I swear to god it's not a cold medication.
One thing I've noticed in my tour of the videogaming cosmos is how great is the gap between the really good and the really popular. With the exception of Nintendo, most of the games that are really good are not the best selling or the best known, despite what a legion of Squaresoft fanboys might have you believe.
Hold off, all you bloody-great toy sword wielders, all you Kefka-quoters and black mage cosplayers! I used to be a Square fanboy myself, and please believe me when I say this is hard earned knowledge. My revelation began, it is true, around Final Fantasy VII, right around the time of the great Nintendo-Square rift. But let the record show that I did, in fact, eventually purchase both a PSX and Final Fantasy VII, and that I still never managed to hold up the interest to make it more than halfway through Disk 1. Then, when I went back and looked at the earlier games... the magic was just gone. (Also right around this time I had switched over to being an English major, and began discovering what good writing really meant.) But Final Fantasy is not the focus of this writeup.
Once upon a time I frequented a certain videogame forum on a certain online service. And in this forum, I started up a little quiz where I would describe a game and the other patrons would try to guess it. (yesIknowit'sgeeky) "First shooter with power-up system, also notable for collected capsules moving a selector, allowing player to choose his weapons?" Gradius. "Side-scrolling platformer with a stage select, player gains the powers of the bosses he defeats?" Mega Man. "Side-view, yet not scrolling fantasy action-adventure with keys named after playing cards?" The Olivia Newton-John-deficient Faxanadu. But the one they couldn't guess, the one I really built up for them, the one I thought was so great that everyone logically must have known about it, was ZANAC. Along with the two The Legend of Zelda games, it is one of the few NES games I still play.
ZANAC (yeah baby, bask in the allcappedness!) is quite simply an utterly unforgiving shooter, at least as difficult as Treasure's maniacal offspring. It is one of the hardest videogames I've ever seen, but what makes it great isn't it's difficulty, but the astounding depth that ultimately allows the persistent player to overcome that difficulty. Unlike certain other, more recent shooters, ZANAC's depth comes not from some ludicrous combo or chain-reaction gimmick (though if you like that there's an update for the Playstation, ZANAC x ZANAC, available by import), but from the interesting power-up system and dozens of clever little tidbits and facets in the game.
The game has twelve levels, or "Areas," each of which with a scroll speed ranging from really quite fast to vomit-worthy, but there's nothing in each area itself that will smash into you. There are no walls or similar obstacles. In this regard the game is like (old example) Xevious and (a little more recent) Raiden, there may be ground targets which can fire at you but there aren't any landscape elements that extend up into the player's airspace. Everything that can kill you is flying around the screen. This is good because in Area 12 there's a good stretch where the screen is scrolling so fast it almost looks still, and even with perfect knowledge of the level you simply wouldn't be able to move the ship more than a couple of pixels before you'd hit a wall.
You start the game with three ships, and at certain scores, upon picking up one of the rare "Blue Lander" characters, or when doing a very small number of other things, you gain extras. Score awards is by far the most common source of extra lives, and this makes points incredibly important because, like Robotron: 2084, this is a game of attrition, in that you're losing lives rather frequently, but you're okay so long as you're earning them faster. But losing a life is still bad news, because when you lose a life your ship goes back to its original weaponry: single shot main gun, and Weapon 0, the "All-Range Cannon." With such meager tools, in the more fiery crucibles of this gamespawn of Hades, your life expectancy can be measured in seconds, and without incredible nerves and focus one lost ship can quickly turn into a half-dozen, or more.
So, when you die (and die you shall!), it is of utmost importance to build your power levels back up as fast as possible. This is where the game starts to get interesting. Your main gun starts out each life very weak, firing a single shot at a time with only two shots on-screen at once. Its strength can be increased by collecting "power chips," which are plain yellow spheres that are produced by shooting blue boxes that arrive frequently from off the top of the screen. These boxes usually appear in groups of three, and a given box doesn't always contain a power chip. You can find out what's in a box by firing a shot or two at it: boxes with a chip inside will start to flicker yellow, while if it doesn't it'll flicker white or red. (Opened red boxes release a couple of shots, white ones produce nothing.) Collecting a total of six chips is enough to get your gun to a good level of power, and 32 on one life will produce the special "giant triple shot" weapon, but that's hard to do. The interesting thing about the boxes is that they only appear in certain combinations. For example, white boxes only appear in box sets that contain at least one power chip. If you shoot two boxes in a set and you get one white and one red, you know without having to look that the last box has a chip inside. This is important because if you crash into a box without a chip inside you die, but if you barrel into one that contains a chip, before you shoot it, then instead of dying your ship will automatically get the "pretty good" powerup level that you'd ordinarily need to get six chips to reach.
Even more involved are the types of "special" weapons your ship can pick up. These powerups appear on the screen as nothing more than a number with a box around it (graphics are not ZANAC's strong suit). There are eight types each with its own number. Every life starts out with a level 1 "Weapon 0," which is useful because it never runs out, but is otherwise uninteresting except for the fact that you can fire it in any of eight directions.
