RETRO REBOOT - Comix Zone (Sega Genesis)

The 16-bit era saw an increase in popularity in the early 90's of the beat'em up brawler genre. A staple in the arcades during the mid to late 80's, the genre saw the rise of titles like Double Dragon (considered the grandfather of the format), River City Ransom, and Final Fight. The token munching games would make their way to home consoles, especially the Sega Genesis, paving the way for popular IPs like Golden Axe and Streets of Rage. Throughout the period, while the genre pretty much remained fairly straightforward with its simplistic and satisfying button mashing bedlam, developers began experimenting blending aspects of adventure and platforming to provide more psychological depth. One of the most artistically (pun partially intended) fascinating titles was that of the 1995 release, Comix Zone.

Developed by Sega Technical Institute, a blend of both Japanese and American developers, including Sonic the Hedgehog creator Yuji Naka, Comix Zone was an incredibly unique release produced and written by Peter Morawiec, who's other notable works include the True Crime games Streets of LA and New York, respectively. The game's plot centers around musician and comic book artist Sketch Turner, a self-proclaimed starving artist, is finishing up his latest work. A lighting storm erupts, bringing the main antagonist of the comic, Mortus, springs to life, throwing Sketch into the pages of his own story. With assistance from General Alissa Cyan, who gives Sketch in-game pointers. In an interview in 2007 for Sega-16, Peter talked about the initial creative inspiration that lead to Comix Zone.

"...The theme was the primary hook. Many of my STI coworkers were ardent comics fans and I would often tag along with them to local Bay Area comic book shops. I felt that comics and games could be very complementary and worked up a demo animation on my Amiga, which I played for Roger and other execs during one of those greenlight presentations. Both Roger and Tom Kalinske (SoA President) really liked it, so it was a fairly easy sell."

Peter notes that Sketch's original name was "Joe Pencil" and was going to be a scrawny, prototypical nerd who turns into a superhero in the game. In an aim to appeal more to the attitude of the times, Peter redesigned him to be a tough-looking grunge rock inspired man with a pet rat named Roadkill who assisted Sketch in solving puzzles and damaging enemies.

Comix Zone's signature means of progression which involves Sketch traversing across panels by actually grabbing the borders on the pages and leaping over them. A gag that has been seen in many cartoons before it, this stands out in the world of video games and that alone separates it from the norm. Word bubbles are used in comic book fashion to convey dialog between characters. Instead of thugs sitting around and waiting for the player to interact with them, some bad guys are literally drawn by Mortus himself to assault you. Further elements like page tearing, including an attack where Sketch can rip a piece of paper and launch a paper airplane that damages enemies truly brings this 2D world to life within a 2D world, if that makes any sense. The art direction and animation is very inviting, making Comix Zone one of the more visibly inviting and immersive Sega Genesis titles late into system's life span.  

When it comes to controlling Sketch, he has melee attack moves, that when you press the action button along with the d-pad, he can perform step kicks, uppercuts, back kicks, and standard punches. On a six button control pad, Sketch can use one of the several items he may acquire, like a super punch, which is a screen clearing super bomb. A knife that can damage enemies and disarm traps, though not as effective as Roadkill. And grenades and dynamite, which are great for damaging bosses or clearing debris. Iced Tea can replenish your health, and it's important to use, since punching boxes and steel grates to make openings lightly depletes your health bar.

Since it's designed more effectively as a puzzle solver than an action game, Comix Zone's combat definitely takes a little bit getting used to. Sketch's punches and kicks are responsive, but have a rather mechanical feel to them when it comes to recovery. Imagine if Shaq-Fu were a little more polished (bare with me there) or one of the Virgin Interactive developed titles like Aladdin or Earthworm Jim, there's more frames of animation than you'd expect. Adding to Comix Zone's stubborn difficulty is the incredibly limited number of lives you actually get. And by incredibly limited, I mean ONE. Yeah, for the first couple of stages, you get just a single life, and you'll end up dying an awful lot just trying to learn how to safely navigate this game with zero checkpoints. The stages are fairly short, but the pages are littered with so many things that can hurt you, your life bar doesn't last long without playing very tentatively.

So is Comix Zone fun? For as great as the aesthetic, the music, and the graphics are, it's rather ridged to pick up and play. I would almost say that it would be better played as a rotoscope adventure like Out Of This World or Heart of Darkness. As a kid, I ended up replaying so much of the first page, I got sick of looking at it, but as an adult, I adapted an air of patience. By taking my time and learning from experimenting, I can certainly get further and this can be a pretty entertaining experience. Comix Zone is incredibly creative, and I'll always give it massive amounts of praise being one of the standout Mega Drive exclusives that separated itself from the Super Nintendo (in a platform war that was long over by this point). Being made of sterner stuff might go a long way to enjoy popping this back into the 'Drive, it can be rough. It's been on virtually every Sega Genesis collection conceived, so Comix Zone's impact is more than noted. This game is worth experiencing for its unique visual flair and creative take on action platforming.

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