Fantasy Zone II was developed and released for the Sega Master System back in 1987. Unfortunately the limitations of the console (the original Fantasy Zone was built on Sega's more powerful System 16 arcade hardware) crippled the design aspirations; admirable attempts to include new gameplay elements weren't successful and ultimately, it wasn't very good.
In 2008 Fantasy Zone finally received the true sequel it deserved via developer M2's remake (included in a Japan-only PS2 Fantasy Zone compilation) and it's dramatically superior in design, gameplay and presentation. In an additional stroke of genius, M2 created its new vision as though it had been made for 1980s arcades; more specifically by developing on an enhanced version of the System 16 arcade board. In short, it's the arcade release that never was, right down to a 1987 Sega copyright notice on the title screen.
Thankfully, this Nintendo 3DS iteration is based on the M2 remake and not the Master System original, ensuring the gorgeous re-drawn visuals are present and correct. Additionally the play area has been increased to fill the entire top screen of the 3DS, allowing for more time to react to incoming enemies and obstacles. The stereoscopic 3D is also brilliantly executed; multiple layers of depth-filled parallax scroll past smoothly, while in the foreground enemies pop-out with excellent clarity. Having the 3D slider up is definitely our preferred way to play.
If you've already spent some time with the first game you'll be quite at home with the sequel; in basic terms, it's more of the same. Set ten years after, the original hero Opa-Opa finds his home turf under threat once again. Taking to the skies you battle across seven increasingly difficult rounds, clearing each of all invading enemy bases followed by a boss fight. The final eighth round is a regurgitated boss-rush culminating in a final battle (which we won't spoil).
New to the sequel, the first seven Rounds all have two variations – a Bright Side and a Dark Side. Players can move between these via warp gates which appear when certain enemy bases are destroyed. The Dark Side is essentially a harder version of the current round, where enemies are more intense and plentiful, but provide more coins as a reward. The visuals also become appropriately darker and more menacing. Bases destroyed in the Bright Side remain destroyed upon transitioning to the Dark Side, and vice-versa if you choose to warp back. It's the classic risk-reward scenario, however completing all the boss battles whilst in the Dark Side is the only way to reach the best ending - the bottom touch screen is used to track your route through the rounds.
Power-ups are purchased from floating shops, which are harder to locate whilst in the Dark Side. Aside from the obvious benefits, owning a powered-up main weapon provides protection from a single hit, but results in the loss of the weapon. Some weapons that were single use in the original game are now unlimited (such as the Heavy Bomb) but require a couple of seconds to charge per use; a slightly refined system rather than a revolution.
All coins collected are automatically stored in a bank, which can be withdrawn from at the beginning of each game allowing instant access to expensive weaponry. Building up coin savings is also the key to extra options, which unlock at specific amounts and provide further assistance to players struggling with the difficulty.
Also included is Link Loop Land, an endless score attack mode starring Upa-Upa. Here the objective is to gather as many points as you can with a single life. Linking is the key to high scores - collecting coins boosts a multiplier 'Link Gauge' which is ever decreasing unless you continue to feed it. Each time the top of the bar is reached, your multiplier increases by one. The core gameplay is slightly amended: there are no warp zones and enemy bases can appear in a variety of configurations. You can still clear a 'round' and defeat a boss, but the action continues relentlessly, increasing in difficulty and pace with no actual ending. There aren't any shops either, but you're granted an unlimited 3 Way Shot to cut through the crowds. There are a few other fun little bonus features included (Fever Time!) which we'll leave you to discover for yourselves…
Link Loop Land is a refreshing way to approach Fantasy Zone, feeling more akin to the original Geometry Wars with regards the ever increasing wave difficulty, and is an ideal mode for short bursts of play.
A final shout-out must be given to the soundtrack, which has been arranged and composed by Manabu Namiki (whose impressive musical credentials include a slew of classic 2D shooters). It really is fantastic and provides a perfect partner to the superb visuals.
To summarise, 3D Fantasy Zone II is a wonderfully sublime shooter that works perfectly as a handheld title. Developer M2 performed wonders with the original PS2 remake, but here on 3DS the team has outdone itself. It's hard to see how even M2 can raise the bar in terms of retro-remakes, and certainly bodes well for upcoming releases.
As with Out Run, the Nintendo 3DS is now home to the best version of Fantasy Zone II and, in our opinion, the best Fantasy Zone game in the entire series. If you have even a passing interest in the genre, you should pick this one up straight away.