(Review archived from March 28, 2023)
Pixy Stix: paper tubes filled with what is essentially fruit flavored sugar. This insidious sugar-based narcotic disguised as children’s candy was basically a rocket ship to the stratosphere of sugar highs. These things always felt like they were on the ‘hardcore’ side of candy consumption to me, ingested by poor sods for whom more pedestrian candy could no longer provide the sugar rush they craved (this mental image is probably not helped by the fact that ‘snorting Pixy Stix’ was a (thankfully) brief fad in my high school among a group of people who within a couple of years probably graduated into the big leagues of putting things up their nose. Wow, that got dark in a hurry. Sorry.) Any hoo! Pixy Stix. Now I want you to envision eating a fistful of Pixy Stix and washing them down with a couple of Monster Energy drinks. That’s Fantasy Zone. A hyperactive, psychedelic, rainbow colored sugar high that pummels you mercilessly into the dirt while beaming candy coated sights and sounds directly at your face.
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Fantasy Zone at first, because there’s a bit of a disconnect between the saccharine presentation and what I initially took to be ball busting difficulty. But as I played a bit longer I realized that it’s not that it’s super difficult (though there are moments), it’s that Fantasy Zone plays differently that most shmups I’ve played before. (Here’s where I put my disclaimer that while I enjoy the shmup genre, I am for the most part pretty awful at them and as a result, I am in no way a fount of knowledge or wisdom regarding their history or general oeuvre.) In terms of how the game controls and how the levels work I’m actually reminded quite a bit of Defender. You can fly to and fro in any direction through the levels, which loop upon themselves, and in order to move on to the next level you must meet a certain goal quota (which in Fantasy Zone means you must destroy all the enemy generators). As opposed to Defender, in Fantasy Zone your ship can sprout legs and walk along the ground though … so I guess that point goes to Fantasy Zone. But the other aspect Fantasy Zone shares with Defender is that your movement features a distinct acceleration curve, and depending on what power-ups you have in place it can be fairly steep in Fantasy Zone. Like many shmups, the temptation to go for too much speed here can make the game far too twitchy and in turn much more difficult as a result.
As I mentioned earlier, the difficulty in Fantasy Zone is somewhat at odds with its presentation. Really what we’re talking about here is a cute-em-up, although I think(?) it would qualify as one of the earlier examples of that genre. But like most cute-em-ups I’ve tried, while the graphics and sound are presented in childlike fashion, the difficulty is right on par with (or even exceeds) that of other contemporary shmups. I wouldn’t say that Fantasy Zone is markedly more difficult than other popular shooters from this era, but it’s definitely no slouch. There were a couple of boss fights that even felt like they were edging towards some bullet-hell territory.
At any rate, the presentation is either going to gel with you or it’s not. Are you the type of shmups enthusiast that can stomach the gaming equivalent of Pixy Stix and Monster Energy? Then you will get enjoyment out of Fantasy Zone. Does that sound like a recipe for a rainbow hued vomit party? Well you might want to steer clear of it in that case. I need to emphasize that ‘might’ though because there’s a lot here to enjoy if you can look beyond the sappy presentation. The gameplay holds its own with anything else from this timeframe, and I’d even put in in the upper echelons of console shmups released during this generation. Add to that some forward thinking innovations (i.e. cute-em-up concepts, pre-bullet hell ideas, etc.), and Fantasy Zone really is a gem of its respective era. Frankly I’d recommend this to all shmup enthusiasts even if the presentation doesn’t quite gel with you.