Today I'm going to be talking about a game you've probably heard of and might even have played before. This means I'm gonna have to get things right, doesn't it? It's not like writing about something like Sanrin San-Chan, I could have told you that game was about 18th-century French politics and you'd have been none the wiser (the tricycle represents the Republic, you see. The three wheels are liberté, égalité and fraternité). So, here's a completely accurate look at Sega's 1995 Genesis / Megadrive no-Dad-they're-called-graphic-novels-em-up Comix Zone!
Yes, that's "comix" with an X, so you know we're heading into prime mid-Nineties "x-treme" territory with this one. In case there's any doubt, take a look at Comix Zone's protagonist: artist, freelance rock musician and all-round radical dude Sketch Turner.
If you took the post-MTV, mid-Nineties Generation Y mindset - or rather, such a mindset as imagined by slightly out-of-touch media types - and condensed it into a single character, Sketch Turner would be the outcome every time. He's the Platonic ideal of slightly grunge-y, attitude-having, counter-culture tubularness, from his fingerless gloves to his tiny and utterly useless sunglasses. He's got a ponytail, for heaven's sake. As someone who sported a ponytail for many years I can assure you that they have never been considered cool.
Comix Zone's plot is born of a proud literary tradition that started with Frankenstein and which was perfected by Short Circuit: the life-giving bolt of lightning. The comic that Sketch was working on is hit by lightning, which somehow allows the villainous Mortus to escape into the real world while also forcing Sketch into the pages of his very own comic. That's Mortus on the right, the guy who looks like the top DeviantArt search result for "Sexy Cowboy Robotnik".
I should point out that I haven't searched DeviantArt for that particular phrase, nor am I likely to. If you decide to do it, godspeed and please, please don't report back on what you find.
Sketch lands in the headquarters of the Resistance, where he meets Alissa Cyan, general of this rag-tag army and cycling shorts aficionado. She informs Sketch that he's the Chosen One who must defeat Mortus' mutant forces and save the world. The world has already be destroyed once and is currently relaxing into a post-apocalytic state, so you might not think there's much at stake. However, Sketch's comic-lightning interaction somehow means that if he dies in the Comix Zone, Mortus becomes a real boy and takes Sketch's place in New York City. Oh, lightning, you and your capricious reality-altering whims.
Here we go, into the fray, ready to do battle with that mutant loitering near the Statue of Liberty's crumbling head. It's a planet where apes evolved from men, and then apes turned into mutants. Sketch isn't the most innovative comic book artist ever, but this at least means he wrote the protagonist as being a master of martial arts, which will come in handy for beating up that mutant.
Being transported into a comic book means that Sketch can now fight like Bruce Lee in Skechers instead of the malnourished urban slacker he in in the real world, and thus the main gameplay pillar around which the rest of Comix Zone is built is that of the single-plane beat-em-up.
You'll be doing a lot of fighting, so it's a good job that Sega managed to give Sketch a wide variety of moves despite there only being one button for attack. Attacks are activated by holding the d-pad in a direction and pressing A, which allows you to bust out all manner of uppercuts, sweep kicks, roundhouse combos and flurries of punches. They're all nicely intuitive, too, with the direction you press roughly corresponding to where your attacks will land on the enemy - down for sweeps, up for uppercuts, that kind of thing, and after you've clobbered your first couple of mutants you should have a pretty decent handle on how the fighting works.
Hey look, a choice of paths to take! Always a welcome touch, and it's one that crops up a few times through Comix Zone. They all lead to the same place in the end, but it's nice to have at least the illusion of freedom.
The sewers might not be the most traditionally picturesque route, but in a game that looks as nice as this every path has plenty of visual charm. As you've probably figured out from the title and the premise, the big hook of Comix Zone is that it takes place inside a comic book. Each "panel" is a separate area in which you must either defeat all the enemies or solve a puzzle in order to progress, allowing you to swing across the panel borders or even smash right through them in order to advance.
