Name: Fantasy Zone Gear
Format: Game Gear
Region Reviewed: UK (PAL)
Year of Release: 1992
Well, it’s high time I cracked out the ever-glorious and at times ultimately underrated Game Gear for more reason than simply that of casual play and time-killin’. Yeah, it’s time to get that reviewer head on and write some words on one of my most prized possessions for Sega’s only true (sorry, Nomad, but you didn’t haz no ‘clusivez!) handheld system…
This is a review from your resident Sega-nut of the ever-fantastic Fantasy Zone Gear! Also known as simply Fantasy Zone (on the box/cart), or most credibly as Fantasy Zone Gear: Opa Opa Jr. no Bouken (translated as The Adventures of Opa-Opa Jr.). This franchise title was a handheld exclusive, developed/reprogrammed by Sanritsu and published by SIMS/Sega. A familiar yet unique entry into the series that despite its shortened Western box title in fact is much more than a port of the original Fantasy Zone game, instead being a stand-alone entry focusing on Opa-Opa’s offspring, essentially pushing this particular sequels standing far into the game-universe’s timeline.
Fantasy Zone Gear (or FZG I’ll dub it for short from here out) is one of the many criminally overlooked exclusives on the good ol’ GG. In fact, it’s arguably one of the hardest, too!
Overall style and presentation for FZG is exactly what you have come to expect with the pioneering (alongside its unofficial inspiration TwinBee series) cute’em up franchise starring Sega’s original mascot. Bright, colourful graphics with lots of pretty sprites for you to destroy, coupled with its upbeat soundtrack using that SMS soundchip to its utmost strengths and bringing an absolute feel of addictive ‘gots ta get me some mo’’-style gameplay. Opa-Opa’s had a pretty raw deal since his introduction in the 1980’s. Obviously being Sega’s original chosen one (before being somewhat shuffled off by the platforming Alex Kidd, before he got the boot in favour of Sonic in the 90’s), Opa-Opa was at one point everywhere. With three globally released games on the Master System, appearances within Zillion, sharing a universe (the Fantasy Zone itself) with Space Harrier, various arcade outings, ports and compilations over the years – anyone would bet Opa-Opa would have a better overall standing in the present mind of the retro gamer. Unfortunately, Opa-Opa often becomes a character lost to time, which is unfortunate as it tends to equal the star’s games to suffer similar fate. FZG has apparently been one of the victims of such, you can easily chalk up Galactic Protector (a Japanese, paddle-only title, much like Alex Kidd’s BMX Trials) and The Maze with that, as well. But this is about FZG specifically, so I’ll try to not get sidetracked…No promises!
As somewhat mentioned, if you’re already familiar with Fantasy Zone, FZG offers no real surprises. But that never becomes an issue, or a knock against the game itself. Why? Because Fantasy Zone rules and what aint broken, don’t need no fixing! So you fire up the game and you get treated to a simple little title screen with the option to hit start or…nothing. You’re here to play, buddy! So yeah, nothing fancy there, barring the pretty look of the FGZ title itself. Be warned, though. Once you hit start, there’s no turning back. Much like the other games in the series and the genre as a whole, it throws the player in at the deep end. One hit deaths (say goodbye to those power-up’s, folks), increasing number of enemies with increasingly frustrating (and new) patterns that despite their cutesy demeanour want nothing but to bring death to Opa-Opa Jr. and destruction to the land (or Zone, what is it with Sega and Zones? I wish I lived in EngZone, that said)! So it’s up to you to stop the irresistible force as the winged sentient ship we all know and love (or at least its son). To do this, one must traverse seven levels/stages, essentially built upon various elements, which are; Woods, Fire, Ice, Water, Cloud and Desert, before heading to the unidentified Phantoms stage in which (as per usual) Opa-Opa Jr. must undertake the painstaking challenge of destroying every previously encountered boss one after another.
Oh and Opa-Opa Jr. can walk as well as fly. Don’t be forgetting’.
Of course, much like other games in the series, you can collect coinage from fallen baddies to use in the visit able shop in which to buy power-ups to become stronger, faster and ultimately a more deadly opponent for the games’ foes. This is something you’re gonna have to learn and master quick-like, because this particular title is rather hardcore. It may not be sleazy, yes it may look cute; but as always there is something rather sinister stirring underneath it all. What is it? Well, like I said at the start: this game is freakin’ difficult. No choice of difficulty, just straight up brutally hard from the off. Yeah, there is still a curve, but the sense of deep-end from the first stage is most definitely felt for first-timers. You could easily be fooled, or lured in by the looks of FZG and waving it off as a kiddies game, but this aint child’s play, you gotta be tough! With thumbs of steel! Muscle-memory and quick wits also gets you a long way, d’uh.
There’s a wealth of (often) pricey upgrades within the aforementioned shop for you to kit your sassy lil ship out with. The likes of the Big Wings, etc. all make welcome returns in this downsized edition and Extra Ships are gonna cost you big, despite still being an absolute must, as one of the things that has the difficulty level so high being the fact the game lacks a typical continue system. Don’t get any extra lives? It’ll be three-and-out soon enough, good buddy!
