Friday 3 February 2017

Mega Drive Review - Red Zone (Game 126)

When the visuals that originally stunned critics have aged, is there much reason to play this brutally hard over head shooter?

Developed by Zyrinx

Published by Scavenger Inc / Sega

Released in 1994

We take for granted how easy it is to share our creative endeavours nowadays. Video creators are well served by YouTube. Those with a passion for writing can distribute their thoughts through the world using a plethora of blogging sites. If you've sufficient talent to make a game you can even get it into the hands of gamers using a range of digital platforms. The expansion of online technology age has meant it's never been easier to get your creativity out into the world, but twenty years ago things were very different. 

It seems almost archaic now, but back then, to get your digital art into the hands of consumers you would have to copy it to one (or many) floppy discs and post it to them. That is only after they had posted a cheque to you after seeing your game listed in the back of a magazine. You could streamline the process by using the devices of a Public Domain library, which, for a cost, would do the duplication and distribution for you. But to be accepted into the ranks of a "PD Library" like 17 Bit software you would have to display a sufficient amount of skill or be endorsers by other bedroom digital artists. Despite the lengths developers had to go to actually get their content out, the European amateur programming scene was thriving during the late 80s and early 90s. Coders from all over the continent would show off their skills by creating media that drove their chosen hardware to the limit. Although there were games, music and visual show reels created for all sorts of personal computers, the community that focused on the Amiga was by far the largest and most enthusiastic. You only need look at photos of the hundreds of coders packed into copy parties to appreciate how many people dedicated their time to the versatile Amiga.

During this period of digital creativity, talented amateurs seemed to gravitated together to form mini development studios. It was a great way to get noticed and ultimately provided a way to turn a hobby into a profession. Developer Team 17 is the most successful of course and the only one who still operates today. They were formed when founder Martyn Brown actively recruited coders and artists from the demo scene to create games for his distribution company 17 Bit Software. In a similar way The Crionics and The Silents were two demo groups who joined together to form Zyrinx. Initially working from three separate offices in Copenhagen their first game 'Sub-Terrania' (for the top end Amiga 4000) gained near universal applause from critics. Clearly impressed, this debut game was purchased and subsequently released by Sega in 1993. Although it had to be diluted to work on Sega hardware 'Sub-Terrania' sold well for Zyrinx. The proceeds allowed the team to move into one office in Boston and work on the sequel; 'Red Zone'.

Given their expertise with the Amiga, Zyrinx were able to quite easily transition to creating visually stunning and ambitious games on The Mega Drive. The two machines share a similar hardware structure especially the Motorola CP. This meant Zyrinx already had a pre made selection of programming subroutines and graphical tricks to drop into their games. As a result 'Red Zone' boasted rotating textured backgrounds, full motion video, polygons, real-time zooming, and vector graphics. Zyrinx even spent the first screen of the gaming boasting that these impressive visual feats were "all running without the use of additional hardware"; a thinly veiled jab at not only the Mega CD but also the Super FX chip that sat on board some Nintendo carts at the time.
While some of the graphic flourishes echoed the output from the Mode 7 graphical display native to the Snes, other things seemed to foreshadow PlayStation launch games. Considering this system's release date was two years away it is clear just how far ‘Red Zone’ had taken the humble Mega Drive. 

But it wasn't just visual trickery, Zyrinx also found ways to push the Mega Drive's audio capabilities. The music in 'Red Zone' plays at a crystal clear 44khz quality instead of the standard compressed 11khz. It was wonderful way to show off the eerie soulful electronic music composed by Jesper Kyd. This Danish composer started writing music at 13 years old but now works of huge franchises including the 'Hitman', 'Assassin's Creed' and 'Borderlands' series. Despite his huge success Kyd remains proud of his route into the industry. "I became part owner/founder of a successful game company [Zyrinx] when I was 20 and prior to that, I spent seven years in the demo scene in Europe making music for demos and games" he recalls. "All my friends were creative with computers, be it art and design, coding, hacking, music etc."

