Dead Zone: Hoping for better futures

Sunsoft’s Dead Zone makes an excellent first impression, cleverly reusing your chosen save file name in the cast list displayed shortly before the game begins, with you naturally playing the hero, Kirk. What’s especially brilliant about this is seeing everyone else played by “HVC-022” – that’s the Famicom Disk System’s product number. This thoughtful little detail is swiftly followed by a real technical triumph – an honest-to-goodness speech sample! It may be so short and so muffled it ended before I’d finished thinking “Wait, was that really an audio clip?” to myself so I can’t actually tell you what was said (a repeat listen didn’t help much either) but even so, there’s no doubt that’s an impressive feat for a game released in 1986.

And then the music cuts out and the game abruptly begins with leading man Kirk stuck in some sort of futuristic disposal area surrounded by robot remnants with absolutely no setup or explanation of who he is, why he’s there, or what you’re hoping to do.

It’s not a deliciously shocking cold open, it’s a bewildering shove into a badly explained world.

That’s what I thought anyway, until I sat down and read Dead Zone’s thick full colour manual, the one that gives the majority of its pages over to huge hand drawn images, mood setting information, and a short written prelude to the on-disc adventure.

It turns out that Kirk is engaged to the lovely Mary, the two of them due to be wed only to have their nuptials postponed due to Mary’s new job as chief engineer aboard a distant space colony. She’s going to be working on “Lionex” – the ship’s mother computer. Before they part, Kirk gives Mary a gift – a cute handmade robo-pal named Carry (because what is an 80’s adventure game without an adorable mechanical friend?). A few months later, which is conveniently just long enough after Mary’s distant new job started for things to go seriously wrong, Mary asks Kirk to warp on over to the colony for a party… only to find the place strangely quiet and empty. It’s at that point he’s knocked out by a laser shock gun, and then Kirk awakes to find himself in some sort of futuristic disposal area, surrounded by robot remnants – he’s found himself at the beginning of the game.

And that game is a command driven adventure game, all of your interactions with the world around you handled by a series of menus containing verbs like Look, Take, Examine, Move, Open, and so on, with Carry also on hand for most of the adventure to optionally offer advice and on one occasion save the day. That would all be pretty ordinary for the genre if Dead Zone didn’t take this interface to almost comically inefficient extremes; offering players at least two and sometimes three menus worth of commands, with many of them nothing more than unhelpful screen clutter for much of the game. Constantly second guessing yourself as you wonder if there’s any significance between trying to Examine, Open, or Take a box just isn’t an enjoyable way to spend your time, and I personally wouldn’t consider that to be a “puzzle” either.

On it’s own that would be a significant source of frustration, but Dead Zone manages to make things worse by stretching two of the most common commands out – Move and Look – in the fussiest way imaginable. It’s usually not enough to select Move and then go somewhere in this game – you’ll often be asked if you want to move forward, turn around, turn to the right or left, go up, go down, or move towards a specific object on the screen. It’s exhausting, and this is on top of all the usual adventure shenanigans like have to turn-look to view something off to the side, and then Look look at whatever object’s now straight ahead because as always some things aren’t revealed in adventure games until you officially notice them, even when they’re clearly visible on-screen.

Not that there’s any real danger of you spotting a small detail before Kirk does, as Dead Zone is artistically adequate at best. Areas have little visual interest or detail within them (in contrast to the excellent illustrations found in the manual), which often makes it harder than it should be just to work out what you’re looking at, never mind emotionally engage with your surroundings. The hardware can not only do better than this (Nintendo’s own Onigashima released the year after this), but it already had – by the time this came out Castlevania had already been on sale for the Famicom Disk System for a few months, bringing with it stage after stage of stunning pixel art, one-off details, and a soundtrack so strong it would echo through the series in the decades that followed.

As disappointing as that is, the worst is still to come. Dead Zone’s nadir takes the form of a patience-destroying minigame, the title screen and setting a vague parody of Sunsoft’s arcade/Famicom title Ikki. For reasons that utterly escape me, you’re suddenly asked to control Carry, making them trundle back and forth across a single screen as a wise mystic throws onigiri in a set pattern for you to catch. You must catch every single onigiri thrown, even though some of them are literally, in the strictest dictionary definition sense of the word, impossible to reach in time unless you make your way over to where they’re going to land before they even appear. Luckily for you this wasteful nonsense repeats forever with no escape until you’ve completed your dreary task, and then the adventure carries on like it didn’t just put you through utter hell for the fun of it. “It’s a passageway” says the descriptive text on the next screen as you gaze upon some very flat and very bright green walls, not “I don’t know what happened there either” or “Look it was late and I really didn’t think that through, sorry“.

Frustrating is perhaps the best way to describe Dead Zone, a game that could’ve been so much more… but simply isn’t. Some of the puzzles – like flooding a corridor and then briefly running an electric current through the water to deal with the robot lurking around the corner – would’ve felt inventive if the presentation had been strong enough to show the action the scant snippets of text were describing. Sadly, much of the game wobbles between “tolerable” and “why?“. Why does it never look or feel like you’re walking around a space colony? Shouldn’t somewhere like that be filled with blinking lights, docking bays, and massive pieces of high-tech machinery? Shouldn’t it at least have a few thick glass windows looking out into the vast expanse of the universe? Why bother giving Mary a backstory at all when she spends almost the entire game locked in a capsule waiting to be rescued from the predictably sinister computer? Why is a game filled with lasers and cool guys rescuing their ladies so dull and finicky?

The most positive thing I can say about Dead Zone is that it helped me appreciate just how good the other Famicom adventure games I’ve already played were.

[Ko-fi supporters make the magic happen! There’d be no article here without them]

2 thoughts on “Dead Zone: Hoping for better futures

  1. This sounds like someone really loved parser based adventure games but the Famicom coding not being advanced enough to emulate that, just put all those possible approaches into interaction menues.

    But hey I do think it is kinda cool that the sudden “where the hell am I, what is going on” opening does reflect the state your character is supposed to be in after being knocked out right after reaching the space station.

    It’s an unfair comparison since it came out way later, but if you want a Famicom adventure game that reall excells at showing off its space setting, Metal Slader Glory is a good play. If you haven’t already.


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