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Z-Out (Amiga) artwork

Z-Out (Amiga) review


Game development -- itís stranger than fiction sometimes. Back in the early 1990ís, Rainbow Arts had a minor success on their hands with atypical scrolling shooter, X-Out. It did a lot of weird things, like how its title was actually pronounced ďCross outĒ, how it took place underwater rather than the accepted norm of outer space, or how power ups didnít come from the destroyed husks of special enemies, but had to be purchased from a store using your points as currency. It was a very strong game, strengthened by its reluctance to be just another R-Type clone, and managing to stand out in an overcrowded genre thanks in no small part to its rare attempt at being different. Success, obviously, breeds sequels, and hereís where it gets a little weird. Rather than start work on a true sequel, Rainbow Arts went to a completely different developer who were in the midst of developing their own game. Advantecís Wargate took place in the accepted norm of outer space, and had you collect weapon power-ups from the destroyed husks of special enemies. It had its name changed to Z-Out, which is actually pronounced as Z Out and isnít even the next letter in the alphabet in conjunction to an X, which wasnít an X anyway, because it was a cross. As for any lingering reluctance to R-Type comparisons, I present the following screenshots. One from the opening moments of R-Type, the other from the first few seconds of Z-Out

R-Type Z-Out

Z-Out is very much an R-Type clone. Right down to the use of helper satellites, constantly hostile and claustrophobic environments, overcharged shots and a weird obsession with H. R. Giger. Why, then, is it maneuvered into serving as sequel to a game it shares virtually nothing in common with? Iíll probably never know. To try and seize momentum of a surprise hit, perhaps? It certainly wasnít to start a series of games -- just two shooters in and theyíve already run out of letters. The cynic in me might suggest that it was to trick the gaming public into buying a lacklustre game by changing the name and relating it to something grander, but, hereís the thing; Z-Out didnít need the rub. Itís unoriginal and its inspirations are painfully obvious, but these things alone donít make a bad game.

As R-Type clones go, Z-Out is pretty bloody good. To begin with, you might think it to be an easier take on Iremís infamously difficult shooter. For example, it wonít take you long to obtain your obligatory helper satellite which, as tradition demands, can sit contently on the nose of your R9 craft or be propelled onwards to act as a second cone of attack. Only, you might notice the satellite here is a big, chunky fellow who takes up a lot of real estate and conveniently acts as a shield, absorbing any of the projectiles routinely launched your way without any sign of harm. It also allows you to meet advancing enemy head on, bludgeoning would-be kamikaze pilots out of the sky effortlessly. It makes you feel invincible by, basically, making you impervious to conventional threats. Z-Outís biggest early threats then cease being the alien army you're up against, and start being the levels themselves.

Stage 1 doesnít have a lot of this. It has some sections where you have to navigate between pneumatic pistons, but the satellite shield makes the rest of the level feel routine. It has a mid boss who died so fast I mistook him for a regular enemy, and an end of level fight I struggle to recall only hours after my last playthrough. The second stage takes you into the depths of a forest, and immediately assaults you with waves of missiles that look cosmetically impressive, but offer a satellite-equipped craft the relative threat level of a soggy kitten. Itís only near the end of this level where you might risk losing a life. Initially, you fight the forest on its own terms, bulbous frog monsters sit upon floating platforms while winged eels flit about the sky. They fit the theme, but exhibit very little threat. Soon, though, the forest is slowly replaced by a network of steel girders, growing in complexity that you need to navigate around and you may soon find that your shield isnít about to save you from faceplanting your ship into a wall you werenít quick enough to dodge past. Survive this, and you come across the stage guardian waiting for you. To begin with, you wouldnít be blamed for thinking him nothing more than the lazy reimagining of R-Type's first boss fight. Both are massive alien organisms tethered to the wall, trying to bite chunks out of your ship with a telescopic inner mouth because Giger hadnít been referenced quite enough yet. But youíd mostly me wrong (mostly). Mere bullets canít hurt todayís monstrosity, and you have to instead spike the weird pulsating orbs the boss assaults you with right back in its smug little face, destroying his jaw and pulping his eyes before the stupid thing finally dies.