The Mega Drive was known for its tinny guitars and brashness, the music Kyd produced was the opposite. "The Sega Genesis didn’t try and compete with TV and film because it simply couldn’t and the music I wrote for those titles was written with a mindset of getting the best possible music out of that machine." You're able to choose to listen to each of the tracks from 'Red Zone' directly from the title screen and when you listen to them as a collection you realise just how diverse a soundtrack it is. While each is an electronic dance track (harking back to the Amiga Demo Scene days) some are restrained and brooding while others are busy and frantic. "I was going to a lot of raves at the time and so this was a perfect time for me to write that kind of score. I am a big fan of electronic dance music and have followed the genre since the 80s. "

It's impossible not to wonder what sort of games might have arisen if other development teams had employed the same level of ambition that Zyrinx displayed. However others developers had one ability that 'Red Zones' creators lacked; they knew how to make a fun game. Ultimately, the main problem with 'Red Zone' is that while it may look and sound fantastic, it is actually a game that seems to despise the player. The impenetrable nature starts with the story; which to be honest requires note taking to understand. 

The full motion video may give a clear overview, but it does depend a Russian-style dictator stereotype to get a message across quickly. However after this, the plot is presented as text with the player getting bombarded with a multitude of fictional organisations, made up dates and real sounding places. Hundreds of words present a convoluted plot that makes the complexities of games like 'Metal Gear Solid' look like children's tales. Frustratingly, this excessive level of detail continues into the mission briefings and I was never completely sure what I was meant to be doing when I pressed start. 

'Red Zone' is actually made up of three different styles of gameplay, though due to the difficulty it's not surprising that some people think it's only a helicopter shoot-em up game. These sections play similarly to 'Desert Strike' (albeit from an overhead rather than isometric view) but the closest point of comparison would actually be the attack copter sections of 'Pilot Wings'. To be more authentic than either of these games, Zyrinx drew on the experience of programmer Thomas "Guzzler". "I joined the Danish air force to become a fighter pilot" Guzzler claims. "I did complete the tests but after spending some months there, I found out that the "army way" wasn't my cup of tea. So I dropped out as soon as I could and came to the USA to make computer games on the old Sega Mega Drive".

At the start of 'Red Zone', the player takes control of an AH-64B Apache helicopter. To shoot down the plentiful amount of enemies you can fire a normal mini gun or a variety of missiles weapons. However, you never really feel in control of the action though as you move a cross hair target rather than the actual helicopter. The Apache will spin and turn towards this reticule but there is a slight lag and a feeling of disconnect. Even worse, this unpleasant sensation is coupled with queasy nausea as the top-down view actually rotates with your helicopter. It's similar to some of the levels in 'Super Probotector' and while it may make aiming easier it also makes it harder to mentally map the geography of the stage since what's north and south continually changes. Game Pro magazine also had issue with this control method saying that "the controls kill you. ’Red Zone' may zone you out!"

Missions are varied but in the main they consist of delivering something to somewhere or escorting a vehicle. As with the 'Strike' games all of your ammo is limited, but you can land at specific points to repair, refuel and re-arm. To progress a player must keep an eye on the chopper's damage level which is represented as a graph in the lower right portion of the screen. However, the way in which you take damage is quite sophisticated. Specific parts of your Apache will become damaged depending on the direction you've been hit, and your helicopter will behave differently according to this specific damage. Taking fire from the side means your weapons become unusable, and you will swerve unavoidably. Sometimes the rear rotor will be damaged, causing your chopper to spin in circles if left unchecked. It's similar to modem mech games or indeed the PlayStation's 'Destruction Derby' but for me it's frustrating. I'm always of the opinion that a failing player should be supported by the game; it makes little sense to punish someone who is struggling. The missions all take places in the same general area, and where you land in one mission is exactly where you'll start in the next. In fact, completing a flying objective and getting to land leads to the better proportion of the game.

In addition to helicopter combat, 'Red Zone' also has a series of overhead on-foot stages. These sections play a lot like 'Alien Breed' a celebrated Amiga game by fellow Demo Scene graduates Team 17. These levels are a little bit more straightforward. Largely they involve running through bunkers and killing soldiers, while being careful to prevent alarms. Switches must be pulled and terminals activated, however once the mission is complete there is always an annoying escape sequence. This section would be fun if there were any margin for error, but head in the wrong direction once and you won't have enough time left. For the on foot sequences, you choose between three different soldiers with unique weapon load outs. They are hardly ground breaking revolutionary characters designs though. A macho commando, a hulking giant with an oversized gun and a busty female spy with clothes that are far too small to be practical. If one dies, they're gone for good which essentially means throughout the game you can only make three mistakes.

