Now that 2014 is well under way, I think it's time for some vitamin R. R for robots, which is ironic because robots don't need vitamins to survive, just high-quality lubricants and the tortured screams of their human victims. Welcome to Toaplan's 1990 arcade shooter Out Zone!
What a quintessential name for an arcade game. Out Zone: it sounds futuristic, but it doesn't really mean anything. The obvious reading is that it's a zone which is "out" - outside space and time, outside mankind's understanding, outside a kebab shop at three AM on Saturday morning, who the hell knows? Maybe it's a verb and to out-zone someone means to be more efficient than them at town planning. Whatever the case, we can all agree that's a nicely-detailed cybernetic logo, served in a rich tomato sauce.
Here's you mission briefing, with the emphasis on "brief." If I was the hero of Out Zone, I'd be a little worried about the lack of tactical planning that has gone into this operation.
"What is my mission?"
"Destroy all of them."
"That's it? Do we have a plan? Maps? Any indication of the enemy's numbers, position or weaknesses?"
What do I look like, a robotics expert? Just shoot them, you'll figure it out."
As it happens, figuring out a strategy wasn't necessary because Out Zone is a top-down shooter in the mould of Capcom's Mercs, where the enemy forces swarm into your line of fire with no regard for their personal safety. A better mission briefing than "destroy all of them" might have been "try not to die in the first few minutes," because this is a game that doesn't mess about. One-hit kills are the order of the day and there are more robots here than at a Transformers convention, and death means being sent back to a checkpoint rather than just carrying on from where you fell.
It appears our hero is a robot too. Humans don't tend to explode like that when they get shot unless they've been on a strict nitroglycerine-only diet for the previous couple of months. The enemies are equipped with the usual arcade shooter ammunition of relatively slow-moving orange orbs. This give the appearance of being under attack by a swarm of angry baked beans, but if they're powerful enough to make a cyborg explode on contact then you can't really blame the forces of evil for ditching the standard matter-based rounds.
But what of your weaponry? Well, the hero of Out Zone comes equipped with two main death-dealing devices, so he's already a step ahead of most run-n-gun heroes who only bother to bring one. The first is pictured above, a three-way spread shot that can only be fired up the screen and requires the fire button to be pressed each time you want to shoot. It's most useful for wide, open areas with lots of cannon-fodder grunts and sections with multiple larger enemies whose fire takes more concentration to dodge.
Your other weapon is a rapid-fire plasma launcher which can be fired in any of the eight joystick directions and (much to the relief of my thumb) will fire continually while the button is held down. It's more practical in tight, narrow areas, especially ones where the ability to shoot enemies behind you is vital, although it's doing a decent job of destroying these battle-barges that look like a madman converted a microwave oven into a vehicle of war.
However, there's a catch. While you do have two weapons, you can't switch between them whenever you like. Instead you have to collect the "C" icons that are found in certain containers like the one pictured above. Touch a "C" with the spreadgun equipped and you'll change to the rapid-fire cannon and vice-versa, and this is one of Out Zone's defining features - choosing the right gun for the job. While you can just about struggle through any part of the game with either weapon, having the appropriate one equipped will make some sections much, much easier. Sadly it's a bit of a crapshoot on your first playthrough because you're never sure what's coming next, but the game's not stingy with the "C" icons so there's usually a chance to adjust.
I've reached the first boss. You can tell because there's a maker on the floor that says "1-BOSS." Every stage has a marker like this that lets you know the boss fight is coming up, which I thought was a nice touch.
As for my opponents, like all the bosses in the game are well-drawn and nicely detailed battleborgs that aren't necessarily that interesting to write about. That said, with their roughly spherical shape and red and blue colour scheme these things remind me of the Cacodemons from Doom. This is probably because I've been playing a lot of Doom recently. I thought of writing an article about Doom, but it would probably just be the phrase "this game is the best" repeated four hundred times, so read the article at Super Adventure in Gaming instead.
Oh yeah, the boss. Shoot them a lot. The spread gun has the advantage here because your targets are at the top of the screen, so you can just tap the fire button while concentrating on avoiding their fire.
And so on to stage two, which looks a lot like stage one so far. That's probably because all the stages directly connected: rather than fading to black or heading to a map screen once a boss is destroyed, our hero simply steps over the smouldering wreckage of the boss and starts walking forwards again, relentlessly marching towards this gate. The gate is protected by what appear to be two speakers designed by H. R. Giger. What could such twisted meldings of biotechnology and stereo equipment be guarding?
More robots, of course. If you ever have a question about Out Zone, there's a 99% chance the answer will be "more robots". Robots that like to play jai alai, if those big curved gloves they have are anything to go by.
Look at all the detail packed into those walls, by the way. You could have just drawn a wall, a plain and simple wall, but no - they're encrusted with camera lenses and strange vents and blinking lights. The graphics are definitely a good reason to play Out Zone, especially if you're into that heavily-detailed 90s cyberpunk anime look, something that's also true of the many "standard" shoot-em-ups that Toaplan are famous for such as Batsugun and Grind Stormer.
