Improving on somebody else’s homework

If there’s one thing that’s a sure bet in old computer gaming, it’s that any sword-carrying hero of a certain age will take part in an adventure that’s suspiciously similar to but legally distinct from the sort undertaken by Ys‘ Adol Christin, sometimes even down to the lead character having the exact same flame-red hair.

Zark Legend Special is one rare exception to that expected rule, drawing its inspiration from the green haired and blue armoured hero of Compile’s 1987 MSX (and elsewhere) title Golvellius instead, extracting the side-scrolling segments found in that computer-based classic and then rearranging them into a linear series of levels.

The biggest difference between the two is… Zark does them better.

Which feels like a mildly controversial thing to say about a game released on the PC-98 and X68000 (that’s the version shown/discussed here) in 1990 by Maxima, a developer who appear to have made… not a lot, and even less you may have heard of – I could only find three titles listed under their name, including this one.

Maxima’s mindset of doing somebody else’s thing in their own improved way can even be found in the graphics, with just about everything that moves – including the hero, Andrea – constructed out of multiple individual parts rather than the usual sheet of complete single sprites. The end result is a lot of head pieces jauntily bobbing on top of separate chests with individual arms and legs and enemies using endlessly wriggling ball-chains as stand-ins for necks and tails. The animation isn’t smooth in terms of the number of frames used – and Andrea’s walk cycle in particular looks quite awkward – but everything’s got a “bounce” and energy to it that more traditional pixel art, especially of this era, didn’t usually have.

This loose collection of limbs is also used to give Andrea a wide range of physical abilities over and above the usual trio of walking, jumping, and attacking. He can run, crouch, swim, shimmy up and down vines, swing on ropes, change direction mid-jump (thank goodness), and perform a diagonal-upwards swipe with his sword, which is exactly the sort of thing you need to get rid of those hard to hit enemies lurking just out of reach without having to leap face-first into danger.

He can also collect power ups that temporarily transform him into completely different costumes with unique attacks, activated whenever you think’s best from the pause menu. The pistol icon turns Andrea into a gun-toting bright red mech-suit-thing. Using the dual dagger power puts him in a thigh-baring outfit and gives him a ranged knife attack, the blades flying off on a slight arc. Bubble-like barriers can harm enemies while keeping Andrea safe. Leaping into the magical purple pots you sometimes find will automatically change Andrea into one predetermined form, no power up required. Sometimes this is helpful, sometimes he doesn’t change at all – and on a few occasions he might end up as a small naked boy who can’t attack at all until he gets hit once, a sort of joke transformation that’s limited enough to make you panic but not so restrictive there’s a real chance it could kill you off.

A less direct power up comes in the form of the coins dropped by some enemies. These aren’t used in shops but are instead given to a Grim Reaper-type character found in particular stages, who will permanently increase the length of your health bar (but not refill it) in exchange for your currency. Regular healing works a little differently to most games: If your health is below your current maximum and you pick up one of the smaller restorative drops or larger potion bottles (these are worth five of the smaller heals) enemies sometimes leave behind they’ll be used instantly – so far so normal. But if you pick up more healing items than you currently need these are then stored in your inventory (you can theoretically carry up to ninety-nine at once) and then automatically used to refill your health bar the instant you take damage, so long as you’re standing still. The enemy layout/potion distribution is balanced so that you’re constantly seesawing between two extremes; sometimes you’re down to your last sliver of health and crying out for a healing item and at other times you’ve got twenty in reserve and feel like you could take on the world. Zark Legend is well aware of when it’s put its players through some tough times (or is about to) and always leaves one or even two multi-pack healing potion pick ups out in the open for you to grab – it wants you to struggle, but it also wants you to succeed.

Anything unused is carried over to the next stage (this generously even includes any time left in Andrea’s special powers if you finished a stage mid-transformation), which you’ll swiftly be very thankful for seeing as the moment your health completely runs out you’re sent back to the title screen and prompted to reload any one of your three possible saves – with one notable exception. If… or rather, when, you die by falling (there are a heck of a lot of bottomless pits in this game) you’re whisked away to the start of the stage at the cost of a small portion of your health and made to walk back through the level again. Thankfully every enemy you’ve defeated along the way stays dead so there’s no sense of being caught in a losing spiral of ever-diminishing resources and as the jumping is perhaps best described as “NES Castlevania like” – stiff and precise but also predictable – even at its trickiest there’s never anyone to blame for a poorly-judged leap than yourself, as much as you’d like to believe otherwise.

Needless to say this isn’t pushing the X68000 in the way better known games for the hardware do but what’s here feels bright and “clean”; there’s enough life in everything to make enemies feel threatening and Andrea feel dashing and energetic. Lots of little flourishes in unexpected places help to keep things interesting: Hit a huge golem enough times and the top disintegrates, leaving a pair of legs behind who will then blindly run back and forth across the room. The background sky changes from one stage to the next, going from light dawns through to starry nights and back again. It’s not as impressive as Maten Douji‘s seamless trek up the mountain but it does communicate the idea you’re travelling great distances across a land and overcoming hardships along the way rather than zapping from one predesigned level to the next. The between-stage overworld map helps with this too, as does the pleasantly superfluous fold-out map included in the box.

Also included in the box are two large full colour stickers, both featuring photos of some of the key pixel artwork used in the intro. I’ve had lots of old Japanese computer games with disc box/disc label stickers in them before (Falcom were particularly good about providing a pre-printed save label to neatly match the official discs) but this is the first time I can remember seeing stickers for stickers’ sake. You can’t help but wonder if Maxima hoped Zark would become a big hit, that this was a small attempt at planting the seed for a larger series. Clearly that didn’t work out for Maxima but that’s through no fault of Zark’s – this is a game that rose above its influences and became its very own action-packed and well-designed take on a once-popular genre.

[This post wouldn’t be here without Ko-fi support! Thank you so much!]

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