The most powerful laser gun… IN THE UNIVERSE!

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I’ve always been quietly fascinated by Zillion: Unmistakably eighties sci-fi anime anything is like catnip to me and a chance purchase the Zillion: Let it Rock! album – all massive synths and OVA credit roll vocals – decades late only confirmed that I’d wasted a lot of time missing out on something I was sure to love. But why if I’m going to finally dive in properly thirty-three years too late would I start with the sequel? Is the first one really that bad?

I’ll be honest with you – I don’t actually know. I don’t think there’s any reason why someone should skip the original Zillion, but I do know there are only so many times I can almost but not quite find complete copies of the two games for sale at the same time before I come to accept I’m better off just going for whatever I can get my hands on and worrying about sorting out a proper order later. I can’t keep holding off on clean copies of the original because the only copy of the sequel available to buy looks like it needs respectfully burying rather than sticking in a cart slot or looking at a cheap copy of the later game and rolling my eyes at the overly-optimistic pricing sellers are asking for the first release. Anyway, all this indecisive trouble is how I ended up playing Tri Formation (AKA: Zillion II: The Tri Formation) for the first time in twenty-flipping-twenty, an action-platformer named (or subtitled, depending on your region) after the incredible piece of equipment J.J. of the White Knights uses over eight side-scrolling rounds against the evil forces of Baron Ricks: It’s a motorbike (that’s one form)! It’s a flying mech suit (that’s two)! And it also… squishes itself down for convenient portability when not in use (and that makes three)! Yes, really. As much as that last one amounts to nothing as far as the game’s concerned – there’s no Resident Evil 4 style case-packing minigame in here – in my opinion it’s not as much of a waste of an idea as it may first appear. You get to ride a futuristic motorbike equipped with nuclear turbo jumping that then folds up so small you can carry it around on your back? Who doesn’t think that’s impressive?!

Another aspect of the game that becomes more impressive the more you think about it is the rigidity of Tri Formation’s level structure: Odd numbered stages are always forced-scrolling bike or flying suit stages (it’s even possible – although not always recommended – to switch back and forth between the two at will, which frankly makes my not-so-inner child squeak with joy), while even stages will always see J.J. leaping between platforms and zapping a horde of infinitely respawning enemies with his mighty Zillion gun as he goes. Constructing the game in such a uniform manner is pretty darned clever, making the repeated use of limited assets feel if not less any obvious then at least much easier to forgive: If a game outright states that stages two, four, six, and eight are going to feature ledges and elevators then it would only be unreasonable to complain when they appeared on cue, especially if it looks as good as Tri Formation does. Sprites are uniformly large and detailed, made of bright colours and strong poses that really capture the spirit of the game’s TV counterpart. J.J. himself is a whopping forty pixels high when standing up – an incredible fact all by itself (to give you a broad idea of how big that is: Master System Sonic is about thirty pixels high and NES Mario 3 Super Mario is just a little shorter) – but when you see him hanging low off the side of his motorbike to shoot crouching enemies or strike a pose worthy of an OVA VHS cover every time he fires his gun you have to take a minute to appreciate the craftsmanship that’s gone into the pixel art. I’m especially fond of J.J.’s prone sprite, partly because it’s so rare to see a hero really get down flat on the floor like that but also because he looks like the sci-fi hero when he does it. J.J.’s leg’s slightly bent as if he’s ready to leap into action at a moment’s notice, his gun arm out in front and held in a position that shows he’s looking straight down the sights, with the other out to the side to keep him steady. It’s only a single static sprite but it says an awful lot about the character – and about the talents of the pixel artist who drew him.

Tri Formation’s got some solid foundations to back up that visual splendour too: While it’s well worth noting both stage types have more than a few instant-death bottomless pits in them the good news is whether you’re jumping around on the bike or using J.J.’s legs these leaps are always responsive and cover a generous distance, clearing any gaps between safety with ease. And if you do happen to make a fatal mistake losing a life only sends you back to the most recent of the game’s wide array of invisible checkpoints, helping the game keep up a “You can do it!” atmosphere when others of the era would have demanded nothing less than perfection. All other hazards cause damage to J.J.’s health bar instead of killing him outright, with eight hits needed to see him collapse in a heap on the floor. On the bike stages these hits can come thick and fast but between the checkpoints, the scattered full health restores, and the predictable motions of the well thought out waves of enemies you’ll find he doesn’t die all that often and when he does you always believe it was something that could have been avoided by your own actions or better judgement than relying on simple luck. It’s a very hard thing to do but Tri Formation manages to balance challenge with progress beautifully, difficult enough to make you put some effort in if you want to get anywhere in the game, but never so tough you believe the level designers would rather see you quit than win.

In any case there is some built-in extra help on hand if you need it (I know I did): Extra lives are acquired the old-fashioned way by accumulating a decent score and these points goals are set at a level that enables even casual players to earn them during the course of natural play, usually saving you from certain failure just in the nick of time. If J.J.’s running short of health during an odd-numbered stage Apple and Champ, the other two members of the heroic White Knights, can be called in to replace him at any time after they’ve been rescued by pressing the I or II button on a second controller. They don’t control any differently and you never have to use them at all but as they have their own full health bar independent of J.J.’s they can be a real lifesaver on a longer stage. The mild awkwardness of this access method brings back fond memories of the “cheats” that would appear from time to time in old computer magazines, where to carry on from where you were you would switch from player one to player two at the last minute, either picking up another Quickshot joystick or hurriedly swapping controller ports before you died. And if the worst comes to the worst and you end up losing all of your lives pressing up and the I button together will reset your score but allow you to continue from the beginning of the round you died in with a fresh compliment of lives up to three times. Bit of a cheat isn’t it? Well, no. It’s described in the English manual the same as any other gameplay feature.

I’ll freely admit there’s not all that much going on in Tri Formation. This isn’t an ambitious game. There are no exceptional programming techniques that leave you wondering how on Earth they pulled that off, no incredible stage art introduced at the last minute or a surprising screen-filling last boss that flickers a little under the awesome graphical overload a small group of very clever people managed to wring out of the hardware. The basic game design will also feel very familiar to anyone of a certain age too – jump and shoot, jump and shoot, then jump and shoot some more – you know how to play this even if you’ve never seen it before in your life. However there is an oft-forgotten and happy realisation to be found amongst this title’s apparent humdrum state, and that’s a welcome reminder that games can be something other than bad or brilliant. But why should anyone settle for plain old good when we have all of gaming’s most incredible perfections just an internet search away? Why pick up something like this when the same console also has a selection of excellent Sonic games waiting for people to play them?

Tri Formation may not be special but it does feel like the team took an honest look at their allotted time, budget, and ROM size and then set about creating a tight game with snappy action and accurate collision detection (both things that were absolutely not to be taken for granted back in 1987) within those not insignificant limitations. I see it as a shame to lose titles like this down the cracks of history, games that are neither so exemplary they’re held aloft as must-play classics to “educate” newcomers nor so bad they become something mocked by sassy memes and cynical streams. Sometimes a good – but not a great – idea done well is enough, or at the very least a more honest example of what “good” used to mean at the time. Tri Formation’s a lot of fun and a helpful reminder that if we only ever bother with the exceptional then all we’ll do is make those rare experiences feel so very ordinary.

[This post was only possible thanks to the generous support I’ve received via Ko-fi. Thank you for your kindness]