Not content with having you avoid death on the wide open plains, towards the end of stage two Out Zone has you negotiating these narrow walkways. Walkways that you can easily fall off, especially when you're desperately trying to avoid the constant barrage of orange gunfire that's heading your way. It's always fun to sidestep a bullet, only to to realise that you've stepped out, in the oblivious manner of Wile E. Coyote, over a vast black chasm. No, wait, not fun, I meant really annoying..
The second boss is a giant tank. So giant, in fact, that I think it qualifies as a building. It's got a pair of front doors. Yeah, I'm saying this one is a building. The doors are there for the purpose of releasing smaller tanks onto the battlefield, and between those and the big tank's helical beam-cannon Out Zone is already positioning itself as one of those games. Games I'm not good enough to complete, I mean.
After a brief jaunt across the lava fields of Whereeverthehellweare, stage three takes in an enemy base packed with (you guessed it) robots, as well as indestructible laser turrets. The most sensible way to navigate this section would be with a cautious, measured approach, carefully destroying each robot before advancing to a safe area between the laser beams. However, Out Zone is so far beyond the realm of "sensible" that if it were a challenge video on YouTube it'd be someone smearing lit fireworks in pure capsaicin before trying to eat them. The tactical approach is a no-go, thanks to Toaplan's addition of an energy bar. No only do you die in one hit, but you also have a blue bar at the top of the screen that constantly ticks down and can only be replenished by collecting certain power-ups, so taking your time can lead to sudden death. This isn't a game that messes about.
Thankfully, I found a new weapon to help me get through this tightly-packed warren of enemy troops - the mighty Super Ball. It's hard to tell from the screenshots, but while the fire button is held down the Super Ball whirls around in a circle like a medieval flail, except surrounding in a powerful field of purple plasma. Not only does the Super Ball travel through walls, it also launches a shot straight up the screen if you tap fire. In this case, the use of the prefix "Super" is not an exaggeration, and when you lose the Super Ball because you accidentally walked over a weapon-change icon - which you will, trust me - you'll be so disappointed you'll wonder if there's any point going on. With the game, I mean. I'm not implying the lack of a Super Ball is a reason to commit suicide or anything.
Also, now I'm seeing it in still pictures it has become apparent that there's a tiny spaceship inside the Super Ball. How mysterious, I wonder if it's from a different Toaplan game?
Boss number three is a laser-equipped plumber's nightmare, a tangled mess of pipes and tube that spews a constant stream of smaller enemies into your path. Don't worry about the lasers, though, they can't hurt you.
They just slice big chunks out of the ground, shrinking your already insufficient area of movement into a lava-bordered rhombus of certain doom. It's really neat, and I wish more of the bosses had a gimmick like this instead of the markedly less fun gimmick of squirting out thousands of deadly projectiles whilst sitting on the same spot.
Thus Out Zone continues, following a formula of base-breaching and robot-wrecking for each stage. This game has one purpose, which it achieves admirably - to constantly put the player through a barely-survivable gauntlet of action. All aspects of Out Zone's design are geared toward creating this frantic gameplay: the energy bar means you can't stand still for long, and even if you could it's in your best interest to destroy as many enemies as you can as quickly as you can, before they can set themselves and start bombarding you with more baked bean-looking objects than an explosion at a Heinz factory. Each stage starts out fairly wide open, but gradually channels the play along ever-narrower corridors and walkways, the battle to survive growing more tense with each step until you reach the stage's boss.
For example, in the latter half of stage four you find yourself picking your way through the twisting corridors of the robot army's warehouse district. As with the walls from earlier, those crates could easily have been bog-standard shipping containers, but instead they look like something a sequel to Akira that's told from the viewpoint of a forklift driver. The more confined nature of this area means the enemies are literally queuing up to be killed, a task I can accomplish with admirable speed thanks to the second special weapon, the Super Burner. Like the Super Ball, the super in this weapon's name is no idle boast and it can eliminate most enemies in mere moments, at the expense of the very short range you always get with videogame flamethrowers.
It certainly did the trick against stage four's boss, an encounter that marks the only time I've ever done simulated battle with an enormous mechanical Brussels sprout.
Stage five's big selling point is robot snakes and the deceptively small buildings that house them. They shrink as you shoot bits off them unless you target the head, and while it's a jolly little section I just spent the whole time thinking about those plastic segmented toy snakes. The ones where you hold the tail end and wiggle them about, until you get bored of that and then use them on your brother as a pair of low-rent nunchakus. Yeah, those ones.
There's also a section with a plethora of moving platforms and sniping enemies, as if I wasn't dying enough already. As is natural for this type of game you have access to a limited number of screen-clearing bombs, but it was only here that I realised that the bombs eliminate projectiles as well as ne'er-do-well machines. That made a massive difference to the feel of the gameplay, and on several occasions I managed to stave off death by activating my bomb just as a bullet was about to hit me. Less practical than a kevlar vest, sure, but far more impressive.
