Page turner.

Cult classics, almost by definition, have the misfortune of being overlooked critically or commercially at the time of their release, yet snowball in select popularity long after their benefactors have moved on to other career projects. Why? Often such an injustice is the result of unforeseeably and thus uncontrollably poor timing. Whether a certain video game projects a vision ahead of its peers, strays from the safe confines of the mainstream, or simply fades into obscurity at its launch in the face of distractingly stiff competition, some games face a dusty shelf life for years until a retrospective renaissance pulls them down from the old school catalogue – eventually, being retro makes them cool, and we discover gems we once discarded as junk.

Comix Zone is one such game, wearing the ‘cult classic’ badge of honour twenty years after it failed to garner any serious devotion. Developed and published by Sega, the side-scrolling 1995 beat-em-up was the unexceptional victim of poorly timed release and being so ‘out of the box’ that it targeted a niche audience instead of the mainstream.

Get In The Zone

The premise is as imaginatively cool as it was simple. Sketch Turner is a comic book artist who, one late work-night in his New York nest, gets sucked into his own creation by his in-progress story’s villain, Mortus. With the help of sexy soldier Alissa and pet rat Roadkill, Sketch has to mash his way through half a dozen panels of lethal artwork as he attempts to get back home. Make note that Comix Zone has all the narrative breadth of an arcade title – the credits roll after about an hour of playthrough. Yeah, the fun is over quick – that is, for strong-willed heroes.

Prepare for sweaty palms, and recognise one of the hardest 16-bit brawlers next to Streets of Rage and Battle Toads.

Note that saying it will take you one hour to finish Comix Zone is like saying it will take you a couple of minutes to KO Mike Tyson in Punch-Out!!. The game is perilously difficult– arcade to its bones – and persistently threatens to damage both your controller and your newly minted décor. As Sketch moves from strip to strip, facing every manner of slug and thug from each page’s corner, the challenge herein seems to become increasingly prejudicial.

comix zone

Yes, there are a few items lying around you can save in one of three inventory slots, and occasionally you’ll run across some health. Does that make any difference?  Listen… Hear that? That’s the sound of a resounding ‘no’! Sketch even takes damage from punching his way through obstacles which you have no other way of getting around. Forget ‘justice league’ — this is bush league. Prepare for sweaty palms, and recognise one of the hardest 16-bit brawlers next to Streets of Rage and Battle Toads.

Looking past a death counter that pledges to pass double digits, this beat-em-up still beats with the best:  Ninja Turtles, Double Dragon, Streets – you name it. It’s a frackin’ good fracas. Two basic punch and kick moves are rounded out by off-the-wall weapons, the ability to roll your papery environment into an airplane and toss it at your enemies, and your vermin sidekick who gets a few hits in when he can.

A brawler’s controls are always its deal breaker – they make or break the experience. Quirky panel-perusing plots and awesome artwork are all well and good, but bottom-line success for a game like this comes down to one question: does it handle as well as any plot-driven throw-down incarnate? The answer – testified by the fact that delivering your fist to some alien cyborg’s craw feels as crushingly painful as it looks – is an obvious affirmative.

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And while style plays passively second fiddle to gameplay in brawlers, this is a game centered on the gimmick of moving through the pages of a comic book, so naturally the artwork beseeches a larger piece of the review pie. The stages – panels, whatever – are wide-ranging in their colour schemes and make use of all the right mixed hues. One level takes you from the bruised streets of a dystopian NYC that reminds you of the film Escape from New York, the John Carpenter film that itself had a very pseudo-superhero feel, while another has you taking on martial-art masters in the Orient, while yet another has you wading through a shipyard of marooned tankers. Sketch and his enemies are all well animated, while recurrent effects like turning pages elevate the whole comic-book concept from gimmick to effective design ploy.

True, Comix Zone bombed for Sega, a company that was on the relative cusp of closing up shop as a manufacturer, but the legacy of this cult classic cannot be ignored. The game was too brief, too hard, and released too late in the 16-bit lifespan, but critically favourable, off-the-wall titles like this still serve Sega by sustaining a reverent retro fan-base that eats and breathes nostalgia, if not kicks to the groin courtesy of slime mutants.

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