Tonight, I came across an interesting video for the Sega CD version of Rise of the Robots, a game that not many may remember, but is considered to be one of the worst fighting games ever created.
The video plays out like some sort of demo reel for investors to help pay to complete the developers' vision. And they make a pretty compelling argument, despite the narrator shouting out cyber-buzz-words that don't seem to really make much sense in the context of what is actually being presented. For the time, it has a cutting edge look - but as you can tell from the clip itself, the gameplay looks pretty stiff and bland. It's no wonder that this game has mostly been forgotten.
I never played it as a kid, but admired the design of what was promoted as the main robot in most of the game's ads, and on its box art.
I always thought he looked like a cross between Guyver and Zen: Intergalactic Ninja.
I'm actually very surprised that I never even rented this game, because I had such a strong obsession with robots (and still do to this day). In fact, as silly as it may sound, one of my earliest memories from my childhood involves me playing with a motorized robot toy walking across a vintage-modern slate floor in Dallas, Texas. A robot known as Saturn, to be exact.
Saturn's best feature was the projection screen on his chest - every few steps, he would pause, and it would light up with images of swirling, psychedelic galaxies and rocket ships. It was nowhere near as crisp of an image as depicted on the box, but to a young child it didn't matter. I found this toy decades later at a collectables shop in Ann Arbor called Kaleidoscope - a place that has piles and piles of sci-fi books, toys, and other oddities just laying around in massive, unorganized piles that are teetering on collapse. I'm pretty sure I shrieked out loud in delight when I came across it, as it triggered my recollection of the deep forgotten memory. The owner laughed. Things like that must happen all the time in his store.
Anyway, despite Rise of the Robots being considered a terrible game and a complete failure, you don't have to look too hard to find comments on gameplay videos where people admit that they have a strange attraction to it, even though they admit that it's far from perfect.
I think there are lots of people out there who have unexplainable attractions and admirations for games that were widely panned by critics and players alike. I'm not talking cult-status games that are well regarded by an established fan base... I mean games that no one really even knows or likes except a few strange people. Games that are ghosts in the midst of game history.
My ghost-game is called Zero Divide.
Look at that absolutely bland and mediocre cover image. The title is muddy and hard to read, the floor texture is insanely pixellated, and the model on the right has been Americanized to have a more human-like face than the actual title character from the game.
Zero Divide didn't get the best reviews when it was released, but it wasn't completely looked down upon either. Actually, I think that this game was mainly overlooked due to lackluster promotion and half-hearted box art.
Zero Divide existed at a time when 3D fighting games were relatively new, and titles like Virtua Fighter, Tekken, and Battle Arena Toshinden were dominating arcades and home consoles. The thing that set Zero Divide apart from the popular competition and made it unique was the intricate and technical design that went into the robot-like characters. I say robot-like, because contrary to what most reviews online say about this game, these characters are actually computer programs fighting to rid the Global Information System of a devastating, self-aware computer virus known as XTAL. They may look like robots, but they're lines of code, digitally duking it out.
If this ad had focused on any one of the awesome character designs instead of providing tiny screenshots orbiting a wide-mouthed idiot, it probably would have gotten more attention and would have a bigger following.
Released in 1995, the same year that Virtual On hit arcades (and bearing some loose resemblances to some of its characters), Zero Divide looked nothing like any other fighting game I had ever seen. The unique models were highly intricate for the time, featuring lots of moving parts, extra appendages, and weapons in some cases. The use of distinct color palettes for each model not only added variety when textural detail was technologically limited, it also helped reinforce the concept that these characters were actually programs or avatars designed by different, unseen hacker entities. Taking this idea one step further, each character was also accompanied by their own symbolic mark, much like the different anti-gravity crafts you can choose from in the Wipeout series, also released in '95. Man, '95 was a very big and creative year for video games.
One of the biggest criticisms of this game is the voice of XTAL, who plays the role of announcer and final boss. He asks you to select your character, and then formally introduces himself on the level select screen, which features some excellent, rotating 3D geometry superimposed over a nice, pixellated ocean and sky. Although his final form looks nothing like what we see throughout the game, he kind of looks like an elderly version of Andross from Star Fox. He isn't particularly grating until you enter combat, and he begins commenting on your playing skills. Lines like "SUPERB COMBINATION!" and "OOOOH, THAT REALLY HURT!" are exclaimed throughout each battle. I can see why people are annoyed by this, and thankfully there is a toggle to disable him in the Options screen if he bothers you that much. In all honesty, he didn't really annoy me, and any mocking remarks he made against me just added fuel to the flames of wanting to meet him in battle.
