Unlike Monaco GP, which took a truly old game even by my retro-leaning standards and then made an honest attempt to update its fast-paced formula while still staying true to the spirit of the original, this remake of Sega’s System 16 arcade hit Fantasy Zone – the one that first caught everyone’s attention in 1986 with its colourful horizontal shooting, flappy wings, and happy little legs – is a far more reserved affair. The Arcade option on the main title screen takes you to what is essentially a straight recreation of the classic cute ’em up with one major twist: 3D graphics replace most of the flat sprites of old, whether you want them to or not. This enforced “upgrade” shouldn’t work – graphical changes like this tend to swiftly fall flat on their “But this is new, so it’s got to be better!” faces – but even as an enthusiastic appreciator of all things pixels I have to admit there really is something remarkable about the new art in here. Everything looks right; as bold, colourful, and expressive as it always did, and I honestly looked forward to seeing how each round had been remade (please excuse the slight grittiness of these screenshots – it’s the only way I could capture images without any blur/ghosting and isn’t as obvious in play).
I feel like something of a traitor for saying so, but when 3D’s done this well it really can be an improvement over the billboard-like features that came before them. Stages have just that little bit of extra depth to them, the perspective on most objects shifting slightly as Opa-Opa flies by. Platforms reveal more of their flat tops the higher up he is, and round bases have a discernable “belly” to them – it’s a subtle effect, but this cautious approach only helps the remake find the perfect balance between the old and the new. In spite of this added spectacle the screen always remains readable even during its busiest moments thanks to a simple rule – anything Opa-Opa can fatally collide into, from the smallest bullet to the largest boss, has a thick black outline around it at all times.
The blandly named Normal mode (in practise more of an extended/arrange mode) dares to push the 3D just a little more with some brief flashes of angled camerawork at the beginning of each level before returning to the usual side-on base-bopping business, and once they’ve been cleared and the boss defeated the game moves on to a new “Special Stage” – a short into the screen segment where you collect coins spat out by the boss before they finally crumble away to nothing. These additions come across more as someone trying to find another use for the materials they already had to hand rather than deftly implementing new ideas into Fantasy Zone’s cartoonish framework, but they’re an entertaining enough inclusion and nothing is harmed by their presence.
A separate Challenge mode works as something as a supplement to Normal. The idea here is to pick any unlocked stage (the original eight are available by default) and then try to clear it using only the life you start with. Any money gained in Challenge mode (and not spent on upgrades in the stage’s shop while playing) can be spent in the “labo” on a variety of features that carry over to Normal mode: a continue feature, a sound test, auto rapid fire, various bits of daft/broken equipment for Opa-Opa, and even four brand new stages. The cost of these items ranges from “pretty high but doable” to “counter stop high” – they’re something to chip away at over time (between Sega Ages 2500 releases, even), rather than something you force yourself to clear in a single weekend.
Once unlocked the four new rounds slot into Normal mode between what would normally be rounds 7 and 8. Fantasy Zone still finishes with the shocking plot-twist battle against Opa-Opa’s dad on Salfar (the boss rush portion before that extended to reflect any optional stages unlocked), only now the journey may take in Halloween-ish lands, lava-like hellscapes, and some other cute-but weird places too. More Fantasy Zone is in theory always a good thing, but their forced insertion means at least in this mode the game eventually goes from a reasonable eight rounds to a far lengthier twelve, with nothing really done to help players survive the extended length – or to ease the pain in their aching trigger finger either. It’s hard to grumble too much as these new stages and the bosses waiting at the end of them fit Fantasy Zone like a glove, it just would’ve been better if for example rounds 2, 4, and 6 became a random selection of old and new areas in Normal mode, with an extended gauntlet of everything left as an optional extra.
A gallery mode rounds out the package – a model viewer by another name, really. Here you can freely rotate and zoom each object to your heart’s content (once unlocked), and at least in Opa-Opa’s case can also view him with any additional equipment (wings, jets, or with his legs showing, etc.) attached. It’s a simple thing, but a welcome one. I’d like more games to come with model viewers.
What more could a Fantasy Zone fan want from a remake? There’s a graphically updated version of the original game to play, with those updates of an astonishing quality considering the small budget-conscious scope of this series. There’s an entirely separate mode that tries to be a little fancier without messing with the best bits of the game, and another allowing you to unlock further significant goodies, including four very well done brand new stages. The liner notes (a separate card included with volumes 1-19) even show off (very small) scans of an old discarded design for Opa-Opa and round 2’s background art beautifully laid out on grid paper (see photo).
But what I really like is seeing how Sega Ages 2500 Vol.1, 2, and 3 handle the problem of bringing what were already decades-old games to a modern audience. They all tackle this elephant in the room in very different ways, every title considered on an individual basis rather than shoved through the Generic Modern-O-Tron and slapping whatever came out the other end in a PlayStation 2 case and calling it a day (the way some “HD remasters” appear to have been handled). Vol.33’s – sadly the final entry in this wonderful series – arcade-accurate port of Fantasy Zone and its smorgasbord of brilliant extras may have been the release “real” fans were waiting for, but this earlier remake’s sensitive and largely successful additions remain unique – and still well worth experiencing.