The developers took the idea and really ran with it, providing Comix Zone with its own unique identity that infuses and informs every aspect of the game. The hyper-saturated colours, the panel borders, the character's words appearing in speech bubbles, the narration captions that appear upon entering a new location - if you've ever wanted to star in your own comic book, this is about as close as you're going to get without pulling on a lycra bodysuit, soaking yourself in ink and running through a paper mill.
To say the setting is Comix Zone's strongest feature feels at once accurate and somehow limiting, because while it adds an awful lot to the game there's plenty here in terms of gameplay that works well and would keep you interested even if you weren't punching your way through Sketch Turner's Totally Gnarly Mutant Apocalypse: The Graphic Novel.
The other half of the gameplay is made up of puzzles. They start off as simple switch-and-door affairs and don't really get much more complicated than that, the most notable thing about them being that they use more explosive than the entire mining, demolitions and fireworks industries combined. Exploding crates, warheads, landmines: all these must be navigated using your wits and occasionally your pet rat (more on him later). In general, the focus isn't on solving the puzzles to progress, it's that solving a puzzle correctly will allow you to advance without taking damage from either the aforementioned explosives or some other obstacle, like a steel door.
Here's a steel door, and to get past it, you need to punch your way through. It was unexpectedly accurate, what with me being sucked into a comic book and becoming the chosen one in the battle against the mutant hordes and all, but punching the door with your bare hands actually costs you some health. Sketch is still tough enough that his hands don't just erupt into bloody geysers of shattered bone and ruined flesh after the third punch or so, but still, I wasn't expecting it to damage me.
So, that's the puzzle aspect. Solve the mysteries and traverse the traps unharmed, or cock it right up, forcing you to kick an exploding crate so you can get past.
Soon enough you'll head into one of the mutants' bases, a part of his comic book that Sketch doesn't remember drawing. No word on whether that's supposed to imply that Mortus can influence this world without Sketch's involvement or if Sketch suffers from memory loss, perhaps brought on by his habit of taking off his shoes and sniffing his own feet if you leave him standing around too long. That's something that edgy new-media types do, right?
Another puzzle example - push the crate into the spinning fans. The crate is filled with candyfloss and toffees, delicious sugary treats that gum up the fan and make it stop, allowing you safe passage. No, of course not, the crate is filled with explosives. You've got just enough time to push the crate into place and leap to safety before it explodes.
Some new mutants appear, but they are runty and not especially menacing. Their heads and bodies don't quite match, and so they look like gloopy slug-creatures wearing rubber Hallowe'en masks. They can wear whatever masks they like, it's not going to stop me repeatedly low-kicking them to death. Well, unless they put on a puppy mask. I couldn't kick a puppy.
I should give another mention to the graphics, because this area has a really nice aesthetic - half steam-punk-ish and half H. R. Giger, while still feeling distinct from both. The extremely vibrant colours could have become a little overwhelming on the old retinas, but the developers found a sweet-spot that creates a comic-book feel without making you yearn for a quiet lie down in a dark room.
It turns out that even mask-wearing snotgoblins have a loving mother, and she serves as the first boss. But how will Sketch possibly triumph against a ceiling-mounted Chinese dragon with slimy coathangers for arms? Yes, of course I tried punching it, but that wasn't enough. It just momentarily stunned the boss, and I took my opportunity to reach the other side of the screen, hoping to find a flamethrower or, I dunno, a box of explosives. I found none of those things. Instead, I found a hobo fire.
Showing the kind of quick thinking that people who wear fingerless gloves are known for, Sketch pushes the flaming barrel under the boss and stands back as she burns to death, the man who killed her children and condemned her to an agonizing death barely visible through the smoke. Sketch makes a joke, which I personally found to be in very poor taste given the circumstances.
He also makes another joke right afterwards. Care to take a guess what it is?
Fired from what, Sketch? Life? This mortal coil? That's it, no more watching The Apprentice for you, I knew that Alan Sugar was a bad role model. Never trust a man whose head looks like a crumpled shirt dipped in iron filings.
So, if you guessed "you're fired," then congratulations. I hope you're proud of yourself.
High in the mountains of Tibet, Sketch meets a man with an extending pole who guards the entrance to an ancient temple. Punch this man in the face a few times to continue. I don't think that counts as a puzzle, does it?
