Monday, December 1, 2014

NES Replay: Section Z

Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Released: July 1987
Side-scrolling shooters were plentiful in the early years of gaming, so much that they were starting to become passe. By 1985, developers were already thinking about new ways of presenting them. Of course, Capcom was right there too, thinking of new ideas. One of their ideas was simple, but effective: Maybe you could make a nonlinear shooter. What if you moved from section to section of a spaceship, moving deeper into it, but you could skip certain parts if you picked the right paths to move forward?

Thus was Section Z born. They tried this out first in the arcades, and it was fun. For the NES port, they decided to expand on it a little bit and try some extra stuff out. It ended up mildly successful, but not for the reasons you’d think.

In the NES port of Section Z, the B button has your player shoot to the left and the A button shoots to the right, giving the game the feel of a twin-stick shooter. As in most shooters, you can pick up powerups that will increase your strength, give you a shield, etc. etc. The gameplay itself is pretty stock stuff for shooters of its time.
There are few more wrinkles. Your player has a certain amount of “energy.” When you get hit by a bullet, you lose a little bit of this energy, and if you take too many hits you’ll die. If you physically touch an enemy, though, you die immediately. If you have energy left, then you’ll be able to restart the level that you’re on.

That seems like a cool system, if a little complex, except for one flaw: Some of the enemies come zooming onto the screen, and if you happen to be in the wrong spot on the screen, you’re dead without warning. Sure, you’ll come back if you have some energy left, but all the progress you’ve earned in that section is gone. This would be a piddling complaint if it happened just once or twice, but it happens a lot in Section Z.

The upgrade system is also a little esoteric. You pick up upgrades, then you press left or right to select the upgrade you want, then press Select to choose it. However, you’re also pressing left and right to move your character back and forth, so you’re using the same keys to select the right upgrade as well as moving. This can lead to accidents, and it certainly not as intuitive a system as, say, Gradius.

Still, as you would expect from a Capcom game, even though there are flaws, everything is still of a very high quality. For example, the music is great, as per usual, and controls are very, very tight. It almost makes up for the flaws in the game, but not quite.

One other thing that's weird: This game is called Section Z because, in the arcade game, the player moves from sections A to Z in the spaceship. Thus, the goal of the game was the titular Section Z. However, in the NES port, they expanded it from just 26 sections to 59, and then removed the letter system. Therefore, your goal isn't Section Z, but Section 59, which would be confusing if you cared about that sort of thing. It's not a huge complaint, but just something that made me tilt my head like a confused Yorkie.

However, now it’s time to circle back to that big idea at the beginning: Non-linearity in a normally linear type of game. This was an amazing idea that Capcom would sit on for a while. With a little bit of time and some more tweaking, they would spin it off into a series that would span several decades, countless games, piles of spinoffs, and one blue guy who managed to win all of our hearts. We’ll get to him much, much later.

Final Rating:

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