Sunday, October 9, 2011

Zero Tolerance (Genesis)

When I was in elementary school there were exactly two games that mattered for the computer: Wolfenstein 3d and Doom. There were always a handful of kids who broke the "no outside software" rule and installed one or both of those little .exe files right onto one of the PCs in the computer lab. While I couldn't dream of actually being caught breaking the "no outside software" rule, I loved playing Doom and Wolfenstein over at my friends' house. It was great having friends whose families adopted computers early! Running around blowing up imps with rocket launchers and icing mutant warriors with my trusty shotgun. It was good, clean, all-American gaming that helped an otherwise docile kid vent his frustration with bullies, homework, and having to empty the dishwasher.

By the time high school rolled around I was more into games like Leisure Suit Larry and Monkey Island than any FPS's, but there will always be a small place in my heart for blowing up aliens and totin' around a BFG or a chaingun. However, early first-person shooters had a pretty lousy track record on home consoles. Doom and Wolfenstein 3d had such popularity on the PC, that they were ported (rather poorly) to the Super NES as well as a handful of other home consoles. FPS's on home consoles didn't really get it right until at least the 64 bit era rolled around when games such as Hexen on the Sega Saturn and N64 or Duke Nukem 3d hit consoles. While the Super NES could handle representing these games in at least a relatively close port - it was pretty hard to buy that the Genesis could pull off anything close to an accurate FPS experience (without resorting to that abomination known as the 32x.) That is - until one day in high school I randomly came across the game "Zero Tolerance" at my local game store.

Zero Tolerance is a first-person shooter developed by Technopop and released in 1994. It's unique because to the best of knowledge it is one of - if not the only FPS for the Genesis. You control a squad of soldiers known as codename "zero tolerance" sent to an orbital space station known as Europe-1 with the mission of destroying some alien baddies before Europe-1 blows up. That's already at least a smidgeon more plot than any of the first two Doom games have and just a little less than Wolfenstein 3d. While it's nice to have a good, rich plot driving you through a FPS (ala Half Life 1 & 2) sometimes killin' stuff is just enough, thank you very much.

So pixelly!

In your journey through 40 stages (separated into 3 different sections) you have a 5-person team to destroy these extraterrestrial enemies. In other words, you have 5 lives - if all of your crew members die, it's lights out for codename zero tolerance and you have to start over. Each of your team members has their own unique talents ranging from a communications/marksman expert, surveillance specialist, expert in hand-to-hand combat and evasive techniques, a medic who rocks with a pistol, and demolition expert. As you can tell, each team member has a little something extra to the table so it's helpful to have the right person for the job (though ultimately what you'll be doing most is shooting blocky brown aliens in the melon.)

I think that alien is wearing Uggs. Just sayin'.

While I would characterize the controls for most home ports of FPS's like Doom to be stiff; the controls for Zero Tolerance are surprisingly good considering the limitations of playing with a controller. Levels are laid out with a lot of open area to walk around so it's not often that you'll get stuck on a wall or some stray pixel that will lock you up unlike other console shooters. The only real annoyance with the controls seems to be an intentional design choice which is what happens whenever your character gets shot. Getting hit by a bullet in this game is the equivalent of having Mortal Kombat's Goro grab you by the neck and toss you 400 yards. For whatever reason, you fly back (sometimes through doors or across rooms) and fall to the ground, slowing your reaction time tremendously every time you get a good solid hit. While this might add a pinch of realism to getting sprayed by shotgun shells, it certainly can be annoying for anyone who's used to walking through a hail of gunfire with nothing but bare fists and a bloodied smile. Turning around to face an enemy behind you can also be a pain as well; however, the enemies seem to move at a relatively medium clip so it doesn't feel like you're being cheated by slow camera movement.

Blocky still looks better than those smudgey, venetian blind wide shots.

Even though the graphics and sound are nothing to write home about nowadays, Zero Tolerance is actually a pretty well presented game as far as Genesis games are concerned - especially considering what an undertaking it must have been to develop a FPS for the console. The graphical capabilities of the Sega Genesis are limited when compared to the Super NES, so there aren't a huge amount of games that tried to experiment with 3d pixels and polygons ala Starfox & Pilotwings or games that pushed limits like Donkey Kong Country and Stunt Race FX. Heck, look at the Sega Cd and the 32x - two add on consoles developed just to compete with the power and appeal of the Super NES (a system that had the same amount of bits but a lot more power and potential.) That being said, this game is the equivalent of those boundary-pushing SNES games for the Genesis. It was relatively revolutionary for the time and it's pretty amazing today to consider the lack of attention this game has gotten over the years, remaining more or less a cult classic.

Let there be no mistake, though; the graphics are crude. You have a vague idea what the enemies are supposed to look like - but they are mostly just a blurry flurry of pixels. The levels are well designed and have a lot of detail when you get up close to things like walls, signs, doors, etc - it just looks like you're peering through a grimy window with sideways Venetian blinds from far away. The music is fairly stock, but tolerable (excuse the pun.) It sounds like your typical sparse instrumentation mixed with military music run through a midi processor. Nothing that would have been out of place in Wolf 3d or Doom, but nothing that will start a gaming revolution. The sound effects are good for Genesis standards but not as varied as they could be. There aren't enough grunts, howls, and other monster noises to make the game as creepy as it could be. Gunfire sound effects, however; sound pretty crisp and realistic - better than even a lot of Super NES games I have encountered.

The actual difficulty of the game is relatively low, except when accounting for the flaws in control and the sheer amount of enemies that get tossed your way in nearly every room. I mean it - there are usually 5 or more baddies in each room, so the best technique is to take on the Wolfenstein 3d approach; shoot first, walk out of the room, and then wait for the enemies to come to you and spray 'em at the door. At 40 levels this is an impressively long game and that adds to the difficulty a bit. Also, the fact that you cannot get your level passwords without clearing the level completely also adds a unique twist to the difficulty: meaning you have to either beat the game in one sitting, or go back in there and kill more baddies until the level is cleared!

I had a boo-boo.

Zero Tolerance is not a perfect game, but given the Genesis' limitations and the scarcity of home console FPS' (especially original ones designed for the console rather than ported) it's a unique experience. It's also typically available for a pretty cheap price and Lukie Games has it right now! If you're on the lookout for good and unique Genesis titles I recommend tossing a copy of Zero Tolerance in your cart as well. It's money well spent and a really fun time if you dig blowing away aliens!