Sega is perhaps one of the best companies when it comes to rereleasing its old titles on newer hardware. Many games from its old Genesis library will crop up as ports or in collections on modern consoles and even on platforms like the PC and mobile phones, and the absolute slew of Sonic the Hedgehog 1 ports across countless systems is a bit of a running joke in its community. While I will always love a company for making its games more accessible and preserving them for future generations, there is a small risk when bringing back retro games for a modern audience. A port of an old title or a remake can give the impression that the game is of a certain level of quality where it deserves a rerelease. After all, that game apparently took priority over the titles that haven’t been ported yet, so certainly this game must be worthy of such attention! Unfortunately, for modern gamers who are willing to take a look back at older titles, this might give them a bit of a skewed perspective on what constitutes a good old game, and Comix Zone feels like a title that mostly sustains itself based either on nostalgia or on that unintended deception born from keeping the game around for modern players.
One thing that definitely contributes to Comix Zone’s misplaced love is its strong commitment to its style. Taking on the role of comic book artist Sketch Turner, a lightning storm causes Sketch to get sucked into the very comic book he was creating, the antagonist of his story Mortus taking his place in the real world to hassle him by drawing in new additions to the already bleak and perilous world that Sketch had been creating for the Comix Zone. Now, Sketch must not only find a way to escape the comic, but he must also save the Comix Zone before Mortus destroys it and is fully able to realize himself in the real world. Graphically, the game does a pretty good job of selling the concept to you, with action taking place across actual comic book panels and the backgrounds looking like they could have been part of an actual comic as well. The characters sprites, admittedly, look a bit out of place in order to facilitate the action, but the game gets pretty clever with using the nature of the comic book as a tool during the gameplay. Sketch can break through or hop between panels, tear the page itself to find hidden items, and Mortus will sometimes draw in enemies for you to fight in real time. If you like Comix Zone purely for its visual flair and commitment to aesthetic, I can’t fault you there, although Sega did limit its competitors a bit by patenting the idea of setting a game in such a realized comic book world. Many games do try and mimic the world of comic books with art styles or other effects, but they either don’t realize it as much as Comix Zone or literally can’t because of fear of legal ramifications.
The problem with Comix Zone is not at all related to its art style, but to its gameplay. The game takes on the form of a beat ’em up, choosing to make the action fully 2D rather than giving you a good range of movement. There are very few enemies on screen so you rarely get overwhelmed, but the game tries to make up for the low enemy count by making most foes a bit tougher to take down. Sketch has a good variety of attacks to pull from and some items he can find to give him an edge, and most are pretty easy to learn and execute as well, but the enemies in the game are a bit too intelligent for their own good and can often block perfectly even when faced with a frenzied flurry of varying strikes. This on its own wouldn’t be too big of an issue, just learn the enemy’s style and try to attack when they’re open, but every second you leave yourself open, you play into the game’s biggest problem: your health.
Comix Zone has an utterly ridiculous approach to character health that completely undermines what could have otherwise been a passable game with an enticing aesthetic. Sketch’s health is very limited, the game sometimes tossing you a bone with a healing item here or there, but the game drains your health too often for these to patch the constant missteps in health design. The most sinful way of wasting your life is the fact that the game routinely throws barriers in your path that you must punch repeatedly to break through. The thing about that is… every time you punch these barriers, Sketch loses a little health, and many of these barriers require constant repeated blows to destroy! It is literally impossible to beat a level without losing health because of this, even if you are an expert at the combat. The game sometimes throws puzzles at you that can help you get by certain damaging roadblocks, the puzzles usually being incredibly easy to figure out but not always perfect in their use. Sometimes, a damaging obstacle will only be weakened by the puzzle’s solution, meaning you still have to attack spinning blades or smashing spikes and eat some damage. Many of these puzzles might also require you to have certain items, with Sketch’s rat Roadkill being the most commonly needed. Roadkill will crop up pretty often to facilitate this, but using him can lead to him being killed by enemies or just leaving the screen after he completed his task, and there will be moments where you will not have Roadkill because he was asked for earlier in the level. Even worse, Roadkill is also the primary means of gaining health as he can find hidden items, but he can disappear after doing so and some hidden items won’t even be health. You essentially have to memorize the right spots to use Roadkill to avoid losing him on something pointless.
