Thursday, November 5, 2015

Yet Strangely Compelling: Mega Zone

You ever run into a video game that you were pretty sure wasn't great, yet had an inexplicable hold on you all the same? For me, Konami's Mega Zone is one of those unhealthy addictions. It's largely derivative of better games and frustrating enough to turn me into a raging volcano of expletives, yet when I see the arcade cabinet in a bowling alley or laundromat, you'd better believe one of my quarters is going to end up in its stomach.

"Feed me, Seymour!"
(image from KLOV)
Anyway. Mega Zone is one of the titles from Konami's curly K period, before it went on to greater fame as a console game publisher and decades before it threw its reputation away on fitness clubs and pachinko. Back in 1983, Namco's Xevious was hugely popular in Japanese arcades, so it's not surprising that Mega Zone tightly clutches its coattails, offering the same vertically scrolling shoot 'em up action. However, there are few wrinkles to the gameplay worth exploring...

◦ The sleek Solvalou in Namco's game has been replaced with an amphibious tank. It skims over terrain and across vast bodies of water at the same speed, which is always just slightly slower than you'd like it to move. This makes it extremely important to react to enemies as they appear, rather than trying to dodge them at the last second. Trust me, you'll lose more tanks that way.

◦ Tiny brown diamonds litter the playfield. They're not worth much on their own, but collect thirteen and you'll find a capsule marked with the word "MEG." Grabbing this merges your tank with one of your remaining lives, creating the mighty MegaTank. The MegaTank has triple the firepower of the standard model, making it critical for surviving the later areas, but it's just as slow and a bit chunkier. Worst of all, getting clipped by an enemy or one of its shots returns the tank to its original form while robbing you of the life you used to upgrade it. You're telling me I had to grab a small fortune in gems AND sacrifice a tank just to power up, AND it's nowhere near as cool as the quintet of ships in Terra Cresta? Dirty pool, Konami.

Mucha Lucha.
◦ There's a weird ocular theme throughout Mega Zone. Every couple of screens, you'll run across a metal-reinforced eyeball that scans the playfield for intruders. Nail the eye in its exposed pupil and it dies, leaving behind a small pink tear. Grab that and everything else on the screen dies, too. Later in the game, you'll find larger eyes that fire laser rings, and at the end of your journey, there's a luchador mask which chokes the screen with bouncing eyeballs. The ping-ponging peepers remain on the screen even after you've destroyed the mask, a parting insult from the game's only boss. 

◦ Mega Zone's got some of the most unbelievably aggravating enemies you've seen in a top-down shooter from the early 1980s. Sure, it seems easy enough at first, but the stationary cannons and easily dispatched ships are joined by madly spiraling clusters of orbs, zigzagging fighters that love to unload missiles in your face, and flowers that reach the bottom of the screen, only to make a hasty U-turn and lodge themselves in your colon. Brick walls spring up out of nowhere to block your shots, and rolling meteors hone in on you with lethal accuracy... and that's just the first half of the game!

The game isn't as polished as Xevious, and it makes its contempt for the player obvious almost from the start. Maybe that's what makes it so addictive, though. Like the rigged carnival game or the dunk tank clown who points out you've had one corn dog too many, Mega Zone lights a vengeful fire within you that makes you desperate to conquer it, no matter how unlikely that may be. Best of all, it's been playable in MAME for at least a decade now, so it won't cost you anything... except maybe your pride.


  1. "You ever run into a video game that you were pretty sure wasn't all that great, yet had an inexplicable hold on you all the same?"

    I know that feeling all too well, and there's nothing wrong with liking a bad game. Even bad games can be inspiration for making good ones.

    As for arcade stuff, while I've never seen a machine in the wild, if I ever find an arcade machine of King & Balloon you bet your ass I'll pop some quarters into it. It may just be another Space Invaders-like (Namco made lots of those) but it's competent enough at what it does, and the goofy voice acting and lives being tied to the king's safety instead of your li'l crossbow guys is pretty neat when you consider this was a game made back in 1980.

    1. I played that one with Jeremy Parish... it was included in the Japanese Playstation release Namco Museum Encore. It does have a certain novelty to it, especially the way the king squeals "Help-o! Help-o!" as he's carried away to an uncertain fate.

    2. I first played the game in Namco Museum Battle Collection on PSP, which has options for both the US version's English dub and the original Japanese version's "Engrish" voices. Both are goofy and ridiculous.