Today's article is all about the 2000 Game Boy Color game The Mask of Zorro, developed by a company called Saffire. It's got Sunsoft's name on it too, but I think they just published it. Sunsoft tended to make pretty decent games, you see. This is not a pretty decent game. I hope that the early revelation that this Game Boy Color tie-in to a Zorro movie is a bad game has not spoiled the article for you.
Yes, The Mask of Zorro - and it's taking all my concentration to not write it as The Mark of Zorro, which is a different Zorro movie - is based on the 1998 movie of the same name. In the movie, an ageing Don Diego de la Vega, played by the resolutely non-Spanish Sir Anthony Hopkins, passes the Zorro identity on to a young thief played by Antonio Banderas. Zorro Senior reunites with his long-lost daughter, there's something about evil aristocrats running a mine using slave labour, and in the end the two Zorros save the day and all evil men in California live in fear of a masked man stabbing them to death with a knitting needle. This is presumably also what happens in the game, but it's sort of hard to tell, as we shall see.
Okay, that's not too bad. I can see what the developers were going for with the silhouetting, even if it does look a bit like a horse trying to shake off a traffic cone someone's placed on its back.
Oh, that Governor Don Rafael Montero, he's as stubborn as a mule. Well, this mass of black pixels that is either Zorro or the Hamburglar running through a hedge will gladly give Governor Montero the confrontation he desires!
Unless Governor Montero is a grey concrete wall, I don't think this is the thrilling confrontation promised by the intro. That's the whole intro, by the way - it's just those two screen and then boom, you're given control of Zorro but not any further guidance on what you're supposed to be doing.
As for Zorro himself, I think it's fair to say that the makers of this game have done an excellent job of capturing Antonio Banderas' famous good looks. Why, I can see his smouldering charm from here. It's lucky for us that Zorro's hat is easy to draw with pixels.
I ran left and right for a while, marvelling at Zorro's purposeful stride and his flowing cape, a garment that has the grace of a binbag caught in a tree. Then I tried doing something else, and that's where the game started to fall apart. The Mask of Zorro is an action-adventure jumpy-stabbing platforming type of game, so there's a lot of leaping between ledges to be done. It is a shame, then, that the developers hail from a different universe than ours where the laws of physical motion are imprecise and fluid and where gravity sometimes just shrugs it's shoulders and says "look, I don't know what I'm doing, sorry." Zorro's jumps are a horrible mess of unpredictable angles and awkward lurches. He floats upwards fairly slowly but drops like a rock, and the slightest touch of the d-pad during his flight can make him veer wildly off-course, and even if you do land where you'd like half the time you'll accidentally walk off the ledge because of every platform's fuzzily-defined edges. Imagine trying to play one of the 16-bit Aladdin games but every time you press the jump button an electric shock is sent directly to Zorro's genitals and you'll get a good idea of what the platforming elements of this game are like.
Then there's the swordfighting. There has to be swordfighting in a Zorro game. It's kind of his whole thing, evildoers brought to justice by the flash of a blade and all that. Thus, swordfighting, and while it's not as bad as the jumping mechanics it still ain't great. Saffire took what I have come to think of as the Commodore 64 approach to swordplay, in that you hold down the button to ready your sword and then move the joystick while holding the button down to perform different moves. Press forwards for a basic thrust, diagonally up or down for head and leg swipes respectively, and backwards to parry enemy attacks. It reminds me a lot of Defender of the Crown, and it's no better than in that game. The high and low attacks are useless and can be immediately discounted, because they don't do any more damage than the standard thrust despite having less range, and the parry seems to only block attacks about forty percent of the time. Instead, the only way to get anywhere with the combat is to run in, go for one quick thrust and retreat to a safe distance before the enemy can retaliate... but not too far, because if you put too much distance between you they'll get all their health back. The combat is not entirely with merit, mind you - I like these three guys - these three amigos, if you like - because they act as one enemy, giving the impression that Zorro is fencing against three men at once without it becoming a horrible mess. More of a horrible mess than the rest of the game, anyway.