Memorization is the name of the game for Comix Zone most of the time, and not because it’s something you want to do, but because Comix Zone will force it upon you by constantly placing you back at the beginning of the game. The health system on its own is annoying and unfair, but it could at least encourage careful play… if you had more than one life. The moment you die in Comix Zone, you get a game over and will have to start over from the first level if you want to play again. The game does rarely dish out a single continue for reasons that are hard to discern, but it’s so rare it hardly affects the greater issue with death. This bitter pill could almost be swallowed if the game didn’t also place instant death pits and lava in its levels, some of them positioned so that if you don’t have the right item at the right time, you are essentially forced to die by them. They will also place enemies above or near these pits and lava traps, so odds are you will fall into these and be forced to start again at some point. You can do everything right in this game and one slip-up can end things completely, so it’s hard to focus on the acceptable combat when there are so many other things that will kill you instead.
The game does have a few bosses that can also prove to be roadblocks until you’ve died enough times to understand them, but the most audacious thing this game does is, after constantly killing you, after making losing health an inevitability… the game has a bad ending if you can’t defeat the final boss quickly enough. Even if you choose to be cautious in approaching the rest of the game, you must abandon it in the final battle or risk the worse ending, and if you lose all of your already forcibly drained health during the battle, you are set back to the very beginning of the game. Difficulty should not come from overly punishing limitations on a player, but from a challenge that the player is given the means to learn and overcome through natural play. Asking you to repeatedly play the entire game to even know how to face certain obstacles or bosses is ridiculous, and just because the game includes a few cheats to get around these issues doesn’t mean that the game is well-designed. If you think a player should be able to start at a level they’ve already reached before, it’s just as simple as making level select standard instead of hidden.
THE VERDICT: Comix Zone is a textbook case of style over substance. When it is toying with the concept of being sucked into a comic book world, Comix Zone is interesting and unique, but what you do in the comic book certainly doesn’t match up to the quality of either comic books or video games. Battles grow stale as the game uses only a few generic enemies throughout and the platforming and puzzle solving is basically a game of trying to prevent the game from robbing you of health, a game you’ll never truly win due to some unavoidable obstacles. These issues are only compounded with how unforgiving health and death are, meaning you’ll be seeing a lot of the same things again and again if you want to see an ending that might not even be good. No art style can sustain unaltered repetition.
And so, I give Comix Zone for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive…
A TERRIBLE rating. One thing that manages to save Comix Zone from being completely awful is how easy it would be to fix the game’s core issues. Don’t remove health from the player as they are forced to break through uninteresting obstacles, give the player a few more lives, or implement a proper continue system so that you don’t start all over again after a death. Instant death traps never really feel good to fall for, but if the game had mechanics to support them, they can even be part of an amazing game. Of course, fixing these issues with Comix Zone would probably only bump it up to mediocre as the combat is essentially just a more active form of health draining rather than a satisfying fight.
If you really do like what the visuals are doing for Comix Zone, feel free to enjoy the game from afar. Interacting with the game world will only sour you on the game, but at least the flaws don’t come from trying to embrace the comic book aesthetic. They are born instead from an absolute failure at understanding how to design a thrilling challenge for a beat ’em up title despite Sega making this game after their far more enjoyable Streets of Rage titles. There is a glut of games these days and we don’t need to hold up old titles as more than they are, especially since it might punish new players who wish to explore the past of this medium and encounter walls of unconditional praise for old games simply because they were the games people could get. Because of this, this comic book game should have just been an ashcan copy.