If that seemed unfair and excessively difficult it isn't a patch on the third play style; an asteroid clone. On the eighth level hacking a computer leads to a "mini game" that actually last longer than most missions. Using the same overhead view the player can optionally play twenty rounds of an 'asteroids' clone. However, as the asteroids divide up it is nearly impossible to avoid the debris given the speed it moves and the number of obstructions on screen. This infuriating mini-game ends up playing more like 'Pang' where the player must decide when and how to split the asteroids.

You're left with the lingering feeling that the game would simply be more fun if it were more lenient. It seems ridiculous you only get one life for your helicopter section (with no continues). When it's destroyed, nuclear winter takes place in a very chilling game over sequence. While there is a password system that can be used to skip to specific missions, it's pointless to do so as the difficulty curve is so steep that if you've struggled on one stage you won't have any chance in a later one.

The on foot missions may be filled with clever programming tricks that allow the perspective of the walls to shift dependant on character position, but you have to ask what all the effort was for if most players aren't skilled enough to see it. 

While the game completion text may end with "until the next time", 'Red Zone' was to be Zyrinx’s final Mega Drive game. Once it was released the team focused their attentions toward Sega's Mega Drive successor; the Saturn. However, it was the beginning of the end. While they released one game on this system, legal battles between their parent company Scavenger Inc and GT interactive hurt Zyrinx. "When one of our games got sold to Sega we moved to Boston. After some publisher deals didn’t work out (basically we didn’t get paid) the team decided to go back to Denmark to start over" remembers composer Kyd. Ultimately, without a way to bring games to market, the developers were forced to disband five years and three games after they formed. 

Admittedly few Mega Drive games can boast the same visual flare as 'Red Zone' but it reached the shops too late to be successful. The game was released at a time when Sega were confusing its audience with numerous hardware upgrades including the Mega CD and 32X. Consequently customers were getting used to increasingly impressive visual gimmicks and many perhaps didn't realise that 'Red Zone' was playing on the original humble Mega Drive. The US box even had to point out that the game's "fully textured background graphics, Real 3-D - view, real-time map and full motion video sequences" were all possible “without the use of additional hardware!" Ironically it seems the weak sales of 'Red Zone' were a result of its in visual ambition actually confusing the audience. 

That being said maybe it didn't sell because it simply hadn't reviewed well. This would also account for why so few Retro Gamers talk about the game. We typically continue to play old games because they are primarily fun to play. Of course a game looking and sounding appealing is preferable, but without engaging gameplay it's hard to stick with even the most attractive of game. This naturally leads to the question of how good 'Red Zone' looks today. Some 16bit games have an ageless quality, charming those who appreciate pixel art. 'Red zone' may have done things thought impossible on a Mega Drive but the visual tricks are now dated and don’t stand up to close scrutiny. It does have "full motion video", but it's is just two colour video that lasts seconds. It may have a "real time rotating map" but in practice that's actually disorientating. With frustrating and infuriatingly hard gameplay, you'd have to conclude that many bought 'Red Zone' for its visuals alone. If this is the case, the evolution of technology has removed this one reason to purchases it. Like so many rave demos that made up the demo scene it's a product of its time, best returned to as a historical curio rather than an enjoyable gaming experience.

Where did I get this game from?

Like most of my Mega Drive games, 'Red Zone' was part of a bundle I bought a few years back. Buying in bulk is a good way to get games cheaper, but it does also mean you end up with games you normally wouldn't have considered. This is great in that it makes you step outside your comfort zone and play games you would normally ignore. However, should you not enjoy the experience; it does mean a game on your shelf you are unlikely to play again. 


  1. Red Zone won best game at CES. Red Zone sales then went gold. It was a hit for Time Warner. It sold > 200,000 copies. Few games published by third parties went near 100,000. Manufacturing costs for cartridge games were $20 each and had to be ordered 6 months in advance. CD-based games came next.

  2. That's incredible - thanks for correcting me . It's very difficult to get sales figures for smaller titles so I based the sales on a quote from from Kyd saying they were disappointed with numbers. I'll try to correct this in the article using your facts and figures if I may ?


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