After wrestling with the controls for a while, I managed to make my way to the rooftops. While he was up there, Zorro started skanking along to some ska music only he could hear after slicing a fat man's trousers off. Pick it up, pick it up, pick it up. The tattered remnants of your dignity, I mean.
For those of you excited to see Zorro perform his trademark three-slash "Z" symbol, here it is. I'll give the developers some credit: while The Mask of Zorro is punishingly ugly, it has a few well-animated moments and this is one of them. You'll see Zorro's signature move fairly often if you're planning on playing through the whole game (do not do this) because he only does it when he collects a health-restoring heart. They're generally found in room that you enter by walking "into" the background at certain points, sometimes via obvious doorways and sometimes, especially later in the game, through hidden portals located in otherwise unremarkable walls. The game makes sure you never forget the vital detail of your remaining energy by having Zorro's health bar prominently displayed right above his head at all times, which is very helpful and definitely never gets annoying. No, I'm lying, it does get annoying, especially when you're standing right next to an enemy and your health bars overlap, making it impossible to tell who has what amount of hit points remaining.
One of these rooms contained a woman that Zorro kissed to restore all his health. The developers were understandably worried that the graphics would not be able to accurately portray two people kissing, and so they placed a giant heart in the background so that players would know that this is indeed a kiss and not a bundle of rags being tossed about by a strong breeze.
I like to look on the bright side of every game I write about here - even the *NSYNC game made me laugh a couple of times - and I was trying to give The Mask of Zorro some leeway until I fought this man. He is standing on thin air. Not in the usual "oh, it's a platform game so as long as some of my foot is in contact with a platform I'll be fine" way, he is floating, completely unsupported by any solid ground. I know Zorro is a fantastical character, but I didn't know that his universe works on Road Runner rules and no-one falls to their death until they realise that they're defying gravity. This inability to push people off platforms becomes something of a liability later, and you can't even jump over them despite Zorro clearly leaping high enough into the air to do so.
I entered some completely nondescript door, identical to all the others, and the stage ended. No boss, no "congratulations," just a couple of screens like this "20 Years Later" one. So I was playing as the original Zorro in that stage, huh? I rescind my early sarcastic comments about how much the Zorro sprite looks like Antonio Banderas. It's a spot-on likeness of Anthony Hopkins, though.
And here is Sir Ant, training up Zorro Junior to serve as his replacement. I assume that's what's happening, anyway. The Mask of Zorro has a slight problem with getting its plot across. The between-stage scenes are narrated by some digitised speech, which is fair enough if perhaps a touch too ambitious for the Game Boy Color, but the problem is that volume on these cutscenes is is ridiculously low, and when combined with the extreme digital compression it endured to fit on a GBC cart it meant I couldn't make out a single word that anyone was saying. It took until the second or third cutscene for me to even realise there was any speech. I though it was just some unpleasant and unintentional background noise, and I'm sure you won't blame me for coming to that conclusion given what the rest of this trainwreck is like.
In this stage, Zorro the Younger is still in training, despite already having access to all the same moves and sword attacks that Zorro the Elder did. His training consists of stabbing a rotating wooden pole. That might sound simple, but the pole is armed, and the spinning fence post with a sword sticking out of it proved to be one of my most fiendish foes because the small yellow target you have to stab to defeat it steadfastly refused to register my repeated blows for a good ten minutes before suddenly deciding that I'd wasted enough of my already fleeting existence to be allowed to progress. Not a great training montage, I have to say, but if the enemies from here on out come pirouetting at me like Freddy Krueger with a ballet scholarship then I will be golden.
After that brief and pointless level, Zorro finds himself in a mansion packed with bad guys of varying competence. Some of them have swords and know how to use them, and then there are these gentlemen, who attacked me as a pair but who turned on each other the moment I fought back, punching one another into unconsciousness as Zorro stands by, bemused.
