The Atari Lynx has proven to be the system that simply will not die. It's a bit different than other systems, which were buried and then revived years later by nostalgic fans. In 1999, Atari opened the license to the system, just as the remaining third party, Telegames, was releasing its last game, opening the way for a seamless – and sometimes blurry – transition to the homebrew era. Now, a decade later, games are still trickling out, and Zaku is one of the best reasons to dust off the bulky handheld in years.
This is Super Fighter Team's first publishing effort for the system, and they've done a remarkable job of making this feel like an authentic release. Not only does it come in a proper Lynx box, with a full-color, 31-page manual (a luxury not even official releases had), but it's the first Lynx game to release on a proper "curved lip" plastic cartridge since the system's commercial life. Apart from the box art itself, nothing about this presentation screams homebrew.
All this is important, because the Lynx is obviously no longer a compelling piece of hardware without any nostalgia to bolster it. The decision to spend more money to release a game to a tiny market is by nature fueled by fond memories. Part of the appeal of a new Lynx game is that it offers something authentic to that time. Zaku does an admirable job of crafting a believable side-scrolling shooter, steeped in early '90s charm.
While Raiden and Zarlor Mercenary filled the need for shooters on the Lynx, the system never really had much in the way of side-scrollers (sorry, Gates of Zendecon). Zaku takes a heaping helping of Hudson's Air Zonk and sprinkles in a bit of Euro-shmup flavor to fill that void nicely. This is an old-school, tough-as-nails action game with a small but varied move set, and an unrepentant love of giant, screen-filling bosses.
Although the art on the box and manual is a bit amateurish, it somehow translates better in-game. The Lynx's low-res screen jives well with the simple, big-headed designs. Each of the game's levels – and there are a whopping 16 of them – has its own graphics, backgrounds packed with parallax layers, and a unique boss. These towering baddies are often intimidating, and usually quite challenging, although sometimes their attacks are a bit too repetitive and predictable. Despite this, Zaku is no easy journey, and even on the lower difficulty settings (there are four in all), it'll take some practice to complete. The game builds up to a climactic battle against a parade of original bosses that stands as Zaku's defining moment.
Despite its indie roots and memory limitations, there's no lack of content. This is a long game for its genre, and completing it can tear through a good of the system's battery life. For this reason, it's somewhat disappointing that there is no password system to save progress. There's also not a great deal of scoring strategy, as there are no power-ups or meaningful weapon distinctions beyond the basic move set (basic fire, charge shot, rear thrusters, and a close range shield attack).
There have been better homages to the '90s shmup in recent years (Mogura 2 comes to mind), but there haven't been better Lynx games. This is not a meaningless distinction, either, as the Lynx's homebrew scene has always turned out games of exceptional quality, including Alpine Games and the Yatsuna titles. But Zaku has surpassed them with an authentic original that can sit among the games released in the system's heyday and hold its own. It is, without a doubt, the best title the system has seen since 2002's CyberVirus, and an excellent reason to dust off the old handheld. Of course, those without nostalgia for Atari's system will still find a competent old-school shoot 'em up, but might be advised to check out some other games first.