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SEGA's Comix Zone has been something of a staple of the famous Japanese company's many and varied compilations since its original 1995 release. You'll find it on several Mega Drive/Genesis collections, on last year's Mega Drive Mini console, app stores for iOS and Android, and it was also ported to both PC and Game Boy Advance back in the day. I've been playing the game on and off for 25 years now, forever drawn to its eye-catching art style and compelling premise - you fight your way through a comic book, smashing through the flimsy edges of panels and flipping pages to reach the next stage. But I've still never beaten it.
With the game celebrating its 25th anniversary(!) on August 2nd, I took this somewhat unheralded gem of the Mega Drive library for another spin - this time on the SEGA Mega Drive Classics collection on Nintendo Switch. Once I'd worked out which buttons did what, as the options menu only shows a Mega Drive pad, I got down to business and cruised through the game's first page. It's a page I know so well, having punched and kicked my way from top left to bottom right countless times over the years. Bash some brains, flip some switches, avoid an insta-death fall at the very end, easy. It's what comes next that continues to vex me.
When we talk of tough games in the here and now, we think of FromSoftware's output across the Souls series, demanding fighters and bullet-hell shooters. Action platformers and beat 'em ups, not so much. Okay, so a game like Celeste is a challenge, absolutely, but it understands players' desires to reach the end, and so incorporates accessibility features to make navigating its toughest screens rather more flexible. Streets of Rage 4 might be a throwback of sorts, but if it all gets too much you can slide its difficulty down and just enjoy its terrific sights and sounds. Comix Zone? Oh boy, was this ever punishing.
Our protagonist in Comix Zone is Sketch Turner, an artist and musician magically transported inside his own comic book. With him comes his pet rat, Roadkill, who is used to solve some of the game's simple puzzles and can reveal handy items by clawing at the pages. On the first panel he meets Alissa, a character of his own creation who believes he's here to stop this comic world's villain, a mutant named Mortus who's swapped places with Sketch. Mortus is now in the real-world New York City, and actively draws fresh enemies into the game (you see his hand, as he does so).
Aesthetically, Comix Zone throws up Escape From L.A. vibes early on with its smouldering post-apocalyptic backdrops - and that matched to the comic-come-to-life side of the graphics really does make the game pretty unique, even a quarter-century(!) since its release. (It wasn't the first-ever comic-set game, but it does it so well.) As a game released in the later years of the 16-bit era, it showcases how its developers at SEGA Technical Institute - a California-based division, founded by the PlayStation 5's lead architect Mark Cerny, that also worked on several Sonic titles, Greendog: The Beached Surfer Dude and Die Hard Arcade - were able to push the Mega Drive to its limits. Visually, while its animations aren't smooth by modern standards, Comix Zone really holds up brilliantly.
It's a shame, then, that I've never seen what the game has to offer past its third, temple-set stage, for myself (but funnily enough, I long ago caved and checked out the final stage on YouTube). Because Sketch, while able to pull off some seriously special moves through single-use power-ups, isn't a superhero. He's (papery) flesh and bone, thrown into a world full of deadly, monstrous creations, and his health bar can be wrecked in mere seconds if you fail to properly deal with even the most grunt-like of enemies. Is this me saying that Comix Zone is the Dark Souls of mid-90s beat 'em ups? I mean, if we really want to revive that tired analogy, yes?
But you don't get specialist SEGA sites discussing whether or not Comix Zone was, and remains, too hard for nothing. This is one tough cookie to crumble, and although I fire it up at least a couple of times per year, albeit usually as an aside to wanting to play something else on whatever SEGA compilation is in front of me, I'm yet to personally reach the end credits (which follow one of two different climaxes, by the way - you can get all the way through and still receive a bad ending). I finish a lot of games, both old and new, every year, but this one continues to elude me.
Am I going to keep trying? Of course - have you seen how great this game looks? It's a remarkable thing that impresses every time I play it, and a game feels like it's really pushing into the next generation of consoles while being sadly restricted to the outgoing one. Which, I suppose, given its brutality and gorgeousness, actually makes it The Last Of Us Part II of its time. Right? Sure, why not. And I finished that, so...
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