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Formation Z (NES) artwork

Formation Z (NES) review

"It came from the Arcades of Japan. I wish it had stayed there."

Formation Z asset

You can complete Formation Z, from start to finish, in about ten minutes. All you need to do is spend countless hours memorising attack patterns and knowing exactly when and how to dodge cheap, broken deaths.

I'm not going to savage this game too badly for being overly hard, though; that was the style of the times, and this Japan-only Famicom release is ripped completely from the arcade cabinet of the same name. Quarter munchers have to be a little unfair -- how else will they consume your delicious currency? -- and Jalecoís straight port keeps that devious mindset while also adding some. Youíll beat your home version of Formation Z in three lives, or you wonít complete it at all. Nintendoís little grey box didn't have to worry about filling itself up with pocket change, not when it had a video gameís lifespan to artificially bloat.

Letís put it right out there that Formation Z has one hell of a bastard checkpoint system that has no qualms punishing a death by rewinding you back a hellacious distance. This is especially damning when, at any time, one of those precious three lives can be potentially ground into dust regardless of what progress was made. Maybe this was your fault and you deserved it Ė enemy formation patterns are often simple enough to avoid, after all, and you can stroll past some attacks almost casually. Maybe the archaic controls played a downfall. You were doomed by your rigid jump that offers no way to control your leap once you leave the ground, or you tried to back-pedal away from a diving foe only to find that walking backwards doesn't really work here. Maybe you were instead killed by a huge body of water you had no chance of knowing was there, and less chance of avoiding.

How? Letís scale back to the start:

Letís ignore for now how huge the screen is, and how little room you take up in it. Letís ever so briefly take note of how the backgrounds are actually pretty impressive so I can mention that the first few minutes boast a brave attempt at 8-bit animated grass swaying in the foreground. What I wish to rein focus on is the fact that there are the two differing types of avatars going on here, and the way that Formation Z seems determined to take a really good idea and make it frustrating as hell.

You spend most of your time as that weird looking white guy with the laser rifle as you awkwardly run left-to-right across a scrolling screen. Should you choose to jump and hit the Down button on the d-pad, you transform into a cool fighter jet that increases your mobility tenfold and speeds the game up considerably. In order to ensure you donít just enjoy the game and spend your entire time as the air fighter, youíre given an energy stockpile that quickly counts down from 99, forcing you to revert to your original form to avoid running out of power and dying. To get the most out of the game, you need to juggle your two forms, memorising where the energy pods you need to collect on foot might appear to top your fuel supply. Then, suddenly, you come across a huge body of water and if you have less than 75% of your energy remaining, you either crash and die, or transform and drown.

Granted, there are visual clues, in that water starts appearing in the background, and youíll certainly know what to look out for the second time, but itís a pretty cheap trick. As such, itís repeated in the second half of the game, replacing a pond with a sudden gaping void of darkness.

The second half of the game takes part almost three whole minutes later.

A charitable man might suggest that Formation Z is two levels in its entirety. I am not a charitable man, and I say the full game is a demo-sized single stage. Navigate the body of water and youíre next faced with a boss fight so brief, even labelling it a mid-boss would be liberal. Then you soar into the heavens to take on the same foes -- but on the moon or in the easily-animated vacuum of space. Either way, you fight the same odd assortment of enemies ranging from kamikaze diamonds that glide into your bullets in a flawless serpentine formation, to strange levitating flower bulbs that spring lazily out of the ground. Oddly, the enemies also employ a sparse collection of WWII-era tanks, but those simply sit there patiently, waiting to be destroyed without offering any offence.

Cheap deaths and wildly unfair checkpoints do band together to make this tiny game feel longer than it is, though, as does the fact that if you finally achieve victory, the game will loop over again and again until you die or give up. It seems to rely on the belief that it should be extolled for this one good idea Ė and, to be fair, I can think of no game before Formation Z that offered a transforming mech. So it really is a good idea. When youíre able to take to the air, the game improves tenfold, zipping along at a tidy pace that manages to do little but showcase how asinine the plodding majority of the game is. That last accomplishment, of course, isn't ideal. It isn't ideal at all!


EmP's avatar
Staff review by Gary Hartley (June 21, 2013)

Gary Hartley arbitrarily arrives, leaves a review for a game no one has heard of, then retreats to his 17th century castle in rural England to feed whatever lives in the moat and complain about you.

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