a few risks to obtain greater rewards; many enemies drop the coins you need to upgrade Opa-Opa’s ship, for example, but going after them may well put you in peril.
The boss fights are designed around the principle of risk versus reward, too; more often than not, they’ll only become vulnerable while they’re in the middle of their attack pattern, meaning you’ll have to play simultaneously offensively and defensively rather than alternating between the two as in some other games. Each boss has a distinctive, unique, learnable attack pattern with some randomised elements, so on subsequent playthroughs you’re not just going through the motions; you still need to pay attention.
You’ll need to practice, too; unlike many other arcade games of the era, Fantasy Zone doesn’t allow you to continue when you run out of lives — although you can optionally enable a level select feature and start at the beginning of the stage you got a Game Over on if you wish. The upside of this approach is that it ensures the high scores you record are a pure way to see at a glance how well you can perform on a single credit; the downside, of course, is that you can’t credit-feed your way to the end in order to practice the stages and the boss battles. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though; it keeps the game interesting in the long term.
And if you want to put some twists on the formula, the Sega Ages version for Switch has you covered, too. All the coins you collect throughout your games are added to a cumulative stock, which can either be spent at the start of a new game to give you some starting cash, or used to unlock new content at various milestones. For example, one of the unlockable optional features is to incorporate the new bosses from the Master System version of the game, either by causing them to appear under specific circumstances or guaranteeing their appearance.
Probably the most significant new way to play is available from the outset: Upa-Upa Mode. Here, you take command of Opa-Opa’s brother — you can tell it’s someone different because his spaceship has a different paintjob — and play through the same levels with a slightly different structure.
In Upa-Upa Mode, you can choose which of the four available engines you want to start with, without having to upgrade, and from there you are able to switch both your primary weapon and bombs at will. The catch is that everything other than your standard weaponry costs money to use, either on a “per shot” basis, or as long as you have it activated. This forces you to think about things a little differently than in the standard game mode, and it also allows you to take advantage of useful weapons such as the laser for much longer than you would otherwise be able to.
It’s a fun twist on the standard game formula; it’s not really any easier or more difficult than the original mode, but its different structure makes for a nice change, and it can be fun to experiment with different loadouts and see what you enjoy. This, in turn, can help you out in the original mode as you figure out which weapons, engines and bombs you might want to spend your hard-earned on.
Fantasy Zone is an excellent game, and it remains hugely playable nearly 35 years after its original release. Like most of the other Sega Ages releases for Switch, the quality of life improvements for the new version are nice, but the fact the underlying game is so solid and enjoyable really helps things here, too. It’s a great addition to one of the best ranges of retro reimaginings available today, and well worth a spot on your Switch.
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