Platform: Sega Genesis
Developer: Sega Technical Institute
Genre: Beat 'em up
Sketch Turner is just your regular rock musician who decides to try and make a comic book when he's suddenly zapped by lightning, which somehow causes him and the big bad of his story to switch places! Now trapped within the pages of Comix Zone, Sketch has to make his way to the end of the comic, all the while dodging the obstacles put into his path by the sinister Mortus!
Comix Zone is the brain child of a fellah named Peter Morawiec, who first presented the idea to Sega back in 1992 via a concept video called "Joe Pencil Trapped in the Comix Zone". You can check it out here, which I highly recommend, 'cause it's pretty damn slick looking. Oh, and by strange coincidence, the movie Cool World was released that same year. Hmmm . . .
Sketch Turner is a typical 90's rock musician/comic artist, and his wardrobe does everything it can to confirm this fact. He's even got the ponytail and small, round sunglasses. I can imagine him touring from coffeehouse to coffeehouse, belting out the sounds of alternative rock in between righteous sessions with his sketch pad. Seriously, dude.
Roadkill is his pet rat, who is also trapped within the pages of Comix Zone and helps Sketch out by finding hidden items, flipping hard to reach switches, and acting as bait for certain baddies. He's a pretty cool little dude. Respect the rat, yo.
Alyssa Cyan is the requisite hot chick of the game. She is the first of the comic's characters to greet Sketch, ignoring his protests in order to send him out on a dangerous mission to defeat the mutants. She spends most of the adventure back at the New Earth Empire base, radioing Sketch to give him helpful pointers of how to get past particularly difficult spots.
And finally there's Mortus, the leader of the mutants . . . aliens . . . or whatever they are. Though Sketch doesn't actually face him until the very end of the game, Mortus' presence is still felt throughout as he uses his unique perspective to draw new enemies and other obstacles in Sketch's path, all in a bid to destroy Sketch, become real, and start wreaking havoc in the real world. He's a bit of a bastard.
The story of Comix Zone is somewhat interesting in that there are actually two stories going on at once. On the one hand, we've got the main story of Sketch and Mortus switching universes and Sketch's quest to get to the end of the comic and get back out again. And on the other hand, we've got the story of the comic itself, a tale about the human race mounting a defense against invading monster alien mutants.
But who cares, right? The story is basically just a prop for the game's gimmick and to push the action along. Still, for all that, it's a very well constructed and entertaining gimmick/action-pushing prop.
Almost all of the writing in the game is conveyed through the use of caption boxes and word balloons . . . 'cause you're in a comic, get it? It's a pretty neat conceit, actually, right up until some of the word balloons end up hanging right over the action and you're just swinging blindly, hoping you're hitting that nasty mutant alien monster thing instead of the other way around.
Combat is quick, intense, and nicely intuitive. There are a surprisingly wide number of combos you can use that don't take horrifically convoluted sequences of button mashings to execute. It's all pretty simple, moving everything along lightning fast while also being satisfyingly varied. A lot of fighting games could probably learn a thing or two from Comix Zone, in my opinion.
The item system is pretty basic, but that's all it really needs to be. You can pick up three items at a time (with one of the items generally being Roadkill, when you haven't got him out and scampering about and he hasn't run off a cliff somewhere), most of which do some sort of damage to enemies and/or objects. Usually you won't find more objects than you can carry, so that limitation isn't a very harsh mistress.
Sketch's movements are pretty fluid, but he has a tendency to be a little too broad in his gestures. One wrong tap of the directional pad can mean the difference between a living Sketch standing five feet away from a landmine and a crispy fried corpse sitting on top of the remains of an exploded landmine.
If I had to rate it on a scale of one to ten, I'd place Comix Zone's challenge rating at a definite AW HELL NAW.
I mean come on, guys, I'm pretty sure we were supposed to have left the Nintendo Hard games behind about three or four years before this, right? I shouldn't be playing a mid-90's game and be wanting to throw my controller and myself out the window!
And what really sucks is how much of the difficulty curve is obviously artificial. The fact that the bad guys are blocking gods from the very start is bad enough, but the fact that destroying objects - doors, crates, etc., many of which you are absolutely required to destroy in order to continue progressing through the game - causes your life meter to drain . . . well, that definitely takes first prize in the "Cheap Bullshit" competition.
When the developers start throwing in things that you have to do that also hurt you, then you know they've just run out of ways to make their game naturally challenging and just don't care about creating a balanced and enjoyable experience for the player whatsoever. They might as well just come to my house and slap me in the face personally. I really don't think it would be any more insulting.
Damn, but this is a pretty game. It really looks like you're fighting your way through a comic book. It's not quite as fine looking as the concept movie I linked up above, but I figure that's pretty understandable, and it looks damn fine enough as it is. Sadly it does have a few minor glitches here and there, but overall every stage is beautiful to behold.
Man, to be honest, I don't really know. I was too busy fighting for my life to notice the music very much. What little I did catch seemed pretty rockin', and having looked up some background stuff on the game, it seems that they developers were proud enough of the soundtrack to release it on CD back when such things weren't as commonplace as they are now.
The Bottom Line
Comix Zone is one of those games that I love to hate and hate to love and all that nonsense. It's a wonderful idea, beautiful setting, and interesting game mechanic that gets dragged down by it's horrific difficult level and brutal brevity. It plays much like an arcade game in many ways, like it was designed specifically to eat up the quarters of bratty little kids who have been let loose at the local mall. But it isn't an arcade game. It was made specifically for console gaming, and it should have therefore been easier (or at least been given a gentler difficulty curve) and longer. I'd definitely be willing to play it again, but never to actually beat it again . . . just tooling around in the first couple of stages would be fine for me, leaving my blood pressure more or less unmolested.