I know that the Gradius
series holds a special place in peoples' hearts, but Zanac
is one of those underappreciated gems that just has to be written about. I write guides for a lot of games these days. Some I like, and some I don't. I know that a game is really good when I push myself to keep adding pages to a guide, and with Zanac clocking in at 24 pages... yeah, I liked it a lot.
So what is it about Zanac that makes me think it deserves such a title as the best shmup ever made for the NES? Well, first off, let's start with the technology. When the Famicom was designed, it was engineered to push as many sprites as possible, and support scrolling to some extent at a hardware level. So any game developer can move little characters and scroll the background with ease. But what Compile, known today as one of the most legendary development house of all time, managed to do with that system was amazing. Bleeding fast scrolling, and tremendous amounts of moving on-screen sprites. If it weren't for the palette limitations, one might easily be convinced that the game was made for the Genesis or even the SNES. And all before November of 1986, when the game was first released for the Famicom Disk System.
Today, we live in a world of Ikarugas, Triggerheart Exelicas, and one of my personal favs, Ibara. These games, and even some earlier efforts like GigaWing 2, Mars Matrix, and DoDonPachi have pushed 2D scrolling shooters to their artistic limits, far outpacing what the humble NES is capable of. And yet, in many ways, Zanac still captures the intense spirit of these more advanced games. In fact, Zanac may outdo some of them in terms of opportunities and strategy variations.
Let's compare Zanac to Ikaruga. Not exactly apples to apples, I know, but just for the sake of illustration. Ikaruga is not really built on the same kind of power-up system that Zanac is. But looking strictly at the gameplay, you have three essential strategies to employ; stay mostly white, stay mostly black, or play as a even mix of both, whichever color best suits the situation. The rest of your brainpower is dedicated to dodging and surviving. Now look at Zanac.
In addition to the standard guns that Zanac provides you with, you may also employ one of eight different special weapons, all of which start out somewhat weak but still have their advantages, and most of which evolve into tremendous power-house weapons. This provides you with so many different ways to traverse through the game. You can stick to Special Weapon 0 and continue to collect Power Chips until you standard weapon maxes out with the Super Guns. You can level up Special Weapon 6 until you reach the point where when you fire it, it turns every enemy and bullet into an extra life and drops you back to Special Weapon 0. You can max out Special Weapon 7 which, even at it's lowest level, rips through enemies and bullets. Or you can suffer through trying to max out Special Weapon 5 which, as a laser, can rip through the mini-boss ships, but takes ages to evolve, and sucks in the process.
Many games that are built around power-up systems (such as Gradius or R-Type) really make you suffer if you ever build up your power to extreme levels, and then crash only to lose every bit of it. Zanac is not very different in this respect, except that it does sort of encourage you to keep trying. Extra lives are given out in heaps, so even if you lose a life, and you die five times trying to get back on your feet, you still have a good amount of lives to continue with. Even at your lowest level, you're still somewhat powerful enough to deal with what the game throws at you. Speaking of which, the game has always been praised for its "unique" A.I. and aggression system which ups the difficult the more aggressively you play. This was done before, way back in 1983 with Xevious
, and it's something that we all take for granted today as something a game should
Zanac is still available today in a couple of formats, most notably on the Wii VC. However, if you can manage to find a copy of Zanac X Zanac for the PlayStation (only released in Japan), you'll get a fully emulated version of the game, plus it's graphically upgraded sequel. The Guardian Legend for the NES was also loosely tied to Zanac, in that it takes place in the same universe.
I'm not sure what the next big guide will be for. Probably Castlequest, but I'm not too fond of that game, so I probably won't do a walkthrough, and there's a long string of stinky games that were released after that.