Fantasy Zone is one of those great forgotten franchises from the 8-bit/16-bit era that enjoyed lots of attention back in its heyday but tends to be ignored these days.
Featuring the exploits of the cute space ship Opa-Opa, this 2D shooter borrows more than a few gameplay elements from the classic arcade title Defender, but instead of force-scrolling from left to right, you have the ability to change direction and fly at your own speed in either horizontal direction.
Aside from the aforementioned Defender, Fantasy Zone is therefore unlike any other shooter you've played. Being given such freedom of movement certainly takes some getting used to but within the space of a few seconds it all clicks into place and swinging your cute craft around the landscape whilst avoiding the unwanted attention of enemies soon becomes second nature.
The basic gameplay involves tracking down enemy generators that are dotted around the colourful landscape. Once you’ve done this you move onto tackling the boss of that particular level. To help your quest you can collect money dropped by fallen enemies and use it to purchase weapons and upgrades that augment the capabilities of little Opa-Opa.
Graphically, Fantasy Zone is a joy to behold. Granted, it doesn’t quite match the colourful excess of the coin-op original but it’s a decent approximation regardless. Backgrounds are bursting with vibrant hues of red, yellow, green and pretty much every other shade, and the enemy designs are so cute that it almost seems a shame to waste them with your lasers. The bosses are fairly impressive too, but due to the limitations of the Master System hardware you have to fight them against a blank background.
The music is typical Master System quality (not very good, basically) but the tunes are jolly and get you in the mood. The sound effects are predictably limp but it all adds to the retro charm!
The biggest gripe you could possibly have is the nature of the 'free' scrolling levels; often, when you quickly change direction the screen struggles to keep up and you find yourself flying head-on into an enemy that was previously out of view. Still, you can tailor your gaming style to avoid this problem.
Although it’s arguably surpassed by both the Master System sequel and the Megadrive/Genesis ‘remake’ Super Fantasy Zone, this game is nevertheless an ideal purchase for shooters addicts that fancy something a little different.