It surprises me at times how many buried treasures there are out there. I suppose it really shouldn’t; there are a lot of video games released on a yearly basis, and there have been for a great many years. It’s still kind of amazing to me how many excellent games there are that nobody’s really aware of, languishing in the godforsaken backwaters of a ROM site’s list-by-name index, waiting to be discovered.
This brings me to Chikyuu Kaihou Gun ZAS, a game first brought to my attention by ShellShock over on the Hardcore Gaming 101 forums, which- as far as I know- he first discovered while researching an exhaustive article on Game Boy shooters for his site, Blame The Control Pad. Simply put, it’s one of the most technically impressive Game Boy games I’ve ever played and is a solid, fun, well-designed shooter as well. It doesn’t deserve the obscurity it exists in.
ZAS is a vertically-scrolling shooter; it has both the wide-open stages which are typical of vertical shooters and also more claustrophobic stages with walls and obstacles, similar to those in most horizontally-scrolling shooters, or the vertical sections of Life Force. The game alternates between the two until the fifth and final level- the first and third stages are ‘open’ stages, while the second, fourth, and final stages follow the Life Force model. Your ship’s only real gimmick is that it has two small, option-like ships which hover beside it- these can either be retracted for a narrow, powerful shot or extended for a wider attack. Beyond that, there really isn’t a whole lot to it- there are ‘shield’ pickups and straightforward weapon pickups, but your the gameplay is fairly straightforward beyond that.
Level design is where ZAS shines. Many shooters, particularly from the NES era, have a certain pervasive sameyness- stages all feel the same, and enemies are either repeated or reskinned versions of the same ones you’ve seen previously. This is not the case in ZAS- each stage features unique enemies and a unique ‘feel’. The stages themselves are fairly standard shooter material, but they’re solid and fun to play through.
Graphically speaking, ZAS is very impressive for a game boy game- although everything’s reduced to the typical creamed-spinach-color sprites of the original Game Boy’s palette, ZAS’ sprites are pretty impressive. Through a bit of a clever technique, ZAS’ designers have actually created a parallax-scrolling background on the Game Boy. They have accomplished this feat by actually using a pair of backgrounds and flipping back and forth between them- which, given the low refresh rate of the game boy’s screen, actually looks pretty good on the hardware it was intended for.
ZAS is a surprisingly good game- it’s a technically impressive project that deserves much more attention than it’s gotten, particularly in the obscure-game-hunting circles.