Comix Zone (Genesis) review
"Traditionally, the side-scrolling beat-‘em-up takes place in the filthy metropolises where transgression prevails. Youthful but careless boyfriends team up with musclebound mayors in efforts to retrieve kidnapped girlfriends and to send crime lords to justice. Along the way, they face four hundred fellows named “Bred” and eat the radioactive ham that they find crammed into dumpsters to replenish the ultimate determiner of possible success: the energy bar. An inestimable number of thugs stand bet..."
Traditionally, the side-scrolling beat-‘em-up takes place in the filthy metropolises where transgression prevails. Youthful but careless boyfriends team up with musclebound mayors in efforts to retrieve kidnapped girlfriends and to send crime lords to justice. Along the way, they face four hundred fellows named “Bred” and eat the radioactive ham that they find crammed into dumpsters to replenish the ultimate determiner of possible success: the energy bar. An inestimable number of thugs stand between the chief underground leader and our enraged protagonists. Agents of law enforcement are never a factor -- they aren’t even alerted. These are one-man jobs.
We live in a strange world.
The appropriately named Sketch Turner lives in a stranger one. Sheltered from the heinous law-breakings taking place on the streets far below his New York City apartment, he tries to make a living illustrating comic books. Bizarrely enough, it’s not the human wrongdoers that threaten to interfere with Sketch’s well being; it is one of his own villainous comic creations. Mortus has come to life, and looks to tamper with the world. He has jumped out of the comic book in a colorless, paper-like pseudo-human form, and has sent the unwitting artist into his own illustrated environments. The catch for the mustached scoundrel is that Sketch must be killed within the comic book before he himself is completely free from the shackles of mere imagination.
A lesser game would see Sketch morphed into a powerful, appealing hero, gracefully soaring into battle to thwart the evildoer’s nefarious scheme with numerous superpowered tricks up his sleeve. Comix Zone, a beat-‘em-up with far more wit, sees the befuddled artist himself vacuumed into the very panels of his work -- in his silly, unexaggerated human form. He has no superpowers, and certainly hasn’t been subject to glamorization; he’s the longhaired, simple-minded artist he was on the outside. Only now, he is forced to deal with whatever enemy subject that the new sketcher, the abovementioned antagonist, decides to animate. Armed with only a handful of punches and kicks and whatever items he may be fortunate enough to stumble on during his travels, Sketch must explore each and every panel that he himself masterminded, defeating the monstrous enemies and solving the puzzles that each frame presents before being able to jump into the next area.
What makes this side-scroller different from any other is its unusual situation, and its success is completely dependent upon this variable. Many of the other elements of Comix Zone fall comfortably into place, considering the genre. The energy meters, small selection of offensive tactics, and limited set of items scattered about the pages all clearly indicate just what genre this title belongs to. The unique story and hero separate it from any other, and thus are the deciding factors to the question of whether or not the effort is a in any way a unique one.
The comic book device used here is successful in capturing the feel and atmosphere of a graphic adventure, thus pushing Comix Zone into a spotlight that allows it to stand apart from the generic fighters that have come and gone. Each panel that Sketch traverses is bursting with colorful backgrounds and hideous enemy mutants. The adventure is littered with the bubbled dialogue that comic characters customarily exhibit, and yellow-shaded captions appear above many panels, describing the peculiar circumstances as you progress. As you and your adversaries rain blows down upon each other, onomatopoeias rapidly spring forth -- [Pow! Bam!]. This is a comic book with the entire repertoire commanded with graceful ease.
The first stage, Episode One: Night of the Mutants, sees Sketch first realize he’s fallen into his own comic, when a character he created, General Alissa Cyan, regards him as the hero that the story requires. He insists that he is not the savior of the tale, but the creator. Of course, the comic book itself is the only reality that the woman (who will guide you through the rest of your quest) knows, so she is clueless as to what that is supposed to mean. She tells him that he is the chosen one, and that she will be in contact with him. In the mean time, he is given a knife, a set of explosives, and a health-replenishing power-up. Sketch can lug only three items along with him at once, and any of them can become important. Dynamite is often used to solve puzzles or attack enemies, and the knife as an offensive arm as well. Later on, Sketch will also come across other helpers, such as his pet rat, Roadkill, whose presence can be very beneficial.