The centerpiece of the temple stage is a mysterious Kung Fung tournament, the entrance to which is hidden behind a "secret" wall that would stand out as being obviously destructible even if Sketch didn't say "that wall sure looks breakable" when you stand near it. If you're feeling tough, you can step inside and test your Kung Fung skills to the limit!
And you though I was misspelling "kung fu" because I'm a great big idiot. No, this is a different martial art called Kung Fung. This temple also instructs willing students in the deadly arts of karateto and kickamaboxing.
It's a fight to the death against a horde of Mortus' mutants, which ends up being rather good fun because the combat in Comix Zone is well implemented and satisfying to control. It's not particularly fast-paced, but neither does it feel sluggish and the deliberate movements lend your attacks a solid feeling of weight, especially when you connect with a full combat and kick someone right across the screen. Only having one attack button doesn't hold the action back at all, you've got a wide range of attacks at your disposal and best of all the combat has plenty of flow, the loosely-defined feeling that I always end up using to describe good beat-em-ups like Alien vs. Predator. Moves link together in a logical, smooth way, which is good because the enemies you fight are a little more intelligent than in most brawlers and you won't get very far without mixing up your attacks.
Once you've won the tournament and have taken your place amongst the true Kung Fung masters like Sammi Hong and Jockie Chin, Sketch can proceed ever deeper into the temple. Access to the lower levels can only be gained by holding on to a rope that drops you down a well while gargoyles lick you. I'm beginning to suspect that Kung Fung isn't quite the sacred and revered martial art I thought it was. I mean, Shaolin temples generally just have loads of steps, not entryways that combine a fairground fun-house with some extremely specific fetish play.
Lurking in the sewery depths is the boss, and as ancient and villainous martial arts masters go he's fairly typical, all flowing white beards and talon-like fingernails. You can see some of his fingernails embedded in the wall on the right, and his manicure proves to be his ultimate downfall. To beat the master of Kung Fung, you must dodge his attacks until he launches his nails at you. They get stuck in the scenery, you kick the old man into his own explosive (because of course they are, everything else in this game is) fingernails and he takes some damage. It's good fun, although it does mark the point at which Comix Zone's difficulty starts creeping into the Frustrat-O-Zone.
Back to the blasted atomic wasteland for the next stage, and Sketch has encountered a large mouth sticking out of the sand. Sketch is too clever to be fooled the partially-submerged beast, but unluckily for him he's not the one in control and of course I made our hero run directly into the gaping maw, hoping to kick the monster's teeth out from the inside. Naturally it didn't work, and I felt a bit insulted when Alissa popped up and suggested that I "try feeding it something." I just tried that, and it didn't work! But then I remembered I'd been carrying a rat around in my pocket, so I suppose it's time to introduce my good friend Roadkill.
You can carry up to three items at a time in Comix Zone, and they're mostly one-use affairs with an obvious outcome - iced tea restores some health, grenades can blow up obstacles and there's a fist icon that acts as a smartbomb, momentarily turning Sketch into a superhero with a punch that can take out all enemies on screen. Roadkill the Rat is different, better, more advanced, the Swiss Army Knife of post-apocalyptic rodents. You can use him in a fight, where he can stun enemies with his electrified tail. He can find hidden items in the background of stages. He can activate switches. He can even walk into the massive monster mouth unharmed, allowing you to jump over it. Roadkill is, in fact, a much more competent hero than Sketch and if it was up to me there would be an enormous golden statue of Roadkill occupying the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.
Of course, that doesn't mean he gets out of his standing-on-landmines duties. Also, I'm not sure that's the correct usage of the word "sustain," Alissa. Roadkill isn't going to eat that mine, though I have no doubt he could if he wanted to.
By now, Comix Zone has settled into a very pleasant groove, with fun and responsive combat split up by interesting (if never very difficult) puzzles, which makes the fact that this is almost the end of the game even more disappointing. Comix Zone is extremely short, consisting of only three distinct areas, which is a real shame when there's so much promise still left in the gameplay.
