Of all Sega's classic '80s franchises, Fantasy Zone burned the brightest and faded the fastest. The 1986 arcade classic was like nothing else when it came out, with its surreal world and unique free-form shooting that tested reflexes and strategy alike. The heroic living ship Opa-opa was even named Sega's mascot for a brief period of time, but within a couple years they grew tired of the character, leaving him to Sunsoft before allowing the series to disappear entirely.
Fantasy Zone still sits at the top of the list of Sega's classic franchises, and when Sega launched the AGES line of retro revivals, a 3D remake of the arcade classic was one of the three games that launched the series, and it was one of the few of those early attempts to actually garner positive reviews. Now, some thirty volumes later, Sega is offering up a more substantial package, compiling every game in the series with a new remake that takes a different approach – but more on that later.
Developer M2 is the leader in commercial emulation right now, and the games in this collection are replicated as flawlessly as you'd expect, given their track record. Both arcade and home versions are included where they exist, including multiple revisions, and the only omissions are the scaled down Famicom ports, and those will hardly be missed. In addition to the two numbered games in the series, the handheld Fantasy Zone Gear, and the MegaDrive-exclusive Super Fantasy Zone round out the package. The spin-offs Opa-Opa (Fantasy Zone: The Maze) and Galactic Protector are even included for good measure. The strangest item is a "Neo Classic" version of the first game, based on Sunsoft's Famicom port, with redrawn graphics and remixed sound – a puzzling addition in the absence of the unaltered original.
The unlikely M2, a developer known almost exclusively for ports and emulation, has managed to do what so many of others have failed to.
In revisiting the series, it's painfully apparent that it peaked with the first game – a sad fact brought on, in part, by the move to weaker hardware for the later games. Still, Fantasy Zone II is pretty hard to resist, and Opa-opa is one of the better maze chase games out there. Sunsoft's Super Fantasy Zone comes closest to replicating the gameplay of the original, but it still falls just short in color, imagination, and challenge. Ultimately, the original remains the star of the show.
While there aren't any developer interviews or documentaries to fill out the package, there are art galleries for each game in the series with concept art, manual scans, ads, and other nostalgic materials, and most of the games have some superplays so you can see how the experts play. You can also record and save your own replays – a handy feature for Youtube show-offs.
Fantasy Zone II System 16
But as complete and impressive as the compilation is – easily the equal of the Space Harrier and Phantasy Star collections released in the AGES series, it's the unique "concept remake" that is this release's most compelling offering. Unlike most retro updates that add a 3D or high-res sheen to the same old game, M2's remake is designed to answer a hypothetical question: "What if Fantasy Zone II has been developed for the same System 16 hardware that powered the original, instead of the 8-bit Sega Master System?"
It's a fair question; one that has haunted many series fans for two decades as one of Sega's biggest missed opportunities. M2's answer is as surprising as it is great. Rather than just focusing on the graphics and sound, it rethinks the gameplay as well, taking some interesting liberties to create a game long on replay and raw arcade appeal.
The Master System original featured a unique structure in which levels were split up into multiple zones connected by warps. This meant larger, more varied levels, at the expense of a bit of the quick arcade pacing. M2 has taken this idea and changed it into a new system where levels are split into two parallel dimensions, a "bright side" and a "Dark Side." Key targets destroyed on one side will also be destroyed in the other, and there's no need to switch, but enemies and bosses on the dark side are much tougher (and yield bigger score and cash rewards). The new system is a good fit with the title's story, which centers on an evil "dark" Opa-opa. Taking different paths can even result in one of three endings, now, all of which are interesting.
This also frees the game to return to the mid-sized levels of the original without forcing an exploration component that doesn't really add anything. While most of the enemies in the game are from the original, don't expect to see all of them, as many have been replaced. Not all of the original environments are present either. The dull bosses of the original were always a sticking point with fans, so these, too, have been rethought. All of them have had their attack patterns complicated substantially, and many have been replaced altogether. With only two sides per level (compared to three-to-six in the original), some areas are given the boot, while others are interpreted quite loosely.
The end result is really as much of an original game as it is a remake in the classic sense. It's a fascinating approach to reinterpreting a game, and one that I hope catches on. There's no mistaking that the game is beautiful, coloring within the lines of what the System 16 could do, but pushing it further than its predecessor, recycling neither engine nor graphics. The remixed soundtrack is likewise fantastic, as well as surprising in both the liberties it takes with the melodies, and how true it is to the style of the original at the same time. Composer Manabu Namiki really studied the style of Hiroshi Miyauchi (arcade Fantasy Zone, Outrun, Space Harrier) closely, and the result almost sounds like Miyauchi covering Tokuhiko Uwabo's Fantasy Zone II compositions.
The unlikely M2, a developer known almost exclusively for ports and emulation, has managed to do what so many of others have failed to. They've created a Fantasy Zone that steps out from the shadow of the original to deliver a game that successfully replicates its charm, gameplay, and challenge, while actually changing the formula just enough to offer a compelling reason to put down the original for a while. The result is not only credible, but a game that lives up to all of our fantasies about what could have been. It even drops a hint about a new sequel in the future, and for the first time I feel like there might be a team that could do it justice.