After Alissa Cyan dismisses Sketch, refusing to explain the situation any further, he can do nothing but begin the exploration of his book. The first frame is a safe laboratory, but the next is titled the “Deceased District”, a seemingly war-torn battlefield, formerly New York City. The Statue of Liberty lies in ruins, signifying the terrifying destruction that has befallen the Big Apple. A frightening, lumbering mutant staggers towards our bewildered conqueror; what’s to be done? Disable him with the variety of attacks that Sketch is equipped with -- including the kneeling trip, the forward punch, a dynamic set of kicks, and a chin-smashing uppercut. Connecting with a series of blows results in the repulsive monster being sent backwards, driving him against the wall, which acts as the frame of the scene. He disappears (self-cleaning mutant leaves only the fresh scent of pine!), but the ominous hand of the ultimate enemy draws in a carbon copy, leaving you with twice the work. Day turns to night, and rain begins to fall in stinging needles. Lightning explodes against the dreary skyline, temporarily drowning out the brightness of the moon. Thunder clashes as you use the same tactics to eliminate the second of the twin monstrosities. All of this intense battling and soaking weather within one miniscule frame.
Immediately following this initial battle one of the more refreshing features is introduced: branching paths. Although you are aiming to make it to the end of the page no matter which direction you take, each course offers a slightly different way to do so. The ultimate destination does not change, but one option may be a bit more painless than the other. Before you’ve found your way across Episode One, you will have flipped switches to reveal trapped doors, battled with massive stinging crawlers and green menaces in the sewers (where you can dangle from pipes above the watery surface, kicking your foes from above, or those suspended beside you), and solved various other puzzles. Only the final confrontation with Mortus -- a deadly battle, where time is of the essence and General Cyan plays the role of damsel in distress, trapped in an isolation tank that’s filling with fuel as a nuclear weapon ticks down -- proves to be more exciting and stirring than the package as a whole.
Unfortunately, there are just three episodes in all, each consisting of two pages worth of panel scenes. All three are enjoyable, but the second and third are simply not as exceptionally crafted as the first. The second is a snow-ridden exploration of the Himalayas, leading up to a temple which hosts a veritable gauntlet of pain, consisting of much of the enemy cast. Your travels finish on a more ghostly note, as you cross the eerie Shipwreck Graveyard. Although all three areas episodes are high quality, the first will feel far more engaging than any other, and this may be due in part to the fact that the innovative situation is just more hard-hitting at the start.
There are few other problems with Comix Zone as a whole. The combat, like all other side-scrolling fighters, has its own repetitive hang-ups: many enemies block incessantly, so it gets to being a matter of simply using each of your attacks in succession to see which will finally connect. You cannot expect too much in this facet from any title of this genre -- there has never really been an instance where the combat didn’t have some sort of modest tedium. The soundtrack is outstanding, as gritty, assertive tracks with subtle variation pound along, matching the atmosphere set forth by the visual flair. It is only in comparison with these well-orchestrated tunes that it can be argued that the sound effects are less than stellar. They are perfectly suitable for the comic book theme -- the clinks, clanks and smashes of bodies flying -- but they simply do not play on the same field as the music.
Even with the fairly short adventure and less impressive levels after the first pages of the comic, Comix Zone remains an excellent fighter by way of its originality and vibrant presentational elements. It has shortcomings, but many of them can be accounted for in all beat-‘em-ups. This isn’t an elaborate new blueprint by which all brawlers should be measured, but merely an inventive, entertaining one that wrings out some of the tired formulas and plot elements.
Community review by dogma (January 10, 2005)
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