This stage emphasises Zorro's gymnastic abilities a little more, and there are many spots from here on out where the player has to swing around on these beams to reach higher places. Of course, it is handled extremely badly, and the angle of convergence between Zorro's sprite and the post he's jumping towards seemingly has little impact on whether he grabs hold of the bloody thing or not. I think it's annoying me so much because I'd like a good Zorro game. Swinging from beams and chandeliers in a graceful, lithe fashion, dispatching enemies with your superior swordplay skills, that would be a lot of fun - so playing a game which clearly wanted to be like that but got nowhere near feels like it's giving me a little extra spite as it kicks me in the ribs.
Okay, that's a sofa sitting on a presumably purpose-built ledge twenty feet up that wall of this mansion. Why the hell is there a sofa there? Are you expecting Spider-Man to pop by for a visit so you got out an extra seat for him? Are you advertising a high-strength adhesive that can affix a couch to any surface and the platform is just there to hold it up while the glue dries? Are you insane, is that it?
The answer is rather more prosaic than that - it's just awful level design. Every stage in the game is put together with a level of care and attention more commonly seen in industrialised meat product manufacturing, random unappetising lumps smashed together to create something that superficially resembles the intended product but which is not much fun to consume. Enemies are plonked down in seemingly random places throughout the levels, half of them standing on narrow ledges where you're forced to lose health fighting them while the other half can be ignored entirely. Structures that are supposed to provide obstacles to the player can often by bypassed, frequently by glitching through them. All in all, The Mask of Zorro is a deeply awful game and sweet Jesus I'm not even halfway through it yet, please pray for me.
Hey look, it's Catherine Zeta-Jones, former Darling Bud of May and current guardian of Michael Douglas' mummified form. Ahh, jokes about the Zeta-Jones / Douglas age gap, they never get old. Unlike Michael Douglas. Credit where credit's due, this isn't bad artwork and is one of The Mask of Zorro's aesthetic high-points, in the same way that a rainbow sheen is the aesthetic high point of an oily puddle.
Zorro's in a barn now. He's fighting Jaws from the James Bond movies, and by "fighting" I mean "repeatedly stabbing in the groin." For his part, Jaws just stands there and flexes his muscles until the needle-like tip of Zorro's rapier causes enough physical damage to kill him. Cut to la oficina de la coroner: "what was the cause of death, doc?" "Incredibly painful, that's what."
There's a section where Zorro swings his way through a church, an area that I appreciated if not for the quality of its gameplay then because at least it isn't brown. A pink man with a gun is trying to shoot Zorro, and getting shot means instant death. That's not too much of a problem, because Zorro has infinite lives. Yep, there's no way to get a game over in this one, although you'll still want to avoid dying because as the game progress your respawn points get further and further apart, as though the game has realised how bad it is and it's subtly trying to get you quit playing. I came close to quitting several time, I really did. One of those moments was triggered by the realisation that enemies with guns can shoot through walls. I'm not sure why I expected anything different.
I went out dressed as Zorro for Halloween once, you know. It was great, there's something very liberating about wearing a cape, and the mask meant that most of my face was covered. Of course, Zorro never returned home to find he'd left his sword in the taxi and at some point his sash had possibly been dunked in a urinal, but in my defence I didn't go through the same rigorous pole-based training regimen.
Here is another of those poles. It has been upgraded. It's a Swiss Army Pole now. Giving it an axe seems like a mistake, now it can hew its own lumber and expand the ranks of its diabolical brethren without human help.
I know how you feel, skeleton friend.
I skipped another whole mansion stage, by the way. There was just nothing to say about it. I think I've adequately conveyed what a horrendous mess The Mask of Zorro is at this point, I'm running out of synonyms for "godawful" and because the gameplay doesn't change in the slightest as the game trudges it's not even bad in new and exciting ways.
Zorro runs into Catherine Zeta-Jones in a barn and, shock horror, she comes at him with a sword! So Zorro slices her clothes off. Fair's fair, he did make that guy's trousers fall down, so this is totally gender equality at work. This section is based on a scene from the movie, a scene that according to the infallible knowledge engine of Wikipedia left both actors "aroused." Now I am doubly glad - glad that I know what turns Antonio Banderas' crank, and glad that I can share this knowledge with you, dear reader.