When you collect another weapon, you lose the one you had before, and you get level 1 of the new weapon to play with. Even if you go back to the old weapon later on that life, you'll still be back to its first-level form. To increase a weapon's power, you have to pick up another of that number before you die, before it runs out of power, or before you pick up a different weapon. It is really challenging to get a special weapon up to any sort of power before you die, and even if you do get it really powerful, don't expect any effect that could be called screen-blanketing. Except in certain special cases, no matter what powerups you have, you always have to work for your progress.
That's the basic game, but the game's many little extras and bonuses are what make it shine. A quick list:
There are several kinds of "shots" that can be thrown at you. Normal shots work like those in many other shooters. Salvos from your main gun will pass right through them, but certain special weapons will destroy them. Spinning shots are a bit faster, but are rarely aimed at you, and can be destroyed with both main gun and by every type of special weapon. The large, round, shots that move in a circular pattern along a trajectory are the worst: they can be destroyed, but it takes many hits, and their shot-blocking attribute makes it hard to get at their source.
Pick up six #2 weapons (the shield) and you become invincible for 80 seconds, but only once a game. Collect six #6 weapons (the smart bomb) and you'll gain one use of the weapon that will turn every object on the screen into an extra life, but again, only once a game.
ZANAC is so fast and furious that, like in Centipede, no matter how fast your trigger finger you're going to be using the autofire on this one. But you can improve the quality of the game's built-in autofire by, before picking up one of the Blue Lander extra life objects, shooting it until it turns red and then collecting it. Every Red Lander gained in this manner makes the automatic firing of your main gun a bit faster, and the effects last until the end of the game.
Whenever you pick up a power chip, you gain half a second of invincibility. Boxes are common enough that this can be useful in a tight spot.
Picking up a special weapon grants two full seconds of invincibility. This is longer than you get at the start of a life! Best of all, if you crash into a non-chip box while invincible you don't die, but if you crash into one with a chip you still get the good powerup.
A few objects on the ground have the power to help you. A couple of shots to a weird face-like thing will provide a ball of energy that, if collected, will clear the screen. A boxy smiling face makes a similar ball that will turn into a warp gate if left alone for a few seconds. A goofy-looking face with round eyes and a wide smile will boost your weapons to maximum, but they are uncommon. There are certain secret spots on the ground that, if peppered, will give you a fairy (again with the spaceship shooters and the wee folk, bah!) that can take out the entire next fortress you encounter. All of these ground targets, if you manage to pump a lot of shots into them, enough to destroy them, will grant you a lot of points and an extra life or two, but the screen scrolls so fast in most levels that you rarely get the chance to utilize this knowledge.
The game has an "auto-balancing" feature, where the enemies that appear can vary depending on your skill level. In general this means if you fire a lot of shots the game will send out more enemies, and when you die the game will ease up a bit, but there are other factors at work here. In particular, if you defeat one of the periodic boss-like ground emplacements that appear infrequently (the game's scrolling stops for them) in the time allowed, then the game will get a bit easier for a while.
It still amazes me how few people, in this country at least, know about ZANAC, which is arguably the best shooter for the NES and still compares favorably to Treasure's worst boxes of knives. The guys who made it, Compile, for a while they were best known for the overpowering force of their shooters, all of which carry that special ZANAC charm. The tune played when you earn an extra life in ZANAC is in several of their games, and makes a cameo appearance in the similar, non-Compile PC shooter Tyrian.
Other games by Compile (U.S. release names provided here):
Power Strike (for the Sega Master System): Very much like ZANAC, but even harder. I'm not kidding! It's brutal! I can't believe I like it!
Blazing Lazers (Turbografx 16): In some respects this is the SoulCalibur of the system, a game that people bought the TG16 for, and perhaps the high-point of its library. It's another Compile-type shooter, but with very good graphics and impressive weapons. It also has actual bosses, something even ZANAC lacks.
M.U.S.H.A. (Sega Genesis): Another Compile shooter, I used to own a copy of this but I don't know what happened to it. It was surprisingly anemic.
Space Megaforce (SNES): Yet another Compile shooter. This one's notable for having walls you can crash into as well as bosses. Not bad.
The Guardian Legend (NES): People tend to obsess over this one, perhaps because the protagonist is a bikini-clad cyborg woman who can turn into a spaceship. (There actually exists Guardian Legend fan fiction. Yes, I included this information merely to destroy your faith in humanity.) A more likely explanation is the interesting combination of action scenes very reminiscent of you-know-what with Zelda-like exploration segments interspersed between them.
Golvellius (Sega Master System): Oh wow! I'd heard about this SMS game for a long time, but never got a chance to play it until recently. I didn't even know it was by Compile! It turns out to be the long-forgotten origin of the Zelda-like sections of The Guardian Legend, complete with round blue "Blue Randar" creatures and theme music! Let the tidal wave of 8-bit Sega Master System fanfiction commence! I mean, other than those about Phantasy Star!
Puyo Puyo (and its many progeny): Ah, the puzzle game that's had more iterations than Tetris... though only if you exclude freeware and shareware versions. These days it seems as if Compile now survives solely on the Puyo dime. In this country we know of Puyo only through the rebranded (inhale) Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine (exhale) and Kirby's Avalanche flavors. Nice to see the company has diversified (it's hard to sell a hardcore shooter these days if you're not Treasure), but I miss the steady stream of ZANAC-alikes. Ikaruga may be seventeen different flavors of kick-ass, but it's just not the same without the extra life song.