Being a side-scroller style of shooter, it’s all about the horizontal. But with Fantasy Zone Gear, like its predecessors, you go side-to-side (left/right) on a loop. Besides collecting coins and blowing up standard enemy targets, its Opa-Opa Jr’s job to bomb the bases, too. Literally. No, this isn’t Xenon 2. That review comes later (dun-dun-dunnn).
Yet how does it truly fare in the looks department, especially in consideration of the System-16 original on down? First off, it’s an absolute treat for the eyes for anyone with a fully-operational Game Gear screen (happy, Megatron? You little capacitor-changing’ hater, you!) or wuss-out and rock the emulation. Seeing is believing, but I can assure you that the extended colour palette of the GG is in full force here, making it a big step up in boldness to the Master System version, if overall losing out to the MD’s Super Fantasy Zone, but contextualise the fact this is 8-bit hardware and it looks prettier than any other 8-bit title with the Fantasy Zone name.
It’s graphically glorious, retrobates! My favourite art design of a level is Stage 1, which conveys all that non-conventional, nonsensical and surrealistic charm the series has forever possessed. The sprites themselves give off that odd-but loveableness for the most part, while being majoritively bigger than how they’d appear on other systems, mainly due to the smaller screen=bigger sprites tradition of the Game Gear. It’s also great if like me you love the Woods level, as you’re very likely to see much of it, at least to start out with. Seriously, certain background portions as output on original hardware look as though it’d fit right in on a SNES or something. Kid you not, sirs/sirettes. Equally the bosses are all rather cool, too. The Cloud boss in particular I like, which despite his at times infuriating attack patterns, he’s essentially this adorable blimp thing who fills the screen with floaty bombs and cramps everything up nicely. By nicely, I mean evilly. Be all, end all point on this one: it’s visually top-shelf. No arguments to be made otherwise, even if it can add to the difficulty with sprite sizes versus sheer amount of enemies on screen at any given time.
Fantasy Zone Gear is as musically gratifying as it is visually stunning, too. Packed full of memorable tunes, topped off with the best ‘til last with an ending sequence that is accompanied by a rather sombre remix of the main Fantasy Zone theme. The Master System/Game Gear’s standard soundchip has always benefited for the more whimsical and upbeat tunes, in my opinion; so as you’d expect I feel it gets the most out of it with the original music found here. Even if you’re throwing you poor Gear across the room in a maddening fit of total rage, you’ll still be humming stage music moments later. Catchy goodness that perfectly matches the cutesy action.
Worth mentioning as well is, as long as you’re one of the millions who find comfort in the Game Gears ergonomically chunky design; the game is not only comfortable to play, it also has some really tight controls that only help when attempting to get that rapid response time down pat!
But, Olly023! This game is overlooked you said! That must mean no-one likes it and it must be bad! It’s not even on Game Boy!
Get outta here, fool. What that above line was essentially attempting to poorly rectify is the fact that FZG is a damn fine title on its own, that is a perfect representation of the cute’em up subgenre of shooter games, though also a fantastic little entry into the Fantasy Zone mythos. Much like with the much-beloved (even by Nintendo diehards) Fantasy Zone II: The Tears of Opa-Opa, the game features a fairly depressing story if you fancy digging deep enough to discover it as opposed to playing on face value alone. All the positives that I’ve previously mentioned in this review, too; should shine light on the fact that this is a game that is totally deserving of any/every gamers time, energy and money, as well as being a true contender for one of the best iterations the franchise ever gave us.
Does it have its cons? Oh, sure. Many arguments could be made from the simple fact of – IT’S TOO HARD! To the fact that it is also very difficult. As yes, the game will have you losing sleep if you let it, for more reason than simply thinking of the torture of fellow sentient ships Zone-wide and more the suggestion of you just can’t master the attack patterns and often cramped board-in-play. Alas, it is all masterable, which is why it gains an old school frustration tag over that of unbalanced/broken. One niggling element that can be a real pain when fresh is undoubtedly some of the ‘well that’s a tad off’ hit detection that select enemies have, which causes instant death. Then again, this is not a title you want to be pulling last-ditch, Donpatchi-style epic manoeuvres on. It’ll only bite you in the behind.
I should probably end this review now with the inevitable: “I REALLY, REALLY LIKE IT MUCHLY!” – but I hope that if this at least gets one more person out there to give Fantasy Zone Gear a fair shot and a proper play, I will be beyond happy. Everyone loves the arcade original and Fantasy Zone II, I get it. But this little gem also deserves your time and I implore you to give it its due!
Long live Opa-Opa…Jr!
Verdict:- Fantasy Zone Gear, put simply; is a great game. It looks great, sounds great and plays great.
The only thing that hurts it and ultimately prevents it from getting a Lastability above a 7 is the difficulty being potentially off-putting and a lack of options (unless you fancy unlocking the config mode). To return to this, it'd have to be on your own accord, out of being a fan and wanting to rightfully beat it.
This is a pure shooterthon that will get your nostalgia goggles filled with tears of happy joy-joy laced with old school frustration. Like I said, Fantasy Zone Gear is a great game.
Second Opinion:- Playing this game takes Transbot back to better days, when games were not only cute and colourful but hard as nails to complete.
You would think that on a smaller screen this would not work but the nature of the sprites means that it's easy to follow the action. It does have more than 2 levels though which for a side scrolling shooter is overkill if you ask this robot.
Transbot Scores:- 8 out of 10