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Zanac: Best NES Shmup Evah

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 do.

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.
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About Procyonone of us since 10:16 AM on 12.08.2006

My name is Scott. I've been playing video games since my hands were big enough to hold a joystick. I started with the Atari 2600, and graduated to the Atari 800 computer where I taught myself how to program in BASIC. I eventually got a NES, and later a Game Boy. The first summer I ever worked, I was a CIT at the day camp I attended. I worked all summer long to save up enough money to buy the SNES the very day it came out.

I attended college at the University of Pennsylvania. I was introduced to the internet my freshman year in 1993, and I fast became a console pirate, purchasing a copier and downloading ROMs off of IRC channels. Good times. In my senior year, I purchased the N64 as soon as the street date was broken, and skipped classes for the next three days to play Mario 64. I also bought a used PSX the same year.

After I graduated with a degree in Computer Science and a degree in Psychology, I was accepted to Digipen. I was part of the very last class that attended the school in Vancouver, before they moved the campus to Nintendo of America's HQ in Redmond Washington (across the street from Microsoft). After completing the program, I got my very first job as a programmer at Ubisoft.

I lucked out with Ubisoft because they were actually opening a studio near my hometown in NYC, so I actually landed my dream job and got to live on the east coast near my family. I worked on Batman: Vengence. I met a number of cool people, but the only one I still keep in touch with happens to be a buddy of mine who was the lead designer on "Army of Two." He is without a doubt, the greatest game designer I have ever had the privilege of working with.

The studio in NYC didn't pan out for Ubisoft, and they decided to fold the team up to Montreal. After living in Vancouver for a year and a half, I decided I had enough of Canada, so I stayed in the NYC office, which transformed into GameLoft. I stayed there until me and the buddy I mentioned landed a job at 3DO. We both moved out to Redwood City and started working there.

3DO wasn't a great company, but it wasn't terrible, and I met a crew of people who became some of the greatest friends that I have ever had. I worked on Dragon Rage, which was being led by Kudo Tsunoda. He told the execs that it was going to be an Army Men game with an art asset swap, and it would take 6 months to complete. The truth was we were building a new engine from scratch, and it would really take a year to get it done right. When the six months were up, the execs asked for the game, and we weren't even close to finished, so we had to do 12 hours days, 6 days a week until the game was finished. 3 months later, nobody cared about it anymore, and it went straight to the budget bin.

3DO closed down very shortly after. While I was at 3DO, I got to know two people who amazed me: Howard Scott Warshaw and Tod Frye, two of the original Atari 2600 programmers. Getting to meet them and talk with them about "the good old days" at Atari was an amazing thing to me. (I totally recommend visiting Howard's site, Once Upon Atari and ordering his DVD about what those days were like.) I still run in to Howard infrequently at retrogaming conventions and it's always a delight.

After 3DO, I worked for a THQ studio that used to be called (oddly enough) Pacific Coast Power & Light. It's known as Locomotive games today. I was put on the WWE Crush Hour game, the game that was designed to mix the WWE up with Twisted Metal. I created the game's shell and character selection screen. It was actually a pretty cool game, but THQ's love for WWE had cooled down when the game was close to finishing (right after WWF became WWE, the ratings started to tank), so they rushed it and laid off the whole team.

Wishing to return to the east coast, I applied for jobs that I could find there, and actually lucked out with a job opening at Firaxis Games in Hunt Valley, Maryland, home to Sid Meier. When I got there, they were toying with the idea of remaking Pirates, and were prototyping a lot. The results were mixed, and Sid decided to get involved with the development personally. They knew they wanted to make a console version, and they put me on the small team responsible for porting the game to the Xbox. I had doubts about the game, and I wasn't enjoying the tasks I was being given (such as working on the in-game glossary), and things didn't work out. I made a lot of good friends there who I miss working with.

By this time, I had been with four companies in six years, and my girlfriend at the time was in the middle of going to school to get her degree, so I did something drastic: I grew up. I ended up looking for any available programming job, and accepted a position with a UPS owned software company as an algorithm designer. I've been there since 2005, I get paid more money, and work fewer hours than I ever did as a game programmer. But I really miss the creative environment and working with people that I have a lot in common with, i.e. a love and passion for video games.

I am currently own and operate StrategyWiki, which strives to become the best online source of video game guides and walkthroughs anywhere in the world. I am now living in northern Maryland. Welcome to my blog.
Xbox LIVE:ProcyonSJJ


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