Here's the boss, a floating gunship thing. Does it have the ability to launch smaller enemies from within itself? You bet your ass it does. Step one of this robot uprising was to weaponise matryoshka doll technology, it seems.
Things are getting a little hectic in stage six. I could only tell where my character was by looking at the spot all the orange bullets were converging on. Did I mention that Out Zone is a difficult game? Difficult by the standard of most videogame player, I'm sure, although there will be those who will tell me that Out Zone is a breeze compared to a really tough shooter. Oh, to be like those people, with their split-second reflexes and ability to memorise enemy patterns. I've never been good at memorising enemy patterns. Or memorising much of anything, really. I once forgot my own name while I was filling out a form.
Does the high level of challenge make Out Zone any less fun? Well, that depends on what you're looking for in a videogame. If you're after something you can easily breeze through then the genre of "arcade shooter" is probably a bad place to be anyway, but if you're after a test of your joystick skills then it's hard to fault this game. The graphics are lovely, the soundtrack is good, the level design is coherent and intense whilst also popping up with the occasional section that works slightly differently than the usual runnin' and gunnin' - here, for example, these laser-spewing walls move back and forth until you destroy all the red lights, at which point they stop moving and become excellent cover from behind which you can attack the next wall, allowing you to (at least in theory) stop the walls in such a manner as to provide yourself with an easier path forwards. It's a little thing, but in a genre as crowded as this one it's often the little things that set a game apart.
Boss number six: if dolphins ruled the world, this is the kind of battle mech they would have built to fight against the invading menace of the Sharkanoid Empire. That's Suisei Robosenshi Dolphino-X, coming soon to a TV screen near no-one, ever.
I approached this fight as I would approach any encounter with a dolphin: I ran right up to it, turned on my Super Burner and tapped the bomb button until it exploded. I don't like dolphins. You can't trust anything with that many teeth, not if it's always smiling. They're the clowns of the sea.
Stage seven is the final area, and because it's set in the very heart of the robot army's production centre there are roughly twelve deadly mechanoids occupying each square metre of floor space. You get to see them being made, which I thought was cool, watching the robots awaken from their stasis pods or file off the conveyor belt and straight into the firing line of whatever gun I've accidentally equipped instead of the Super Ball.
The level of commitment to detail found during the gameplay makes it especially odd that Out Zone is so bare-bones in terms of story or characters. I'm not expecting War and Peace or anything, but when there has been so much effort expended on the sprites and backgrounds it's a real surprise that there are no between-stage cutscenes or even title cards, or that the opening was the most ill-thought-out battle plan since Don Quixote decided those windmills were eyeing him funny. I suppose it's a sign of the otherwise excellent standard of Out Zone's presentation that I wanted more of it.
After seven stages of toil and struggle - the struggle to keep hold of the special weapons, mostly - I have finally reached the final boss. He's a bit underwhelming. He's got a good design, captured in the same beautiful pixel art as the rest of the game, but he's still just a big robot. He's got a lightsaber, but no legs. I'm not sure that's a good trade-off, especially as it means it just has to float there while I shoot at it. Of course, avoiding its plasma sword keeps the player busy and it can fire what look like deadly yo-yos, but in the end it's just another giant robot like the millions I've blown up in the past, only with a cherry tomato wedged in the top.
This is your grand reward for victory: the exhortation to do it all again, at an even higher level of difficulty. You don't even get congratulations, plural. Only the one congratulation for the saviour of mankind. Like a dope, I did go through the whole game again, only to receive the same message once more, and at that point I had truly had enough of Out Zone.
To be fair, the Japanese version does have a slightly extended ending sequence, with this strange cyborg peeking out of a transport ship and presumably telling the player they need to play through the game again because he dropped his house keys deep in the enemy fortress or something. I think they installed your cybernetic eye on the wrong side, buddy. If you're going to cultivate the empty socket look, you really have to go the whole hog and become a skeleton.
Even more peculiar is that just before you meet the eyeless cyber-freak, you can a weird little creature peering around the door of the transport ship. I hope that's the mission commander. I'd feel a lot better about the terrible battle plan if I knew it had been dreamed up by the offspring of a California Raisin.
I would absolutely recommend Out Zone if you're looking for a high-energy run-n-gun title with plenty of opportunity for assaulting the high-score table. The gameplay is zippy, the controls are tight, the graphics excellent and the soundtrack - well, it's a couple of notches down from "excellent" but it's still above average. The weapon-switching mechanic works particularly well, with Toaplan providing the perfect amount of weapon-change icons throughout the game - enough that you're not frustratingly lumbered with one weapon the whole time, but not so many that it becomes a triviality. And still, something about Out Zone didn't quite click for me. I suspect my days of wanting to play a game solely for the challenge are behind me as my reflexes and free time dwindle with age, but more than anything I wanted just a little more character to spice up proceedings. Am I saying that I'd have enjoyed Out Zone more if our cyborg hero made robot-slaying puns like "he must have had a screw loose" or "I kicked him in the nuts.... and bolts" between stages? You know, I think I am.