I’ve talked about a lot of games based upon comic book properties, but never once have I covered a game that’s set inside a comic book. To rectify this, today I’m going to be talking about Comix Zone, a game that while not based on a comic book property is a must-play title for fans of comic books, video games, beat em’ ups, and games that just ooze that 90’s 16-bit charm. I’ve not had a lot of good things to say about most of the Sega Genesis games I’ve looked at on this website, but I’ll go on record as saying that this game is one of the systems hidden gems that dare I say, may be of the best games on the system that you probably haven’t played.
Comix Zone’s proof of concept video, three years before the game would ever come out
Comix Zone is the brainchild of Peter Morawiec who in 1992 developed a prototype for a game about an artist who gets transported into the world of a comic book he created. The game stars Sketch Turner, a starving artist who after falling asleep at his work station finds himself transported into his creation after it is struck by lightning. This freak accident brings the villain of the comic, Mordus, into our world and plans to take it over but not after first eliminating his creator, Sketch. In the world of his comic, Sketch meets up with Alissa Cyan, a military commander who believes him to be the prophesied hero who will save her world. With the support of Alyssa, Sketch sets out to bring peace to the world and hopefully return to his own.
The premise of Comix Zone is as cheesy and 90’s as it gets, down to the freak lightning accident causing the hero to be sent into a living comic book and the main character’s name, Sketch Turner. It totally works though, as it suits the medium the game is poking fun at as things like lightning bolts either transporting people, giving them super powers or both are not totally uncommon. It also establishes the game’s world, which is easily Comix Zone’s biggest selling point and what makes it so unique.
Sega is always at their best when they’re making games with off the wall premises: a crazy cab company, a fish with a man’s head you control with a microphone, two funky aliens or a game where you’re inside a living comic book. The playing space is the various pages of Sketch’s comic book and moving through the world never ceases to amaze or get old. When you reach the edge of a panel, Sketch will leap around to the left or right or swing down if he’s dropping down a panel, even managing to break the book if he hits an enemy hard enough to send him flying through the world. One of the coolest sections of the game occurs around the halfway mark when Mordus lights a page on fire and you have to descent to the bottom as quickly as possibly, or else. Mordus will also try to cease your progress as well by drawing enemies into the comic while your exploring, and you can even see the hand descend to the page, pencil in hand, bringing your next threat to life.
It’s not just in the game’s environment where the team at Sega Technical institute, or STI for short, took advantage of the unique design, but in the presentation as well. Punches and kicks are met with comical sound effects straight out of the 60’s Batman TV series and characters will converse with each other via speech balloons. Sketch will even have his own personal thought bubbles as he progresses from panel-to-panel and page-to-page trying to make sense out of his situation. Thankfully yellow blocked headers also make an appearance to advise our hero of each new setting he finds himself in.
While Comix Zone impresses with its original world, the gameplay is overly derivative of games like Final Fight or Sega’s own Streets of Rage. Replace the comic panels with any of the stages from either of those games and countless others and you’re still left with a game where you’re moving from one enclosed area to another and beating up bad guys. Mindlessly hitting the attack button however won’t get you very far in Comix Zone and there’s enough variation in the tried-and-true formula to keep even the most seasoned beat-em-up veteran on their toes. You can modify your attacks by holding up and down on the d-pad and change your fighting stance by angling diagonally to the left and right. Knowing what stance you should be in when fighting which enemy is a lot of fun and the game does a good job of slowing bringing in different enemies to contend with. You can also pick up weapons: throwing knives, bombs, dynamite and screen clearing fist that temporarily turns you into a super hero. Whereas other beat-em-ups use weapons purely for offense purposes, Comix Zone also requires you to think about when you should use your weapons or hold onto them.
You can store up to three items at any given time, cycling through them on a three-button controller or activating them with the X,Y and Z buttons on the six-button controller. Weapons can be used to clear obstacles, such as the explosive items, or the knife can be thrown to activate switches from a distance. One of the most useful pick-ups is the hero’s pet ret, Roadkill, who will go under deadly fans, trick a giant plant into becoming vulnerable, or operate a lever such that you can get safely under an obstacle. Though none of the puzzles you’ll contend with here are very advanced or mentally taxing, it’s very much appreciated that the developers gave you something more to do than just move around and hit things.
I’ve had a lot of good things to say about Comix Zone, but the game is not without its faults. What kept me from enjoying this game for a very long time is its difficulty. I’ve griped before about games that have a few lives and no continues, but starting out this game has no spare lives and no option to continue. From what I can comprehend I believe it throws you some bones at levels three and five by giving you one spare chance and then a second, but the game doesn’t really spell it out for that well. This can be the most frustrating in the few small sections where you have to make a jump over a small pit or are dangling above a bottomless hole, only to be knocked down by a flying enemy and sent back to the very start. One of the more bizarre additions and one I could never figure out is that you also take damage by punching things like barrels. It’s realistic, yes, but this is also a game about a guy in a comic book who punches mutants covered in slime and it makes a very difficulty game even harder. It’s not like in other games where you’re just hitting these objects just to get items, there are a lot of points where obstacles that are blocking your path absolutely need to be destroyed, forcing you to lose health in order to move forward.
Once you master the fighting mechanics and know where all the traps and enemies will come from, what you’re left what is a disappointingly short game. Lasting only six levels, it will only take you around a half-an-hour to beat Comix Zone but that being said, you still have to reach a point where you master the game before you make it to that point and that can take some time depending on your skill and dedication. There’s not a lot of replay value left once you learn the game’s inner-workings, other than to get the good ending should you not be able to beat the final boss fast enough.
Issues with difficulty and length aside, Comix Zone is an under appreciated gem in the Sega Genesis library that was buried under the companies other devices like the ill-conceived 32X and the 32-bit Sega Saturn. There’s a lot of beat-em-ups on the market out there, but none of them have as unique and memorable set up as Comix Zone with enough diversity in the core gameplay to keep you interested through the short adventure. Players are luck today in that you don’t even need a Sega Genesis today to play this fantastic game: You can download on services like the Wii Virtual Console, PS3 via PSN, XBLA for Xbox 360 and PC through Steam. With that many ways to enjoy this lost classic, there’s no reason not to hop on your download service of choice and give this game a go.