It's also a shame that there isn't more variety in the opponents you face, with only four main mutant types and a couple of other lesser enemies - for once even a couple of palette swaps would have livened things up a little
While I wouldn't say Comix Zone feels unfinished, there's a palpable sense that the developers wanted to do much more with the game. The abrupt shift from a post-apocalyptic urban area to a mystic temple seems to hint that Sega Technical Institute originally had bigger plans and that Sketch was meant to go on a much grander journey than just "here I am at Kung Fung temple for no real reason." Games get cut down from their original plans for all sorts of reasons, but if I was to speculate on why it happened (if indeed it did happen) to Comix Zone I'd guess that they didn't want to compete with the next generation of consoles that were being released at the same time.
The game's short length is mitigated - although not necessarily in a good way - by the fact that it can get very difficult, and there's a lot of trial-and-error memorisation ahead of you if you intend to beat the game. The challenge mostly comes from the fact that so many things do you damage, damage that's often very difficult to avoid unless you know exactly what you're doing, when you're doing it and how much of it you should delegate to your super-rat. To its credit, Comix Zone never feels truly unfair, however, just strict.
After all that waffling, I've reached the final area of the game. Mortus has got a bomb ready, but luckily Alissa is on hand to defuse it. She's seen how Sketch handles explosive. Kicking it's not going to help.
Naturally Sexy Cowboy Robotnik isn't too pleased by this, and so he takes the gamble of re-entering the comic book so he can put an end to Sketch's meddling once and for all.
It turns out the rocket wasn't quite ready for launch, because it didn't have any rocket fuel in it. Being a practical kinda guy, Mortus takes care of two problems at once by locking Alissa in the fuel tank while it fills up, and so Sketch has a race against time on his hands if he wants to save that woman he's met on all of two occasions.
It's a strange fight, because you don't take on Mortus mano-a-mano. That's probably sensible, given that Mortus is a fire-breathing cyborg, but it takes away some of the drama, you know? Anyway, to beat Mortus you've got to lure him down to the rocket's engines and then flip the switch on the wall. This makes the rockets fire, which hurts Mortus, which cause a small winged creature to fly out of his back, which you have to punch in order to do some damage. I may have made it sound more convoluted than it actually feels during gameplay, but at least I don't have to wait for a glowing weak point to appear on Mortus' back or for an escort character to finish hacking the mainframe or what have you.
Once you've done that five times - not an easy task when Alissa is reminding you that she's drowning every five seconds - Mortus is destroyed and every goes back to being kittens and rainbows for everyone involved.
Everyone except Alissa, who died. And all the other inhabitants of the Comix Zone, who are still living in an irradiated wasteland. And Sketch, who is still called "Sketch" and who is still wearing those tiny, redundant sunglasses, and whose life's work has just been destroyed. That's Comix Zone's cheerful ending, folks, I'll see you all next time!
No, not really, come back. If you beat Mortus fast enough then Alissa is saved, and she shows her appreciation with a bit of impromptu ballet. Sketch and Alissa embrace, her reeking, fume-shrouded body pressed close against his, and as the vapours of the rocket propellant overwhelm them Comix Zone is over.
This time, everyone is happy, although Alissa may yet come to regret her decision to leave the Comix Zone in order to live with a penniless artist and his rat in a New York slum.
Oh, she got a proper job? Well, that's okay then. Good on her for managing to ascend the ranks of the US military despite not having any previous background or documentation. Sketch becomes the world's most successful comic book artist and presumably enters into a long feud with Alan Moore, as there can only be one man in comics with the power to warp reality. Roadkill does well for himself, which is nice. A happy ending indeed.
Comix Zone is like a steroid-abusing peacock - short, hard and spectacular to look at. A good game certainly, but one that feels like it could have been even more impressive if it wasn't so abrupt. Slight issues with the difficulty level aside, there's nothing here that's done badly (unless you really hate the radical and tubular setting) and I'd happily play through much more of Sketch's adventures than we got in the end. A case of untapped potential, then, but let's be happy with what we have rather than lamenting what could have been. Maybe if the developers had expanded the game, they'd have included a timed escort mission set underwater, so count your blessings.