We recently took a look at Comic Jumper, a game that has you jumping across comic book frames and defeating enemies. Comic Jumper and the recently released Unbound Saga owe a wealth of their ideas to Comix Zone, a platformer that was originally released back in 1995. All games based inside a comic book have clearly taken inspiration from Comix Zone. I shouldn’t say that these other games stole from Comix Zone, because I’m supposed to stay unbiased, but they obviously have.
Considered a classic Genesis game, although through lack of advertising I never saw it in my childhood, Comix Zone is one of those flagship titles Sega keeps fly-tipping onto every compilation disc. It is a loosely bound beat ’em up with elements of platform navigation, which results in cumbersome pixel-perfect leaps. In essence, an amalgam between an arcade brawler and a popular game series based around vampire killers.
Enter stage right Sketch Turner, a struggling comic artist who lives in Newer York City. His name, no doubt, a play on words. “Sketch” because he draws, and “Turner” after J.M.W. Turner.
Sketch’s comic book, also called Comix Zone, is nearing completion. As he inks the final touches and pens the final speech bubbles, the main villain from the comic book bursts out into the real world. Said main antagonist, Mortus, tries to strangle Sketch. However, Mortus grows frustrated at the plot device that he cannot kill his creator in the real world, so he banishes Sketch into his own comic book…somehow. From outside the comic, he can draw new enemies into it, which Sketch has to fight his way through.
Sketch’s comic book is six pages long, with two pages per chapter. In other words, each level is a page, and each chapter is two levels in length. The first chapter sees him in a post-apocalyptic NYC, entering an underground sewage system that harbors a deadly secret. The second chapter takes him to the mountains of Tibet, which also harbor a deadly secret. The third chapter transports him to a dry barren desert, with a mysterious hidden dockyard filled with nuclear weapons, so I guess that one really is a harbor full of deadly secrets.
Within his comic book, Sketch becomes a superhero. He possesses powerful punching and kicking moves that he could never recreate in reality. His pet rat, Roadkill, gains a heightened sense of smell, and can generate an electrical current through his fur. The two of them, as a team, are rather unstoppable, even against Mortus’ legions of cronies.
The main game flow is as follows: try to make your way from the top left of the comic, to the bottom right. To do this, there are multiple routes you can take, including hidden shortcuts. You travel through each of the comic’s cells, either by jumping over the border of each cell, or by snapping them apart and forcing your way through.
Within each cell, there are enemies to defeat or a puzzle to solve, sometimes both. Every action you perform decreases your stamina, which understandably makes the game brutal once you’re a few levels in. There are items you can pick up and utilize to your advantage, to make your journey easier. There are grenades and bundles of TNT, which have the same effect but are used in different ways. There are also small swords (which can knock enemies back for a temporary breather), bottles of medicine, and the coolest item of them all: The Fist.
When Sketch uses The Fist, he performs a devastating attack that destroys most enemies on screen. It is useless during bosses (a gripe I also had with Comic Jumper‘s assist item), but the item is extremely useful when there are enemies in awkward positions that you really need to eliminate quickly.
Whilst traversing the Comix Zone comic book, you are treated to a marvelous soundtrack composed by Howard Drossin. I’ve previously mentioned him, because he’s the man when it comes to Sega Technical Institute games. Composer of the amazing Sonic & Knuckles soundtrack, his legacy speaks for itself.
Howard Drossin spent ample time trying to recreate the grungy guitar of his favorite bands, such as Danzig and Nirvana. Hearing the Mega Drive chunder out this regurgitated guitar-styled sound is music in the highest sense of the word.
But he didn’t stop there. He formed a band exclusively for the task of recording the game’s soundtrack on real instruments. The band he formed covered the game’s six tracks, with lyrics written by Howard Drossin that contain relevance to the game and the situations which lie therein. This CD was released with the European versions of the Mega Drive and PC versions of the game, and was made available in America on the Sega Tunes label.
A lot of love went into Comix Zone, but being released so late in the Genesis lifespan was the nail in Sketch’s coffin. The game had success, but only marginal, and the planned sequel made it no further than one cel-shaded screenshot.
The ability to save and re-load in the Xbox Live Arcade version comes as a curse. Hard sections can be replayed over and over, which numbs down the difficulty of the game. There are a few small emulation errors, and as with all Sega Vintage releases, the inability to use cheats is an overall shame. The best version of Comix Zone for modern console owners would be the version of the game found on Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection, as it is the most truthful emulation of the game, since it allows cheating and comes packaged with many other great Sega Genesis titles.
Whilst Sega decides how best to get Sonic the Hedgehog fans to forgive them, they might wish to put a remake of Comix Zone on the cards, too. The charm, difficulty, and writing are a huge plus, and for a game released in 1995, I had a blast playing through it again. If you’ve been enjoying games such as Comic Jumper or you have a penchant for classic beat ’em ups, then try Comix Zone.