Comix Zone Review
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who can’t beat Comix Zone, and liars. I suppose there’s a third category of those who have learned the game’s ins and outs well enough to make it to the end without cheating, but let’s be realistic—most of us aren’t that kind of person. This is a brutal, unforgiving game that just so happens to be wonderful despite some wonky design decisions that render it virtually impossible for the average person to beat despite its short length, but fortunately for us mere mortals, the game can be legally obtained on Amazon and Steam in an emulated form. This allows you to play through the game with save states, turning a game that would otherwise be maddeningly frustrating for most players into a feasible experience.
This will be a shorter review since the game is short
To be fair, that’s not the only reason; I got a new vocal processor today and spent several hours playing with it, completely forgetting that I was planning on doing this review. The short length of the game is partially an excuse, then, though it bears repeating that this game really is criminally short. There are only 6 stages and 3 bosses in the entire game, and though stages are brutally difficult, they’re also only 12 or so “panels” long each.
If it walks like a comic and talks like a comic, it must be a video game
The story begins with the appropriately-named comic book artist Sketch Turner’s comic getting hit by lightning, bringing its villain to life in the real world. Said villain is unable to kill Sketch there, however, so he traps him in his own comic book instead. As a result, you spend the game jumping from comic book panel to comic book panel, with each having its own quirky elements; some panels have explosive crates, while others have enemies who are “drawn in” by the game’s villain. There are also switches, shortcuts, locked doors, hidden powerups, and environmental hazards that have to be worked around.
The concept is great, but though the execution is great for 1995, it hasn’t stood the test of time quite as well as other games have. Granted, it’s one of the better 2D beat-em-ups of that period, but it has a huge learning curve compared to other games that are more newbie-friendly. Part of this difficulty curve comes from the fact that everything hurts you, from punching open doors to making incredibly powerful paper airplanes, and the fact that you only gain an extra continue every two stages (and they don’t seem to stack). This means that you’re effectively playing in ironman mode all the time and a single mistake can force you to start the game over from the beginning, which is annoying since some mistakes, like punching stalagmites instead of kicking them, make little to no sense and aren’t apparent until it’s too late.
Fortunately, playing the game emulated (legally via the Sega Classics series or otherwise) opens up the possibility of using save states, alleviating the difficulty somewhat. If these weren’t available, I don’t know that I’d be able to recommend the game to any but the most dedicated gamers, but their presence allows the game to be enjoyed by anyone with enough patience to redo sections they screwed up on. Comix Zone is infinitely more enjoyable and accessible for this.
Controls, options, and the beauty of speedrunners
This is one of the games that uses the Genesis (or Mega Drive for you non-North American players) controller that has six buttons. As I understand it, it’s possible to play the original with a three-buttoned controller, but it requires some awkward button combinations to make things work. At any rate, the first three buttons are for attack, jump, and “special.” Your special move can be changed in the options menu before you start a new game, and though it defaults to “block,” you can set Sketch to auto-block and have a more-powerful move like a scissor kick assigned to that button. The other three buttons correspond to Sketch’s inventory, allowing him to use items like a health-restoring drink, bombs, knives, and even his rodent pet, Roadkill.
Roadkill is an interesting part of the game, being vital to solving some situations without taking damage, but also being easily left behind. He can be picked up as an inventory item, but leaving a panel without picking him up means moving on without him, so I found that I only ever had two inventory slots because of having to lug my rat around, just in case. Roadkill comes in incredibly handy, though, not only being capable of flipping switches in situations that would damage Sketch, but also finding hidden items and shortcuts during stages that can prove vital to surviving.
None of this is ever explained to you. Comix Zone has a bad habit of leaving you to figure things out by yourself, and this means that many of the more advanced features are left undiscovered by most players. For example, a normal player isn’t likely to figure out that holding the attack button causes Sketch to use some of his life to create a paper airplane that can one-shot many enemies. Really, the best thing to do is to go onto Youtube and find a speedrun of the game to pick up on all the little tips and tricks. This won’t take long, either, because the shortness of the game, combined with speedrunners’ proclivity for finishing as fast as possible, ensures that they’re only 10-20 minutes long. This is the fastest way to learn the game inside and out, and once you do, it’s a much more fulfilling experience.
It can be incredibly unfair at times, though
As the video above demonstrates, there are a few issues with the game that cause it to be unfair. For one, falling down pits is an instant death, so hitting an enemy and falling into one (which is easier than it sounds) can mean a sudden end to your game. Then there are the physics, which are a bit wonkier than they probably should be; in the video, I’m attempting to hold down punch to create a paper airplane for the next panel, but punching the edge of the panel instead causes Sketch’s entire body to fall off of the ledge despite him being nowhere near it. After trying to shoot the airplane the other direction with no luck, I move further from the panel edge in the hopes of not hitting it, only to knock myself off several times more. This is often how playing the game goes, even with save states, and this can prove to be unbelievably frustrating.
Graphics and music
These are the areas where Comix Zone shines—the comic book aesthetic holds up even today, especially for those of us who have a fondness for sprite art, and the music is varied and memorable despite the hardware limitations. Everything about the game’s music and graphics scream “1990s” in the best of ways. It should be mentioned, however, that Sega’s official PC-emulated version isn’t the greatest, and the graphics have a habit of occasionally glitching out (see the screenshots for an example).