A daring rooftop escape is thwarted by this villain. He may be unassuming, but he's also invincible. Well, sort of. I fought him for a good long time, landing blows as precisely as the clunky controls would allow, but I just could not hurt him. I thought something was wrong with the game, really wrong I mean, and it seems I'm not the only person to think this - I've seen claims made on the internet that The Mask of Zorro is buggy to the point of being impossible to complete, with this specific section cited as evidence. There certainly doesn't seem to be any way around this roadblock. You have to go this way, and you can't jump over Senor Paininthearse, but in the end I found a solution: I just kept stabbing and stabbing and stabbing while holding down the emulator's "turbo speed" button and eventually the enemy started taking damage for no obvious reason and died. I estimate it would have take about ten to fifteen minutes of real-time stabbing for this to happen. I would definitely categorise that under "game-breaking glitches," and I'm disappointed that the game didn't actually break, preferably into countless microscopic pieces that could never be reassembled by human hands.
One benefit of the cutscenes being unintelligible is that you're free to make up your own story to go with the pictures. For instance, in this scene Anthony Hopkins realises he made a huge mistake in passing the title of Zorro on to the awkward and clumsy Antonio Banderas, and in his desperation to find a suitable heir he panics and makes this horse the next Zorro. "Fetch me a horse-sized cape!" he cries, to no-one in particular. "Now, do you know how to fight with a sword? Stamp your hoof once for yes and two times for no."
The final area of the game is set in a mine. I assume that this is supposed to be the mine from the movie, but there's a serious imbalance in the ratio of guards to slave labour. It's all guards, patrolling this neon wonderland of a mining operating and probably thinking about all the lovely gold they could have if they'd remembered to bring the slaves along. Rather than liberating kidnapped men and women, Zorro is liberating these men from their own greed, then, although they're often stubborn and their refusal to get stabbed means this stage drags on like an under-ten's violin recital.
In this stage especially enemies are often placed on narrow ledges or right in front of doors, giving you no room to employ the hit-and-run tactics that are really your only way of engaging in combat without taking damage - and you need to avoid taking damage here, because if you die the respawn point is right back at the start of the stage. My advice to you - aside from advising you to play almost any other game than this - is to engage as few enemies as you possibly can, and if you do have to fight them, remember that you don't always have to kill them. In the screenshot above, for example, if you keep poking towards the enemy with your rapier, they'll just keep blocking your attacks... but eventually they'll move backwards far enough for you to dash through the doorway, leaving your foe alive to tell the tale of the time he faced the mighty Zorro and the mighty Zorro legged it.
And we're done. I walked to the edge of a screen that looked the same as all the others in this gold mine and The Mask of Zorro just... ended. If it was a book you'd go back, convinced you'd accidentally skipped a page, but no, this is it. I know there have been no other bosses in the game but I was still expecting something vaguely climactic - instead you get a message revealing that Zorro is dead, which is hardly the feel-good conclusion you might have assumed a game based on a Hollywood blockbuster to go with. Not to worry, though - it's only Old Zorro that's dead, Young Zorro has survived, having now taken full ownership of the famous name. I assume Horse Zorro also survives.
Oh bloody hell, I hope not.
The Mask of Zorro is probably the worst game I've written about here at VGJunk, or at least it's the worst game that wants to be a game, a sequence of levels put together in a certain order with a core gameplay experience in mind. *NSYNC: Get To The Show and Russell Grant's Astrology are worse experiences, but I can't really think of them as games: they're cynical collections of unrelated shite, minigame graveyards. The Mask of Zorro feels like a "game," but unfortunately it is a terrible one. The gameplay makes a mockery of the words "game" and "play," the graphics are mostly nauseating and the stages are frustrating, ill-conceived clumps of random elements artlessly bolted together to create an experience not unlike an especially bad ZX Spectrum game. Don't play it, unless you're looking for a new benchmark against which to judge all future videogame badness. I'm sure it won't be long before I refer to the next horrible thing in my life as being "a real Mask of Zorro."