The Game Gear was a handheld console Sega ran with from 1990 to 1996, selling over ten million units. Unlike Nintendo’s Game Boy, the Game Gear displayed games in full color, had a backlit screen, and could be held (relatively) comfortably with its landscape format. It was cheaper than the Atari Lynx and the NEC TurboExpress (PC Engine GT in Japan), and managed to build a strong library of fun games to play on the go. Some were ports of Master System games, some were simpler versions of Genesis/Mega Drive games, and some were their own original titles created specifically for the Game Gear.
It is this third category of games that perhaps will interest retro gamers the most these days. Many of these titles were Japan-only (a running trend for Sega consoles apparently), but in recent years they’ve received English fan translations. Titles such as Megami Tensei Gaiden: Last Bible, Magic Knight Rayearth, Moldorian, Godzilla: Monsters Attack, Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon S, and the game I’ll be writing about today: Kishin Douji Zenki, which released in Japan in September 1995. This is a platformer that lets you play as two distinct characters (sort of three, actually), and adapts what I assume is a simplified version of the story told in the anime and manga of the same name.
Kishin Douji Zenki (or Demon God Child Zenki) was a 12-volume manga that ran from 1992 to 1996, and had a 51-episode anime adaptation in 1995. The story seems pretty straightforward. A sealed demon god named Zenki is freed by a shrine maiden girl named Chiaki, but Zenki is generally stuck in the form of a pipsqueak child. Chiaki can use a magical bracelet to temporarily return Zenki to his supercharged adult warrior form, and together the two fight off monsters of the week and scheming villains that are using Macguffins called the seeds of Karuma.
In the Game Gear game, you choose who to play as before each stage: Chiaki or child-form Zenki. Chiaki attacks by shooting fireballs (making a finger gun when doing so), while Zenki jumps in a ball to defeat enemies (you know, like Sonic the Hedgehog). Chiaki can destroy certain blocks to gain special power-ups, while Zenki can roll through hidden passageways. Levels are fairly short, but the ability to play through them as two different characters and find secret routes adds a lot for the game’s replayability. At times there are also boss battles, in which you play as adult-form Zenki. With his full power unlocked, Zenki can punch, block projectiles, and utilize four different magic abilities (pause, then select which power to have on-hand for your charged attack). To defeat bosses, you’ll not only need to learn the enemies’ attack patterns, but also work out which magic ability proves the most effective against them.
All in all the game is what I’d call a fun romp. For a Game Gear title, the presentation is top-notch (I was surprised by the number of cut scenes that were incorporated in the game), and the visuals in general are just fantastic. The character sprites are crisp and well-defined, and the backgrounds are lush and detailed. My favorite visual effect is whenever Chiaki shoots a fireball, which illuminates her sprite a bit (as in, the glowing fire in front of her reflects off her body). Screenshots here probably don’t look that impressive, but when you’re actually playing it on a small-screened handheld, it’s good stuff. Again though, if you’re going to be reviewing it or something, I think you’ve got to imagine yourself playing this in 1995, on a Game Gear. It wouldn’t be fair to compare it to today’s modern platformers, or even to titles releasing on home consoles in 1995… right?
But therein lies the struggle that handheld consoles have always faced: the inevitable comparisons to games made for more powerful home consoles. Why play any of the Sonic or Shinobi games on the Game Gear when you can play the superior ones on the Genesis? Similarly, why play Uncharted: Golden Abyss or Killzone: Mercenary on the PS Vita, when you can play “real” Uncharted games and “real” first-person shooters on “real” consoles? The answer of course is portability, but it seems that isn’t a thing that even gets considered by a lot of people.
I think it’s a shame, but what can you do? I’m only starting to dive into the Game Gear library, but I’m already finding some fun titles like Halley Wars and Tails Adventure. They’re simpler than the shoot-em-ups and metroidvanias of today, but that’s only to be expected. As long as it’s fun, then I’m in. And for what I consider the Game Gear’s spiritual successor, the PS Vita, I could go on all day about the games I’ve enjoyed playing on that. You either “get it” or you don’t though, and for one reason or another most folks didn’t want to give the Vita the time of day. Certainly Sony could have done better to market and support the system, but I feel the general gaming public was also pretty harsh on its games since Day One. Instead of being impressed by these big titles running on a small but well-built handheld, it was much more commonplace to bemoan the frames per second or draw distance, and immediately proclaim there were better games to be had on the PS3 or PS4. Certainly there were certain games that ran too poorly on the Vita and thus were not fun to play–but there were many more that ran just fine, or at least ran well enough to not hinder enjoyment.
It’s the same for the Game Gear. Yes, some games on it suffer due to the small screen size or tinny sound effects. But there were also games that made it work. There were developers that creatively worked within the handheld’s limitations and released some solid titles that are still fun to play through today. Kishin Douji Zenki is one of them. The character sprites are not too big, and enemies attack in ways that rarely feel unfair. Controls are responsive and easy to pick up for both playable characters. The platforming challenges are clear to understand. Bosses can be difficult, but not overbearingly so. Careful exploration of the short levels is encouraged and awarded effectively (secret paths, extra levels, hidden power-ups), and playing as both characters in each level provides two unique gameplay experiences. And hey, even the sound for this game isn’t bad.
So fire it up! Supper, TheMajinZenki, and Filler did good work on the fan translation, which you can find here.