Surprisingly complex bosses litter Z-Out. Stage 4 makes things tough for you by having two weapons platforms plague you throughout the level. This starts with a smaller one running along the roof of the cave youíre in, constantly spewing a tri-shot of bullets, while the mid boss is a much larger version that runs along the floor. Survive them and the rest of the stage that features laser-erupting volcanoes, stainless steel mammoth pupa, pill-shaped robots with comically undersized legs that will stroll off the edges of their platforms and plummet to their death if you let them, and a maze of inconvenient rock-formed stalagmites, and youíll find the end boss. Itís them again, only now both of them at once. While both in operation, thereís only so much screen left to maneuver in, and your satellite isnít much good for protecting your soft underbelly from attacks directly beneath you.

Stage 5 is my favourite. Backed by a Castlevania-esque organ BGM, it stops being influenced by H. R. Giger, and tries to house itself entirely in one of his paintings, instead. I mean, look at this thing:

Constantly having to dip in and out of a forever fluctuating water level, you battle literal nightmare fuel while trying to squeeze through the tightest gaps Z-Out has to offer. Gaps that you have to often make for yourself, blasting away sinewy flesh that regenerates seconds later, giving you scant moments to steal through unscathed. All while fighting schools of squids with massive jaws sporting human teeth and creeping towards you in droves, or rotting aliens grafted to the walls themselves, vomiting grey chunks of meat at you. The mid boss is an engorged, pulsating heart, because of course it is. The last run before you get to the end boss is a bastard, making you destroy parts of the stage that then move other parts of the stage you need to rush through before everything closes up again. A chain effort of buggery only a real arsehole of level design chicanery can be proud of. Then you reach a trio of jet-packing monsters who hop around the screen like theyíve only just discovered caffeine, and have massively over-indulged. It would be fair to think them the boss, but, turns out, no. Thereís more ridiculously tight spaces to squeeze through, more pixel-built horrors to behold before the screen fills with water and the boss finally emerges. Tethered to the roof by a thick, grey tendril, it swings like a terrible pendulum. Destroy the tendril, and victory is far from yours; it plops into the water and what you thought was just a tentacle turns out to be the bloody thingís head. It floats above you, snapping its insectile face at you, forcing you to find the slimmest slither of safety to exist in while you desperately counterattack.

The next stage is both the last and the weakest. Stage 6 pits you against a huge living train of sorts that you fly about and tackle in sections. It starts well, making you abuse the helper-satellite-as-shields mechanic Z-Out has spent all game drilling into you, forcing you use them as makeshift umbrellas at times, warding off toxic fluids dripping from the underbelly of the train or taking out the spindly limbs that propel the machine as they appear behind you. Itís an interesting concept thatís massively let down by how long it lingers on everything exciting. The mid boss is a living alien vehicle with buzzsaws for wheels that you dodge by waiting for it to jump and then sneaking yourself into the small gap between the wheels, waiting to sneak out and blow sections of it away when itís safe. But itís rarely safe, and the sections can take a real pummeling, meaning the vast majority of the fight is hiding beneath the exciting looking boss with the cool buzzsaw wheels rather than fighting it. The last boss is a giant alien head that adorns the front of the train. It spits worms from its mouth, and launches further buzzsaws from the roof behind it. Shoot it in the jaw until it explodes.

Z-Out doesnít end well, but it doesnít start well, either. Mechanically, as long as youíre not incompetent enough to lose the satellite youíre gifted mere minutes into the game, you should sail through the opening levels without expending a lot of effort. But thatís not the only obstacle awaiting first time players; if Rainbow Artsí plan had worked and you visited Z-Out based on your enjoyment of X-Out, youíre going to find yourself quite befuddled. Itís not the same game; itís not even close. It would be like SEGA redrawing Sonic the Hedgehog as a random Disney character because it needed a quick follow-up to Castle of Illusion; the artificially created link favours nobody and, even if both the games suffering this ludicrous link are good in their own right, theyíre only going to be damaged by the comparison. Itís a bad idea and, if tacked onto a bad game, it could be written off as just another thing to point and laugh at. Z-Out deserved better than that; itís good enough to stand on its own merits. Eventually.


EmP's avatar
Staff review by Gary Hartley (December 31, 2020)

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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dagoss posted January 03, 2021:

I loved the subtitle (R-Typecasting). I think that should become the official name for this shooter sub-genre. Just seeing the screenshots here gave me an eye roll, but you did a good job explaining how this one sort of differentiates itself.
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EmP posted January 04, 2021:

The early 90's was a good period for the scrolling shooter, but it saw so, so many R-Type clones. Which is dangerous when even R-Type can't clone R-Type right (2 was not very good!)

Thanks though, dude. I've become a bit obsessive with pun taglines in the last few years, but it's often now my favourite bit of the writing process.

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