The gameplay itself is deceptively deep, as each character has a surprisingly vast amount of combos and special moves. Their execution is a little stiff, but once you get the hang of it, you adjust rather quickly. The control scheme and combat is often likened to Virtua Fighter, as the buttons are simplified to guard, punch, and kick. When you wail on your opponent, hard hits are accentuated by mini-explosions and excellent sound effects that are reminiscent of late 80's and early 90's mecha anime. You know, synthesized whirrs of reverberating metal and the like.
Gah, I will never tire of hearing or seeing those PS1 boot-up screens. Also, don't you just love the reflective gradient look of those "WINNER" and "GET SET / GO" text banners when they contrast with the polygonal backgrounds? I do. It's a beautiful representation of where this game was in 1995 - riding that edge between the 16 and 32-bit generations.
As you can see from the video, the gameplay isn't incredibly fast, but there are moments when the back and forth can get quite intense, especially when you get knocked out of the ring and grab the edge at the last moment. When you're playing with a friend, this technique is critical, and can make for some memorable matches as you take turns beating the digital armor off of each other's cyber warriors.
Looking at it now, this game had a lot of features and interesting nuances that I've never really seen anywhere else, like the armor gauges that sit next to the health bars. As your character and opponent take damage to different areas, those sections degrade from green to red until they are broken, and the corresponding limbs are either severely weakened or become completely disabled. When this happens, that part of the character model breaks off, revealing a translucent, polygonal skeleton that billows pixellated smoke and seethes with electric surges. It reminds me a little of the armor meter and on-screen damage of Tech Romancer. Zero Divide also features a stamina meter that depletes as you take damage, and must be full in order for you to recover from a knockdown. And, if you really want to mix things up, there are four or five different camera options to choose from, including a first-person view like Bushido Blade's if I remember correctly.
Once you make your way up the XTAL tower and have defeated all opponents, you face a mini-boss named ZULU who is a bit of a cheap bastard. If you have lost a match or used a continue, you will not be able to face the final boss, and receive a very cryptic, Ghost In the Shell-like message from him before the credits roll:
Meeting the requirements to face XTAL is no easy task, but once you do, he is revealed to be a grotesque brain with giant claws, surrounded by floating screens and monitors.
Once XTAL is defeated, a message lets the player know that all their efforts were for nothing, as another despicable program has been initiated, and a tragedy will inevitably befall the human race in the near future. This, of course, is a setup for the sequel that never made it to the U.S., likely due to poor sales and unfairly lukewarm reviews of what I consider to be an impressive and original fighter.
Zero Divide doesn't stop there, however. It's coolest offering, in my opinion, is an amazing easter egg that grants you access to a mini-version of an iconic game that was also developed by ZOOM. To perform this easter egg, you have to plug your controller into the 2nd port while the system is off, hold start and select, and power up the game. Once you make it past the initial screens, you are presented with...
TINY PHALANX! Open blue skies. Icy blue laser beams. Fields of bullets and squadrons of chunky, metallic fighters. This is an incredibly fun version of an excellent shooting game that was originally released on my dream machine, the Sharp X68000.
Phalanx is perhaps best known in the west for having one of the silliest and most bizarre covers ever conceived for an SNES game.
A far cry from the original, Japanese artwork for the Super Famicom version...
Tiny Phalanx is short, but very fun and challenging, and certainly adds quite a bit to the depth of the Zero Divide experience.
ZOOM. What an interesting company. Looking at their history, they haven't developed that many games throughout their existence, but they've continued to put out titles all the way up to a few years ago.
This leads me to believe that they are likely a very small team that has cared a great deal about gaming, and the titles they've created. I think that feeling is evident in Zero Divide, as it's a complete package with plenty of style and replay value. It bums me out to think that this game is already so unknown and obscure, and that in a few years it will really just be a ghost that will not likely be remembered, along with so many other great games that have bene ignored throughout the years. I guess that's why I spend my time playing it, thinking about, and writing about it for anyone who comes across this blog to hopefully discover and enjoy.
If you have any interest in early 3D fighters or old-school shooting games, you can likely pick a copy up on eBay for less than $10 shipped. Climb that tower and defeat XTAL. Divide by zero!