Comix Zone (Genesis) review
"Comix Zone, a three-issue miniseries that sadly never became an ongoing title."
If Comix Zone wasn’t the last worthwhile brawler released on the Sega Genesis, it at least came close (go die in a fire, Batman Forever). Released in the latter half of 1995, a short time before the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation were released, the title arrived on the scene just as people were starting to lose interest in 16-bit games and especially brawlers, even ones that featured as much style as Comix Zone did.
Comix Zone stars Sketch Turner, an incredibly 90s comic book artist whose creation, the evil Mortus, emerges from his comic book and throws Sketch into the Comix Zone. Mortus intends for Sketch to die inside of his own comic book, which would allow the villain to remain alive in the real world… because that's just how this sort of thing works.
The appeal of Comix Zone is about 70% style and 30% actual gameplay. The game has a solid foundation as a beat ‘em up. Sketch possesses an impressively varied move set, one that focuses on high, low, and mid attacks. Pressing any direction between Up and Down (including diagonals) will cause Sketch to unleash an attack in that approximate direction. Landing enough hits in succession will cause Sketch to use a powerful finishing blow, for a huge amount of damage. Mixing points of impact is crucial because enemies really enjoy blocking in this game. That point can become quite annoying in later levels, thanks to every random enemy’s turtle-ish tendency to stand there and block everything you throw at him. Foes seem to be more interested in staying alive forever than in actually taking you down. Thankfully, you have a few tricks at your disposal, including throws and single-use weapons. They help you out when things start to drag. Make no mistake, Comix Zone is not an easy game. You start with one life and you gain another one every time you clear a world. It's a challenge, but it's a fair challenge.
Sketch can find helpful items and weapons on the ground as he works to complete his mission. These can be picked up and stored for later. He is able to hold up to three items, including weapons like grenades and throwing knives, iced tea for health restoration, and his trusty verminous sidekick, Roadkill. In case you were wondering, Roadkill is Sketch's pet rat. He somehow got electrified when he entered the comic world and now he can be used to find secret items and paths, and to damage enemies with a shock. Don't let him get hit too many times, though, as he'll get knocked right out of the book. That's just sad.
Comix Zone isn't all about fighting, of course. Sometimes you'll have to solve a simple puzzle to proceed, such as when you must use an explosive box to destroy dangerous spikes, or send Roadkill into a tight spot to flip a switch and turn off a fan that's threatening to slice you to bits. Most puzzles require you to destroy a heavy duty object, such as a door or a stone. If you fail to solve the puzzle (or don't even try) you'll have to destroy these things with brute force, and each blow you land on a durable object will lower your health meter a little bit.
Comix Zone's biggest draw is its style. Each level is a page from a comic book, complete with panels. After clearing one panel of enemies, or solving a puzzle, Sketch is free to hop over the panel's border and into the next one. Each page has one or two points with branching paths where you're free to pick which panel you want to explore next. Each path will lead to unique items or challenges, giving you reason to play through the game at least twice.
The comic style doesn't end with the level layout, either. Comix Zone actually tells a story, complete with frequent word balloons. They are used to present both Sketch's occasional soliloquy and his conversations with his ally, Alissa, as well as with the occasional enemy. While Sketch's comic isn't the most well written or interesting story in the world (he's Sketch Turner, not Neil Gaiman), the story Comix Zone tells is a much more integral part of the experience than any plot featured in most other beat-em-ups of the era. In 1995, many brawler stories were confined to a pre-title screen story sequence and a few seconds of narrative before the closing credits. In contrast, Comix Zone's story is told in every panel of every page.
There are plenty of other little nods to the game's setting, too. Sometimes Sketch can use Roadkill to tear holes in the background of a panel to reveal hidden paths or items. Sketch has a secret move he can use to tear a piece from the background, which he can then fold into a deadly paper airplane (this drains a good chunk of your health, though). Powerful blows bring with them an impactful “POW!” or “WHAM!” written sound effect. Also, Mortus' hand will occasionally appear, holding a pencil that is used to produce new enemies for you to fight. Those foes will burst into a shower of confetti when defeated. In short, Comix Zone takes its novel idea of a world within a comic, then puts it to use whenever it can.
Rumour has it that the backgrounds were all designed by actual comic artists, though nobody seems to want to cite a source for that assertion. In any case, the backgrounds are detailed and pleasing to the eye but don't quite capture the feel of a comic book, thanks to the need for a static camera angle. Sketch needs to be able to move from side to side, after all. Meanwhile, the various sprites are all quite detailed, with fluid animations and individual frames that wouldn't look out of place as comic book action shots. It's a good looking game, and it sounds even better. The 90s hard rock soundtrack is a perfect fit for both the setting and the Genesis sound chip, with its heavy electric guitars and bass notes. The European version of the game came with a remix CD of the game's soundtrack, performed by the game's composer, Howard Drossin. You may recall that he was also responsible for the excellent Sonic & Knuckles soundtrack.
Comix Zone is a solid brawler that also benefits from a phenomenal sense of style. While it wouldn't quite stand on its mechanics alone, the game has more than enough style going for it to be something truly special. It was clearly produced by people who have a lot of love and respect for comic books as a medium. If you feel the same way, you owe it to yourself to give Comix Zone a try. Even if that’s not a selling point for you, the title remains a fun and challenging brawler with a unique setting and plenty of personality.
Staff review by Rhody Tobin (May 17, 2013)
Rhody likes to press the keys on his keyboard. Sometimes the resulting letters form strings of words that kind of make sense when you think about them for a moment. Most times they're just random gibberish that should be ignored. Ball-peen wobble glurk.
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