You have to give it to Sega: they have made some absolutely iconic franchises over the years. Consider Sonic the Hedgehog, Panzer Dragoon, or Virtual On. None of them are particularly new anymore, but they’re pretty well known, despite Sega’s incredible mismanagement of their properties. Contrast this to Nintendo, who at least acknowledges the existence of something random like Clu Clu Land. Consider the case of Metroid, revived after eight years of practically nothing but the hype of the fanbase. As a result, Sega’s own answer to Metroid has practically been lost to the ages.
Zillion is a two-game series on the Sega Master System. The second game is a bizarre amalgamation of a shooter and a platformer, and isn’t really the focus here. But the first game, on the other hand, is easily one of my favorite Sega titles, period. Released in 1987, Zillion was actually a joint production of Sega and Tatsunoko Productions (which has gone on to do other projects) based, incredibly enough, on a laser tag game. Tatsunoko produced a cartoon called Red Photon Zillion, while Sega did the games.
Whether intentional or not, Zillion plays like an odd mix of Metroid and Impossible Mission. The story of the game is that you are an elite squad of three people (JJ, Apple, and Champ), tasked with blowing up the evil Norsa base. To do that, you need to find a red ID card and the five floppy disks—how awesome is that? They’re 5 and a quarter inchers, too!—and the main base computer. At the outset of the game, you only have JJ to work with, as Apple and Champ have been captured and can be rescued somewhere in the bowels of the base. Both of them are pretty useless to start for their own reasons; Apple can’t take a hit to save her life, and Champ is so slow and such a bad jumper he can’t do much more than meat shield through energy barriers. With a little effort, though, both of these shortcomings can be offset.
Unlike in Metroid, you don’t necessarily find new weapons and power ups as you make your way through the base. Each room contains “storage containers,” which look strangely like garbage cans, that you need to blast open with your zillion gun. These will contain one of several things: a floppy disk, an ID card, a healing item, a level up for your gun, the infrared glasses, or Fantasy Zone’s Opa-Opa, here as the role of a level up. A stronger gun has a bigger beam that can blow open more heavily armored storage containers, the glasses will allow you to spot trip beams that set off the alarm, and unsurprisingly, a higher level will grant you more health, speed, and jumping height. The cans will also contain symbols – four of them to a room – and all four must be input in the computer there to open up a door. These seemingly esoteric images are actually numbers mirrored on themselves, a fact lost on my friends and I the first time we went through the game. We came up with names such as “Bull,” “Helicopter,” and “Tomato Fountain” for these odd pixels. In addition to the door codes, you can also sacrifice an ID card for a special code that will disable lasers, conveyor belts, and similar useful functions.
Where the game shines is the sense of quiet urgency. There’s no save feature to be had here, no passwords, no anything. You’ve got to go through the game in one sitting, which can take about two hours if, like us, you have a giant poster-sized map hanging on the wall and a navigator to tell you where to go. Practically the entire time the game is running there’s one (thankfully good) song playing in the background, feeding the sense of moving into the bowels of the base. Working your way through the base, the color scheme changes as well: from a serene blue to a bright, dangerous red to a deeper blue to the final room, which is pitch black. Merely standing around in some places will summon a neverending stream of enemies trying to kill you. And like the Metroid games, Zillion ends with a timer sequence where you must navigate the base one last time to get the hell out. That’s a very bad time to get turned around.
I think a key difference between Metroid and Zillion is the optimal way of playing through them. Metroid is a game where Samus is going it alone through strange alien worlds, and really seems like a game to be played alone, to preserve the atmosphere. Zillion, on the other hand, is about a team infiltrating this base. It’s alright to play by oneself, but with a group of people it becomes something of an experience, full of course plotting, code memorizations, and general teamwork and confusion. It almost seems to build upon that atmosphere that JJ isn’t alone in this, that he has allies if he can just figure out where the hell they are.
So whatever happened to Zillion? Beyond the usual case of Sega ignoring franchises and characters, when the partnership with Tatsunoko ended, it seems that the animation company, in fact, retained the character rights. We Zillion fans take what we can get, though—one of my friends swears up and down that the armorless Samus sequence in Metroid: Zero Mission is a total homage to Sega’s rival game—and Ryouta Niizuma, the producer of Capcom’s recent Wii fighting game, Tatsunoko vs Capcom stated in an interview that he wants to do a sequel, and put JJ in it on the Tatsunoko side. Zillion may yet get the revival its scattered fans want to see.